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