Can China become a mediation superpower?

Mediation is not always an easy win and can carry downsides.

President of China Xi Jinping attends the plenary session as Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his remarks virtually during the 2023 BRICS Summit
President of China Xi Jinping attends the plenary session as Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his remarks virtually during the 2023 BRICS Summit

Can China become a mediation superpower?

As the Gaza war rumbles on, China’s position has been remarkably muted. In the past few years Middle Eastern powers have grown used to Beijing playing an ever more prominent role in the region, increasing its trade, investment, and diplomatic activity.

As a result, some observers wondered whether China might step forward to offer a fuller role in the current crisis. Indeed, on 20 November a delegation of Arab and Muslim leaders, including Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, travelled to Beijing to push for more help in ending the conflict.

But while Xi Jinping has urged restraint on Israel, sympathized with the Palestinians and blamed the US for exacerbating the situation, he has not stepped forward in the way some had hoped to offer Chinese mediation.

After China famously brokered a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, and then was a leading voice in bringing both states alongside Egypt and the UAE into the expanded BRICS in September, expectations were raised that Beijing might come to play a more prominent regional mediating role.

Read more: Neither cold nor hot war after Biden-Xi meeting

However, as other great powers, notably the US have learned, mediation is a complex and potentially perilous diplomatic activity. China is certainly keen to put itself forward at times and recognizes the value of being perceived as an ‘honest broker’ globally. But at the same time, Chinese power remains limited and instinctively cautious, curtailing how much of a global mediator it can be. In the case of Gaza, there may be too many risks and too few upsides.

The Iran-Saudi detente

China’s involvement in the Middle East has been growing for years. Its thirst for energy has made the region especially important, with China becoming the biggest customer for Iranian and Saudi oil, and the second biggest for UAE oil. The economic relationship has been reciprocal, with Chinese firms investing extensively in the Middle East, and not just in the Gulf.

Israel, Egypt, and Jordan have all increased their trade, while Chinese companies have been behind major infrastructural projects such as the Iconic Tower in the New Administrative Capital outside Cairo and Tel Aviv’s Metro Red Line. Every government in the region save for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories have signed up to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This substantial economic presence has not been matched by increased military involvement in the region. Unlike the US, China has only one regional militarized position, in Djibouti, and this focuses more on its investments in Africa and preventing Indian Ocean piracy than the Middle East.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and former Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing April 6, 2023.

Even so, the extent of its economic involvement has brought influence. 2023 might be regarded as a landmark year after China successfully brokered the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

After decades of tension that saw Tehran and Riyadh support rival sides in numerous regional conflicts from Syria to Yemen, relations were severed in 2016. But mediation by China, with whom Iran and Saudi Arabia both enjoy strong ties, saw the regional rivals commit to restoring ties in March 2023. Since then, the détente has expanded. Iran has stated that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has accepted an invitation to visit Tehran in the future, while both states have been invited to join the BRICS, again partly facilitated by China.

China’s growing mediation role

2023 was no anomaly, rather the most high profile of a series of mediations China had been pursuing in the Middle East for years, enabled by its increased economic investment. As early as 2004, China was using its economic role in Sudan, where it was an early customer for South Sudan’s oil, to persuade Khartoum to consent to UN peacekeepers being sent to Darfur.

More recently China has nudged Arab states to encourage greater normalisation with Syria, contributing to Damascus returning to the Arab League earlier this year.

China’s mediation ambitions have not been restricted to the Middle East. A month before it brought together Saudi Arabia and Iran, Beijing presented a 12-point plan for resolving the war in Ukraine.

President of China Xi Jinping, President of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi gesture during the 2023 BRICS Summit.

However, while it defended the principle of territorial sovereignty, it did not call for Russia to withdraw from the lands captured since 2014 – a key demand from Kiev as the starting point for any peace talks.

Critics, particularly in Washington, have argued that the peace proposal was more China trying to deflect claims that it has sided with Russia in the conflict rather than a serious effort to mediate.

Read more: There are no total wins in Biden-Xi summit

However, the proposal, which Beijing has since reiterated several times, is further evidence of China positioning itself as a global mediating power.

China's mediation ambitions have not been restricted to the Middle East.

Washington's cynicism is not wholly unjustified. It is unlikely that China is mediating for purely altruistic reasons. Putting forward a peace plan in Ukraine may well negate the image of Beijing being Russia's staunch ally.

Mediating a deal between Beijing's two biggest sources of oil in the Middle East makes sense economically as it lessens the chances supplies could be hit by regional conflict. Similarly, persuading Sudan to accept peacekeepers in Darfur potentially lessened the chances of harsher sanctions that might impact the flow of oil from the south, while normalization with Syria again lessens regional tensions that might impact China's economic interest in the Middle East.

