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Diplomacy
Putin and Kim

Ukraine recap: Putin love-in with Kim Jong-un contrasts with western disarray over peace plan

by Jonathan Este

Hotfoot from signing a security pact with North Korea on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin has popped up in Vietnam, another of the few remaining countries where the Russian president is still welcome (or doesn’t face arrest under the war crimes warrant issued by the International Criminal Court last year). Here he was congratulated by the president, To Lam, for his election victory earlier this year and for maintaining stability and continuity in Russia. Putin, meanwhile, made much of the Soviet Union’s historical support for the Vietnamese people’s struggle for independence and unity from the 1950s to the 1970s, referring, without a hint of irony, to Vietnam’s “heroic struggle against foreign invaders”. The visit has been billed as part of Putin’s strategy to promote a new “multipolar” world order, free from US control. But it should be noted that the pragmatic Vietnamese have already hosted Joe Biden and Xi Jinping over the past nine months. Hanoi’s “bamboo diplomacy” depends on the country being “actively neutral” – with one eye on China, Vietnam has also upgraded relations with the US, Australia and South Korea in recent times. So, while there will be plenty of expressions of goodwill from Vietnam’s leadership, they are less likely to commit to anything more concrete as things stand. North Korea knows little of such diplomatic niceties, though, and has fewer choices when it comes to its friends. Very little detail has emerged of the new pact with Russia, except that it would require each country to come to the aid of the other if attacked. But it’s likely that close to the top of the agenda would have been Russia’s military requirements. North Korea’s supplies of artillery and ammunition are thought to have been vital in helping Russia overcome the harsh sanctions imposed by the US as well as Beijing’s unwillingness to directly provide arms for the war in Ukraine. Kim, in turn, wants Russian know-how when it comes to sophisticated military tech as well as economic support when it comes to feeding his country’s starving population. But warm relations between the two countries is nothing new. Official pronouncements emphasised the “traditionally friendly and good” relations between Russia and North Korea “based on the glorious traditions of common history”. For Kim, writes Robert Barnes, a senior lecturer in history at York St John University, this is something of a family affair which harks back to the 1930s when the North Korean leader’s grandfather Kim Il-sung was a relatively unknown Korean communist leading a small guerrilla band fighting the Japanese in Manchuria. Kim spent much of the second world war in the Soviet Union, where he joined the Red Army and rose to the rank of major. After the conflict, he was handpicked by Stalin to lead the Korean Workers’ party and then North Korea when it was established in 1948. The Korean war which followed almost led to a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the west. Hopefully, concludes Barnes, nothing as dramatic will result from this latest iteration of the relationship between the two countries. But pariah states such as North Korea aren’t the only countries where Putin can command a degree of support, if the recent European parliamentary elections are any guide. As Natasha Lindstaedt notes here, the rise of the far right in EU member states such as Germany, France, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria is throwing up an increasingly powerful group that stands in opposition to EU support for Ukraine. It may seem counterintuitive that such an avowed anti-fascist as Putin is courting extreme right organisations such as Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland party (AfD) or Hungary’s Fidesz party. But Lindstaedt believes that leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have shown little concern for the institutions of democracy – as shown by Hungary’s adoption of a similar foreign agents’ law which acts to curtail press freedom and the work of NGOs. She concudes: “Putin is seen by the far right as a strong and conservative leader that can defend himself against the liberal west, which is trying to undermine these values.” The west, meanwhile, remains divided over the manner and extent of its support for Ukraine. The good news for Kyiv is that the recent G7 meeting in Puglia, southern Italy, ended in an in-principle agreement to use the US$3 billion (£2.36 billion) interest from US$350 billion of Russian assets frozen in the western banking system to underwrite a US$50 billion loan to Ukraine. But Gregory Stiles and Hugo Dobson, experts in international relations at the University of Sheffield, sound a cautionary note suggesting that the details of how this will work are likely to take months to agree. Meanwhile, they write, five of the seven leaders – US president Joe Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, the UK’s Rishi Sunak and Japan’s Fumio Kishida – all face elections this year which none of them are guaranteed to survive. And, to take just one example, if Biden loses in November to Donald Trump, the likelihood of this deal proceeding becomes significantly reduced. Summit on peace Many of these leaders went on to Switzerland at the weekend for the Summit on Peace in Ukraine. Stefan Wolff, an expert in international security at the University of Birmingham, was following proceedings and concludes that it’s hard to judge the meeting an unqualified success. Out of 160 countries and international organisations invited, only 92 attended. Biden was a no-show and Canada’s premier, Justin Trudeau, was the only G7 leader to stay for both days of the conference. The main problem, writes Wolff, was that the only peace plan on the table was that proposed some time ago by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. This calls for the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, including Crimea, and the payment of reparations for rebuilding his country. Seven other peace plans, proposed by the likes of China (which also failed to send anyone), Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, a group of African states led by South Africa and the Vatican were not discussed. Most of these call for a ceasefire, which is anathema to Kyiv and its backers in the US and UK, as it would accept, for the time being at least, Russia’s territorial gains on the ground, including the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin, meanwhile, was trolling hard from the sidelines, releasing his terms for a ceasefire deal, which are for Ukraine to accept Russian annexation of Crimea and not just the land his troops currently occupy, but all of the four regions he annexed in September 2022. Putin’s column As previously noted here, a season of relative success on the battlefield, has left Putin in a bullish mood. It emerged recently that (despite being seriously disadvantaged by the war in Ukraine and the harsh western sanctions which have ensued) the boss of Russian energy giant plans to build an 80-metre column in St Petersburg to commemorate Peter the Great’s triumph in the great northern war, after which Russia declared itself to be an empire for the first time. As George Gilbert, an expert in Russian history at University of Southampton notes, anything honouring Peter the Great is a sure-fire way of buttering up the Russian president, who sees himself as a latter-day incarnation of the man who built his home town of St Petersburg, glossing over the fact that Peter saw his capital as a way of making Russia more of a west-facing country. Gilbert gives us some historical context about the conflict, in which Russia lined up alongside much of what would become Poland and Germany as well as Britain, by virtue of its king, George I, also being the ruler of Hanover. The key battle, he writes, was at Poltava, which is in the middle of what is now Ukraine, which involved defeating a crack regiment of Cossack cavalry, which you’d have to imagine is very much grist to Putin’s mill. One suspects, though, that it’s Peter the Great’s imperial achievements that Putin wants to emulate most of all.

