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  • Troy Clayman

China Hosts Saudi Arabia and Iran Talks: The Shifting Status Quo on International Relations

Image courtesy of The New York Times

On March 10, 2023, negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were hosted, not by the traditional diplomatic powers of the EU, US, or the UN, but by China. Despite a complex and hostile relationship, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen diplomatic relations during a meeting in Beijing. This meeting marks the rise of China as not only a commanding power in the Global South, but one that has achieved a high level of soft power on the international stage.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are religious and cultural rivals due to their differing interpretations of Islam: Iran is ruled by a Shia theocracy, while Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy. By trying to position themselves as the religious leaders of their respective faiths, both nations are vying for regional dominance as potential heads of Pan-Arabic regional sentiments. For Saudi Arabia, religious extremism is mitigated by an overarching nationalistic identity rather than a religious one, but it is still home of the Sunni faith and of extremist variations. One major aspect of this conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that each side continues to support local insurrections against the other. After Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric in 2016, the already tense relationship worsened when Iran severed diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and the situation persisted until the recent negotiations.

Traditionally, such negotiations would be mediated by the UN, EU, US, or Russia. Due to numerous political conflicts, the status quo of negotiation is changing. The ongoing war in Ukraine has drawn away the attention of both the EU and Russia and severely damaged Russia’s international reputation. In addition, perceived US retrenchment from the region has seen the decline of the west’s traditionally dominating influence. US involvement is further weakened by ongoing friction with the Saudi government and royal family, in large part over their 2018 killing of a journalist and continuous manipulation of the oil market.

With Western conflicts distracting the nations that would traditionally be involved in such a dispute, a gap in the normal international framework opened up into which China stepped. China is an ideal negotiator in these circumstances, as it is neither a former colonial power nor has ongoing military and economic entanglement in the region. Thus, by being perceived as a neutral third party, China is a suitable mediator for both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

There had been previous Chinese attempts at facilitating negotiations, but much like its Western counterparts, there was often little to no success. For the past two decades, China has initiated five separate proposals of resolution for the Israel-Palestine conflict and three proposals to end the Syrian Civil War. In addition, China attempted to host talks between Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia in 2017 over heightened tensions in a similar dispute to the Saudi-Iranian affair, and has tried hosting multilateral forums since 2000. The forums include the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), founded in 2000, and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), founded in 2004, which focused more on mediating peace in the region. Despite these numerous efforts, the two decades of attempted diplomacy yielded no substantive results. However, this latest mediation changes the history of diplomatic shortcomings.

Now China is reaping the diplomatic rewards of what they have sown. The Middle Eastern negotiations are significant not just in their content, but in the symbolic rise of China as an international force not just economically, politically, or militarily, but diplomatically. In the school of international relations there are the twin concepts of soft and hard power. Hard power refers to the definitive factors that make a country important: GDP, population size, military strength, etc. Quantitative data that objectively defines the capabilities of a nation. Soft power is the perceived and informal exercise of power by a nation which includes, but is not limited to, their desirability and cultural influence beyond its borders. Soft power is subjective and harder to accrue. China has shifted from a hard to a soft global power.

In an international order created and dominated by nations of the Global North, i.e. the United States and Europe, it has been rare for nations of the Global South to occupy such a role beyond a temporary and charismatic leader. For China, it seems their diplomatic soft power is institutionalized rather than individual. Often, soft power is tied to the characteristics of a unique leader. Nelson Mandela, Volodymyr Zelinksy, Lula de Silva, and Adolf Hitler are all examples of leaders who, by their individual nature, managed to command more power than the institutional nature of their country would suggest is possible. More commonly, though, soft power is inherent to a powerful country. The US, the UK, and Germany are all nations whose leadership and culture carry sway by the very nature of their entrenched global influence. For China, the recent turn in their soft power status may have less to do with the latest leader, Xi Jinping, and more to do with the institutional growth behind him. This is thanks to several initiatives by the Chinese government which include generous international spending and loans, economic aid, the foundation of cultural and educational institutions abroad, control of foreign news media, hosting the olympics, and influence over Hollywood. The easiest way to acquire soft power is through economic spending and global infrastructure investments, as demonstrated in China’s efforts under the flagship Belt and Road Initiative, which has given the nations involved as well as prospective partners strong incentives to cater to China’s will.

The successful negotiation of a Middle East settlement and the dividends of longstanding diplomatic, political, and economic developments suggest that China is now a commanding diplomatic power on the world stage. While Brazil, India, and other major nations of the Global South have chosen to support traditional diplomatic avenues such as the G20 and UN to work in conjunction with the already powerful nations of the Global North, China has forged its own path. The negotiated reopening of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, hosted in Beijing, represents that China’s soft power and strategic diplomatic efforts now rivals the United States’s position as the leading world power.

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