Behind China's Efforts to Broker the Iran-Saudi Arabia Peace Agreement

Director of Peking University’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Wu Bingbing, spoke to The Wire about Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East region.

After a long time, the Middle East has a ‘peace’ agreement. Not only is it between two surprising participants – Iran and Saudi Arabia – but successful mediation has heralded the grand entry of China into this contested region.

On Friday, March 10, Iran and Saudi Arabia signed a trilateral agreement with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Beijing, committing to re-establish ties that had broken down since 2016. According to the joint statement, the two countries have agreed to reopen their embassies within a “maximum period of two months”.

While there is significant surprise in Western circles surrounding the agreement, a Chinese expert explained that it was part of China’s “long term” diplomatic efforts in the region, as well as part of Beijing’s Global Security Initiative, which proposes an alternate global security order.

In an email interview with The Wire, the director of Peking University’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Wu Bingbing, spoke about Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East region and the Iran-Saudi agreement. The interview has been edited for clarity.

How significant is this agreement?

China just launched the Global Security Initiative last year. Based on this initiative, China also issued a document about our perception of global security. Regarding the Middle East, we suggested a new framework of security in the region. And this trans-Gulf dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia – not only between these countries but between Iran and GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries – is a part of that. So it’s a long-term effort. It is not something new. It’s based on the Chinese perception of global security.

We promote comprehensive security and also cooperative security. You can achieve real security through cooperation instead of competition.

Wu Bingbing.

Is this the first concrete outcome of Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East?

It’s a big achievement. We have also organised some forums for Palestinians and Israelis to sit down to talk to each other. Before COVID-19, it was in Beijing; after that, it was online. We also pushed for peace efforts in the Syrian conflict. So I think this is the first big achievement.

Why have you been able to achieve an agreement on this issue, while the other two – Israel-Palestine and Syria – have not seen much progress?

For the Syrian issue, for example, more parties are involved. Not only the Syrian government and the rebels, but the neighbouring countries and the great powers are also involved. Similarly, many parties are involved in the Israel-Palestine dispute. Even among the Palestinian people, there are different factions. So it’s much more complicated. But in this issue, it is just two countries across the Persian Gulf – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Not so many parties are involved in these bilateral issues. So it’s a better place to achieve some positive results.

What do you think of the US statement welcoming the agreement, which also downplayed it by saying it was similar to the roadmap discussed at multiple rounds in Oman and Iraq?

For China, this is also a result of our balanced relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia. So it’s totally different from the US, which had cut relations with Iran and cannot have full-scale talks with Tehran. So in this regard, China has an advantage in promoting the process of achieving an agreement.

The US doesn’t have diplomatic ties with Iran. But Riyadh has also had a testy relationship with Washington in recent years. Do you think signing a China-brokered agreement is a signal from the Saudis to the Americans?

Any efforts for a peace process should be based on the demands of the local countries. 

If it’s something that meets the demand of Saudi Arabia in security, economics and regional matters, and also meets the need of Iran, we can really succeed in this. It means that we have to show respect to the regional countries and understand their demands. So this is a different approach. It’s not China-centric diplomacy. 

So is China a better facilitator in the Middle East than the US?

We have to have relations with both countries. Some countries have good relations with only one side. That’s the obstacle for some countries [in being a mediator].

Do you think this agreement shows a realignment of the great powers in the region, or is that too much of an overstatement?

For the region itself and the great powers globally, stabilising this region is for the benefit of the international community. You must have seen many regional countries respond very positively, including Turkey, the UAE and Pakistan.

So what is the next step? What will be China’s involvement in other issues in the region?

We should continue to exert efforts because it will still take time and effort to reach a final agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore their full diplomatic relationship. And even after that, the trans-Gulf dialogue will continue because they need to handle the differences between them. So this is only the first step.

What is China’s main interest in the Middle East?

We have a common interest with the regional countries. If there’s no mutual interest, we cannot achieve our interest. The energy sector is just one of them. Then, there is infrastructure building, and the financing and manufacturing sectors. Chinese trade with Middle Eastern countries is very important. All these interests should be based on the stability of the region. 

This stability will also benefit South Asian, African and Eurasian countries because you are neighbours of this region.

The basic foundation for achieving the benefits is to achieve the region’s stability first and to reduce the tensions between countries.

If there is instability in West Asia, does it directly impact China?

It’s very clear. This instability and tensions reduce people’s will to invest and trade in the region. It’s not just a psychological barrier but a ground reality that blocks people from strengthening their economic ties.

How have people-to-people relations between China and the Middle East increased?

Before COVID-19, Chinese tourists travelled to Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Turkey. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also become destinations for Chinese tourists more and more. This is also increasingly a place for transit, as Middle Eastern airlines are helping Chinese passengers to travel from China to other parts of the world like Africa and Europe.

Has China become more active in the Middle East as the US is the most prominent actor in the region? Doesn’t increasing Chinese diplomatic activity restrict the space for other traditional actors?

You shouldn’t take this approach to understand Chinese efforts in the region. Our approach is based on the demands of the local country, mutual respect and mutual benefit. 

So it’s not that we consider the US factor, and then we do something. This is based on our understanding of the world, our principles of diplomacy and our approach.

Can we see China becoming a more hands-on mediator in other conflicts? 

I think we should first present our principles and perceptions to the world based on our understanding – and then we can talk to find solutions. This is the way to handle conflicts and deal with the tensions in the region. We issued conceptual documents on the Ukraine crisis about ten days ago.

India is strongly interested in West Asia due to its large diaspora and oil supplies. It also has good relations with all countries in the region. How does China look at India’s role?

India is, of course, a neighbour of China and has traditional relations with the Middle East. Diaspora is one, but cultural influence and trade have always been there. Because of India’s location, it always had a long history of interaction with the Gulf region. But we still need to see India’s approach towards the conflicts in the region. There should be a more clear voice and perception. Clear documents should be issued by the Indian side over this conflict, for example, over Iran and Saudi Arabia. So, we are waiting to see.

But that’s not how the Indians approach regional political issues. Unlike the Chinese, we don’t have a special envoy for the Middle East, for example.

So I think that’s another thing India should do if it wants to be involved in the region more deeply – not just economically, but maybe more politically. So you need to have more mechanisms like this, which can help to achieve some concrete things.

So it’s a step-by-step process. That’s why, you know, people want to figure out India’s policy towards the Middle East region.