Defense & Security
China, USA and Iran Flags

Iran’s Strategies in Response To Changes in US-China Relations

by Sara Bazoobandi

한국어로 읽기 Leer en español In Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربية Lire en français Читать на русском Bazoobandi, S. Iran’s Strategies in Response to Changes in US-China Relations. Middle East Policy. 2024;31:120–132. https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12727 Abstract The dynamics of the relationship between the United States and China have been shifting. This has prompted changes in strategic calculus and policy adoption by the friends and foes of each side. Iran, given its decades-long links with China, has made several. First, it has deepened its ties with the Asian power beyond collaboration in business and trade. Second, it has revised its policies in the Gulf region to be a part of what it sees as China's network of influence, hoping to better position itself in a multilateral global order. Third, it has been seeking opportunities to project power through showing off its military capabilities in Ukraine. This article examines these strategic responses and concludes that Iran has been pursuing an agenda in line with the world vision of its senior leaders. The end goal for Tehran is to gain more power and relevance in the global strategic calculus. This analysis is part of a special issue examining the responses of Gulf countries to rising Sino-American competition, edited by Andrea Ghiselli, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Enrico Fardella. Over the past decade, the relationship between China and United States has been going through fundamental changes.1 “Engagement, cooperation, and convergence,” previous pillars of the ties between the world's largest economic powerhouses, have been replaced by the trade war between Beijing and Washington.2 These changes have influenced strategic choices made by states around the world, including Iran. The country has increased its commercial ties with China, which has been instrumental in Tehran's efforts to circumvent US sanctions and maintain the regime's financial bloodline. As a result, China has remained Iran's largest trade partner for more than a decade.3 The Islamic Republic perceives the changes in US-China relations as a sign of US decline and foresees the end of unipolarity in the global system. This has emboldened Tehran's attempt to pursue three main strategies: deepen its ties with China, revise its policies in the Gulf region, and project power through showing off its military capabilities in Ukraine. This article analyzes Tehran's strategic calculus in pursuing these strategies. It aims to provide a holistic understanding of Iran's vision for a multipolar world system that the country's senior leaders sense as increasingly viable. The article starts with a brief review of the expansion and strengthening of Iran-China ties, which has undoubtedly been crucial in Iran's economic survival. This section underscores that in addition to economic hardship, the changing dynamics between Beijing and Washington, combined with Iran's ideological framework of the “new world order” and the regional struggle over the balance of power, have influenced Iran's relations with China. In 2022, Iran's supreme leader, its most senior political figure, stated: “The world is on the threshold of a new world order” in which “the United States is becoming weaker day by day.”4 The analysis indicates that Iran sees this as the starting point for the emergence of a multipolar order, in which the global clout of non-Western powers such as China and Russia is on the rise. By expanding and strengthening its ties with China, Iran is aiming to align itself with the leading global powers that are both deemed to be trustworthy by the senior political leaders and expected to emerge as stronger than the United States. The second section focuses on the impact of US-China relations on Iran's strategy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. China has been visibly increasing its involvement in the Gulf region. Trade and investment levels have been rising, and both sides have indicated their intentions to boost their strategic partnership. The United States has for several decades played the role of the security guarantor of the Arab nations in the Gulf. Given Iran's perception of America's weakening, navigating these regional dynamics, particularly the strengthening of GCC-China ties, has influenced Tehran's strategy in the region. The article argues that Iran is seeking to improve ties with the GCC, in line with its strategy of expanding relations with China as a non-Western power in an emerging global multipolar system. For example, the consolidation of the ties between China and the GCC has motivated Iran to shift its hostile approach toward some member states, particularly Saudi Arabia. This section provides an overview of the Gulf-China partnership in light of changing relations between Washington and Beijing. It aims to provide a better understanding of how Iran's strategies have been shaped by its perception of the shifting dynamics among the Western and non-Western powers in this region. Next, the article investigates the impact of US-China relations on the ties between Tehran and Moscow, given the perception of Iran's senior leaders of American decline and their determination to gain more significance in the global order. Russia and China's mutual desire to redefine the normative principles of the international order has strengthened their cooperation in various areas, including military, energy, and finance.5 Their interest in pushing against the US-led, liberal global system has motivated them to form networks of partnership with like-minded states across the world.6 They have used international platforms and frameworks to promote their visions and constrain the West.7 Unlike the Western powers, both China and Russia seem to have been able to navigate Iran's complex and ideology-oriented political system.8 As a result, Tehran has been inspired to pursue strategies that share Moscow and Beijing's vision for the world order, and to seek to establish itself as a more powerful global player.9 The final section examines the influence of the visions and ideologies of Iran's political leaders on the country's strategic direction. It argues that Iran's quest for power projection is its main response to the changing US-China relationship. This shift has prompted Iran's leaders to seek ways to pursue the “resistance strategy” beyond its traditional realm of influence in its immediate neighboring region. As part of this, Russia's war in Ukraine has offered Iran the opportunity to project power through military collaboration. This article concludes that Iran's strategic response to the changing relationship between Beijing and Washington is based on anticipation of the decline of US hegemony and aimed at claiming a powerful position in the new world order. Iran's aspiration to increase its relevance and strength in the global and regional strategic calculus is reflected in official government documents that highlight the regime's vision. “The Islamic Iranian Progress Model” and the declaration of “The Second Phase of the Revolution” by Iran's supreme leader provide an outline of the regime's vision, which includes economic and political independence from the West and resistance against global imperialism.10 Against this backdrop, the analysis concludes that this ideological framework, built around the notion of American decline and the emergence of a new global order, has been Iran's main strategic response to the changes between the superpowers and the most effective driving force for Tehran's policies toward China, the GCC, and Russia. The study uses qualitative analysis to trace the processes of policy formation, considering states’ visions and ideologies, as well as regional and global events. It employs a variety of sources, including academic literature, news articles, and government websites. CHINA-IRAN RELATIONS: AN OVERVIEW The need to build and strengthen links with the world's strongest non-Western economic powerhouse, particularly in times of harsh US-led economic sanctions, has driven Iran's relations with China. Other factors have influenced the development of non-economic aspects of Tehran-Beijing ties, including the changing dynamics between Beijing and Washington, domestic ideological frameworks, global and regional balance-of-power struggles, and domestic dissent. Iran's relations with China began before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Despite the country's “no East, no West” slogan that marked its policies in the early years after the revolution, the regime has consistently maintained its ties with China.11 The presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a significant period for the bilateral relationship, and it was considered the starting point of Iran's “Asianization” era. During that period, Tehran accelerated its nuclear program and reactivated the anti-West narrative.12 Since then, China has wavered between promoting a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear file, supporting a decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2006 to refer the file to the United Nations Security Council, and helping Iran in its efforts