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Discourse Power | March 11, 2023
A new paradigm, beating swords into ploughshares, helping others help themselves, and the Beijing Consensus
Greetings from Jerusalem,
After seven years of stalemate and proxy wars, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on Friday to begin normalizing their relations through Chinese mediation. The important development comes at the conclusion of intensive secret talks between the countries in Beijing, following mediation efforts by Iraq and Oman.
Some recommended readings before we begin:
The Joint Trilateral Statement by the People's Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Remarks on Saudi Arabia-Iran Talks in Beijing.
Atlantic Council colleagues shared their perspectives on the breaking news and its implications for one of the Middle East's most consequential rivalries, the region, and the wider world.
If you have not done so already, see my recent paper for the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub on China's "new security architecture for the Middle East," which is arguably quite topical.
Also, check out the new Global Policy volume on China in the Middle East edited by Dr. Brandon Friedman of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Enrico Fardella with the University of Naples “L’Orientale.” It includes a series of country-specific case studies aimed at evaluating how local actors and their agencies have shaped China's role in the region. Read it for free here.
In addition to heading PKU’s Center for Mediterranean Area Studies, Fardella co-directs the extremely resourceful ChinaMed Project with another friend of this publication, Dr. Andrea Ghiselli of Fudan University. I especially recommend checking out their data sections. One of the segments in today’s issue features a collaboration with ChinaMed and the University of Naples "L'Orientale" as part of an online series they are holding until next month on China in the Middle East from the Cold War until Today.
Editors, journalists, and researchers, when using any of the sources featured on Discourse Power please make a reference or hyperlink as customary.
Thank you for reading,
"China promotes security through cooperation while the US does so through alliances, and it is this difference in diplomatic philosophies that has contributed to the significant headway
According to Sun Degang and Liu Zhongmin, China has created a new model for great power diplomacy in the Middle East and should continue to serve as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as promote peace and dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.
Excerpts from The Paper, March 11, 2023:
“Sun Degang, director of Fudan University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told The Paper that promoting the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is only the first step in a long march.
“It will be a significant milestone for China to mediate the improvement of relations between the two countries, as well as to drive the improvement of relations between Iran and the entire Gulf and Arab countries.
“I believe that, whether you are concerned about the Middle East situation or Chinese diplomacy, there are currently too many stories to unravel and too many "whys" to answer.
“Sun emphasized that Iran and Saudi Arabia have been embroiled in sectarian conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and even Lebanon for the past decade. Because both sides realized that such conflicts did not make them safer, they were compelled to sit down and talk, thereby creating internal conditions for reconciliation.
“Sun explained that...In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the great power competition and proxy war in the Middle East between the US-led West and Russia has weakened, adding external conditions for reconciliation.
“Liu Zhongmin, director of Shanghai International Studies University’s (SISU) Middle East Studies Institute, added that the intense competition between the two has resulted in the emergence of a "strategic overdraft problem" 战略透支问题, with neither side is able to shape Middle East affairs according to its own will.
“At the same time,” Liu said, “both sides are under domestic development pressure. In 2016, Saudi Arabia unveiled its "Vision 2030" to accelerate its development transition [from fossil fuels].
“Iran is facing even more domestic development pressures, with popular protests erupting on a regular basis since last year, with little hope of restoring the nuclear deal.
“In his speech at the Arab League headquarters [during his 2016 visit to Egypt], General Secretary Xi Jinping clearly stated the Three No's Principle 三不原则, namely [China would] "not pursue the use of proxies, but rather promote peace and negotiations"; [it would] "not engage in building spheres of influence, but rather promote countries to join the Belt and Road Initiative's circle of friends"; and [it would] "not seek to fill a vacuum, but rather weave a network of mutually beneficial partnerships."
“Wang Jinglie, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of West Asian and African Studies, explained at the time that China’s Three No's Principle has set the norms of China's diplomacy in the Middle East and its foreign relations, establishing a new paradigm for great power diplomacy.
“According to publicly available information on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, senior Chinese diplomats, including the Chinese government's special envoy to the Middle East, Zhai Jun, had been shuttling extensively between Saudi Arabia and Iran since 2022.
“According to Sun, China has a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with both Iran and Saudi Arabia [in 2016], and is also their largest trading partner, allowing China and both conflicting parties to forge a vital bond of trust.
“Additionally, China promotes security through cooperation while the United States does so through alliances, and it is this difference in diplomatic philosophies 理念 that has contributed to the significant headway.
“Liu Zhongmin examined the prospects for the agreement's future and noted that even though Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to restore diplomatic ties, there are still a number of pressing issues between the two nations that require resolution, including their disagreements over the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA) as well as their conflicts in Syria and Yemen. In terms of China's future Middle East diplomacy, it should exude confidence 充满信心 and keep its strategic resolve 战略定力.
“Sun believes that China has long advocated for peace and dialogue in the Middle East. Along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, China may now support diplomatic efforts to mediate between Israel and Palestine. What Palestinians and Israelis, as well as Saudis and Iranians, have in common is that both opposing sides regard China as a reliable and trustworthy partner [Comment: nope].
