After years of tensions, on March 10th, 2023, Riyadh and Tehran, with China acting as host and facilitator, agreed to reopen diplomatic relations. China also offered a 12-point proposal to Kyiv and Moscow on the first anniversary of the invasion, meant to end the war in Ukraine. Beijing’s attempts to act as a peace facilitator demonstrate the Chinese Communist Party’s aims to shape a Chinese-centric future. These deals, particularly regarding Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and China, can be read as indicators of a global shift towards a more bipolar order intent on challenging the West.
Firstly, regarding China’s interest in the Middle East, Beijing sees the region as a critical facet of its Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure and trade initiative implemented by Xi Jinping to expand Chinese influence. Promoting stability between two large regional players like Saudi Arabia and Iran will contribute to economic stability in the region, allowing for Chinese investments to flourish. China buys nearly half of its crude from Arab states, with Saudi Arabia as the largest supplier. However, there is still a long way to go in the relationship between Riyadh and Tehran, with centuries of bad blood to overcome. The initial severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 2016 was the result of an attack by Iranian protests on the Saudi Arabian mission in Iran. The attack was a reaction to the execution of the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr by Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s involvement in the recently brokered peace accord with Saudi Arabia does not come as a surprise. Tehran lacks breathing room due to sanctions stemming from its alignment with Russia over Ukraine and a laundry list of human rights abuses. Therefore, easing up on hostilities with Saudi Arabia and increasing ties with a potentially lucrative partner such as China appears, on paper, to offer Tehran a reprieve. Iran’s recent move of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Central Asian political, economic, and security defense organization used by China to project power beyond its borders, further illustrates Iran’s interest in increasing ties with the CCP. Additionally, any opportunity to antagonize the US–in this case, signing a peace deal with an important US regional partner brokered by America’s largest international rival–is a move in keeping with Iranian behavior. News outlets within Iran have called the Saudi-Iranian peace deal “a working blow” against America and “the end” of US and Israeli “hegemony” in the middle east.
As far as US-Saudi relations are concerned, the relationship can be summed up by a comment made by former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saudi al-Faisal in which he described the relationship as a “Muslim marriage”, meaning the kingdom retains the option to pursue more than one partner. That statement rings true in the face of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to court Russia and China in addition to the US. In the wake of the Ukrainian Invasion, OPEC+, a group of 23 oil-exporting countries of which Saudi Arabia is a prominent member, reduced the supply of oil by 2 million barrels a day to keep prices high: effectively, circumventing sanctions against Russia. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has also elected to join the SCO, opening the door to further Chinese influence in the Middle East.
Even so, the US remains an important defensive ally for Saudi Arabia and the Chinese-brokered peace deal does not cut the US out of Riyadh. Some claim that the deal is primarily an attempt by Saudi Arabia to “inject some stability into its tumultuous relationship with Iran.” Indeed, the Saudis have informed Washington that the main result of the accord is that Iran has agreed to stop attacking Saudi interests and supporting anti-Saudi proxies. The fact that the US has pulled out of Afghanistan and has lowered its profile within the Middle East certainly weighs into the decision-making calculus of many Middle Eastern countries, as well as countries such as China seeking to capitalize on the situation.
In Eastern Europe, China’s 12-point peace plan, ostensibly intended to end the War in Ukraine, was dead on arrival. It was similar to the Iran-Saudi Arabia plan in that it places no skin in the game for China. China’s proposal for Ukraine does, however, flesh out the idea of Beijing using peace accords as springboards for their own goals. The CCP's involvement in brokering a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia is an important effort for Beijing because it would allow them to more closely influence the status quo within Putin’s Russia. The CCP benefits from Russia becoming more isolated on the world stage as it allows Beijing to strengthen its partnership with Moscow and exert more influence over its neighbor.
Additionally, the Chinese authored Russo-Ukrainian peace proposal uses certain telling verbiage. It contains repeated references to respecting the “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” of nations, which can also be read as thinly veiled attempts to preemptively excuse a future invasion of Taiwan. China asserts that Taiwan is a part of China, with claims to the contrary antithetical to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Additionally, China likely wants to use a settlement of the invasion of Ukraine as a template to erode the ability of international powers to inject vast amounts of foreign support into countries in plights similar to Ukraine. The end goal of such efforts would be for China to avoid a protracted war like the one Russia has now found itself in. The Kremlin’s current experience in Ukraine is being used as a laboratory which the CCP can observe and learn from regarding how to make an invasion and absorption of a neighboring country successful while insulating itself from international sanctions. Sanction-proofing is likely a primary motivation behind these peace proposals, as securing trade routes through the Belt and Road Initiative helps to cushion Chinese economic interests.
The repercussions of these events touch on US national security interests. Beijing is intent on outstripping the position of the US in the developing world. Chinese developments throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America illustrate this. Additionally, important US relationships in the Middle East being replaced or overshadowed by China pose a similar threat. There is still a lot of ground to cover for fully established peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as peace between Russia and Ukraine. While China has not significantly increased its ability to challenge and replace the US with these peace plans, they further illustrate Beijing’s desire to do so.
Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund of the United States Indo-Pacific program has stated that China’s efforts to mediate peace and infrastructure development throughout the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere “is about bloc-building rather than peacebuilding.” With its peace deals, China hopes to promote itself as the adult in the room and a responsible country with which countries can and should do business. All four countries, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ukraine, and Russia are important to Beijing for different reasons. Creating and strengthening footholds within the industrial and governmental bodies of those countries would be a boon to the long-term plans of the CCP. China is seeking to rapidly enmesh itself in partnerships that will enable them to withstand a future conflict with the West, with recent attempts at peace deals being an important part of this effort.