What to make of China’s role in the handshake heard round the world

David A. Andelman

It was the handshake heard round the world. Indeed, the agreement between long-time foes Saudi Arabia and Iran to bury the hatchet and re-establish diplomatic relations after years of confrontation and religious hostility, must inevitably take a back seat to the venue and the peacemaker who brokered this landmark pact.
Suddenly, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his first major initiative just hours after claiming an unprecedented third term in office, has shown his ability to play peacemaker for one of the most toxic relationships in a strategically critical and often unstable region. The mediator role is one that Xi has clearly lusted after for some time, most recently in his offer to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, viewed with the deepest skepticism by Ukraine and most of its western allies. Friday’s deal was an aggressive move by China, but it may pay off in spades.
China has secured its status as a close friend and reliable partner to two of the world’s leading oil producers. Iran is also prospectively the world’s newest nuclear-armed power, while the US has faithfully guaranteed Saudi Arabia’s security for generations. Until now. Both are nations vital to China’s own strategic interests – particularly its need for reliable sources of oil as counterweights to Russian supplies that could prove increasingly problematic if the Ukraine conflict continues unabated. China has been importing oil at a pace of some 10 million barrels per day, according to official Chinese data in tons estimated in barrels by Reuters’ Asia Commodities and Energy Columnist Clyde Russell, a figure that is expected to surge this year as Covid lockdowns have lifted.
Last year, China purchased more Iranian crude oil than it did before a 2017 peak when there were no sanctions on Iranian oil exports, according to three tanker trackers monitored by Reuters. At the same time, China has found itself being forced to compete with rival India for cheap Russian crude oil. New, reliable sources from the Middle East could prove most attractive. In December, Xi paid his first visit to Saudi Arabia in nearly seven years and oil was at the top of the agenda. At the same time, China has long lusted after a firm strategic foothold in the Middle East and Gulf regions. Five years ago, it pressured Djibouti into allowing a Chinese naval facility that dominates the entrance to the Red Sea to be built on its shore, just up the coast from the major American facility of Camp Lemonnier. But a toehold on the Middle East mainland has so far eluded it, as Russia has expanded its own military facilities with air and naval facilities in Syria.
But any number of questions remain. How likely, now, is Saudi normalization of relations with Israel? In search of such a gesture, the Saudis have been negotiating with Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Amos Hochstein, the top White House aide for global energy. In January, Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said that, given a recent discovery of indigenous uranium reserves, the Kingdom intended to advance its plans to develop a front-end nuclear fuel-cycle, and was seeking US input (potentially a first step toward a nuclear weapon). The Saudis have also been anxious to receive pledges to resume arms transfers that had been blocked over its human rights record and refusal to back Ukraine in its war with Russia, and for increased security guarantees.
A rapprochement with Iran, despite its ambition of destroying the state of Israel and Israel’s intention of pulverizing any Iranian nuclear weapons program, could be seen as a more feasible or appealing course of action for the Saudis. At the same time, the proxy civil war in Yemen rages on, where Saudi-backed government forces have fought for more than eight years to a debilitating and bloody standoff with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The United States has been especially anxious to bring a lasting end to hostilities. The first major initiative taken by President Joe Biden days after taking office was an announcement that Washington would no longer support the Saudi war effort there. Yet the war continued to grind on. This new China-brokered agreement is the first potential breakthrough for an end to hostilities – and without any American participation.
A winding down of American influence in the region has been clear for some time. Last July, Biden shared a much-publicized fist-bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, only to have it turned around as a slap in the face three months later when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) announced it would be slashing oil production by 2 million barrels per day – engineered, by most accounts, by Saudi Arabia and Russia to keep oil prices high. With Friday’s announcement in Beijing, Saudi Arabia appears to have thrown in its lot ever more defiantly with China and its close friend Russia. Saudi Arabia has never condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nor has Russia condemned the Saudi proxy war in Yemen. So, what should be the American position in all this? Clearly, any end to the hostilities or even a truce between the two principal and virulently opposed religious currents in Islam – the Sunnis (the majority in Saudia Arabia) and Shiites (the majority in Iran) – should be welcome news.
It should light a fire under Israel to restrain its more expansionist impulses and demonstrate a degree of good will toward the Palestinians -perhaps at this point the only action that could lure Saudi Arabia into a comparable arrangement with Israel, even brokered by the United States. That Friday’s accord between Iran and Saudi Arabia was undertaken with the good offices of China is most disquieting but should not in any way distract from American efforts to contain China’s ambitious expansion. The big surprise is that China appears to have stepped in to fill the vacuum left by American vacillation in the Middle East. But on Monday, Biden is expected to announce a $100 billion deal with Great Britain to build a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia – a vital step toward countering China’s increasing dominance of the seas in the Pacific.
With this agreement, the stakes have only intensified. China, as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran, appear intent on only expanding their reach and power in their respective regions, making containment an increasingly appropriate goal for the United States.