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Beijing Navigates Shifting Sands in Middle East Politics

  • China has struggled to maintain a leading role in the Middle East, particularly in the context of the Gaza conflict and regional crises.
  • Despite efforts to position itself as a peace broker, Beijing has faced scrutiny and has been unable to meet global expectations for solutions.
  • The recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and Suez Canal pose further threats to Chinese investments and necessitate a strategic adaptation to the changing regional landscape.

Recent months of compounding crises in the Middle East have exposed China's limited commitment and ability to play a leading role in the region, and as I explained here, Beijing isn't necessarily well-positioned to benefit from the newfound chaos.

Finding Perspective: Since the beginning of Israel's ongoing war in Gaza, China has gradually taken a backseat toward the conflict.

Beijing has used the large-scale humanitarian crisis and mounting civilian casualties in Gaza as an opportunity to blame the hostilities on the United States's Middle East policies at global forums like the UN and through official statements and state-led media.

But while Chinese diplomats have toured various Middle East capitals and hosted officials from the region in China, Beijing has little to show from such efforts and may have even seen its stock dip in the region.

Beijing frames itself as a "responsible major power" and has looked to play a role as a peace broker, recently calling for a peace conference and a timetable to implement a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine on January 14.

But this positioning has also brought more scrutiny for China to act and deliver solutions, especially from countries across the Global South, and Beijing has so far not met those expectations.

This can also be seen in China's reaction to the Huthi attacks meant to deter commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

Beijing has decried the attacks, and even though Chinese-flagged vessels have been targeted, it has not been part of the effort to bring the attacks to an end.

This could also grow further against China's interests, with the attacks frustrating Chinese investors who have committed billions to projects around the Suez Canal and stand to profit from safe passage through the waterway.

Protracted conflict in the region could continue to grow and further threaten Chinese personnel across North Africa and the Middle East and the investments that state-owned corporations have been making there for the past decade.

Why It Matters: This is all a dramatic reversal from how things looked less than a year ago.

In March 2023, China brokered a historic deal between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and sidelined the United States in the process.

As peace talks spread across the region -- from Qatar to Turkey to Syria -- China's top diplomat Wang Yi declared that a "wave of reconciliation" was sweeping the Middle East in August, with Beijing's alternative vision for a global order taking shape.

But the war in Gaza and the expanding list of crises has undone that narrative. Now, as China faces a very different political and security landscape in the Middle East, it must adapt on the fly.

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This opens up lots of questions moving forward.

How will China maintain its official "neutrality" in the region and balance between its longtime partner in Iran and the more economically appealing Sunni Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia? Is China willing to spend its political capital on Israel-Palestine diplomacy? And how can China continue to shape events in the Middle East as the regional conversation shifts more toward security concerns?

By RFE/RL 

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Leave a comment
  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 18 2024 said:
    China is a responsible superpower. It doesn’t involve itself in mediation efforts in conflicts around the world until it has prepared the ground meticulously to ensure that it can contribute positively to a fair and even-handed solution. The diplomatic agreement it brokered between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a case in point.

    It leaves it to other powers to condone genocide in Gaza and to be trigger happy.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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