to circumvent sanctions. The two countries began a nuclear-cooperation agreement in the early 1990s, which quickly ended under US pressure. In 2006, China agreed with IAEA's decision to refer Iran's file to the Security Council. This was a turning point in the decades-long nuclear dispute. Between 2006 and 2010, China agreed to Security Council resolutions that led to increasing economic pressure on Iran through international sanctions. Despite that, during the Ahmadinejad presidency, bilateral trade between Iran and China increased from $10 billion to $43 billion. This was a clear signal of their cooperation to bypass the sanctions, which at times had negative consequences for China and for globally recognized Chinese businesses, such as Huawei. Such strengthening of Iran's relations with the East (non-Western great powers) was largely influenced by the personal views and foreign-relations goals of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.13 In recent years, he has openly driven the strategy of strengthening ties with China, publicly declaring Beijing a trustworthy partner and explicitly stating that the Islamic Republic will never forget its support in bypassing the sanctions.14 Following Khamenei's guidance for closer ties with China, President Ebrahim Raisi has in recent years described “the friendship” between the two countries as based on mutual respect and trust.15 Such political language indicates a long-lasting and perhaps all-encompassing commitment to maintain and expand ties with China. In response, the Iranian regime has received Beijing's support beyond the bypassing of sanctions. For example, despite the concern raised by other regional players, particularly GCC members, China supported terminating the arms embargo on Iran in 2020.16 This, in theory, allows Iran to purchase weapons and upgrade its military armaments.17 A year later, in March 2021, the two countries announced a comprehensive strategic partnership aimed at strengthening bilateral relations in energy and the economy, as well as cybersecurity and the military.18 Not much detail is available on the agreement, which Khamenei described as a wise decision, and its implementation.19 China has been Iran's most important trade partner for more than a decade.20 Before the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in 2018, Tehran had hoped to benefit more from freer trade and investment by both the Asian power and Europe. In 2015, Iranian officials announced plans to rebuild relations with Europe and expand ties with China.21 However, the calculus changed with President Donald Trump's decision to impose a maximum pressure campaign on Iran. Despite European and Asian leaders’ initial disagreement with the US decision, European firms quickly responded by ceasing business with Iran.22 The Chinese banking system also limited the scope of its operations with the country.23 This has posed a major challenge to all aspects of bilateral trade and investment. Undoubtedly, the Chinese business and economic collaboration promised by the framework of the comprehensive strategic partnership was affected by American pressure. Considering its location, Iran has the potential to be a valuable element of Chinese economic initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).24 Hacked documents obtained from the Centre for Strategic Studies, a research entity within the Office of the President of Iran, revealed that Raisi has officially ordered the Foreign Ministry to facilitate economic collaborations with China.25 This reflects the government's desire to turn Iran into a key player in the “Chinese value chain.”26 This expansion of economic ties with China has been challenged by the Western sanctions.27 Consequently, Iran has not been successful in attracting Chinese investment, either in the BRI or other projects. The pressure eased under the Biden administration, which restored some sanctions waivers.28 Iran's oil exports to China, through subterranean methods, have continued to flow relatively steadily. This has benefited both sides, maintaining Iran's vital revenue stream and helping facilitate the import of Chinese goods and services in return for discounted energy.29 Collaboration between Iran and China has expanded into areas such as technological exchange. Beijing's cooperation model is more favorable toward Tehran in comparison to those of the Western governments, as it does not impose values on partners.30 While Western companies have been reluctant to engage with Iran due to sanctions, China has offered technological assistance. This has been, in part, facilitated by China's strategy to develop its technological and scientific industries, civil-military integration, and dual-use technologies through the export of products and standards.31 Iran has also been pursuing strategies to expand its scientific and technological capabilities, driven by the views of its senior political leaders. In his 2006 Persian New Year speech, Khamenei stated, “Knowledge is authority, it is equal to power; whoever finds it can rule; a nation that finds it can rule; a nation that cannot [build its scientific and technological capacities] must prepare itself to be ruled by others.”32 This clearly indicates Iran's motivation and intention. Khamenei has frequently encouraged the country's policy makers to promote strategies that support the “jihad of knowledge.”33 This phrase has gained significance in Iran's strategic planning in recent years, driving the country's efforts to advance its defense and military capacities. Technological assistance in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity has been a major area of collaboration between China and Iran.34 For example, the Chinese firm Tiandy, one of the world's leading video-surveillance companies, has been reportedly working with the Iranian government.35 Rising domestic dissent over the past few years may have played a role in advancing this technological collaboration. There is very little public information about the nature of such cooperation. However, technologies accessed through collaboration with Chinese companies have helped Iran spy on its citizens, crack down on protests, and monitor dissidents.36 Trade and business partnerships have dominated the bilateral relationship.37 China has cooperated with Iran to get around sanctions while taking advantage of discounted energy prices.38 At the same time, the two countries have been expanding into other areas, such as technology. The regime in Tehran, heavily influenced by the supreme leader, sees China as the main challenge to US hegemony and is determined to consolidate its ties with Beijing while trying to maximize its power in the global system. The next section explores the changing relationships between Iran and the GCC, analyzing the impact of US-China relations on Tehran's strategies toward its neighbors. US-CHINA RELATIONS AND IRAN'S STRATEGIES IN THE GULF Senior Iranian politicians have frequently stated that they foresee a new international order to replace the US-led unipolar system.39 As the previous section demonstrated, such anticipation has motivated Tehran to maintain close ties with Beijing. This section investigates how Iran's vision of a new world order has prompted the strategy of normalization with the GCC. It examines the regime's understanding of the future Chinese and American roles in the region and how this impacts Tehran's strategy toward its southern neighbors. In the years before the 2023 Iran-Saudi agreement that re-established diplomatic ties between the two countries, the dynamics between Iran and the GCC were predominantly based on “intra-regional threat perceptions and intense mutual securitisation.”40 The deal brokered by China seems to have shifted this formulation. One factor that played a significant role in changing Iran's policies was the advancement of the China-GCC relationship. In 2021, Beijing officials described this as a part of building a “synergy” between the “new development paradigm in China” and “major development strategies” in the region.41 Such statements may well have been perceived by Tehran as indicating Beijing's increasing strategic influence and its pushing back against US involvement in the security structure of the region. This has motivated Iran to be a part of what it sees as a newly emerging realm of influence for China. Further, the normalization of diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia is anticipated to pave the way for a much needed, yet challenging, “tripartite peace deal between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Houthis”42 that can address one of the most pressing security concerns across the GCC. Iran has long desired a new security structure forged by eradicating US influence and presence. In 2019, the Iranian government proposed the “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” (HOPE), a security-cooperation initiative that would include all of the Gulf's littoral states.43 Motivated by Iran's long-held aspiration to undermine US hegemony, it was presented during the GCC's internal crisis with Qatar, which coincided with the initial stage of the US-China trade war.44 During the long-running hostilities between the GCC and Yemen's Houthi rebels, Washington was not able to offer any meaningful solutions. The Saudi government, disappointed by this inability to protect its security, therefore welcomed the Chinese-backed rapprochement with Iran. As for Tehran, this shift toward Riyadh demonstrates how the perception of US decline and Chinese rise influenced its strategic calculus in relation to the GCC countries. Iran's decision to normalize with the GCC came at a time when policy makers anticipated an increase in China's regional power and saw it as helping fulfill their strategic vision. Collaborations between the GCC and China have convinced Tehran that Beijing is determined to increase its engagement with the region. Iran assumes this will be to the detriment of the United States. Against that backdrop, the Islamic Republic is also motivated to be a member of the newly emerging realm of influence. Over many decades, the GCC countries have had warm relations with the United States, leading to a strong American military presence in the region that has excluded Iran from a position of influence in the Gulf. Iran sees an expansion of China-GCC cooperation as an opportunity to enter China's realm of influence that will, according to its senior leaders, end the US-led global system. Whether Iran's assessment of China's intentions for expanding ties with the GCC is accurate can be debated. Nevertheless, Tehran perceives China's ties with the region to be aimed at creating a new area of influence, one hospitable to its own vision. Moreover, Iran has for a long time perceived high strategic value in its economic ties with China and is hoping to improve such relations with both China and the GCC.45 The Iran-Saudi deal is estimated to boost bilateral trade to $2 billion, and Iran's drive to improve relations with the GCC could similarly be motivated by the prospect of economic gain.46 To highlight the impact of China-US relations on Iran's strategies in the Gulf, it is important to review the development of Beijing's relations with the GCC countries. The most significant aspect has been business and trade cooperation. China has been a net oil importer since 1993.47 The country's reliance on foreign energy has played a crucial role in its policies toward the Gulf's oil-exporting countries. Bilateral trade between China and the GCC increased from $182 billion in 2014 to about $229 billion in 2021, making China the region's largest trading partner.48 This volume has been substantially larger than that of China-Iran trade (about $16 billion in 2022).49 While energy demand has been a key element of bilateral trades with the GCC, business relations have been expanding into other areas, such as infrastructure investment and the exchange of technology, goods, and services. Iran has undoubtedly been envious of this cooperation between China and its southern neighbors. This has induced Tehran's efforts toward normalization in the hope of benefiting from collaboration with both Beijing and the GCC. This is manifested in the comprehensive strategic partnership and other forms of collaboration examined in the previous section. Chinese political leaders have adopted an effective narrative in describing their strategy for engagement with the GCC, emphasizing “equality between countries regardless of their size” and support for their “independent sovereignty.”50 This is aimed at persuading local leaders to see expanding ties with Beijing as “an opportunity to enrich the strategic substance” of the relationships.51 Such a narrative has undoubtedly been well received by Tehran, as it advances multilateralism. Saudi Arabia, until recently considered Iran's most obvious regional rival, has been one of China's most important partners and largest recipient of its investment in the region.52 Tehran sees normalization with a former foe—one becoming an even closer partner of China's—as both strengthening anti-US collaboration in the region and winning for itself a place in a network of partnerships based on equality and independence, as expressed in the Chinese narrative. Being part of such a network will help Tehran position itself better in a multilateral global order. Ultimately, Iran is pursuing its agenda in line with the world vision of its senior leaders, the goal of which is to gain more power and relevance in the global strategic calculus. For decades, the United States was considered a close ally of some of the regional powers. By brokering a deal between Tehran and Riyadh, China has undertaken a role that the United States and Europe have failed to play in recent years. Iran-Saudi normalization came at a time when European policy makers, who have been seeking to facilitate a regional dialogue, failed to achieve any tangible results between Tehran and Riyadh. Indeed, Iran has become skeptical of the EU's potential in resolving regional issues, particularly in the aftermath of Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal.53 The Iran-Saudi rapprochement highlighted China's mediation capacity and boosted the country's status among regional leaders. By welcoming Beijing's intervention, Iran sought to demonstrate that the United States and its Western allies can no longer shape regional dynamics. Iran has envisioned a multipolar world order and aspires to play a role in achieving this in the Gulf region. Beijing seems to have successfully managed to convince the regime in Tehran, along with the leaders of the Arab Gulf countries, of its capacity and willingness to support their aspirations. While the Western world has failed to maintain the regional leaders’ trust, China has gained it. These developments have been motivated by the changing relations between Beijing and Washington, which Tehran sees as signaling China's deep strategic influence in the region. Further, it serves Iran's belief in the decline of US power, particularly in the Gulf. THE US-CHINA RIVALRY AND IRAN'S POWER PROJECTION This section analyzes the effects of the changing dynamics between the United States and China on Iran's power-projection strategies. Tehran's perception of the decline of American global power, particularly in the Gulf, has driven Iran to restore ties with its main regional competitor, Saudi Arabia. Regardless of the future of normalization between Tehran and Riyadh, China's mediation indicates Tehran's anticipation of the strategic role the Asian power will play in the Gulf. It has also influenced Iran's power-projection strategies, particularly beyond its traditional realm of influence. Senior Iranian leaders have long seen realism as the main pillar of their relationship with China and Russia.54 More recently, however, Iran has pursued a policy of “looking East,” largely aimed at strengthening relations with those two powers. In 2019, Iran, Russia, and China conducted a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean symbolizing their commitment to breaking down American global unilateralism.55 Undoubtedly, the aims, motives, and extent of the relations among these countries varies. However, the common denominator is their anti-hegemonic sentiments, which have gained significance with the shift in dynamics of US-China relations. The Russian war in Ukraine has provided Iran a chance to project power, demonstrate its military capability, and remain relevant in the international calculus given the changing world order.56 This section argues that anti-hegemonic principles shared among Russian, Chinese, and Iranian political leaders play a significant role in strengthening their relationships, and the Ukraine war is a great opportunity for Iran to pursue its world vision and power-projection aspirations. Russia's overarching global strategy has been focused increasingly on challenging a unipolar system dominated by the United States.57 This has resonated with political ideologies in Tehran and China.58 Iran's supreme leader, who exerts a strong influence over the country's strategic policy making, has frequently emphasized maintaining and expanding “strategic depth” as one of the country's fundamental strategies.59 Moreover, he has expressed his anticipation of a “new world order” and accentuated the significance of “Geography of Resistance.”60 This ideology reflects Tehran's desire for influence in global and regional systems and has played a crucial role in driving the country's power-projection aspirations. Khamenei's use of theological concepts like jihad and resistance indicates his strong anti-hegemonic and anti-West views.61 He sees the West's policies as continuing the historical clash over identity and destiny between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. According to this view, Iran is located at the heart of the geography of resistance and is the main powerhouse of the Muslim world.62 Therefore, joining non-Western security and economic initiatives will help Tehran gain a more powerful global position to advance its strategic agenda. The Ukraine war presented Iran with new arenas in which to project power.63 The synergy between the Russian vision, manifested by its invasion, and that of Iran is perceived in Tehran as promising for the new global order. Iran's delivery of hundreds of Shahed-136 drones to Russia has been a clear signal of its determination to collaborate with powers that share its perception.64 In an order in which US power is challenged by China, Iran aspires to advance its ambitions, demonstrate its