Chinese special envoy’s recent visit to Iran marks a Beijing’s effort to strengthen its role in the Middle East amid the U.S declining role and growing mistrust over Washington’s policy in the world’s most volatile region.
On Tuesday (October 22), Chinese envoy on Middle East Zhai Jun met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran. Both senior diplomats discussed on main regional and bilateral issues and highlighted strategic ties between Tehran and Beijing.
Zarif also appreciated China’s support for the Tehran-proposed Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE), a regional peace initiative Iranian President Hassan Rouhani introduced at U.N General Assembly in New York last September. The top Iranian diplomat welcomed Beijing’s decisive role in securing and maintaining regional stability.
Besides meeting with Zarif, Jun also met with former Iranian foreign minister and now top foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati. The 74-year old Velayati emphasized Tehran’s support for countries in the region, stating: “Syria, Yemen, and Iraq will certainly emerge victorious and security will return to the region.”
June hailed Tehran-Beijing relationship, saying, “Iran-China relations are at a very good level and the strategic partnership between the two countries is very developed and relations are very deep,” Jun told reporters as Tehran Times reported.
The senior Chinese official added that Tehran and Riyadh should have a peaceful relationship. Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing to exert their influence in the Middle East.
Why is the Middle East turning to China?
China’s growing economy has lured the world’s most volatile region despite worldwide condemnation against Beijing’s human rights violations targeting Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province.
Last July, China and 18 Arab nations signed cooperations to build infrastructure projects included in Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) amid criticism that China’s BRI is a debt-trap for impoverished countries.
Vice Ministry of Commerce Qian Keming stated: “The Joint Sino-Arab efforts to boost cooperation on the Strip and the Route have achieved remarkable achievements, showing great potential and broad prospects.”
Partnership between China and the Middle East has expanded to sectors such as energy and defense as well as tourism and science. The main focuses of China’s partnership with the Middle East are energy, trade, infrastructure and construction, as highlighted in two key documents : the 2016 “Arab Policy Paper” and the 2015 “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road”, Jonathan Fulton stated in European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Last July, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed made a state visit to China to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both signed cooperation agreements worth $ 70 billion, marking the Gulf state’s willingness to make China a strategic partner in the region.
In March 2017, Jinping invited Saudi’s King Salman to Beijing, signing agreements worth $ 65 billion, as VOAnews reported. The elderly king also hoped that China would play a more significant role in the Middle East.
Will China act as a mediator in the Middle East?
China has been rarely engaged in playing a role as a mediator in international conflicts, as acting as a neutral observer will benefit Beijing and avoid further confrontation. However, China will not tolerate any act that poses a threat to its national security.
Despite its lack of conflict-mediating experience, China has some political advantages because the country has no bitter past with the region compared to other players such as Europe and mainly the U.S.
In 2017, China once offered a four-point proposal to solve the prolonged Israel-Palestine conflict. Jinping supported the two-state solution (which the U.S opposes), seen as the most appropriate for the region.
Acting as a peace broker in the Middle East can raise China’s international status. However, China’s non-interference policy in other countries’ domestic affairs will be tested with mixed conflict of interests and reactions from the region’s major players, notably the U.S,Israel, and Saudi Arabia.