Chinese diplomacy yields results
By George N. Tzogopoulos  ·  2023-03-27  ·   Source: NO.13 MARCH 30, 2023

Developments in the Middle East regularly capture international attention. Media stories primarily cover negative themes and focus on tensions and problems. The purpose of diplomacy is not to follow this trend but to look for potential solutions. This is the method China has followed when mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, resulting in the two countries determined to restore diplomatic ties during negotiations hosted in Beijing. The joint trilateral statement released by China, Saudi Arabia and Iran on March 10 was the fruit of hard efforts to start a new chapter in the relationship of the two Middle East countries.

The resumption occurred after a seven-year freeze in diplomatic relations. However, even before 2016, relations between the two had been strained for several reasons including sectarian divides. The beginning of revolts in several Arab countries in 2011 further complicated matters, as Tehran and Riyadh took opposing sides in some of the ensuing civil wars. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to Saudi Arabia in 2012 to discuss the complicated situation with King Abdullah.

But the differences, which largely surfaced in the second decade of the 21st century, had been under control in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Iran and Saudi Arabia signed two important agreements in 1998 and 2001. The first covered the fields of economy, trade, investment, technology, science, culture, sports and youth. And the second dealt with security cooperation. The Beijing trilateral summit made a reference to both agreements, mentioning that Tehran and Riyadh agreed to implement them. This means that the resumption of diplomatic relations does not place the two in unfamiliar territory. 

China is playing a role in facilitating the rapprochement. The process will be difficult because time is required for trust to be regained. The joint trilateral statement functions as the beginning of the process. And China is not alone. Iraq and Oman have also played an important role in bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia closer. Without harmonious regional collaboration, achieving promising diplomatic outcomes would be impossible. The resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries had been preceded by the one Iran agreed to with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in August 2022.

Against this backdrop, the Beijing tripartite statement was generally endorsed. Both the Arab League and the Islamic Conference Organization have saluted the initiative in tandem with most countries in the region. UN secretary general and other permanent members of the UN Security Council have also acknowledged the significance of the result. There is no other way for peace to be safeguarded than through negotiations and reconciliation.

China is interested in fostering stability in the Middle East, a necessary prerequisite for people to live in harmony and for development to flourish. As already mentioned, the task has not been completed. Challenges ahead remain hard. At the regional level, they include the continuation of the Yemeni civil war, instability in Syria following years of civil war, Iran's nuclear program after the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, the reconstruction of Syria and Türkiye after the deadly earthquakes of February 2023, and the Israeli-Palestinian question. China approaches a particularly tough situation having the advantage of its neutrality and balanced behavior. This is perhaps the main reason why it managed to mediate the Iranian-Saudi deal.

With the Beijing tripartite statement, China gave peace a chance. Although the tone shall not be triumphal due to existing thorns and the need of more diplomatic efforts, perspectives seem now brighter. Chinese diplomacy has already started to make a difference in the world, starting in the Middle East.

The author is EU-China Program director at the Centre International de Formation Européenne 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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