military capabilities, and gain relevance outside of its traditional realm of influence. The perceptions of Iran's political leaders and their visions for Iran's position in the world system are a driving force behind their strategic decisions.65 Their anticipation of the decline of the West, particularly the United States, is the crucial foundation. Historically, Iran's strategy of building a “Resistance Axis” has been used to project power through “a mix of strategic alliance, security community, and ideational network”66 in the Middle East and North Africa region. The war in Ukraine presented a new arena for this. CONCLUSION The relationship between the United States and China has been going through fundamental changes, prompting strategic responses by Iran on various fronts. Tehran believes American global power is declining while China's is rising. This interpretation has dominated Iran's policies and its envisioned regional and global roles. The senior political leaders in Tehran have been advocating for what they refer to as “the new world order.” This is a multipolar system in which the West, specifically the United States, no longer dominates. Iranian officials perceive the war in Ukraine and the October 7 attacks on Israel as powerful blows to the Americans. Khamenei has referred to the Hamas attacks as the starting point for the formation of a new map in the Middle East based on “de-Americanization.”67 Iran has welcomed these crises and supports the aggressors, with rhetoric based on the notion of resistance to the Western oppression of the Muslim world.68 Iran's understanding of the changing China-US relationship has prompted three strategies. First, the country has been seeking to deepen its ties with the Asian power. The relationship between Iran and China has been formed mainly around trade and business collaborations that have been strengthened by Tehran's efforts to circumvent sanctions. Iran sees China as the main challenge to US hegemony and a key player in fulfilling its envisioned world order. It is therefore determined to consolidate ties with Beijing, along with implementing strategies that can establish a more powerful position for Iran in the global system. Second, Iran has revised its policies in the hope that it can help contribute and be a part of what Tehran perceives as China's new realm of influence in the Gulf region. Iran's envisioned multipolar world system drives its aspirations of making itself more relevant and influential in the regional strategic calculus. Tehran interprets China's engagement in the Gulf as not negating its desired role in the emerging multipolar world. Third, Iran has been seeking to project power by aiding Russia in Ukraine, thus showing off its military capabilities, and forging an anti-Israeli front. These conflicts have presented Iran with new arenas to project influence, within and beyond its traditional regional realm. Tehran understands the synergy between the Russian vision and its own as the most promising for materializing a new global order. This analysis of how the changing US-China relationship is perceived in Tehran is crucial to understanding its strategic calculus and policy choices. In Iran's view, a new global order is emerging because of these shifting dynamics. As US power declines, Iran is seeking every opportunity to emerge as a powerful global player. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Open access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL. REFERENCES 1 An earlier version of this article was first presented at “The Persian Gulf and the US-China Rivalry,” a roundtable held in Rome on July 6, 2023. That event and this special issue have been sponsored by the ChinaMed Project of the TOChina Hub and the HH Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Programme at Durham University. 2 Evan S. Medeiros, “The Changing Fundamentals of US-China Relations,” Washington Quarterly 42, no. 3 (2019): 93–119, https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2019.1666355; Pablo Fajgelbaum et al., “The US-China Trade War and Global Reallocations,” National Bureau of Economic Research, 2021, https://www.nber.org/papers/w29562 3 China Daily, “China Remains Iran’s Largest Trading Partner for 10 Consecutive Years,” 2023, https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202302/16/WS63ee40d8a31057c47ebaf3ee.html 4 Al-Monitor, “Khamenei Urges Iranians to Prepare for ‘New World Order,’” 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/04/khamenei-urges-iranians-prepare-new-world-order 5 Brett Forrest, Ann M. Simmons, and Chao Deng, “China and Russia Military Cooperation Raises Prospect of New Challenge to American Power,” The Wall Street Journal, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-russia-americamilitary-exercises-weapons-war-xi-putin-biden-11641146041; Reuters, “China’s Xi Looks to Strengthen Energy Ties with Russia,” 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/chinas-xi-looks-strengthen-energy-ties-with-russia-2022-11-29; Mrugank Bhusari and Maia Nikoladze, “Russia and China: Partners in Dedollarization,” Atlantic Council, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/econographics/russia-and-china-partners-in-dedollarization. 6 Gregorio Betizza and David Lewis, “Authoritarian Powers and Norm Contestation in the Liberal International Order: Theorizing the Power Politics of Ideas and Identity,” Journal of Global Security Studies 5, no. 4 (2020): 559–71. 7 Anthea Roberts, Is International Law International? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). 8 Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Gawdat Bahgat, “Iran’s Asianisation Strategy,” ISPI, 2019, https://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/ispi_iran_looking_web.pdf#page=11. 9 Masoud Akbari, “اینگونه است که آنها «گذشته» هستند و ما «آینده‌»ایم [This is why they are ‘the past’ and we are ‘the future’],” Keyhan.ir, 2023, https://kayhan.ir/fa/news/273444. 10 Olgou.ir, “Islamic Iranian Progress Model [الگوي اسلامي ايراني پيشرفت],” 2018, https://olgou.ir/images/olgou/sanad-virastari-14.pdf; Tasnim News, “Statement of the Second Phase of the Revolution [بیانیه «گام دوم انقلاب» امام خامنه‌ای خطاب به ملت ایران منتشر شد],” Tasnim News, 2017, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1397/11/24/1946416; Sara Bazoobandi, “Re-Revolutionising Iran: Condemning Prosperity and Jihadi Management,” GIGA Focus, November 3, 2022, https://www.giga-hamburg.de/de/publikationen/giga-focus/re-revolutionising-iran-condemning-prosperity-and-jihadi-management. 11 Bazoobandi, “Re-Revolutionising Iran.” 12 Ehteshami and Bahgat, “Iran’s Asianisation Strategy.” 13 Hongda Fan, “China–Iran Relations from the Perspective of Tehran’s Look East Approach,” Asian Affairs 53, no. 1 (2022): 51–67, https://doi.org/10.1080/03068374.2022.2029053. 14 Deutsche Welle, “Mission of Khamenei's confidant to implement the ‘wise’ agreement with China [ماموریت معتمد خامنه‌ای برای اجرای توافق ‘حکمت‌آمیز’ با چین],” 2023, https://www.dw.com/fa-ir/a-64703051; BBC Persian, “Khamenei's advisor defended the cooperation agreement with China [مشاور آیت‌الله خامنه‌ای از سند همکاری با چین حمایت کرد],” 2020, https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-53289164. 15 China Daily, “Xi Holds Talks with Iranian President, Eyeing New Progress in Ties,” February 14, 2023, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202302/14/WS63eb6619a31057c47ebaec27.html. 16 Mohsen Shariatinia and Hamed A. Kermani, “Iran, China and the Persian Gulf: An Unfolding Engagement,” Global Policy 14, no. 1 (2023): 36–45, https://doi.org/10.1111/1758-5899.13122. 17 Nasser Karimi, “UN Arms Embargoes on Iran Expire despite US Objections,” Associated Press, 2020, https://www.apnews.com/article/tehran-middle-east-iran-united-nations-united-states-6b6600decc0436b0aa52578fc7bfa374. 18 Mher Sahakyan, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East and Iran,” in The Belt and Road Initiative in Asia, Africa, and Europe, ed. David M. Arase, Pedro Miguel Amakasu Raposo de Medeiros Carvalho (London and New York: Routledge, 2023), 107–25. 19 Deutsche Welle, “Mission of Khamenei’s confidant.” 20 Taylor Butch, “Iran’s ‘Belt and Road’ Role,” Middle East Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2021): 1–8. 21 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iran Hopes To Rebuild Economic Ties With Europe After Sanctions,” 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-rebuild-economic-ties-europe-sanctions/27148663.html. 22 Ellen R. Wald, “10 Companies Leaving Iran As Trump’s Sanctions Close In,” Forbes, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenrwald/2018/06/06/10-companies-leaving-iran-as-trumps-sanctions-close-in. 23 Jonathan Fulton, “The China-Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: A Tale of Two Regional Security Complexes,” Asian Affairs 53, no. 1 (2022): 145–63, https://doi.org/10.1080/03068374.2022.2029073. 24 Mohmad Waseem Malla, “China’s Approach to the Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry,” Middle East Policy 29 (2022): 25–40, https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12613 25 Radio Farda, “افشای سند «محرمانه» مرکز زیرنظر ریاست‌جمهوری؛ ایران به «کارخانه غرب آسیا» چین تبدیل شود [Leaking a ‘confidential’ document produced by the Presidential Office; Iran should become China's ‘West Asia Factory’],” 2023, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/secret-letter-presidential-think-tank-china-manufacture-west-asia/32457771.html. 26 Radio Farda, “Leaking a ‘confidential’ document.” 