“Zhai Jun, the Chinese government's special representative to the Middle East, is currently in Israel, according to information posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on March 10. The day before, Zhai and Tor Wennesland, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, met in Jerusalem to discuss the Palestinian issue.” (The Paper)
“The Global Security Initiative’s lofty vision can serve as a compass and a roadmap for calming conflicts and resolving contradictions [worldwide]”
The successful Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Beijing, according to Ding Long, a professor at SISU's Middle East Studies Institute, is a victory for peace, demonstrating China's commitment to promoting security and cooperation in the Middle East through its Global Security Initiative (GSI).
Ding explains the significant development in the Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Beijing in a Global Times article (in Chinese) published today, March 11:
“First, head-of-state diplomacy 元首外交 is paving the way. President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 to attend the "Three Summits" between China and Saudi Arabia, China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and China and the Arab League.
“Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi paid a state visit to China last month at President Xi's invitation. Indeed, China has provided Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions for Middle East security through concrete actions.
“China has worked hard to promote security in the Middle East since 2014 when President Xi first proposed a new concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security. The fact that Saudi and Iranian delegations came to Beijing for talks demonstrates China's sincerity and a vote of confidence [in its abilities].
“Second, it serves as an effective illustration of the GSI in action. The fact that archrivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran were able to beat their swords into plowshares 铸剑为犁 thanks to China's mediation fully demonstrates the GSI's lofty vision, which can serve as a compass and a roadmap for calming conflicts and resolving contradictions [worldwide].
“China has been working for peace in the Middle East for several years, not only between Iran and Saudi Arabia but also between many other parties in the region. For example, it proposed the Gulf Security Framework and initiatives to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It has done so on several occasions without seeking personal gain.
“The fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran finally achieved a fruitful outcome 修成正果 [lit. "achieve Buddhahood"] demonstrates that China's peace and security ideas are highly practical and operational.
“Third, the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation is in line with current trends. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been embroiled in protracted conflicts and suffered massive losses in recent years. Under internal and external pressure, both countries have since realized that development is the first priority and that only development can promote peace.
“There has been a wave of détente among Middle Eastern nations in recent years, and tensions within the region have significantly decreased. The success of the Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Beijing is consistent with the Middle East's trend of reconciliation and détente.
“As per Wang Yi, member of the Communist Party of China Central Committee's Political Bureau and director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Beijing is a victory for peace.
“Of course, the Saudi–Iranian conflict is a complex and entrenched one. There are still many specific disagreements between the two parties that cannot be resolved with a single agreement. The Saudi-Iranian Beijing Dialogue, however, offers a good starting point for the two sides to further develop their mutually beneficial relationships and settle their differences.
“The Middle East countries are expected to promote the spirit of autonomy [from the US-led West, that is], strengthen solidarity and cooperation, and collaborate to build a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous region. In accordance with the desires of all nations, China will continue to play a constructive role and show that it is a major power capable of leading in addressing the pressing global issues of our time.” (Global Times)
“The situation in the Middle East has Changed…The great-power competition, diplomatic struggles, economic competition, and counter-terrorism, have all mixed together, further complicating China’s Middle East policy. This requires greater coordination between the different institutions”
For a deeper dive, watch this ChinaMed debate on the Middle East in Chinese foreign policy, published here in collaboration with Discourse Power:
Speakers (in alphabetical order):
Dr. Enrico Fardella, the Director of the ChinaMed Project, is an Associate Professor at the Department of Human and Social Sciences at the University of Naples “L’Orientale.”
Dr. Andrea Ghiselli is an assistant professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA) at Fudan University and a non-resident research fellow with the TOChina Hub, where he is the Head of Research for the ChinaMed Project.
Professor Niu Xinchun is the Director of at the Ministry of State Security-linked Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations' (CICIR) Institute of Middle East Studies.
Dr. Tang Tianbo is an Associate Research Professor at CICIR’s Institute of Middle East Studies.
"The Chinese path to modernization is a good model for Middle Eastern countries to emulate. It demonstrates that modernization does not equal Westernization”
Wu Sike, China's former Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue and ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt (2000-2007), believes that Beijing's pivotal role in regional diplomacy has been long in the making.
Excerpts from Wu’s interview for Beijing Daily, March 11, 2023:
“According to Wu Sike, shortly after Saudi Arabia and Iran severed diplomatic relations in 2016, President Xi Jinping visited both countries and delivered a speech at the Arab League headquarters [in Egypt]. It was there that he gave the Chinese solution 中国答案 to the "Middle East problem" 中东之问, namely the Three Keys 三个关键:
“The key to resolving differences is strengthening dialogue; the key to solving problems is accelerating development; and the key to finding a path is conforming to national realities. At the same time, he proposed China's Three No's Principle [see the first entry], which involves opposing proxies, spheres of influence, and filling the 'vacuum.'
“At the end of last year, President Xi attended [in Riyadh] the first China-Arab leaders' summit, the China-GCC summit, and a state visit to Saudi Arabia. Last month, China hosted Iranian President Raisi, demonstrating China's increased interest in the Middle East.
