China’s Great Leap In The Middle East
What Beijing just sponsored and got done, putting two millennia of diplomatic craft to work, is an exquisite example of what can be accomplished once this imperative is fully realized.
History’s wheel turned last Friday, when Iranian and Saudi Arabian officials agreed in Beijing to re-establish their bilateral diplomatic relations, which Riyadh severed seven years ago. Reflecting on this momentous development over the weekend, I’ll put it up there with the American defeat in Vietnam, April 1975, for its magnitude. The world we live in this week is not the same as the world we lived in last week.
With the stroke of a pen—three pens, actually—China, the Islamic Republic, and the Saudi kingdom have altered the fundamental dynamic of global politics. The two Middle Eastern powers have transcended the historic and often vicious divide between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. And in escorting the two sides to the mahogany table, the People’s Republic has made an entrance worthy of a Chinese opera onto the stage of world powers.
Non–Western solutions to non–Western problems: I have been banging on about this theme for years. What happened at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing last week is what this looks like in practice. Parity between the West and non–West has been another of my preoccupations for many years. What Beijing just sponsored and got done, putting two millennia of diplomatic craft to work, is an exquisite example of what can be accomplished once this imperative is fully realized.
I had better make an essential point clear straight away. This new Saudi–Iranian entente is not China’s way, or the Saudi kingdom’s or Iran’s, of pushing a custard pie in Washington’s face. Let’s stay clear of this error of interpretation even as it surfaces in various Western news reports.
Yes, the U.S. has been the Middle East’s power broker, weapons supplier, war-maker, and diplomatic master of ceremonies since Washington cut its original oil-for-security deal with the long-reigning King Abdulaziz al-Saud in 1931. Yes, the Americans are suddenly wandering in the Middle Eastern deserts, flatfooted and dazed and with their pants down around their knees. Indian Punchline, the internet journal published by M.K. Bhadrakumar, a career diplomat in the Indian foreign service, described this absence the other day as “a colossal breakdown of American diplomacy.” Yes again. But showing up Washington was not the point in Beijing, Riyadh, or Tehran. It is more in the way of collateral damage.
The point is the construction of a new world order driven in large measure by the savagery, destruction, and deprivations of the “rules-based order” Washington and its Western allies have enforced since the 1945 victories. The intent shared by all three signatories to this accord is not revenge or spite, or ridicule. It is remedy. It reflects a shared judgment that the disorder of the rules-based order has got out of hand and must be superseded with mounting urgency.
With what velocity our planet spins, I have to marvel. New and enhanced South–South partnerships and alliances, increasingly dense economic relations among non–Western nations, the expansion of multilateral organizations such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the SCO, the measurable rise in anti-imperialist sentiment everywhere other than in the West, and now China’s design for a new world order: Things I used to think would occur decades hence, if in my lifetime, unroll before our eyes.
This is the context in which we ought to view the new Saudi–Iranian accord. The language of the Joint Trilateral Statement the Foreign Ministry made public last Friday makes this very clear.
There are the formalities. Embassies in Tehran and Riyadh are to be reopened “within a period not exceeding two months.” The Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers, respectively Hossein Amir–Abdollahian and Prince Faisal bin Farhan, “shall meet to implement this, arrange for the return of their ambassadors, and discuss means of enhancing bilateral relations.” A 1998 agreement covering trade and investment, science, culture, sports, and youth is to be implemented. Almost certainly more to the point, so is a Security Cooperation Agreement signed in 2001.
Then there are the larger ideas written into the Joint Statement. The three signatories commit to “adhering to the principles and objectives of the Charters of the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and international conventions and norms.” The statement also notes a “shared desire to resolve the disagreements between them through dialogue and diplomacy and in light of their brotherly ties” and the two sides’ “affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states.” Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi FM, put it this way in a Twitter note after the accord was announced: “The countries of the region share one fate.”
What are these nations doing if not professing a common, non–Western identity, one based on the principles of a new world order as these step-by-step take shape and solidify?
I do not know why I read here and there in the Western press that this agreement is wobbly and may not hold, that it may never come to reopened embassies, and that the sentiments just quoted are somehow “gauzy,” as a New York Times correspondent put it in a report from Riyadh last weekend. It may not, in the way lots of things we expect may not come to be. But casting such doubts as these on the basis of who-can-tell-what betrays malign wishful thinking and an ignorance of recent history. It is a gauzy take.
The Saudis and Iranians have been back-channeling on the diplomatic side for years, notwithstanding all the appalling epithets and denunciations and the vicious animosity the war in Yemen has engendered. The Biden regime has failed to revive ties with Tehran and has flubbed relations with Riyadh, notably during Joey Biden’s unbelievably inept encounter with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year.
On the Chinese side, the mainland is now the second-largest market behind the U.S. for Saudi petroleum products, and Riyadh wants into the SCO. Two years ago this month, Javad Zarif, Tehran’s much-missed FM during the reformist years under Hassan Rouhani, made his own trip to Beijing, his to complete a long-negotiated, many-sided economic accord worth $400 billion over the next 23 years. I see nothing gauzy in these waxing relationships. That Times correspondent in Riyadh simply didn’t do her homework.
In quick succession last month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published three documents that announced in perfectly plain terms Beijing’s intention to assume a leading role in geopolitics and multilateral diplomacy. The second of these, “The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper,” began with this:
This is an era rife with challenges. It is also one brimming with hope. We are convinced that the historical trends of peace, development and win-win cooperation are unstoppable. Upholding world peace and security and promoting global development and prosperity should be the common pursuit of all countries.
In hindsight, I am all but certain these ambitious, unshy papers were the project of Wang Yi, China’s top foreign affairs man and the master of ceremonies overseeing talks between the two leading Persian Gulf powers. I am also certain Wang acted as choreographer to coordinate release of these three policy statements just before last week’s diplomatic breakthrough. I confess nonetheless that I am surprised at the speed with which Wang got this done. “Wow” is our word.
I hear the sound of one hand clapping as the Biden regime pretends to applaud this new entente. And as could easily be anticipated, Washington officials and think tank inhabitants have it that Beijing’s diplomatic triumph is something just north of a shrug. This is what they do when they cannot bear looking at what the 21st century has in store. They flinch. They haven’t, after all, got any noninterference or respect for sovereignty to sell in the Middle East. Only their opposites, and the market for these just took a precipitous drop.
I am reluctant to guess what the Middle East will look like as China assumes a role that is very likely to trump America’s in one case after another. But if I had to, I would say the U.S. will continue pressing policies that continue to fail and China will continue doing what it has just done. Rife with challenges, brimming with hope is the best I can suggest just now.