27 Yo Hong, “China-Iran Deal Complements the BRI, but Faces Iranian Domestic Opposition and US Sanctions,” Think China, 2021, https://www.thinkchina.sg/china-iran-deal-complements-bri-faces-iranian-domestic-opposition-and-ussanctions. 28 Humeyra Pamuk, “U.S. Restores Sanctions Waiver to Iran with Nuclear Talks in Final Phase,” Reuters, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/biden-administration-restores-sanctions-waiver-iran-talks-final-phase2022-02-04. 29 Shirzad Azad, “Bargain and Barter: China’s Oil Trade with Iran,” Middle East Policy 30, no. 1 (2023): 23–35, https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12669. 30 Anoushiravan Ehteshami, “Asianisation of Asia: Chinese-Iranian Relations in Perspective,” Asian Affairs 53, no. 1(2022): 8–27, https://doi.org/10.1080/03068374.2022.2029037. 31 Meia Nouwens and Helena Legarda, “China’s Pursuit of Advanced Dual-Use Technologies,” IISS, 2018, https://www.iiss.org/research-paper/2018/12/emerging-technology-dominance. 32 Seyed Ali Khamenei, “کارکردهای قدرت علمی در اندیشه‌ مقام معظم رهبری [Application of power of knowledge in the Supreme Leader's thoughts],” Islamic Revolution Documents Center, 2006, https://irdc.ir/fa/news/5354. 33 Sara Bazoobandi, “Populism, Jihad, and Economic Resistance: Studying the Political Discourse of Iran’s Supreme Leader,” Digest of Middle East Studies, 2023, 1–19, https://doi.org/10.1111/dome.12303. 34 Mohammad Eslami, Nasim Sadat Mousavi, and Muhammed Can, “Sino-Iranian Cooperation in Artificial Intelligence: A Potential Countering Against the US Hegemony,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Globalization with Chinese Characteristics: The Case of the Belt and Road Initiative, ed. Paulo Afonso B. Duarte, Francisco Jose B.S. Leandro, and Enrique Martinez Galan (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), 543–62. 35 Tate Ryan-Mosley, “This Huge Chinese Company Is Selling Video Surveillance Systems to Iran,” MIT Technology Review, 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/12/15/1042142/chinese-company-tiandy-video-surveillance-iran. 36 Steve Stecklow, “Special Report: Chinese Firm Helps Iran Spy on Citizens,” Reuters, 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-telecoms-idUSBRE82L0B820120322. 37 Anoush Ehteshami, Niv Horesh, and Ruike Xu, “Chinese-Iranian Mutual Strategic Perceptions,” The China Journal 79 (2018): 1–20, https://doi.org/10.1086/693315. 38 Bloomberg, “China Gorges On Cheap, Sanctioned Oil From Iran, Venezuela,” 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-10/china-buys-more-sanctioned-oil-from-iran-venezuela-at-a-bargain#xj4y7vzkg. 39 Mashregh News, “ماجرای «نظم نوین جهانی» مورد اشاره رهبر انقلاب چه بود؟ [What Did the Supreme Leader Mean by ‘New World Order’?],” 2022, https://www.mashreghnews.ir/news/1368745. 40 Benjamin Houghton, “China’s Balancing Strategy Between Saudi Arabia and Iran: The View from Riyadh,”Asian Affairs 53, no. 1 (2022): 124–44, https://doi.org/10.1080/03068374.2022.2029065. 41 Sabena Siddiqui, “Can China Balance Ties with Iran and the GCC?” Al-Monitor, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/03/can-china-balance-ties-iran-and-gcc. 42 Betul Dogan Akkas, “The Complexities of a Houthi-Saudi Deal and Its Impact on Yemen’s Future,” Gulf International Forum, 2023, https://gulfif.org/navigating-the-complexities-of-a-houthi-saudi-deal-and-its-impact-on-yemens-future. 43 Nicole Grajewski, “Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor and the Future of Persian Gulf Security,” European Leadership Network, 2020, https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/irans-hormuz-peace-endeavor-and-the-futureof-persian-gulf-security. 44 Fajgelbaum et al., “US-China Trade War.” 45 Iranian Students’ News Agency, “روابط ایران و چین و پیامدهای استراتژیک آن [Iran-China Relations and Their Strategic Consequences],” ISNA.IR, 2021, https://www.isna.ir/news/99042216001. 46 Javad Heiran-nia, “مزایای اقتصادی بهبود رابطه ایران و عربستان [The Economic Benefits of Improving Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia],” Donya-e-Eghtesad, 2023. 47 Kadir Temiz, Chinese Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East (London and New York: Routledge, 2022). 48 GCC STAT, “China-GCC Economic Relations,” 2021, https://gccstat.org/en/statistic/publications/trade-exchangebetween-gcc-and-china. 49 Financial Tribune, “China Remains Iran’s Largest Trade Partner for Ten Consecutive Years,” 2023, https://financialtribune.com/articles/domestic-economy/117145/china-remains-irans-largest-trade-partner-for-tenconsecutive-years. 50 Xi Jinping, “Keynote Speech by President of China at the China-GCC Summit,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2022, https://www.mfa.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202212/t20221210_10988408.html; Flavius Caba-Maria, “China and the Wave of Globalization Focusing on the Middle East,” in Duarte, Leandro, and Galan, Palgrave Handbook of Globalization with Chinese Characteristics, 563–74. 51 Xi, “Keynote Speech.” 52 Ishtiaq Ahmad, “Saudi Arabia and China Linked by Shared Interests, a Promising Future,” Arab News, 2022, https://www.arabnews.com/node/2212521 53 Jane Darby Menton, “What Most People Get Wrong About the Iran Nuclear Deal,” Foreign Policy, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/05/07/iran-nuclear-deal-jcpoa-us-trump-biden-nonproliferation-diplomacy. 54 Nicole Grajewski, “An Illusory Entente: The Myth of a Russia-China-Iran ‘Axis,’” Asian Affairs 53, no. 1 (2022): 164–83, https://doi.org/10.1080/03068374.2022.2029076. 55 Reuters, “Russia, China, Iran Start Joint Naval Drills in Indian Ocean,” 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iranmilitary-russia-china-idUSKBN1YV0IB. 56 Arash Saeedi Rad, “افول هژمونی ایالات‌متحده آمریکا و نظم جدیدجهانی [Decline of the United States’ hegemony and the new world order],” American Studies Center, 2023, https://ascenter.ir/1402/02/04. 57 Martin A. Smith, “Russia and Multipolarity since the End of the Cold War,” East European Politics 29, no. 1 (2013): 36–51, https://doi.org/10.1080/21599165.2013.764481; Eugene Rumer, “The Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine in Action,” Carnagie Endowment for International Peace, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/06/05/primakov-notgerasimov-doctrine-in-action-pub-79254; Jolanta Darczewska and Pitor Zochowski, “Active Measures: Russia’s Key Export,” Centre for Eastern Studies, 2017, https://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/pw_64_ang_activemeasures_net_0.pdf. 58 Tasnim News, “امام خامنه‌ای: امروز جهان در آستانه یک نظم جدید است/ آمریکا در همه چیز از بیست سال قبل ضعیف‌تر شده است [Imam Khamenei: today, the world is beginning a new world order/ America is weaker in every respect than 20 years ago],” Tasnim News, 2022, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1401/02/06/2701671; Pang Ruizhi, “China Wants a Multipolar World Order. Can the World Agree?” Think China, 2020, https://www.thinkchina.sg/china-wants-multipolar-world-order-can-world-agree. 59 Sara Bazoobandi, Jens Heibach, and Thomas Richter, “Iran's Foreign Policy Making: Consensus Building or Power Struggle?” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, March 16, 2023, 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2023.2189572; Hamshahri Online, “عمق استراتژیک ایران [Iran's strategic depth],” 2019, https://www.hamshahrionline.ir/news/141615. 60 Al-Monitor, “Khamenei Urges Iranians to Prepare”; Khamenei.ir, “بیانات در دیدار مجمع عالی فرماندهان سپاه,” October 2, 2019, https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=43632. 61 Bazoobandi, “Populism, Jihad, and Economic Resistance”; Bazoobandi, “Re-Revolutionising Iran.” 62 Karim Sadjadpour, “Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2008, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/sadjadpour_iran_final2.pdf. 63 Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon, “Iran and Russia Are Closer Than Ever Before,” Foreign Policy, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/01/05/iran-russia-drones-ukraine-war-military-cooperation. 64 David Brennan, “Shahed-136: The Iranian Drones Aiding Russia’s Assault on Ukraine,” Newsweek, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/shahed-136-kamikaze-iran-drones-russia-ukraine-1770373. 65 Yahia H. Zoubir, “Algeria and China: Shifts in Political and Military Relations,” Global Policy 14, no. 1 (2023): 58–68, https://doi.org/10.1111/1758-5899.13115. 66 Edward Wastnidge and Simon Mabon, “The Resistance Axis and Regional Order in the Middle East: Nomos, Space, and Normative Alternatives,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2023.2179975. 67 hamenei.ir, “Khamenei's Speech on meeting with Basij Forces [بیانات در دیدار بسیجیان],” 2023, https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=54526. 68 Sara Bazoobandi, “Iran Confident Israel-Hamas Conflict Can Advance Its Geostrategic Position,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 2023, https://agsiw.org/iran-confident-israel-hamas-conflict-can-advance-its-geostrategic-position.

Diplomacy
Flags of Palestine and China on the world map

Israel-Hamas war puts China’s strategy of ‘balanced diplomacy’ in the Middle East at risk

by Andrew Latham

On Oct. 30, 2023, reports began to circulate that Israel was missing from the mapping services provided by Chinese tech companies Baidu and Alibaba, effectively signalling – or so some believed – that Beijing was siding with Hamas over Israel in the ongoing war. Within hours, Chinese officials began to push back on that narrative, pointing out that the names do appear on the country’s official maps and that the maps offered by China’s tech companies had not changed at all since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. Indeed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry took the opportunity to go further, emphasizing that China was not taking sides in the conflict. Rather, Beijing said it respected both Israel’s right to self defense and the rights of the Palestinian people under international humanitarian law. This assertion of balance and even-handedness should have come as a surprise to no one. It has been the bedrock of China’s strategic approach to the Middle East for more than a decade, during which time Beijing has sought to portray itself as a friend to all in the region and the enemy of none. But the map episode underscores a problem Beijing faces over the current crisis. The polarization that has set in over this conflict – in both the Middle East itself and around the world – is making Beijing’s strategic approach to the Middle East increasingly difficult to sustain. As a scholar who teaches classes on China’s foreign policy, I believe that the Israel-Hamas war is posing the sternest test yet of President Xi Jinping’s Middle East strategy – that to date has been centred around the concept of “balanced diplomacy.” Growing pro-Palestinian sentiment in China – and the country’s historic sympathies in the region – suggest that if Xi is forced off the impartiality road, he will side with the Palestinians over the Israelis. But it is a choice Beijing would rather not make – and for wise economic and foreign policy reasons. Making such a choice would, I believe, effectively mark the end of China’s decade-long effort to positioning itself as an influential “helpful fixer” in the region – an outside power that seeks to broker peace deals and create a truly inclusive regional economic and security order. Beijing’s objectives and strategies Whereas in decades past the conventional wisdom in diplomatic circles was that China was not that invested in the Middle East, this has not been true since about 2012. From that time onward, China has invested considerable diplomatic energy building its influence in the region. Beijing’s overall strategic vision for the Middle East is one in which U.S. influence is significantly reduced while China’s is significantly enhanced. On the one hand, this is merely a regional manifestation of a global vision – as set out in a series of Chinese foreign policy initiatives such as the Community of Common Destiny, Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative and Global Civilization Initiative – all of which are designed, in part at least, to appeal to countries in the Global South that feel increasingly alienated from the U.S.-led rules-based international order. It is a vision grounded in fears that a continuation of United States dominance in the Middle East would threaten China’s access to the region’s oil and gas exports. That isn’t to say that Beijing is seeking to displace the United States as the dominant power in the region. That is infeasible given the power of the dollar and the U.S. longstanding relations with some of the region’s biggest economies. Rather, China’s stated plan is to promote multi-alignment among countries in the region – that is to encourage individual nations to engage with China in areas such as infrastructure and trade. Doing so not only creates relationships between China and players in the region, but it also weakens any incentives to join exclusive U.S.-led blocs. Beijing seeks to promote multi-alignment through what is described in Chinese government documents as “balanced diplomacy” and “positive balancing.” Balanced diplomacy entails not taking sides in various conflicts – including the Israeli-Palestinian one – and not making any enemies. Positive balancing centers on pursuing closer cooperation with one regional power, say Iran in the belief that this will incentivize others – for example, Arab Gulf countries – to follow suit. China’s Middle East success Prior to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Beijing’s strategy was beginning to pay considerable dividends. In 2016, China entered a comprehensive strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and in 2020 signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with Iran. Over that same timespan, Beijing has expanded economic ties with a host of other Gulf countries including Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman. Beyond the Gulf, China has also deepened its economic ties with Egypt, to the point where it is now the largest investor in the Suez Canal Area Development Project. It has also invested in reconstruction projects in Iraq and Syria. Earlier this year, China brokered a deal to re-establish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran – a major breakthrough and one that set China up as a major mediator in the region. In fact, following that success, Beijing began to position itself as a potential broker of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The impact of the Israel-Hamas War The Israel-Hamas war, however, has complicated China’s approach to the Middle East. Beijing’s initial response to the conflict was to continue with its balanced diplomacy. In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack, China’s leaders did not condemn Hamas, instead they urged both sides to “exercise restraint” and to embrace a “two-state solution.” This is consistent with Beijing’s long-standing policy of “non-interference” in other countries’ internal affairs and its fundamental strategic approach to the region. But the neutral stance jarred with the approach adopted by the United States and some European nations – which pushed China for a firmer line. Under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, among others, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China’s view that every country has the right to self-defence. But he qualified this by stating that Israel “should abide by international humanitarian law and protect the safety of civilians.” And that qualification reflects a shift in the tone from Beijing, which has moved progressively toward making statements that are sympathetic to the Palestinians and critical of Israel. On Oct. 25, China used it veto power at the United Nations to block a U.S. resolution calling for a humanitarian pause on the grounds that it failed to call on Israel to lift is siege on Gaza. China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, explained the decision was based on the “strong appeals of the entire world, in particular the Arab countries.” Championing the Global South Such a shift is unsurprising given Beijing’s economic concerns and its geopolitical ambitions. China is much more heavily dependent on trade with the numerous states across the Middle East and North Africa it has established economic ties than it is with Israel. Should geopolitical pressures push China to the point where it must decide between Israel and the Arab world, Beijing has powerful economic incentives to side with the latter. But China has another powerful incentive to side with the Palestinians. Beijing harbours a desire to be seen as a champion of the Global South. And siding with Israel risks alienating that increasingly important constituency. In countries across Africa, Latin America and beyond, the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel is seen as akin to fighting colonization or resisting “apartheid.” Siding with Israel would, under that lens, put China on the side of the colonial oppressor. And that, in turn, risks undermining the diplomatic and economic work China has undertaken through its infrastructure development program, the Belt and Road Initiative, and effort to encourage more Global South countries to join what is now the BRICS economic bloc. And while China may not have altered its maps of the Middle East, its diplomats may well be looking at them and wondering if there is still room for balanced diplomacy.

Diplomacy
Flags of Israel and China

Political Insights (2): The Chinese Position on the Israeli War on Gaza

by Dr. Mohammad Makram Balawi

Developed Chinese-Israeli Relations… However: China’s diplomatic relations with Israel began in 1992. Beijing has believed that its relations with Tel Aviv would help improve its image in the West and enable it to obtain Western military technology, where bilateral trade reached about $24.4 billion in 2022. However, it has been proven to China, on several occasions, that Israel is not completely immune to US pressure, as it has faced several difficulties in implementing some Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the port of Haifa. It was prevented from winning a bid to operate the Sorek desalination plant for 25 years, because it is adjacent to the Palmachim Air Base, where US forces are stationed, and is near the Nahal nuclear research facility. Israel has also terminated an arms deal with China and was forced to pay financial compensation, etc. The Israeli position on the Russia-Ukraine war and the Western alliance against Moscow, has reinforced China’s belief that Israel is aligned with the US-Western powers, and that Israeli calculations may change if Western powers decide to take more hostile steps against China, for it’s a fact that the US openly declares that Beijing is its next most dangerous enemy. Furthermore, Israel’s participation in the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) project that Biden announced on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi on 9–10/9/2023, linking India to the Middle East and then into Europe via Israel, and which Netanyahu hailed, have given negative indications. For China sees it as an alternative project to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and that it aims to challenge it. China is seeking to enhance stability in the region for the sake of the BRI projects. It has been working on political initiatives, the most prominent of which was the Saudi Arabia-Iran announcement to resume diplomatic relations, which came following Chinese-brokered talks held in Beijing. However, the US, in partnership with Israel, are working to threaten Tehran and maintain its conflict with regional countries, which counters China’s endeavors, destabilizes the region and harms China’s strategic projects. The Position on Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and the Aggression Against Gaza From the onset of the Ukraine war, China has increased its interest in the region, especially Palestine. This was evident following the 20th Communist Party Congress in October 2022, the subsequent summits held by the Chinese President in the Gulf and Arab region, the quiet rapprochement with Hamas and its invitation to visit China, and China’s offers to mediate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. On the internal level, a small segment of the Chinese elite has shown admiration for the Israeli model and sympathized with it as modern and advanced. However, Operation Al-Aqsa Flood dispelled these illusions and revealed Israel’s bloody racist nature and showed that the West, which established international law and imposed it on the world, does not abide by it, but rather uses it selectively. This has united the Chinese popular and elite position, which considers Israel an occupying state obstructing the two-state solution, and supports the Palestinian people in obtaining their rights. Operation Al-Aqsa Flood strengthened the Chinese conviction of the importance of the region to the Chinese strategy, and the importance of its relationship with Hamas in the Palestinian context, which is consistent with the Russian stance—China’s undeclared ally—regarding the region and the Movement. This consistency in positions was demonstrated in the Russian-Chinese diplomatic support of Hamas, albeit indirectly, and refusing to classify it as a “terrorist” movement. The official Chinese position can be summarized as follows: • Calling on all parties to exercise restraint and ceasefire. • Expressing dissatisfaction with the continued Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip and targeting of civilians, and fear of not maintaining the minimum level of respect for life and international law. • Emphasizing the historical injustice that occurred against the Palestinian people and that it cannot continue; and stressing that the long-term stagnation of the peace process is no longer sustainable. • Using the veto power in partnership with Russia against the US proposal to condemn Hamas and label it as “terrorist.” Concerns about Western US Intervention The Chinese are concerned about the US-Western offensive and defensive military mobilization in the region (including the arrival of US aircraft carriers). They believe that such mobilization is not only related to supporting Israel in its war on Gaza, but also to controlling the regional environment in a way that prevents any force from intervening to support the Palestinian resistance. In addition, it may be intended to exploit the situation to impose Western agendas on the region, including dominating energy sources and prices, especially in light of the significant restrictions imposed by the US and its allies on Russian oil. It may be considered a direct threat to the Chinese economy that depends mainly on energy coming from the Middle East and Gulf oil, and it also threatens China’s projects and economic relations in the region. Supporting Palestine Based on Accurate Calculations It may be in China’s interest to support the Palestinian resistance, even if only politically, and to perpetuate the exhaustion of the US in the region, to reduce Western pressure on East Asia. However, Chinese policy has so far distanced itself from direct intervention in regional conflicts and from direct entry into a conflict—that has military dimensions—with Western powers. This means that China will be very reluctant to do any move beyond the political and humanitarian support of the Palestinian people, and if it is forced, it will be in the near term indirectly, and through intermediary or third parties such as Syria and Iran. However, if the conflict is prolonged and Chinese interests are severely damaged, China may review its policies to protect its interests, including strengthening its military presence and supporting its allies and friends in the region.

