From the July/August 2023 issue of Discern Magazine

Can China Be a Peacemaker in the Middle East?

The political sands are shifting again in the Middle East, with the emergence of a new peace broker. Will China bring peace to the turbulent region?

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In what has been called a “handshake heard around the world,” regional archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran recently declared a historic agreement to resume diplomatic relations after a bitter, decades-long freeze.

Even more shocking is that the burst of diplomatic bridge building emerged from Beijing, as China intervened to successfully broker the peace. The diplomatic coup has the potential to reshape relations across the entire region, from Syria to Yemen, putting it on par with the 2020 Abraham Accords that saw Israel normalize relations with several Arab nations.

It marks the first time that Beijing has intervened so directly in Middle East rivalries. It also leaves the United States—the region’s former peace broker—out in the cold.

China seizes the diplomatic reins

Seeking to capitalize on the momentum of the Saudi Arabia–Iran deal, China has been upping its diplomatic charm offensive and framing itself as a peacemaker beyond the Middle East.

Beijing has submitted a 12-point plan for achieving peace between Russia and Ukraine. Even more ambitiously, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang told his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts that his country is ready to broker peace talks to resolve the thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why China? Why now?

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does international politics. Whereas the United States has been stepping back from being a power broker in the Middle East, China is stepping up.

Though attempts to broker peace in the Middle East have often been a poisoned chalice, Beijing—already the Islamic world’s leading trade partner—feels it now has the military and economic heft to start shaping the region and the wider world in its image.

Moving China toward the center of the world stage has long been a goal of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. Emboldened by his success in asserting his will in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, President Xi now wants nations, particularly in the global south, to regard China as a voice of reason, an economic model and a benign power that can stand up to a U.S.-led Western order.

Saudi Arabia and Iran: clash of religious rivals

Saudi Arabia has historically followed the Sunni branch of Islam (along with roughly 90 percent of all Islamic believers), while Iran has followed the Shia branch. The split between the two branches dates back to the seventh century, when it arose amid debates over who was the rightful successor to Muhammad.

“Middle East fatigue” and the embarrassing retreat of American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 have allowed China to adroitly chip away at America’s supremacy in the region.In modern times, Saudi Arabia, led by the royal House of Saud and tacitly a Western ally, has steered the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in stabilizing the worldwide oil market.

Meanwhile, the 1979 Iranian Revolution brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, and Iran began supporting radical Shiite revolutionary groups in other countries in the region.

While Iran and Saudi Arabia have not directly gone to war, Riyadh has long regarded its greatest security threat to be Tehran and the armed groups it supports in neighboring countries. That danger was reinforced by drone missile strikes against Saudi oil sites in 2019, which temporarily knocked out 5 percent of daily global oil supplies.

Despite security guarantees from the U.S., the lack of a military response to the attack left the Persian Gulf states feeling that U.S. power and influence had been diluted and America’s alliance network severely strained.

The religion of oil

In its thirst for the oil necessary to sustain its rise to global power, China has shown an ability to work with both Shiite and Sunni nations.

Beijing has become the largest importer of petroleum in the world. China accounted for 30 percent of Iran’s foreign trade from March 21 to Nov. 21 in 2022, but Saudi Arabia was China’s leading supplier of crude oil in that same year. With its other main supplier, Russia, embroiled in wartime vulnerabilities, Beijing’s claim that “China pursues no selfish interest whatsoever in the Middle East,” rings hollow.

The indispensable nation walks away

Fifty years ago, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the United States emerged as the primary guarantor of stability in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conducted the peace talks between Israel and Egypt, as well as between Israel and Syria. The Soviet Union was frozen out of the process, Europe was considered militarily insignificant, and China was economically irrelevant.

Fast-forward to the present. While U.S. military hardware and technology are still in high demand, U.S. diplomatic missteps in the region have increased even as American reliance on imported fossil fuels has greatly diminished. With the introduction of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, a shale revolution has expanded U.S. domestic energy production. Today the U.S. imports about 7 percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia.

After decades of calling the shots, America is now seeing blowback from its costly wars against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting chaos has burned through a good part of its diplomatic capital in the region.

“Middle East fatigue” and the embarrassing retreat of American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 have allowed China to adroitly chip away at America’s supremacy in the region. This has prompted Arab states to reach out to improve relations with a new superpower.

As a candidate, U.S. President Joe Biden publicly cast Saudi Arabia as a pariah state and chastised the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally for human rights violations. Yet, in the frigid atmosphere surrounding his visit to the kingdom last year, President Biden promised, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”

However, as fragile peace accords take shape in the Middle East, countries in that volatile region are looking to new allies and walking away from an America with waning influence.

A pact of apathy

The recent stunning diplomatic breakthrough occurred because all three nations—Iran, Saudi Arabia and China—obtained more than just economic and security wins. By cooling tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, and not taking sides, Beijing is creating an axis of autocrats who understand each other.

A key to the growing China-Gulf ties is the mutual assurance these nations have given not to criticize or meddle in the internal affairs of the other partners. In fact, President Xi recently promised again that China and its Middle East allies would “continue to hold high the banner of noninterference in [each other’s] internal affairs.”

For countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran that believe internal affairs are nobody else’s business—and have human rights skeletons in their closets—such an offer is tempting. This diplomatic approach of indifference stands in stark contrast to that of the U.S. administration, which many in the region consider to have a sanctimonious fixation on human rights incompatible with Islamic religious practices.

Trading for peace

China is no stranger to the Middle East. While observing America drain its resources, fight endless wars and vainly try to establish Islamic democracies, Beijing has had a “business only” partnership with Tehran since China began to move away from coal to oil. Iran traded oil for Chinese military technology that has been key to Iran’s development of modern weapons systems.

Through a massive $400 billion oil deal in 2021, China has been providing a glimmer of financial relief for a struggling Iran. The Shiite-majority country is struggling to cope with internal protests while trying to mend an economy that is suffocating from international sanctions.

Despite the shared olive branches, China-backed Iran remains hostile to Saudi Arabia on even the most basic religious, ideological and strategic levels.

The flow must go on

Much of China’s vaunted Belt and Road Initiative investments in the Middle East hinge on fears that fragile oil trade routes could potentially be disrupted by the U.S. or by India, an emerging superpower and rival to China.

To counter the perceived threat, Iran and China are enacting a 25-year Strategic Cooperation Agreement that provides China with access to naval facilities in or near the Persian Gulf. China has also invested in military-capable ports—described as a “string of pearls” network—at vulnerable maritime chokepoints: the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal.

While it has enjoyed years of bumper oil revenue, Saudi Arabia faces the growing threat of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. This, along with incessant attacks from Iranian proxies in Yemen, makes Saudi Arabia crave nuclear weapons, drones and ballistic missiles.

Worried that the United States is unreliable, Riyadh has signaled that it will secure its own national interest by cozying up to China. Sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East are feverishly buying up Chinese stocks and discussing large-scale adoption of the petroyuan to settle oil trades.

In addition, the Saudis have already announced their intention to ally with the China-led political, security and trade alliance—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—which lists China, Russia, India, Pakistan and four other central Asian nations as full members.

Leaders with a kindred spirit

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and China’s President Xi Jinping are both bold and assertive long-range thinkers with remarkably aligned ambitions.

In addition to assisting Saudi Arabia build its own ballistic missiles and consulting on a nuclear program, China is investing in “Vision 2030”—Prince Mohammed’s personal project to build a futuristic city in the desert that would make the kingdom more than just the world’s oil producer.

Using its colossal Belt and Road construction strategy, China aims to get in on the ground floor of this enormous new development.

What about Israel?

While oil is China’s immediate need, the country’s growing footprint in the Middle East is meant to dominate future technologies. Though China dominates 37 of 44 key next-generation technologies—including artificial intelligence, metamaterials and hypersonic technologies—it quietly envies Israel’s cutting-edge space, biotech and quantum computing sectors.

While the Bible doesn’t mention a direct war between China and America, it does describe a great power rising in the east.China aims to isolate, pressure and then absorb Israel, according to geopolitical analyst Brandon J. Weichert, turning the last democracy in the Middle East into “a conduit for China’s growing high-tech Belt and Road Initiative.”

It would also effectively make “the rest of the world dependent on Chinese-developed high-tech infrastructure in much the same way the Americans made the world dependent on American-developed high technologies.”

Will there be peace?

The emergence of China into the diplomatic limelight of peace negotiations is a deft strategy to peel the Middle East away from American influence and lay claim to the vast oil and natural gas wealth of the region.

America has been shunted away from the mediations and has lost international respect.

Bible prophecies, written millennia ago, reveal that nations representing the modern descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel—including the United States—will have their pride shattered due to their national sins (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

While the Bible doesn’t mention a direct war between China and America, it does describe a great power rising in the east. This eastern power bloc will undoubtedly include China and other regional powers (Daniel 11:44).

This military power will be opposed by a rival, called the “beast,” that will astound the entire world (Revelation 9:14-16; 13:1-8; 16:12) and will be led by a dynamic and ferocious leader in tandem with a powerful religious system headed by a charismatic figure.

This power, described by the apostle John as having unmatched military, economic and religious strength (Daniel 11:40-45; Revelation 18:2-3, 9-14), will be the final resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire (Revelation 13:1-8; 17:8-18; Daniel 7:15-27). This European power will attempt to form peace in the Middle East in a very different way (Daniel 11:40-42).

While Europe today has massive economic strength, it remains a military dwarf. Not long from now this will change dramatically.

Before that happens, read more about the Bible’s warnings for the end time, as well as its promises of a true and lasting future peace not based on commercial demands and security fears, in our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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