China’s Growing Presence on the International Stage and the Potential Ramifications for Saudi-Iran Relations

ByAbdul Rauf Mostafa Ghonaimy

The international stage is experiencing tense polarization because of competition between the global powers. Meanwhile, new rules governing the international order —totally different from those prevailing since the end of the Cold War — could be established between Russia and the West-backed Ukraine on the one hand and the East-West on the other. Think tanks focusing on assessing the positions of global powers are noticing a significant shift in Chinese policies, a transition from a total focus on the economy to involvement in international affairs.

China has the potential to create major shifts in the international order to transition the world to a multipolar order in which it plays a bigger regional and global role. This potential has raised various questions about China’s rising global footprint and the extent to which it contributed to the restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition, an important question is what impact China will have on the Saudi-Iran relationship and cooperation. China is a global pole and has the ability to influence international affairs. Beijing has always responded reasonably to the United States’ provocations, such as when former US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year, denying Washington the opportunity to criticize China and diminish trust in it as a global pole. The Chinese response was both strong and measured, stopping short of involvements that could drag it into a global war. Beijing sent a message that a global reality is taking shape that spells the end of the United States’ exclusive dominance over the global order. The United States sees the rise of new revisionist world powers as a threat to the post-Cold War world order.

By achieving a historic diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East, one of the United States’ most crucial spheres of influence, China has established itself as a global mediator that is capable of resolving outstanding issues. This breakthrough comes in the context of the United States prioritizing “turning eastwards” to encircle China over its presence in the Middle East. China succeeded in persuading Saudi Arabia and Iran to resolve the longest diplomatic schism in modern history, putting Beijing to the test for the first time. The move has ushered in a new equation in the region, one in which China is seen as a key actor in dealing with complex challenges, while the US-led Western camp’s influence is in the process of decline.

This Saudi-Iran agreement is the first landmark security agreement signed between the two major regional powers without sponsorship from the United States in decades. China, which adopts a compromise formula in its international relations, though temporarily, is considered a preferred alternate global power compared to the West, which adopts the “you are with us or against us” formula. This formula does not consider the interests of strategic partners, particularly in the context of sensitive junctures.

As the US-Chinese dispute over global leadership intensified and the Russia-Ukraine war continued unabated — in which the West accuses China of siding with Russia, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a three-day visit to China’s neighbor and strategic partner Russia, the first visit of its kind since the war broke out. The visit came amid tireless, back-to-back Western efforts to isolate Moscow and after the International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president over “the war crimes committed in the war on Ukraine.” The visit was viewed by the West as reflecting Chinese solidarity and support for Putin. There is deep US-Western concern about the growing Russo-Chinese alliance, with the prospect of a strong rival to the Western camp.

Preceding his visit to Russia, the Chinese president presented a picture of a new epoch of international relations emerging, completely different from the era of US unilateralism, in an article published in the Russian newspaper Russian Gazette. According to the Chinese president, this new era will be based on mutual trust, peaceful coexistence and cooperation that benefits all parties rather than a single party reaping all the benefits as is the case in the monopolar order. The Chinese president also announced an initiative to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict in accordance with the UN Charter, while considering the legitimate security concerns of all countries.

As soon as he arrived in Moscow, the Chinese president announced that China and Russia are two major world powers and two UN Security Council permanent members. He added that no global power in the world can dictate global rules while China and Russia have levers to address international affairs. During his departure, a video showed the Chinese president approaching his Russian counterpart and telling him that “a change not seen in 100 years is happening now, and we are leading this change together.”

 The United States has questioned China’s mediation and accused it of bias in an attempt to stymie the Chinese initiative to end the Russia-Ukraine war and prevent it from achieving a second diplomatic breakthrough which would allow Beijing to score more points in its global battle against Washington following the success of its mediation to end the diplomatic freeze between Riyadh and Tehran. China opposes the US-led approach, arguing that there is a significant difference between the peace initiative it has presented to end the war and the West’s support for Ukraine, which is sustaining and perpetuating the war for no reason other than geopolitical calculations to ensure the Western camp’s continued dominance over the global order.

The Saudi and Iranian leaderships are aware that the growing Chinese presence has played a role in breaking the ice between their respective countries, leading to the rapprochement agreement in Beijing, the world’s second most powerful decision-making capital. China possesses military and economic potential that has enabled it to confront other global poles.

China also has several interests in the Middle East, including securing the uninterrupted flow of oil and trade. Furthermore, China seeks to remove any obstacles that could hinder the Belt and Road Initiative, most importantly, it seeks to showcase its levers of influence in the Middle East given that the latter is the real litmus test for any rising global power. Several academics and veteran policymakers such as John Mearsheimer and Henry Kissinger argue that the growing Chinese role in the Middle East assists it in its quest for global leadership, since this role boosts its presence on the international stage.

Given the long history of Iranian non-compliance to commitments and pledges made to Riyadh, China’s intervention helped in overcoming the trust deficit between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This building of trust was also reflected in Iran’s desire to implement the terms of the agreement to resume diplomatic ties. Due to China’s effective mediation, both countries toned down their political rhetoric. In addition, the Saudi king invited the Iranian president to visit the kingdom, with Iran accepting the request. Following on from this, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan called his Iranian counterpart Hossein-Amir Abdollahian to expedite coordination for a bilateral meeting to reopen embassies and consulates between the two countries — a step that will be taken after technical delegations visit prospective headquarters and prepare for their reopening. The breakthrough in ties — against the backdrop of several rounds of talks in Baghdad — will serve as a catalyst for Iran-Gulf rapport.

The Chinese variable will play a significant role in ushering in a new chapter in the Middle East. This variable is reflected in the success in concluding the rapprochement agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This demonstrates the effectiveness of China’s involvement as well as Beijing’s gradual rise on the international stage. As a result, it is believed that China will devote all of its resources to making the rapprochement agreement a success — the first test in its quest for global leadership. Saudi and Iranian efforts to restore diplomatic relations demonstrate that there is a genuine desire at the highest levels in both countries to see the accord through.

To conclude, the mentioned desire may result in greater than expected restoration of relations at the highest diplomatic levels, enhancement of working mechanisms of joint commissions, ushering in a new stage distinguished by deeper collaboration in economic, commercial and security areas. This is in addition to coordinating positions on regional and global issues and agreeing on a specific nuclear deal formula. The agreement may potentially have a greater impact than thought on sensitive matters such as the war in Yemen. The agreement could also serve to push for dialogue and compromise among Lebanese factions to end Lebanon’s crisis which has reached a tipping point. Moreover, there is a possibility that Iran will alter its foreign policy, following a more pragmatic approach in regional affairs, increasing the prospects of more patriotic and moderate politicians ascending to power in Iraq and elsewhere.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Abdul Rauf Mostafa Ghonaimy
Abdul Rauf Mostafa Ghonaimy
Political researcher at Rasanah IIIS