Diplomacy
Palestinian flag, on the background flags of China and the USA

China’s approach to the war in Gaza is not anti-Israel. It’s designed to contain the US

by Ahmed Aboudouh

China’s position on the war in Gaza is controversial and ambiguous to many observers. Beijing has criticized Israel’s blanket bombardment of civilians and condemned violations of international law. President Xi Jinping waited until after the Third Belt and Road Forum to comment on the crisis, reiterating China’s long-held position that a two-state solution should be implemented and calling for a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the besieged Gaza Strip. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went further, describing Israel’s bombardment of civilians in Gaza as actions that ‘have gone beyond the scope of self-defence’. At the same time, Beijing avoided condemning Hamas’s atrocities against civilians. As in Ukraine, China is positioning itself as a peace-seeking, ‘neutral’ great power, in contrast to the US, whose committed support for Israel is depicted by Beijing as a destabilizing, violent influence in the region. But China’s comments on the war, and its non-interventionist stance, mean it is unable to influence events – an uncomfortable position when its interests are directly threatened by the war. That may be why Beijing is increasingly aligning with Russia on the Palestinian issue, an unprecedented development that aims to guarantee a place at the negotiating table at minimal cost to both – and undermine US influence in the region. Familiar tactics It is now clear that China is adopting the Ukraine playbook on the Israel–Hamas war, seeking to publicly chart a different course from the US and its allies and their unconditional support for Israel. Chinese officials’ diplomatic interactions with the region are strictly adhering to Beijing’s policy of balancing between the Gulf States and Iran and between the regional main powers and Israel. The rhetoric from Beijing is carefully designed to focus on the broader context, such as implementing the two-state solution, addressing humanitarian issues and preventing the conflict from turning into a regional one. It has refrained from describing the Hamas incursion into Israel as a terrorist attack but has called Israel’s retaliation ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinian civilians – signalling its opposition to an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. This is not simply the behaviour of a peace-loving, mercantilist giant. Rather, it is a structured, deliberate strategy to achieve China’s objectives in the region and beyond. ‘Anti-Western neutrality’ China does not aspire to replace the US position in the Middle East, but will undoubtedly be pleased to see the US again drawn into a conflict in the region. Chinese experts believe the more strategic non-East Asian theatres that require Washington’s attention, the more time and space China gains to assert its strategic domination in the Indo-Pacific. China has reaffirmed its historical affinity to the Palestinian cause (its policy since the time of Mao Zedong) and its policy of what might be called ‘anti-Western neutrality’ – that is, neutrality that stops short of condemning any country or force that undermines Western centrality in the global order (rather than explicitly lending support to Hamas). China also uses ‘Anti-Western neutrality’ to appeal to a densely populated and strategically important support base. Many Global South nations are sympathetic to Palestine, and the war is therefore an issue China can use to mobilize support for its leadership of developing countries. This in turn helps win backing for Chinese positions on core issues like Xinjiang and Taiwan – and for Xi’s vision of global governance, enshrined in his signature initiatives: the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). China has also sought to consolidate regional unity, urging the Islamic World to ‘speak with one voice’ with China on Palestine, building on its initiative to mediate a diplomatic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March – a big win for the GSI, which is based on regional countries independently taking the lead in ‘resolving regional security issues through solidarity and coordination.’ The war encouraged Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salaman and Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi to speak on the phone for the first time, something China was pleased to see. By stressing its neutral stance and its role as a voice of the Global South, China wants to check the US’s moral standing and legitimize internationalization of the issue, calling for a global conference to initiate a peace process – thereby removing Washington from its decades-long position as the unchallenged arbiter in the conflict. The ultimate objective is to degrade the US’s global standing and win the ‘discourse power’ war by capitalizing on sympathy for Palestinians worldwide. A flawed policy However, beyond the short term, China’s policy is flawed and unsustainable. While the Biden administration has failed to speak in a balanced way on the war, instead unconditionally supporting Israel, it has mobilized US diplomatic might to influence Israel’s response – preventing the conflict from spreading outside Gaza and allowing aid to reach civilians. Its committed response to the war, in fact, may put to bed the idea that Washington has departed from the Middle East, strengthening its traditional regional role. Chinese ‘anti-Western neutrality’ meanwhile, has led Israel to retaliate diplomatically by joining the UK and 50 other countries at the UN to condemn China’s policies against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, saying they constitute ‘international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.’ Like the Ukraine war, the Israel–Hamas war shows that ambiguity and ‘anti-Western neutrality’ are complex acts. To be considered neutral, others must also believe it. Neutrality also prevents China from directly influencing these dangerous events in a way that favours its interests. China has significant economic connections to the region. It is the biggest trading partner with most MENA countries and almost half of its imported oil comes from the Gulf. China’s overall trade with the Arab world stood at more than $430 billion last year. These significant interests are vulnerable to regional wars and instability - but Chinese leaders can only watch events unfold from a distance. China should now understand that transactional de-escalation between regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iran does not necessarily constitute peace. One of the key lessons of the conflict is that Iranian proxies were ready to blow up the region to impede Saudi normalization with Israel. China-sponsored integration initiatives will be no more successful at preventing another similar episode. Possessing great power capabilities is one thing. Acting like a great power is another. The US has demonstrated its continuing commitment to Israel and ability to influence Israeli policy. China has confined itself to voicing objections and calling for peace. Alignment with Russia may amplify its voice in a peace settlement. But there is a long way to go before that becomes reality. China must understand that in these crucial days, lip service diplomacy is the last thing MENA people want.