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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Can China become a 'peacemaker' in the Middle East?

William Yang in Taipei
April 27, 2023

China has been promoting itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East. Beijing brokered a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia — and is now eyeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 Qin Gang und Eli Cohen
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang has urged his Israeli counterpart for peace talks Image: China´s Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Xinhua/IMAGO // Bernd Elmenthaler/IMAGO

China has been upping its diplomatic charm offensive in the Middle East in recent weeks, framing itself as a peacemaker between longstanding rivals in the region.

After brokering a landmark deal, helping Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic ties on April 6, Beijing is now trying to facilitate peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Following calls with top Israeli and Palestinian officials, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang urged all parties to remain "calm" while calling for "restraint," emphasizing peace talks and implementing the two-state solution.

He encouraged Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to resume peace talks with Palestinians and said China is "ready to provide convenience for this." In a separate conversation with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, Qin reiterated Beijing's stance.

According to a press release from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a phone call with Qin, Riyad Al-Maliki "expressed appreciation of China's effort to facilitate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, saying that this demonstrates China's role as a responsible major country." 

That statement was echoed by the West Bank-based, Fatah-affiliated Wafa news agency, which reported Al-Maliki hailing China's involvement in supporting stability, security and development in the region.

He also called on his Chinese counterpart to bolster relations and accelerate the signing of several business agreements, Wafa reported.

China's focus on 'acquiring resources and markets'

Beijing views longstanding disputes between different countries as "destabilizing" and potentially risky to its long-term business interests.

Dawn Murphy, an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National War College, told DW, "China's most important interests in the Middle East are acquiring resources and markets, which include economic and political interests."

"China has an incentive to actually resolve these disputes, as it can benefit from stability in the region. Additionally, serving as a mediator gives China an opportunity to demonstrate that it's a great power that wants to contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East," she told DW.

Prior to the groundbreaking deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China has long been a top trading partner for countries in the Middle East, purchasing oil and investing more than $273 billion (€250 billion) in the region between 2005 and 2022. The Belt and Road initiative, China's flagship global infrastructure project that started in 2013, has also allowed Beijing to expand its influence across the region.

China was 'just the right player at the right time'

Though China has revealed its aspiration to become a more important player in the Middle East, some experts think Beijing's aspiration and actual influence on the region is overestimated.

"China saw an opportunity in the Iran-Saudi deal and provided a platform," Tuvia Gering, an expert on China-Middle East relations at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Center at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel (INSS), told DW.

However, the deal was a result of a two-year engagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with help from countries like Oman, Iraq, and the United States. Gering said China was "just the right player at the right time," and in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians, the two sides aren't interested in starting any peace talks, and there is skepticism about China's role as a balanced mediator.

"China may see itself as a balanced power to all parties, but Israel doesn't share the sentiment. They see China as a biased and completely cynical player in the region that has zero interest in solving this conflict. It's just China scoring some diplomatic and geopolitical points," Gering added.

After Qin expressed Beijing's interest in helping to facilitate peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told American business news channel CNBC on April 19, "Look, we respect China, we deal with China a great deal. But we also know we have an indispensable alliance with our great friend the United States."

With Israel viewing Iran as a threat to its security, China's continuous support for Tehran, only adds to Israel's concerns.

"One can't quite escape the similarities between Beijing coming out with the Israel-Palestine proposal and its 'peace plan' on the Ukraine war," said Sari Arho Havren, a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki.

"In both cases, Beijing can't be seen as a neutral party as in the case of the Ukraine war, Beijing stands on Russia's side, while in the past, China and Israel have hardly been eye to eye on the future of the region," she added.

But Murphy from the US National War College believes that Palestine and other Arab states have welcomed China playing a more significant role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last two decades. 

"In their view, China has a constructive role to play in the resolution of this longstanding point of tension in the Middle East," she said, adding that Beijing's decision to reveal its intention to broker potential peace talks between Israel and Palestine is likely the result of urging from Palestinian and Arab leaders.

Can China challenge US dominance in the Middle East?

As China looks to grow its influence in the Middle East, the international community is also closely following how it might challenge a regional order that has long been dominated by the United States. Murphy says that China puts emphasis on its ability to maintain balanced relations with every country in the Middle East, and that there are no signs that Beijing would start picking sides amid its ongoing attempt to present itself as a "peacemaker."

"China sees itself as providing a platform and bringing together parties that China has good relations with," she said. "I don’t think China seeks to provide security guarantees and countries in the Middle East don't expect China to play the same role that the US does," Murphy added.

Even though some US policymakers view China's growing influence in the Middle East with concern, Gering from INSS thinks top US officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken view Beijing's attempt to be a mediator in regional conflicts as a positive change.

"They think China is finally acting as a responsible major power, and it's an opportunity to continue its pivot to East Asia," he told DW.

"I don't think we will see China become involved with boots on the ground in conflicts, but we might see China opening more military bases, which could be carried out through agreement with host countries or under UN frameworks," he added.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum