On China’s Precarious Saudi-Iran Balancing Act

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February 2019 has ushered in cataclysmic shifts in geopolitics for the future of the Middle East.

Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s itinerary is a good yardstick by which to assess the potency of Riyadh’s alliances. The visit which began with an estimated $20 billion dollar deal investment in Pakistan, an expected $100 billion dollar investment in neighboring India and has culminated with a trip to Beijing.

The two-day visit in Beijing is expected to focus on energy deals for resource-hungry China and regional economic agreements that align with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], Xi’s signature infrastructure initiative spanning across Southeast, South and Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.

But while MBS’s Indo-Pak visit remained fraught with political tensions and cautious balancing of relations with either state in the midst of the Pulwama attack in Indian-occupied Kashmir, the Saudi premier’s visit to China has been viewed as having the potential for a more equal partnership between the two economic giants.

China, on the other hand, with the reception of MBS is at the balancing end of a precarious task. China has long sought to balance its relations in the Middle East between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia — one of its chief suppliers of crude oil — while remaining a friend to Israel.

In a move underscoring China’s difficult balancing act in the Middle East, China days before the expected MBS visit , announced that it wants to deepen “strategic trust”, having just hosted Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran – Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.

Analysts note however, that in the grand scheme of alliances, China’s relationship with the prosperous Saudi regime far outweighs any prospects of relations with Iran.

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with total bilateral trade in goods standing at $63.3bn last year. In 2017, during the last major state visit to Beijing by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the two sides inked deals worth around $65bn, mostly related to energy and technology.

For China, one of the crown jewels of China’s global investment portfolio remains the strategic port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan. With incoming Saudi investments in Gwadar – including $10bn in investments for a refinery and petrochemical complex at Gwadar – it is believed that Riyadh is looking to strengthen its strategic place by playing to the tunes of Beijing and Islamabad’s BRI relationship.

It is believed that by investing in Balochistan, Riyadh sees a double-edged sword; One : apotent investment target that puts Saudi Arabia’s alliances with South Asia and Middle East at par with its powerful military and trade relations with the West. Two; a well-placed location where-from to target or destabilize Iranian influence from.

For Tehran, its relations with China carry even deeper significance, as Iran faces the brunt of the United States economic sanctions, the threat of direct confrontation with Israel in Syria and the risk of global isolation at the hands of the Western world. “No matter how the international and regional situation changes, China’s resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged,” Chinese President Xi Jinping has been quoted to have said.

Thus, if there is any truth to the Saudi Kingdom’s latter motivations to upend Iranian influence by buying its way into the BRI project, it is unclear whether China as the head of the global economic project will pay any heed to the fringe politics of the Saudi-Iran tensions.

The Chinese government for now has played off signs of any overt favoritism by issuing measured statements. Officials in Beijing announced that China was “pleased” by the Saudi investment in Pakistan and further “welcomes” the participation of “third parties” in the economic corridor. On Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif’s visit, his Chinese counterpart stated that the Iranian FM’s passionate defense of Iran’s interests at the Munich Security Conference has made him “a famous person” in China, as the sides met amid efforts to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

It remains to be seen however, whether Beijing’s soft-diplomacy postures can outlast the pressure of picking a side, as the plot thickens in on increasingly shifting global alliances in the Middle East.


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