The intensifying systemic rivalry between great powers also involves contesting the most effective approaches to conflict resolution and mediation. The most recent Beijing-mediated détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran has ignited heated debates regarding its longevity and China’s rising profile in the region. While the Middle East may still be a region largely inhospitable to outsider mediation, there are three good reasons why Beijing’s latest foray into Middle East peace diplomacy may be effective. The article argues that China’s hitherto successful mediation between Saudi and Iran lies in its power of not using power—the ability to leverage its growing geoeconomic influence while refraining from the use of coercive power in regional affairs. This approach aims at providing an alternative approach to external powers’ engagement in Middle East peace affairs.
Outsider mediators have long leveraged their hard or soft power to make regional actors in the Middle East comply with peace plans. Compared with the United States, which has been an active player in brokering peace initiatives in the Middle East, China has long been viewed as a reluctant and self-restrained player, especially when it comes to regional security affairs. But the quick succession of events since late last year, from the summit meetings between President Xi and top leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia to the trilateral meetings of foreign affairs officials in Beijing, have raised hopes that China may have a real chance of achieving what the West has failed to do even with its unrivaled military power and political sway. But what are the sources of China’s power in the Middle East’s security affairs? This blog argues that it is China’s long-standing strategic restraint in Middle East security affairs and its longstanding cultivation of economic interdependence that has given it the power to effectively broker regional peace initiatives. In this blog post, this approach is framed as “the power of the not using power”.
The Power of Not Using Power and China’s Success as Mediator
Admittedly, the recent détente facilitated by Beijing is actually initiated by regional powers’ willingness to reconcile with each other. According to Fearon’s rationalist explanation of war, after years of prolonged conflict, it is rational for conflict parties to seek settlement. Before coming to Beijing, Saudi and Iran have been close to rapprochement with the help of Iraq and Oman as mediators. Therefore, the key question for China’s successful mediation is why the regional countries decide to grant China and not their western partners the credit of a peacemaker in the region. In this blog post I argue that China’s success can be attributed to Beijing’s diplomatic approach of non-alignment and non-intervention (NANI) that builds on an impartial image among regional powers and its long-term accumulation of economic links.
A successful mediator needs three elements: neutrality, fairness, and power. Neutrality is the basis for any external power to be accepted by conflict parties; fairness is needed to ensure the peace solution proposed by the mediator is seen as serving the common interests of conflict parties; and power is to ensure that the mediator is capable of ensuring the sustainability of mediation. A comparison of Chinese and US stances in the Saudi and Iran détente reveals that China has built its positive image of neutrality and fairness by refraining from using its hard power to meddle in Middle East affairs and has become influential in the region through its accumulation of economic leverage. As China’s ancient Taoist philosophy dictates, there is an art of governing from not governing. China’s success is due to its balance between not using power to meddle in domestic affairs and trigger regional rivalry and its use of power by building extensive economic links to sustain an encompassing partnership. In short, China’s approach can be said to be the power of not using power.
The Reasons for NANI’s Potential Success
First, NANI is a key feature distinguishing China’s partnership diplomacy from traditional alliance diplomacy. NANI helps China build an image of neutrality and impartiality among regional countries, whereas Washington’s alliance relationships with local actors may not serve to persuade other nations that it is an honest broker. For example, in mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians, Washington’s acquiescence to the former’s hardline policy has prolonged rather than facilitated the peace process. NANI also helps China accumulate considerable soft power to become a mediator in the region. An intermediary’s leverage and credibility stem not only from hard power such as alliance network and military presence, but also from soft power such as the projection of a moral image. The US has without doubt the most hard power in the Middle East, but its long entrapment in Middle East conflicts has created many liabilities and even devastating traumas among Middle East residents. In contrast, Beijing’s image has been much more positive with a clean history of non-involvement in regional conflicts and respect for the sovereignty and autonomy of regional powers.
Second, NANI also helps make China’s peace initiative more palatable to other regional stakeholders. Existing IR theories maintain that nations balance against threat not power, and a shared sense of common threat is what holds allies together. A closer look at the current US intermediary efforts between the Arabs and Israelis reveals an interesting pattern: any reconciliation between an Arab country and Israel usually elicits skepticism and criticism from other regional actors. After the Camp David Accords in the 1970s, Egypt was almost expelled from the Arab League. Following the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates also faced strong criticisms for its marginalization of the interests of Palestinians. Alliances are based on the containment of enemies and rapprochement brought about by leveraging alliance politics only heightens others’ sense of threat. China’s NANI approach has treated every country in the Middle East as its partner, alleviating the negative externality of its proposed peace plan.
Third, China’s long-term economic engagement with the Middle East enables it to play a reliable mediator. China’s active engagement with Saudi Arabia and Iran starts in the 1990s when Beijing began to shift its strategic focus from spreading world revolution to economic modernization. Energy resources from the Middle East propel China’s economic miracle. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both China’s major sources of imported crude oil and China is also the largest trading partner of both Saudi and Iran. The economy-centric approach renders China both the access and assurance to be qualified as a reliable mediator. The first is a regional consensus that China is qualified as an influential external power in the region due to its tremendous economic interests and leverage in the region. Additionally, China’s tremendous economic interests in the region can also be a type of “deposit” for China enduring commitment to regional peace initiatives.
Outlook: The Future of China’s Role in Middle East Security Affairs
China’s recent mediation between the Saudis and Iranians speaks to China’s increasing geopolitical clout and diplomatic dexterity in global affairs. However, it is still too early to say whether China’s approach can work out the security dilemma in the Middle East. The latest progress in Saudi-Iranian rapprochement comes at a time when both have been telegraphing their readiness for a thaw and Beijing, long on good terms with both, embraces a facilitating role. Moving forward, one of the major hurdles is how to devise a sustainable method to address the long-term security dilemma in the Middle East. China’s current equal-distance partnerships with regional countries would be torn apart if regional powers decided to resort to confrontational strategies. To avoid such a scenario, China needs to address the security dilemma within the region so as to eradicate the root causes of regional bloc rivalry. China has proposed a Five-point Initiative on Achieving Security and Stability in the Middle East. However, China still has many hurdles to climb for its engagement in security affairs with the Middle East. First, it is beyond China’s capability and intention to become another US-style security patron to dominate the Middle East countries’ security affairs. Despite its aversion to alliance politics, China also may face a classical dilemma in alliance between engagement and entrapment. Second, the key for China’s approach to succeed is to adopt an inclusive framework of engagement covering both the regional and international stakeholders. However, given the increasingly fierce competition between China and the West, it has become increasingly difficult to cooperate on Middle East issues.
In sum, China’s Saudi-Iran mediation represents a successful case of its forays into the Middle East. Beijing is trying to craft a new peace roadmap that fully accounts for local stakeholders’ interests and concerns on the one hand and adheres to China’s long-running foreign policy traditions on the other. It is certainly a valuable but also challenging exploration. Due to the complicated regional geopolitical rivalry and increasing tense global competition, there is still a long way to go for China’s approach to prove its resilience in the conflict dynamic of the Middle East.