But beyond the economic logic of mediation, there is geostrategic merit for China. In recent years, as tensions with the US have grown, Beijing has sought to present itself as a champion of the non-western developing world. This is a deliberate contrast with how it characterizes the US: as a neo-colonial power, out for itself. Mediating high profile international disputes allows China to show itself to be a genuine 'honest broker', in contrast to the US, which picks sides and favours its allies. This is seemingly part of a wider Chinese strategy on the world stage to offer itself as a fairer and non-interfering alternative to the US.

The challenges of mediation

However, mediation is not always an easy win and can carry downsides. While China clearly put in some diplomatic hard graft to facilitate the Saudi-Iranian détente, it also came at a time when both states were open to negotiation.

Iraq and Oman had been mediating between the two sides for years, with slow but steady progress. China played an important role in bridging the remaining gaps and incentivizing both Riyadh and Tehran to agree, but Beijing did not have to strong-arm reluctant leaders.

Iran was struggling under continued US sanctions and had also suffered internal discord following the 2022-23 Mahsa Amini protests.

While it was reluctant to end all the regional interference that had so angered Saudi Arabia and others, it was willing to roll back and compromise in some areas. Similarly, Saudi Arabia was keen to move away from the Middle Eastern conflicts of the 2010s to boost its domestic economic diversification, including becoming a global and regional sports entertainment hub. It was also hopeful that détente with Iran could help stabilize neighbouring Yemen. China then, while not quite pushing an open door, did not have to work too hard to find the key.

This is a pattern seen in successful mediations elsewhere. Take one of the US' most famous: between Egypt and Israel in 1979. The two rivals began with positions not too far apart. Egypt wanted the return of Sinai in exchange for recognizing Israel. Israel was willing to countenance this but demurred on the withdrawal timetable.

Egypt also pressed for steps towards improving the Palestinians' rights and a peace process, but ultimately President Anwar Sadat was willing to compromise on this to secure his ultimately goals: Sinai, economic support from the US, and increased domestic legitimacy.  Israeli Premier Menachem Begin was similarly willing to give up Sinai, despite opposition from the right-wing settler movement that he drew support from, in order to knock this powerful Arab state out of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Though the US had to put in considerable effort at Camp David to iron out the differences and broker a viable deal, the starting positions of the two sides were not so far apart.

Mediation is not always an easy win and can carry downsides. 

However, as the US found later, when negotiating repeatedly with Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and later the Palestinian Authority (PA), it is far harder to mediate when starting positions are much further apart. From the first agreements made in Oslo, through to the present day, there remains huge distance between the two sides. Will any Palestinian state enjoy full sovereignty with control of its own borders and its own army? Will the state encompass all of the West Bank and Gaza? What will be the fate of the settlements? What about East Jerusalem? What about the right of return for Palestinians refugees? These, and many more, were key areas of dispute between the two negotiating sides from the very beginning and contributed to the derailment of the Oslo process and the many failed attempts at negotiation afterwards. For all its power and leverage over the two sides, the US found it could not broker a viable deal.

Arafat, Peres and Rabin after the signing of the Oslo accords.

And here lies the risk for a government putting itself forward as mediator. The US' failure to successfully mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians has damaged its global reputation over the years. Indeed, closeness to Israel is perceived to have contributed to this failure and is used by rival states such as China to challenge how much of an 'honest broker' the US can ever be.

Moreover, as we are seeing in the Gaza war today, by putting itself forward as mediator in 1993 Washington now 'owns' the consequences of the failed peace process. Israelis and Palestinians can justifiably demand of the US that, after all its promises and initiatives, it should be playing a leading role in ultimately resolving the calamitous situation. In short, after stepping forward as mediator, it is very hard for the US to walk away even thirty years later, without a serious loss of face and reputation.   

Chinese reluctance in Gaza

All this might point to why China has not thus far offered to mediate on Gaza. On the surface offering to negotiate might make sense for Beijing. China enjoys strong trade ties with Israel and, while it is less directly involved in the Palestinian economy, it enjoys close relations with the key backers of both the PA (the Gulf states) and Hamas (Iran). In theory China might use this leverage to mediate, something that would earn it huge international kudos should it achieve what has eluded the US over three decades.

However, this is no 'open door' and the warring parties remain fundamentally opposed in multiple areas. Moreover, for all its increased trade with China, Israel remains firmly in the US' camp and would not abandon this to entertain a Beijing-mediated deal.

Rockets are fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel

Furthermore, even were China to somehow defy the odds and oversee a successful mediation, it would then 'own' the deal and be responsible for enforcing it as the US has since 1993. Beijing will be wary of getting dragged into the Palestinian quagmire.

This would also go against China's international strategy of the past few decades. Beijing has proven cautious and highly selective in its foreign engagement. It generally invests only in areas where it is likely to see a return, either economically or diplomatically. This has led it to adopt mediation as a tactic, but only in arenas it looks likely to succeed in and that will deliver viable economic and/or strategic benefits. It certainly has not embraced mediation as its new calling and will only therefore offer to broker when there is a clear benefit to China. Gaza currently looks far too risky for risk-averse China, and so Beijing will likely steer well clear.

font change

Related Articles