China Plays Peacemaker

Brokering the Iran-Saudi deal was a coup for Beijing. Whether Chinese diplomacy makes the world a safer place is another matter.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping with Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi
Yan Yan / Xinhua / Getty

Superpower competition is almost always characterized as a danger to global peace and prosperity. But occasionally, geopolitical rivalry can prod great powers to do some good. On Friday, Iran and Saudi Arabia, long at odds with each other, announced that they would resume diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China. Whether the agreement has truly advanced the cause of peace, or placed it further out of reach, remains unclear.

The surprise agreement has major implications for Washington’s efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program and for its already strained relations with Riyadh. Yet the most important and long-lasting impact of the deal could be China’s role in it. Making a rare diplomatic foray far from home, Beijing brought the two Middle Eastern adversaries to a deal. The world should expect more such initiatives. The Iran-Saudi pact could be the start of a trend in Chinese foreign policy, in which Beijing pursues more active diplomacy in regions where it has wielded limited power.

That could prove highly beneficial. Beijing holds tremendous economic and political influence with many countries worldwide, which its leaders could use to nudge nations to settle disputes and reduce tensions. (China is the largest trading partner of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.) Diplomats in the U.S. and Europe have been hoping that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, would take advantage of his special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to pressure him to end the war in Ukraine.

Yet China’s Iran-Saudi deal cannot be understood outside the country’s widening competition with the U.S. The deal is part of an intensified campaign by Beijing to undermine American power and remake the global order.

That campaign portrays the U.S. as a nation obsessed with war and its world order as unjust, unstable, and unable to solve the world’s pressing problems. A report issued by the Chinese government in February paints the U.S. as a domineering warmonger and highlights “the perils of the U.S. practices to world peace and stability and the well-being of all peoples.” By contrast, China, according to its own propaganda, is a nation of peace that has better solutions for the world’s iniquities and challenges, ones rooted in Chinese wisdom and formulated by Xi, that master philosopher. Those ideas are enshrined in the Global Security Initiative that Xi inaugurated last year, which stresses the paramount importance of state sovereignty and calls for noninterference in countries’ domestic affairs and an end to “bloc confrontation.” According to a recent Chinese-government statement, the initiative aims to “encourage joint international efforts to bring more stability and certainty to a volatile and changing era.”

What better way for China to prove the superiority of its program than to seek peace? On the anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing announced a “peace plan” for the conflict. The statement was nothing of the sort, because it lacked anything resembling a road map for a settlement. But its purpose was more likely a headline-grabbing advertisement for Beijing’s ideas for a reformed global order. Its 12 points borrow liberally from the earlier security initiative. How hard Beijing intends to push its plan is unclear. The Wall Street Journal reports that Xi hopes to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after a visit to Moscow later this month, suggesting that the Chinese leader may try to play a more direct role as a mediator.

Washington was cold toward China’s peace proposal, but that response suited Beijing just fine. It offered an opportunity for Beijing’s diplomats to claim that they wish for peace while the U.S. perpetuates war. In a briefing earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said, “There seems to be ‘an invisible hand’ pushing for the protraction and escalation of the conflict and using the Ukraine crisis to serve [a] certain geopolitical agenda.”

Beijing is sure to cast the Iran-Saudi pact in a similar light. An official communiqué from the three parties to the pact opens not with any statement about its primary signatories, but with praise for Xi, whose “noble initiative” and “support for developing good neighborly relations” are credited for bringing the two Middle East antagonists together. The declaration also promotes key Chinese diplomatic ideas, including an “affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states.”

The Global Times, a news outlet run by the Chinese Communist Party, promptly paraphrased a senior Chinese diplomat as noting that the talks were “a successful application of the Global Security Initiative” and that China “will carry on being a constructive player in promoting the proper handling of global heated issues.” The report went on to warn that “some external countries”—likely a reference to the U.S.—“may not want to see such positive improvements in the Middle East” and called on the region “to continue to seek dialogue and negotiations.”

Two lessons emerge for U.S. policy makers. First, the Iran-Saudi deal shows how much Chinese influence has grown in parts of the world that the U.S. has traditionally dominated. Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Tel Aviv–based Institute for National Security Studies, wrote in a recent paper that “even though China currently lacks the capacity and will to replace the United States’ long-established integrated deterrence and alliance networks” in the Middle East, “real power is steadily catching up to the willpower to undercut U.S. hegemony, posing challenges to the United States … approach and to its regional allies and partners.”

Second, as that influence expands, China could reorganize the geopolitical map of the world. Countries that have historically been wary of Washington may gravitate toward the U.S.; India is a prime example. But others that have been aligned with Washington may tilt in the opposite direction as their interests and economic relationships change. Beijing’s self-promotion as a purveyor of peace doesn’t square with the huge buildup of its armed forces, including its nuclear arsenal; its aggressive military action in the South China Sea; and its intimidation of Taiwan. But the Chinese narrative could appeal to some nations, especially other authoritarian states or those that wish to confound the Americans. Apparently, that may include the supposed U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which has upset Washington’s plans in the Middle East with its China-backed turnaround on Tehran.

In certain respects, the very different nature of Chinese foreign affairs could give Beijing an advantage as a peacemaker. That is certainly true for the Iran-Saudi pact. Although Washington can be queasy about interacting with illiberal regimes, such as Iran’s, that is not so for Beijing, which prides itself on treating all types of governments equally. Beijing’s relations with Tehran have been growing warmer, as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to China in February demonstrated. That gave Beijing the opportunity to pull off a peace pact that the U.S. most likely could not.

Yet those same relationships raise serious questions about what kind of “peaceful” new world order Beijing is striving to build. With its closer ties to Russia and Iran, as well as its long-standing support of North Korea, China is a major patron of the world’s three most destabilizing states. The Iran-Saudi deal aside, there have been few indications that Beijing intends to use its influence to rein in these countries’ most dangerous designs. Until it does, China’s new order will be anything but peaceful.