China and the Middle East: From Performative to Substantive Participation in Regional Affairs?

China and the Middle East: From Performative to Substantive Participation in Regional Affairs?

On March 10, Iran and Saudi Arabia surprised the world by announcing that they agreed to resume diplomatic relations after decades of enmity and a formal cutting of ties in 2016.

Tehran and Riyadh agreed to keep the contents of the lengthy agreement confidential.[i] Yet, their public statements indicate that the deal’s key points focus on ensuring regional stability in the Gulf, and the Middle East more broadly. The two countries have been at loggerheads over Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and, last but certainly not least, Yemen. Therefore, it is not surprising that the improvement of relations between Tehran and Riyadh has been welcomed around the world.[ii]

Yet, what has made the statement even more surprising is the fact that it was reached in Beijing, with Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat and Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, having played the role of host.[iii] As a matter of fact, China is also one of the parties to the agreement.

Hence, I join the ongoing discussion[iv] on how to interpret this latest episode of Chinese involvement in Middle Eastern politics. My analysis is inspired by the work of Iza Ding on performative governance,[v] on the one hand, and that of Sun Degang and Yahia Zoubir on China’s “quasi-mediation” in Middle Eastern security issues, on the other hand.[vi]

In Ding’s framework, an organization can approach a certain issue in four different ways – inert, paternalistic, performative, and substantive – depending on the combination of capabilities that it can bring to bear, and the level of external attention to its actions. When said organization is under intense scrutiny but lacks the resources and/or the authority to deal with a problem, it will engage in performative governance, i.e., it will make highly visible actions that, however, do little to improve the situation. Yet, if the level of scrutiny remains constant, it will take to more substantive actions once its relative capacity improves.

To a large extent, we can say that China’s involvement in Middle Eastern security and political issues has long been performative in nature. Other great powers have long expected China to become what Robert B. Zoellick, former Deputy Secretary of State famously called a “responsible stakeholder.”[vii] Yet, China has mostly practiced “quasi-mediation.”[viii] It devotes “insignificant diplomatic resources, participating lightly in the context of mediation directed by others, doing so solely to mark its presence and, when it does, it carries out the facilitation between parties at a very modest level.”[ix] A recent review of Chinese proposals to solve Middle Eastern issues supports this argument as well.[x]

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s involvement and the changes that took place in Saudi-Iranian relations throughout 2022 played a key role in changing the nature of Chinese diplomacy from performative to substantive.

Against this background, the available evidence suggests that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s involvement and the changes that took place in Saudi-Iranian relations throughout 2022 played a key role in changing the nature of Chinese diplomacy from performative to substantive, leading to the tripartite statement of mid-March. As such, the tripartite Sino-Saudi-Iranian agreement does not herald the beginning of a new era of Chinese primacy in the region. Nonetheless, this event further exposes the problems that American policymakers face in identifying foreign policy priorities and allocating resources accordingly.

Bringing the Middle East to the Center of Chinese Foreign Policy

As pointed out by Chinese expert Niu Xinchun, China’s approach to Middle Eastern security issues has long been about “doing nothing, [and] opposing something [at the UN]” with the exception of the negotiations facilitated with respect to the Iranian nuclear issue.[xi] According to John W. Garver, one of the key drivers of China’s push to mediate between Iran and the United States in the early 2010s was the involvement of the Xi.[xii]

This is not surprising. After all, even Chinese scholars admit that the Middle East has long been “a second or third-order concern for Chinese policymakers.”[xiii] This is because no country in the region challenges Beijing’s core interests, Niu Xinchun pointed out.[xiv] Niu also agrees with some American scholars[xv] that the conditions under which local actors or the United States can seriously disrupt the flow of oil and natural gas to China are extremely unlikely to materialize. Therefore, Chinese policymakers rarely spend time thinking about the region, and do not pay significantly more attention to it than to other parts of the world. The frequent complaint among Chinese experts about the insufficient coordination among the many domestic institutions that manage Chinese activities in the region is indeed symptomatic of the relatively low importance of the Middle East.[xvi] Li Zhongmin, a scholar working at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for example, reported that the Ministry of Commerce sent a department-level delegation to Libya between late 2011 and early 2012 to help Chinese companies to receive compensation from the National Transitional Council for the losses caused by the civil war.[xvii] As Li pointed out, the Ministry of Commerce did so without coordinating with other agencies, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in a moment of great volatility in the North African country. Similar problems also exist between Chinese companies as well as embassies and consulates in the region.[xviii] Rising competition with the United States also contributes to limiting the resources and time that Chinese policymakers can dedicate to issues that do not directly touch upon China’s core interests.[xix]