"The summits and state visits reflect a consistent push beginning at the highest levels and working all the way down to the foreign service." Wu Sike emphasized that "helping others to do good" 与人为善 [the Mencius] is both a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy and a fine tradition of the Chinese nation.
“ "When I was a special envoy to the Middle East, I visited Saudi Arabia and Iran several times,” he recalled. “I often told them that while you can't choose your neighbors, you can decide how to live with them. This is the goal we’ve been working toward in the Middle East: "living together in harmony" 和睦相处 [Zuo Zhuan].
“Wu Sike commented that this is a successful practice of China's Global Security Initiative (GSI). China supports both sustainable and common security, he continued.
“In the world today, there is another argument in favor of exclusive security, which is putting one's own security above all else, even if it means jeopardizing the security of others.
[Comment: China has been using this idea of “exclusive security,” which it borrowed from the Russians, to rationalize its illegal invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that "NATO expansionism" is at fault. I'm still waiting for Beijing to apply this logic to Iranian expansionism and proxies throughout the Middle East, and how it risks Israel's security to bolster Teheran’s own exclusive security, or whatever, but don't hold your breath.]
“ "The world should now be able to see clearly which is the view of security that is in line with the trend of the times, that can promote greater cooperation, and that has a favorable demonstration effect on international security issues," says Wu.
[The following paragraphs are made up entirely of Xi quotes:] “According to Wu, China and the Middle Eastern countries share many historical ties and in recent times have both endured national humiliation and plunged into the dark ages 民族蒙难、历史蒙尘.
“The historic missions 历史性使命 we face together in the New Era are realizing national rejuvenation and development in accordance with our own national conditions.
"The Chinese path to modernization is a good model for Middle Eastern countries to emulate. It demonstrates that modernization does not equal Westernization. They are capable of developing a development model that fits their own circumstances while maintaining their traditions." (Beijing Daily)
“This occasion could serve as a model for Beijing's effective mediation of significant regional crises and lead to the emergence of a Beijing Consensus”
Professor Ma Xiaolin, director of Zhejiang University's Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim (ISMR), believes that China's effective mediation has been welcomed by the international community and the US and that it could serve as a model for Beijing diplomacy in other hotspots.
Excerpts from Ma’s article first published in the China Daily on March 11:
“What astonished people around the world was that the Middle East has traditionally been dominated by the US or Russia, not China. It was the US that would facilitate or back Middle East peace initiatives, such as the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel brokered by President Jimmy Carter and the 1993 Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel brokered by President Bill Clinton.
“This occasion could serve as a model for Beijing's effective mediation of significant regional crises and lead to the emergence of a "Beijing Consensus" 北京模式 [lit. “Beijing Model”].
“Equally significant is the Saudi-Iranian commitment to "activate" 激活 the 2001 security cooperation agreement, as well as the 1998 bilateral general agreement on cooperation, which covers a wide range of fields including economy, trade, investment, technology, science, culture, sports, and youth. The conclusion of the tripartite joint statement means that the abrupt deterioration of Saudi-Iranian relations since 2016, which resulted in the severance of diplomatic relations and all ties, will be a thing of the past.
“Furthermore, with the full restoration of Saudi-Iranian relations, the Saudis and Egyptians, among others, are likely to remove two radical nationalist forces opposed to Israel, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, from the "terrorist organization" blacklist.
“The Saudis had long funded Hamas and accepted Riyadh's good offices in several conflicts with Israel, but as Saudi-Iranian relations deteriorated, Riyadh saw Hamas as a traitor.
“Hezbollah, which is funded by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has been a thorn in Saudi Arabia's side since its inception in 1982. Riyadh is keen on backing rival Sunni forces while limiting Iranian influence, and it resents the fact that Hezbollah constantly provokes Israel and causes wars, creating a moral dilemma 道义困境 for its own moderate Middle East policy.
“In addition to serving as the organizer of the secret meetings, Wang Yi actively mediated Saudi and Iranian relations and actively promoted dialogue and cooperation in the Gulf. Back in March 2021, when he was still foreign minister, Wang Yi visited six Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, and promoted the signing of the 25-year Strategic Cooperation Plan between China and Iran.
“In January 2022, Wang organized a "Middle East Week" of Chinese diplomacy in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, where he met with six Middle Eastern foreign ministers, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“Both waves of positive events emphasized China's importance in Middle Eastern affairs, boosting Middle Eastern countries' strategic trust in China and, to some extent, lubricating the easing of Saudi-Iranian relations.
“The international community generally welcomes the return of goodwill between the two Middle Eastern powers, given that both are major energy producers and exporters, which is beneficial to the Middle East and global energy market stability.
“The US government is also pleased with the outcome and has expressed support. Since the Obama administration, it hoped that Saudi Arabia and Iran would put aside their identity politics and focus on regional counter-terrorism efforts.
“Additionally, they believe that Iran can now be a part of the nuclear non-proliferation system. Especially now that America's strategic focus has clearly shifted to Eurasia to deal with Russia and China, this would prevent Israel from using force and dragging it back into the Middle East quagmire.” (China Daily)
Playing in the Background
Excellent debut album by Miss Mellow from Munich, wishing us all to find some peace in our minds.
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah Fund’s Krauthammer Fellow. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia