By Anuraag Khaund
AMIDST the recent geopolitical churns in the current era, a new development brought tidings of seismic changes in West Asia. This was the agreement concluded between Saudi Arabia and Iran brokered by China in order to explore the possibility of rapprochement between the two long time regional as well as religious rivals and bring about much needed peace and stability in the war-torn Middle East which was bearing the brunt of proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. The Joint Trilateral Statement released on 10 March 2023 stated that both the countries have agreed to re-start and re-open diplomatic missions of each other in their respective territories while adhering to the UN Charter principles of respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-intervention in each other’s internal matters. In addition, it also mentioned that both the countries would also explore reviving the Security Cooperation Agreement of 2001 as well as the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth, which was signed in 1998. While the above events may have ushered in a way of hope in the region as seen in the other West Asian countries’ responses to the same, yet the underlying logic of US- China rivalry beneath this China brokered attempt cannot be unseen. This constitutes the interest of the article which explores the implications of a strengthened Chinese foothold in West Asia for the US and India.
With apparent declining US interest in the West Asian region, as seen in the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy 2022 prioritising focus on Russia with regard to Europe and China in the Indo- Pacific, many countries including traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia have started looking for other options or partners in terms of economic and security partnerships. This search or diversification of partnerships has also been underlined by the perceptions of apparent US weakness and decline in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. In such a scenario, China has grabbed the opportunity to strike a foothold in the region which is crucial for Beijing’s energy imports. This includes the visit of President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia and the signing of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement in December 2022 as well as developing a similar partnership with Iran for 25 years in March 2021. In the case of Iran, the agreement also involves Beijing investing 400 billion USD in Tehran’s economy in areas such as oil and gas, petrochemicals, transportation, and infrastructure development. It is no wonder then that the development of such ties as well as the stakes in the Middle East have induced Beijing to help usher in the above rapprochement between the two bitter regional rivals.
The Iran-Saudi-China agreement, while helping secure Beijing’s economic and energy interests in the region, has also allowed Beijing to subtly challenge Washington in the region as well as in the international order. This can be gleaned from the statement by China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s remarks about the above agreement helping ‘regional countries to get rid of external interference (US) and take the future into their own hands’. In addition, the Spokesperson also remarked that while ‘pursuing no selfish interests in the region’, Beijing respects the ‘stature of Middle East countries as the masters of this region’ and harbours ‘no intention to and will not seek to fill so-called vacuum or put-up exclusive blocs’. This can be interpreted as Beijing’s snub at the longstanding US policy of intervention and democracy- promotion in the region which has resulted in nothing but wars and disasters such as the instability in Iraq since 2003, the crisis in Syria etc. Along with it, by bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran to the negotiating table, Beijing has also criticised and showed the folly of the traditional US policy of forming ‘exclusive blocs’ or allies and military bases in order to encircle Tehran long dubbed as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ along with Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq and North Korea. At the same time, the lines ‘China always believes that the future of the Middle East should always be in the hands of the countries in the region.. always supports the people in the Middle East in independently exploring their development paths and supports Middle East countries in resolving differences through dialogue and consultation to jointly promote lasting peace and stability in the region’ takes a sharp dig at Washington’s interventionist policy in the region in terms of democracy promotion and advocacy of human rights while trying to isolate countries such as Iran and even its ally Saudi Arabia over the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2019 while promoting the image of a Beijing as a non-interventionist power (as opposed to US) respecting the right of other countries to follow their own development paths which may be at variance with the global ‘Western’ norms. China’s ‘non-interventionist’ credentials are also outlined by the last part of the statement which mentions Beijing’s respect for and advocacy of attempts by regional countries to solve their differences on their own accord without exercising any undue influence or interference in the process (unlike the US) while ‘continuing to contribute its insights and proposals to realizing peace and tranquillity in the Middle East and play its role as a responsible major country’. Note the use of the word ‘responsible major country’ instead of a ‘great power country’ (like the US) in the previous line. This further underlines the image projection of Beijing as a country markedly different from the US, who would behave ‘responsibly’ by being a ‘a promoter of security and stability, partner for development and prosperity and supporter of the Middle East’s development through solidarity’ unlike the ‘irresponsible’ behaviour of the US in the region till date.
The Chinese challenge and subtle attack on the US were not lost to certain sections in Washington. This was seen in the statement of Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of Washington based research institute Foundation for Defense of Democracies who said that the agreement was ‘a lose, lose, lose for American interests’ in the region which signalled that ‘the Saudis don’t trust Washington to have their back’ while giving Iran ‘an opportunity to peel away American allies to end its isolation’ and ‘China becoming the major domo of Middle Eastern power politics’. Despite National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby’s pushback that the US has not abandoned the Middle East, the fact that Riyadh did not ask US to engage in the consultations leading to the March 10 agreement only highlights Saudi Arabia’s (and possibly other US allies) diminishing trust upon Washington’s capabilities and give further impetus to a sense of Chinese preponderance and diminishing US presence in the region, and global stage at large, in the views of American scholar on Middle East Jon B Alterman. This perception brought about by the China brokered agreement could also affect the US attempts at normalizing ties between Israel and other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia around the bogey of a ‘rogue, nuclear Iran’ as well as put dent in Washington led regional groupings like the I2U2 (India, Israel, US, and UAE) announced in 2022.
Coming to India, while the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia would play an important role in softening the Sunni- Shia divide within the Indian Muslim population, yet the strategic foothold gained by China in the region would not be good news for New Delhi. A declining US presence in West Asia would not be helpful to India’s interests in the region at a time when New Delhi’s engagement with the region has been marked through groupings such as the I2U2 which would lose its strength in the absence of Washington’s leadership. This, and the fact that two members of the I2U2− Israel and UAE already enjoy high levels of partnership with Beijing with the latter’s prestige having risen in the eyes of Abu Dhabi post the agreement would further affect the internal cohesion of the nascent grouping. However, the most important effects of this development will be on India’s strategic projects such as the Chabahar port in Iran and the envisioned Indo-Arab- Mediterranean Corridor of the I2U2 linking India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Greece. An increased Chinese presence and prestige in the Middle East, especially Iran would further add to the side-lining of the Chabahar port as well as delay in the execution of the Indo Arab Mediterranean Corridor (with most of the members such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Greece having varying levels of strategic and other partnerships with China). Given the scale of its investment in West Asia and now with its new found prestige and partnerships, Beijing would have considerable leeway in drawing these countries away from the initiative while drawing them closer to become a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) thereby cementing Chinese foothold in the resource rich region.
While the current Iran- Saudi rapprochement has been hailed by Chinese State Councillor and Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of CPC, Wang Yi as ‘a victory for the dialogue, a victory for peace…’ It remains to be seen whether it transforms into China’s victory at the behest of the US and India.
Anuraag Khaund is a student of International Politics (IP) from Central University of Gujarat (CUG).
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