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China's possible roles and limits beyond the Gulf

March 23, 2023 at 3:05 pm

Chinese President, Xi Jinping (not seen) meets by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (C) on December 8, 2022 [Royal Court of Saudi Arabia – Anadolu Agency]

The global and regional echoes of Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reverberate for quite some time.

China announced its first diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East and it presented its credentials as a guarantor of good-neighbourly agreements, peace, cooperation and security arrangements that limit the magnitudes of proxy wars and violent conflicts that resulted from poor relations between the two most important countries in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the coming days, China will have to clearly define whether it is ready to gradually expand the scope of its mediation and guarantees beyond the Gulf and move towards the wars and other conflicts that have exhausted the peoples of the Middle East and which the US, European countries and Russia have been unable to end or launch serious negotiation processes to control.

The reference here is not only to the ongoing conflict in Syria and the political impasse in Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, but also to the Palestinian cause, which is witnessing a serious escalation due to settlement policies, displacement and settler violence against Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is also because of the political and security cover provided by the right-wing government of extremists, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, for these crimes that continue to invalidate the two-state solution and turn it into missed opportunities.

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In the face of all this, the Western powers – represented by  the US and the EU – have done nothing but verbally condemn settlement activity and settler crimes, which have reached a terrifying abyss with arson and attacks, without imposing sanctions that may deter the arrogance of Israel.

The Western powers have had nothing to say on the diplomatic level other than the frequent references to the need to adhere to the two-state solution, the importance of security cooperation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, and the priority of working to reduce violence and improve economic and living conditions in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

In short, the West does not have any diplomatic solutions or new negotiating proposals for the current escalation with regard to the Palestinian issue, and its main hopes now are that the holy month of Ramadan will pass without an increase in acts of violence between settlers and some Palestinian factions, without a flare up in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, and without Israeli Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and his like in the government provoking the feelings of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims outside of Palestine.

Does China wish to employ its diplomatic tools and its many cards in the Middle East region to help control the current escalation in the occupied Palestinian territories and to search for solutions to a conflict that has been ongoing for almost a century? China has important and employable cards, which are mainly the cards of its strong economic and trade relations with all parties, and the impression present among the Palestinians and Israelis regarding China’s neutrality and the absence of its ideological and political bias to one party at the expense of the other (just as the same impression was present between the Saudis and Iranians), as well as China’s ability to have good relations with Russia to secure supportive positions for its diplomacy, if it becomes active.

The same that is said about the Palestinian cause can be said with regard to the continuous faltering of negotiating solutions in Libya, whose rule is disputed internally between rival powers, which Egypt views as a key to its national security and to opportunities for great economic, trade and human cooperation. Regional powers are fighting on its territories, including Turkiye, as well as international forces such as France, Italy and Russia. Western policy was unable to build consensus on negotiation and political solutions to the Libyan issue, rather some Western parties differed among themselves (such as the contradiction and rivalry between France and Italy) and this opened the door to the absence of stability, the proliferation of weapons and the continuation of the conflict between the Libyan East and West.

Today, American diplomacy says that it wants to involve Egypt in the negotiating solution and move towards supporting the Egyptian demand calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Libyan territory (Turkish forces in the west and Russian Wagner groups in the east). Today, the Europeans say that they adopt the same political choice and prefer to push the Libyan parties to agree on a map to build elected institutions, to govern the country, achieve its stability and restore its oil and natural gas exports, which are needed for European markets. However, the effectiveness of the new Western policy towards Libya is related, among other factors, to Turkiye’s willingness to withdraw its forces from the west and Russia to withdraw its groups from the east, and on the success of diplomatic dialogue between Egypt and Turkiye, who discussed this issue, among many others. If so, China, with its extensive trade relations with Turkiye, can – as an aid to Western pressure – effectively pressure the Turkish government to withdraw its forces and retain its political and economic influence and trade in Libya. China can also, within the framework of its current mediation to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, put pressure on Russia, its strategic ally, to withdraw the Wagner groups from the east, and the truth is that only a limited number of them remain on Libyan soil.

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With regard to the Palestinian issue and the Libyan issue, and as is the case in the contested regional arenas due to the past lack of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, i.e. Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, the question for China in the coming days will be whether it wants to make its mediation effort a model for regional activity that builds on strong economic and trade relations with all countries of the Middle East and goes beyond them to engage in security diplomacy, ending wars, resolving conflicts, and restoring stability or if it will look at the Gulf as an exception that required intervention given the fact that it imports two-thirds of its oil needs from it.

Only the coming days will gradually carry the elements to answer these questions. However, China, contrary to some official Arab and Iranian wishes, will not view its role as an alternative to that of the US and its Western allies, but rather as a competitor who agrees at times and disagrees at times, and maximises its interests in any case.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 20  March 2023

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.