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China acts as peacemaker for Iran and Saudi Arabia in the shadow of the United States



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On a day already steeped in symbolism, a senior Chinese official couldn’t help but unleash a swipe at the United States. At a Friday meeting in Beijing, two senior national security officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran announced that their countries would resume normal relations after a seven-year deep freeze. The agreement, forged on the initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping, will lead, among other things, to the reopening of embassies in both countries and a possible reduction in the civil war in Yemen. It marks a significant breakthrough in a rivalry that has torn the Middle East apart.

In A declaration, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, praised his country’s role as a “good faith and reliable mediator” and launched a jab at Washington. “There is more to the world than the Ukrainian question,” the statement read, highlighting the crisis that has dominated American attention over the past year. “There are many issues related to peace and people’s livelihoods that require the attention of the international community.

Away from the conflict in Ukraine, over which US and Chinese officials have recently clashed, Beijing has set a new milestone. Washington has a huge footprint in the Middle East, but – or perhaps because of it – it has never been close to realizing a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. The United States chose sides long ago and has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for decades. In recent months, Iran’s crackdown on a major protest movement and ramping up its uranium enrichment capabilities have only brought it closer to colliding with the United States and its allies.

China has resolutely chosen no side and has positioned itself as an equal consumer of hydrocarbons from the kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Iran. This has made Beijing a much more plausible mediator between the Saudis and Iranians, and appears to have allowed it to enter what could be seen as a geopolitical vacuum in the region. “China has really arrived as a strategic player in the Gulf,” Kristin Smith Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute told my colleagues.

The US-China gap is only widening

Washington analysts are somewhat baffled by the procedure. Some saw Riyadh’s actions as consistent with other recent perceived snubs from the Biden administration, including a decision last year to cut oil supplies — and thus drive up the global price of oil — ahead of a US midterm election cycle in which inflation dominated the agenda. Now Saudi leaders are offering the United States’ main global rival a key symbolic victory.

“What’s remarkable…is the decision to hand the Chinese a huge public relations win – a photo op intended to demonstrate China’s newfound stature in the region,” said Suzanne Maloney, Vice President and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, to my colleagues. “In that sense, it would seem like another Saudi slap in the face to the Biden administration.”

Aaron David Miller, a veteran former US diplomat and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me the deal is a “clear sign” that Riyadh “no longer sees a unipolar world shaped by Washington” and instead operates in a more “multipolar” context, with “China and Russia playing crucially important roles”. He pointed to the “staggering irony” of “China, America’s former international adversary, brokering a deal with Iran, America’s former regional adversary, while the U.S. Navy guards the waterways. shipping lines in the gulf ensuring Saudi oil exports to China”.

Some U.S. policymakers have feared this moment, as Washington’s waning interest in the Middle East and a growing cohort of lawmakers in Congress publicly resent the nature of former alliances with autocratic monarchies like Saudi Arabia. .

“We may now be witnessing the emergence of China’s political role in the region and this should be a wake-up call to US policymakers,” wrote Jonathan Panikoff, former deputy national intelligence officer for the US Near East. National Intelligence Council. “Leave the Middle East and abandon ties with sometimes frustrating, even barbaric, but longstanding allies, and you will simply leave a void for China to fill. And make no mistake, a Chinese-dominated Middle East would fundamentally undermine U.S. trade, energy, and national security.

China negotiates detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, raising eyebrows in Washington

It’s a claim that others would say is exaggerated on both counts. The deal forged late last week may have been reached under the auspices of Beijing, but it follows at least two years of dialogue and talks supported by other regional actors, including the governments of Iraq and Oman. China didn’t just step in and bring the conflicting parties together suddenly; the progress made in Beijing hardly foreshadows a major shift in regional dynamics, at least not yet.

“China has sought to be a neutral broker in the highly polarized Middle East, but as its interests in the region grow, it may prove difficult to defend those interests while remaining neutral,” he said. added. tweeted Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, pointing to the pitfalls and headaches ahead for any outside power seeking to exert influence in the Middle East.

And the prospect of de-escalation and peace, even if brokered by Beijing, is not to be deplored. On Friday, the White House indicated that repairing the fences between Tehran and Riyadh was in the interests of the United States and expressed hope for an end to the conflicts in Yemen, where the Houthi rebels supported by Iran are are opposed to a Saudi-led coalition backed by American firepower. , for much of the decade.

“Unfortunately, the United States has taken an approach to the region that has prevented it from becoming a credible mediator,” wrote Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates American restraint on the world stage. , in an email.

“Too often, Washington takes sides in conflicts and becomes a co-belligerent – as in Yemen – which then reduces its ability to play the role of peacemaker,” he added. “While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as a mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis are not at their throats also benefits in the USA.”

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