Hence, the Chinese leader’s meetings with his Saudi and Iranian counterparts appears extremely important.[xx] Xi’s direct involvement likely ensured that enough bureaucratic, intellectual, and political resources were allocated to seize the opportunity offered by the Saudis to become part of a process that is yielding many short-term dividends to China. Among them, one cannot but highlight the enormous gain in terms of international prestige for the Chinese leadership, which many pundits perceived as taking place to the detriment of the United States.[xxi] Moreover, this accomplishment also helped Beijing to regain some important diplomatic initiative after the cold reception of its latest position paper on the war in Ukraine.[xxii]

At the same time, China has long hoped that regional policymakers would focus more on promoting economic development, rather than on fighting each other. One of the key necessary conditions for that to happen, according to Beijing, is the normalization and improvement of diplomatic relations between Iran and its neighbors. Indeed, while Chinese scholars and commentators have implicitly acknowledged the beneficial effects of the Abraham Accords on Israeli-Arab relations, they have never failed to criticize the Trump administration for its attempts to isolate Iran.[xxiii] As such, it is likely that the Chinese leadership and foreign policy machine also saw an opportunity to directly contribute to this process by joining the Iranians and the Saudis in the talks.

Chinese commentators are usually cautious and do not exaggerate their country’s influence on Iran. However, given the potential gains for China in this situation, rumors about Chinese officials expressing their “dissatisfaction with Iran’s foreign policy approach, stating that they could no longer support Tehran if such a situation continued to exist” during February’s visit of President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing become more plausible.[xxiv] After all, the direct involvement of Xi Jinping both empowered Chinese diplomats and created sunken costs for them. Failure was not an option.

The Chinese Factor in the Saudi-Iranian Equation

Naturally, the absolute increase of an organization’s capacity alone is not enough to make the shift from performative to substantive governance. Success also depends on the nature of the problem. From this point of view, the Xi-driven increase of China’s diplomatic capacity took place against the background of already mature talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly, the Iranian and Saudi delegations had met for several rounds in Iraq, Oman, Egypt, and Jordan by 2022.[xxv] However, it seems that a mix of factors led the talks to stall. On the one hand, the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani, showed little interest in playing host for the talks in the aftermath of his nomination in October 2022. On the other hand, the Saudis and Iranians reportedly had different priorities. While the former wanted to focus on resolving outstanding security issues, the latter prioritized economic ones.

Although it is not clear which of these issues played a major role, frustration mounted on the Saudi side, leading them to broach the issue with Xi Jinping during his stay in Riyadh in December 2022 during the Saudi-Chinese Summit, GCC-Chinese Summit, and Arab-Chinese Summit. The urgency on the Saudi side can also be seen in the fact that they pushed to hold what Iranian sources describe as “high-level security dialogue between the two countries” in Beijing, rather than accepting Tehran’s proposal of a ministerial-level meeting.[xxvi]

Iran and Saudi Arabia not only had an interest in reaching an agreement, but they also had something to gain out of China’s specific involvement.

It is also important to highlight the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia not only had an interest in reaching an agreement, but they also had something to gain out of China’s specific involvement. Iran is going through a difficult moment as political and economic instability have reached a new high in recent months. Therefore, easing tensions with Saudi Arabia, with China involved in the process too, represents a much-needed short-term diplomatic boost that could translate into long-term benefits as well. Indeed, Saudi investments could provide oxygen for the troubled Iranian economy.[xxvii] For the Saudi leadership, improving relations with Iran will allow them to focus more on domestic development and deepening economic reform under Vision 2030. Chinese participation in the talks helped Saudi Arabia to kill two birds with one stone: it imposed pressure on both Americans and Iranians, with the former to deepening their ties with the Saudis, and the latter to stick to the agreement.

In other words, while it is clear that Chinese diplomats benefitted from the resources that President Xi’s involvement brought to bear, such investment of diplomatic and political capital was not sufficient per se. Rather, it was enough to turn China’s involvement in this important Middle Eastern issue from performative to substantive because the conditions that enabled it to happen were right.

Beyond the Narrative of a New Era of Chinese Regional Primacy

To summarize, the increase in the capacity of China’s diplomatic machine alone was not a sufficient condition for the normalization of ties between Riyadh and Tehran. The same holds true with regard to Saudi and Iranian readiness to reach an agreement. Factors in both these arenas were necessary. Thinking counterfactually, the lack of conducive conditions in one would have likely delayed, possibly indefinitely, this latest development in Middle Eastern politics. The track record of China’s “quasi-mediation” and the tumultuous history of Saudi-Iranian relations lend further support to this interpretation.

China’s most-recent involvement in Saudi-Iranian relations is indeed the fruit of the combination of a series of independent factors, rather than symptomatic of a more structural and unilateral change in China’s Middle East policy.

