In support of China’s efforts to safeguard and promote the country’s economic interests, Chinese scholars are suggesting diplomatic tactics, particularly in the Middle East, that could help strengthen Beijing’s developing global security policy. These tactics include mediation to defend commercial rather than security interests; conflict “management” instead of “resolution”; and promoting a harmonious relationship among China’s strategic partners, many of whom are deeply divided and involved on conflicting sides of proxy wars.
The ideas serve two purposes. First, they dilute criticism about Beijing being uninterested and punching below its weight in contributing to the stability of the Middle East. Instead, they portray Beijing as seriously considering various options for greater political engagement in regional and global affairs. Second, they promote the Chinese notion of a balanced diplomatic approach that relies more on deft mediation rather than any form of aggressive intervention.
The Middle East, including the oil-rich Gulf countries, is a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative that is crucial to China’s energy supply and trade ties with the rest of the world. Stability is thus a major concern for China amid unrelenting enmities involving Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, among others, and signs of declining U.S. engagement and influence, which is also encouraging discussion on alternative security mechanisms in the region.
One idea, “quasi-mediation diplomacy,” promotes defending “commercial, political and diplomatic interests rather than core security and strategic interests.” A state investing in this model “acts without seeking to dominate; to follow rather than to lead; to partake in the revision of the agenda rather than setting it; and to encourage conflict de-escalation in lieu of determinedly engaging in conflict resolution.” Such an approach would involve “multifaceted intervention, proactive involvement, limited intercession and indirect participation,” which would minimize China’s risks amid the region’s conflicts. Adding to this approach is the stress on China “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” therefore not completely resolving problems, implying a tilt toward conflict management rather than conflict resolution.
Contrary to the popular perception that it has stayed away from intervention in Middle East conflicts, China has conducted “mediation diplomacy” by appointing special envoys for the Middle East peace process and the Syrian war. The mission for these and other diplomats in Sudan and Afghanistan, for example, is to contain rather than completely resolve conflicts. Though these efforts have not been gamechangers, they could be construed as Beijing’s bid to slowly deviate from its preferred policy of nonintervention.
China also played a quiet but significant role in the talks between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany and Iran that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Former U.S. President Barack Obama thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 for Beijing’s constructive role in securing the nuclear deal after China encouraged Iran to consider the deal following Obama’s reelection in 2012.
Another contribution that has received less attention is that Chinese naval fleets escorted 6,600 ships between 2008 and 2018 in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. Of these, 51.5% were foreign vessels.
The idea of working with competing countries to ensure that prevailing tensions do not escalate is now being extended to rivalries involving countries that could significantly impact the Belt and Road Initiative. It focuses on conflict management with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Iran and Turkey on the other.
While maintaining good ties on either side of the Gulf, it is being suggested that “given Iran’s expressed willingness to strengthen bilateral relations, China needs to respond more actively,” irrespective of U.S. objections. This idea is gaining traction amid reports of advanced Iran-China negotiations on a 25-year, $400-billion “strategic accord,” spanning the energy, infrastructure, and defense sectors. With the next U.S. administration, headed by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., indicating interest in rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, Beijing and Tehran may see an opportunity to strengthen their comprehensive partnership.
Incidentally, the proposed ideas are in line with the 2019 Russian endorsement of Iran’s proposal for a “non-aggression pact” with the Gulf Arab countries that could significantly reduce the risk of disputes spinning out of control, thus protecting China’s economic stakes.
Some U.S. scholars endorse these trends: The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Jon Alterman in 2019 said, “I don’t think China wants to fill a U.S. vacuum in the region.” He suggested that China’s involvement is a mercantile based, quasi-military approach that helps economies grow without threatening the political order, which is popular in the Middle East.
However, amid calls for active engagement in the diplomatic arena, there are Chinese experts voicing caution too, especially about involvement in the security arena. One scholar wrote, “If our side was to undertake escort operations in the Strait of Hormuz, it’s very likely that a conflict would occur with one, or more, Gulf coastal state.” The author continued that China “should not rashly undertake a military intervention in this region.”
These ideas are significant in the context of Washington’s recent pressure on the Gulf Arab countries to limit their engagement with China, particularly in the technology sector. In May, flagging Huawei’s role in the UAE’s 5G infrastructure projects, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said that it would make it “difficult” for U.S. and Gulf Arab forces to communicate. “These states have to weigh the value of their partnership with the United States.”
There is also a view that the Abraham Accords are Washington’s way of checkmating Beijing’s and Moscow’s growing involvement in the region by promoting U.S. ally Israel as an alternative economic, technological, and security partner in the region. This is seen as allowing the United States the luxury of continuing its phased disengagement, without ceding space to its strategic rivals.
Overall, the discussions in China reflect Beijing’s bid to rebalance from “politics among nations” to “politics among networks,” or commercial partners, focusing on “connectivity” rather than “control.” Such a nuanced approach, involving “maximum diplomacy” instead of “maximum pressure,” may help calm tensions in the Gulf region, while also promoting the possibility of a non-U.S.-centric security architecture in the region.