China Tests New Role as Middle East Mediator

Weeks after its diplomatic win in helping restore ties between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, Beijing offered its services again on Tuesday, this time as a broker in the rapidly escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians. While a robust diplomatic role in the Middle East is not new for China, what is new is the much more public nature of its conflict mediation efforts.

Observers will be watching to see what Beijing does if either Riyadh or Tehran fails to adhere to the agreement — something seasoned Middle East watchers think is all but inevitable. Also of great interest is whether Beijing will expand this new role as a global peace broker to other seemingly intractable international conflicts, like the Russia-Ukraine war.  

Negotiating in a tough neighbourhood

Beijing’s desire to promote Middle East stability should not come as a surprise, given China’s growing energy and economic interests in the region. In the case of the Saudi-Iran deal, China’s strong economic ties to both countries could provide powerful leverage in ensuring the two governments stick to their commitments. Helping to reduce tensions between Israelis and Palestinians would seriously burnish Beijing’s regional credentials as a promoter of peace and stability. So far, however, neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials seem to be seriously considering the offer.

Opportunity lost?

Unsurprisingly, China hawks are skeptical of the motives behind these overtures. One recent analysis by the New York Times indicates that Beijing is more interested in “chipping away at some of the alliances that underpin Washington’s influence” than playing peacemaker — an observation that could embolden the China hawks even further.

Others, however, say there is a possible upside for the U.S. to China's diplomatic success in the region. The two rivals actually share some interests, such as ensuring freedom of navigation and the security of Middle Eastern energy exports.