As I have pointed out in the past, we should not underestimate the constraints that prevent change in Chinese foreign policy.[xxviii] China’s most-recent involvement in Saudi-Iranian relations is indeed the fruit of the combination of a series of independent factors, rather than symptomatic of a more structural and unilateral change in China’s Middle East policy. For example, the fact that Middle Eastern issues are less important than managing the rivalry with the United States in East Asia or the repercussions of Russia’s war in Ukraine, will not change in the foreseeable future. Hence, the amount of time that Wang Yi will be able to dedicate to Middle Eastern affairs, and thus the political and bureaucratic resources invested in China’s Middle East policy, will likely remain relatively limited. In comparison, the perception that China’s involvement increases the sunken costs for Tehran is more likely to become a new long-lasting factor in Middle Eastern politics. Such kind of considerations probably influenced Saudi decision-making.

In this context, it is possible to say that the tripartite Sino-Saudi-Iranian agreement does not herald the beginning of a new era of Chinese primacy in the region. Nonetheless, this event is going to further expose the problems of American foreign policy. Despite the pervasive perception that the United States is in the process of retrenching and leaving the Middle East, the Pentagon has been increasing its presence in the Arabian Peninsula over the past 14 years.[xxix] Yet, this has happened while Washington’s strategic focus was shifting toward East Asia. In other words, an increase in the footprint on the ground has paradoxically taken place along with the reduction of the energies and efforts devoted to thinking about how to use those resources to pursue clear, long-term goals. Unsurprisingly, this has made it easier for China to score important diplomatic points. The tripartite agreement will establish an important precedent if it does not fall apart in the short term. The China-hosted Iran-GCC summit proposed for November 2023 will be another important milestone. While there is awareness of this issue among American elites,[xxx] it is unlikely that it will be solved soon.[xxxi]

