China lets Middle East states take the lead

The Beijing-brokered breakthrough between Riyadh and Tehran shows it’s better to let states manage their own security

 China lets Middle East states take the lead

China’s quietly successful deal brokering between Iran and Saudi Arabia has brought seven years of tension and estrangement to an end, as the pair look set to renew diplomatic relations. This is both significant and historic, and it reflects three realities.

The first is that China’s engagement with the Middle East is sincere, constructive and pragmatic. This is highlighted by the visit of Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi in February, China’s state visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, and the first ever China-Arab Summit at the end of 2022.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Visiting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Feb. 14, 2023.

The second is that Saudi Arabia and Iran have established a new security understanding that centralises their own security responsibility and prioritises cooperation that leads to common long-term security interests.

The third is that the security agenda of the Middle East is — and will no longer be — led by the United States. Rather, capable regional states with an ability to operate independently will come to realise that they can provide for and manage their own regional security.

The security agenda of the Middle East is no longer led by the United States. Those that can operate independently want to do so.

Developing good relations 

Fundamentally, it is Saudi Arabia and Iran that wanted to restore diplomatic ties, and this was the motivating factor for the breakthrough. Yet a further influence was China's belief system and its approach to diplomacy.

President Xi Jinping has been working hard to develop good neighbourly relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as shown in the final joint communique. 

It suggests that China's diplomatic emphasis on harmony, together with its belief that international cooperation is a road to peace, can be effective at helping states establish regional security.    

It also shows that the regional security architecture of the Middle East is being transformed, driven by states' need to control their own destinies. The changing dynamics are also characterised by waning Western influence. 

Regional security cooperation

Over the decades, countries in the Middle East have grown used to seeing regional security cooperation efforts try and fail. 

From the 1955 Baghdad Pact, to the post-Gulf War initiative, to other US or Russia-led packages, a vortex of mistrust, threat perception gaps, and a lack of common goals and interests, has meant that obstacles inevitably remained. 

Today's security landscape, on the other hand, further encourages capable regional states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to rethink and rebuild a security framework that distributes security responsibility to nearby states, allowing them to manage security themselves, without risking their sovereignty.

How was it China that finally managed to broker such a breakthrough diplomatic deal [between Riyadh and Tehran] when so many other powers tried to do so?

It is because China, as an objective, impartial, and responsible power, institutionalises its relations with Arab countries. This gives it an advantageous position in coordinating regional security efforts. Regional dynamics are being restructured. Security perceptions are being rebuilt. 

Changing security perspectives

The more independent regional states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are changing their perspective, from knowing they need security to knowing they need joint security. 

The more independent regional states like Saudi Arabia and Iran are moving from security needs to joint security needs.

President Xi's proposed Global Security Initiative and Community of Common Destiny could provide the necessary foundation for a new regional security framework managed and led by region's states themselves.

This deal is indeed "a victory for peace", as hailed by China. It is also a victory for China's holistic view of national security that believes security is common, cooperative, comprehensive, and sustainable. 

Indeed, after President Xi proposed this holistic view of national security, the very policy concept of security appears so much more frequently in Chinese narratives for both a domestic and international audience. 

Harmony over confrontation

Security is now less 'a sensitive word' and more a practical policy concept that guides the government to effectively provide security in a responsible way and redefine what security means for a country and its citizens. 

The US-led narrative on security has long pre-defined confrontation as the means to achieving security, but this only benefits US interests.

China's security logic, by contrast, believes that social stability underscores national security, meaning that security in the Middle East equates to the security of Middle Eastern people. 

Whether other Chinese-led deals could lead to breakthroughs in resolving other security crises or diplomatic tensions remains to be seen. Each conflict has its own characteristics. But how China views and understands security is already decisive in its role in the global governance system. 

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