A photo Beijing released on March 6th of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign minister Wang Yi delivered a seismic shock in Washington. There he stood between Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, and Saudi National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban. They were awkwardly shaking hands on an agreement to reestablish mutual diplomatic ties. That picture should have brought to mind a 1993 photo of President Bill Clinton hosting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn as they agreed to the Oslo Accords. And that long-gone moment was itself an after-effect of the halo of invincibility the United States had gained in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overwhelming American victory in the 1991 Gulf War.
This time around, the U.S. had been cut out of the picture, a sea change reflecting not just Chinese initiatives but Washington’s incompetence, arrogance, and double-dealing in the subsequent three decades in the Middle East. An aftershock came in early May as concerns gripped Congress about the covert construction of a Chinese naval base in the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally hosting thousands of American troops. The Abu Dhabi facility would be an add-on to the small base at Djibouti on the east coast of Africa used by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy for combating piracy, evacuating noncombatants from conflict zones, and perhaps regional espionage.
China’s interest in cooling off tensions between the Iranian ayatollahs and the Saudi monarchy arose, however, not from any military ambitions in the region but because it imports significant amounts of oil from both countries. Another impetus was undoubtedly President Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, that aims to expand Eurasia’s overland and maritime economic infrastructure for a vast growth of regional trade — with China, of course, at its heart. That country has already invested billions in a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and in developing the Pakistani Arabian seaport of Gwadar to facilitate the transmission of Gulf oil to its northwestern provinces.
Having Iran and Saudi Arabia on a war footing endangered Chinese economic interests. Remember that, in September 2019, an Iran proxy or Iran itself launched a drone attack on the massive refinery complex at al-Abqaiq, briefly knocking out five million barrels a day of Saudi capacity. That country now exports a staggering 1.7 million barrels of petroleum daily to China and future drone strikes (or similar events) threaten those supplies. China is also believed to receive as much as 1.2 million barrels a day from Iran, though it does so surreptitiously because of U.S. sanctions. In December 2022, when nationwide protests forced the end of Xi’s no-Covid lockdown measures, that country’s appetite for petroleum was once again unleashed, with demand already up 22% over 2022.
So, any further instability in the Gulf is the last thing the Chinese Communist Party needs right now. Of course, China is also a global leader in the transition away from petroleum-fueled vehicles, which will eventually make the Middle East far less important to Beijing. That day, however, is still 15 to 30 years away.
China’s interest in bringing to an end the Iranian-Saudi cold war, which constantly threatened to turn hotter, is clear enough, but why did those two countries choose such a diplomatic channel? After all, the United States still styles itself the “indispensable nation.” If that phrase ever had much meaning, however, American indispensability is now visibly in decline, thanks to blunders like allowing Israeli right-wingers to cancel the Oslo peace process, the launching of an illegal invasion of and war in Iraq in 2003, and the grotesque Trumpian mishandling of Iran. Distant as it may be from Europe, Tehran might nonetheless have been brought into NATO’s sphere of influence, something President Barack Obama spent enormous political capital trying to achieve. Instead, then-President Donald Trump pushed it directly into the arms of Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation and Xi’s China.