[i] Banafsheh Keynoush, “How Tehran views the Iranian-Saudi agreement,” Middle East Institute, March 24, 2023, https://www.mei.edu/publications/how-tehran-views-iranian-saudi-agreement.
[ii] For example: “Note to correspondents – on the announcement that Iran and Saudi Arabia will resume ties,” United Nations, March 10, 2023, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/note-correspondents/2023-03-10/note-correspondents-%E2%80%93-the-announcement-iran-and-saudi-arabia-will-resume-ties%C2%A0%C2%A0.
“Iran/Saudi Arabia: Statement by the Spokesperson on the announced resumption of diplomatic relations,” European External Action Service, March 11, 2023, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/iransaudi-arabia-statement-spokesperson-announced-resumption-diplomatic-relations_en; “U.S. on Iran-Saudi Rapprochement & China,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 15, 2023, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2023/mar/15/us-iran-saudi-rapprochement-china.
[iii] “Wang Yi Chairs Closing Meeting of Talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing,” PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 10, 2023, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202303/t20230312_11039412.html.
[iv] For example: Anoush Ehteshami, “China’s Grand Vision and the Persian Gulf,” Istituto Affari Internazionali, March 27, 2023, https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaip2307.pdf; Adam Gallagher, Sarhang Hamasaeed, Garrett Nada, “What You Need to Know About China’s Saudi-Iran Deal,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 16, 2023, https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/03/what-you-need-know-about-chinas-saudi-iran-deal; “Experts react: Iran and Saudi Arabia just agreed to restore relations, with help from China. Here’s what that means for the Middle East and the world,” Atlantic Council, March 10, 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react/experts-react-iran-and-saudi-arabia-just-agreed-to-restore-relations-with-help-from-china-heres-what-that-means-for-the-middle-east-and-the-world/.
[v] Iza Ding, “Performative Governance,” World Politics, Vol. 72, No. 4 (2020), pp. 525–56. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0043887120000131.
[vi] Degang Sun and Yahia Zoubir, “China’s Participation in Conflict Resolution in the Middle East and North Africa: A Case of Quasi-Mediation Diplomacy?” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 27, No. 110, (2018), pp. 224-43.
[vii] Robert B. Zoellick, “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility?” U.S. Department of State Archive, September 21, 2005, https://2001-2009.state.gov/s/d/former/zoellick/rem/53682.htm.
[viii] Sun and Zoubir, “China’s Participation in Conflict Resolution in the Middle East and North Africa,” pp. 238-9.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Carol Silber, “China’s Track Record on Middle East Diplomacy,” Washington Institute, March 15, 2023, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/chinas-track-record-middle-east-diplomacy.
[xi] Xinchun Niu, “China’s Middle East Strategy within the Framework of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Foreign Affairs Review 34, 4 (2017): 32–58 [in Chinese].
[xii] John W. Garver, “China and the Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Beijing’s Mediation Efforts,” in James Reardon-Anderson (ed.), The Red Star and the Crescent: China and the Middle East (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 123-48.
[xiii] Chuchu Zhang, “Bridging the gap between overseas and Chinese perceptions on Sino-Middle Eastern relations: a Chinese perspective,” Globalizations, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2021), pp. 273-84.
[xiv] Xinchun Niu, “An Analysis of Chinese Interests and Influence in the Middle East,” Contemporary International Relations, No. 10 (2013): 44-52+68 [in Chinese].
[xv] Eugene Gholz and Daryl. G. Press, “Protecting ‘The Prize’: Oil and the U.S. National Interest,” Security Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3 (2010), pp. 453-485; Gabriel Collins, “A Maritime Blockade against China: Tactically Tempting but Strategically Flawed,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (2018), pp. 49-78
[xvi] Meng Wang, “Discussing the Implementation of the Belt and Road in the Middle East,” Contemporary International Relations 3 (2017), pp. 16–22 + 36 [in Chinese]; Xinchun Niu, “Imagination and Reality: China’s Middle East Policy,” West Asia and Africa 4 (2021): 25–53 + 156-157 [in Chinese]; Shengli Li, “The Development of Chinese Diplomatic Capabilities: Meaning and Direction,” International Studies 2 (2022), pp. 20–36 + 153–154.
[xvii] Zhongmin Li, “China’s Overseas Economic Interests Protection: A Strategic Analysis,” World Economics and Politics, No. 8 (2012), pp. 103 [in Chinese].
[xviii] Andrea Ghiselli and Pippa Morgan, “A Turbulent Silk Road: China’s Vulnerable Foreign Policy in the Middle East and North Africa,” China Quarterly, Vol. 247 (2021), pp. 641-661.
[xix] Wentao Li, “China-Africa Military Security Cooperation Is Moving to a Deeper Level,” World Affairs 15 (2018), pp. 58–59 [in Chinese].
[xx] Saeed Azimi, “The Story Behind China’s Role in the Iran-Saudi Deal,” Stimson Center, March 13, 2023, https://www.stimson.org/2023/the-story-behind-chinas-role-in-the-iran-saudi-deal/.
[xxi] For example: Nic Robertson, “China has shattered the assumption of US dominance in the Middle East,” BBC, March 15, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/15/world/us-saudi-china-relations-intl/index.html.
[xxii] “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 24, 2023, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202302/t20230224_11030713.html.
[xxiii] Enrico Fardella and Andrea Ghiselli, China in the Mediterranean Region: Key Trends and Regional Debates in 2022 (Torino: Torino World Affairs Institute, 2023), pp. 3-10, https://www.chinamed.it/publications/china-in-the-mediterranean-region-key-trends-and-regional-debates.
[xxiv] “Saudi Arabia-Iran: Khamenei’s office led talks and agreed to stop arming Houthis, say sources,” Middle East Eye, March 17, 2023, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-arabia-iran-reconciliation-khamenei-office-agreed-stop-arming-houthis.
[xxv] Azimi, “The Story Behind China’s Role in the Iran-Saudi Deal;” Keynoush, “How Tehran views the Iranian-Saudi agreement;” “Saudi Arabia-Iran: Khamenei’s office led talks and agreed to stop arming Houthis, say sources.”
[xxvi] “Amir Abdollahian: An emphasis on peace in the region is part of the agreements between Iran and Riyadh,” Tasnim News, March 19, 2023, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1401/12/28/2869893/%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87%DB%8C%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%A7%DA%A9%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%B5%D9%84%D8%AD-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B7%D9%82%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%AC%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88-%D8%B1%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B6-%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA [in Farsi].
[xxvii] Rachna Uppal and Aziz El Yaakoubi, “Saudi Arabia could invest in Iran ‘very quickly’ after agreement – minister,” Reuters, March 16, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-investment-iran-could-happen-very-quickly-after-agreement-minister-2023-03-15/.
[xxviii] Andrea Ghiselli, “China and the United States in the Middle East: Policy Continuity Amid Changing Competition,” Middle East Institute, January 9, 2023, https://www.mei.edu/publications/china-and-united-states-middle-east-policy-continuity-amid-changing-competition.
[xxix] Christopher K. Colley, “A Post‐American Middle East? US Realities Vs. Chinese and Russian Alternatives,” Middle East Policy, (2023), https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12670.
[xxx] Fareed Zakaria, “Opinion America’s foreign policy has lost all flexibility,” Washington Post, March 17, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/03/17/america-foreign-policy-lacks-flexibility/.
[xxxi] Ghiselli, “China and the United States in the Middle East.”

Similar Articles

Search the site for posts and pages


2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.