China’s assertive success in Saudi-Iran agreement a serious concern for U.S.

By Mayank Chhaya-

Communist China, with no state religion and no god, has brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the bastion of Shia Islam, both of which fervently insist on theirs being the only true god.

In bringing the Saudis and Iranians together for the first time in seven years ending hostilities over a third country, Yemen, which is about 65% Sunni and 35% Zaydi Shia, China has significantly strengthened its influence in the Middle East much to the worry of the United States.

As diplomatic triumphs go, this one is remarkable considering that it is a result of an intervention by a country that rejects organized faith and god other than what its now increasingly nebulous Communist ideology engenders in terms of singular personalities such President Xi Jinping now or in another era, Mao Zedong over 50 years ago.

The Saudi-Iranian agreement is expected to make Washington sit up as China makes its presence felt internationally increasingly assertively. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 31, 1991, caused by its collapse earlier, the U.S.’s global authority remained untrammeled for close to two and half decades. In the last five to eight years, perhaps even a decade, China has increasingly assumed the role of a rival power. It is in this context that the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement acquires great importance unfolds as it does in the very heart of the Islamic world and that too between the two competing citadels of Islam.

The agreement was reached on Friday after four days of talks in Beijing. As part of the agreement the two countries will resume their diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies in two months.  Saudi Arabia cut ties in January 2016 after demonstrators stormed its embassy in Tehran following Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric.

The two are on the competing sides of all major conflicts in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and most violently in Yemen, where the Saudis support its government forces against the Shia Houthi rebels.

The U.S. has welcomed the deal with circumspection, aware the signal the Chinese intervention sends worldwide. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration supported “any effort to de-escalate tensions in the region”. “It really does remain to be seen if Iran is going to meet their obligations,” he added.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while thanking China, said he is ready to help efforts “to ensure durable peace and security in the Gulf region.”

It is the optics of a decisive and diplomatically efficacious China that are being viewed closely in Washington. It is interesting to note that a joint statement after the agreement starts with the words, “In response to the noble initiative of His Excellency President Xi Jinping”. To call it a noble initiative is to illustrate how Beijing is positioning itself a force peace and force for good even though it may not necessarily be its driving force or even eventual objective.

Coupled with its recent publication of a plan for peace in Ukraine and its very open support for Russia over that war are in keeping with its overall policy to become a clear alternative, if not a counter altogether, to America. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said the Saudi-Iran deal was a “victory” for peace and that China would continue to address global issues.

This intensification in global intervention by Beijing is a matter of great interest as well concern to Washington. Unlike America, which is often known to lecture the regions it is helping about the importance of democracy, China carefully avoids mixing any such sermons, keeping the engagement pragmatic with its long-term objectives subtle and even hidden. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, both with their despotic governments, prefer not being leaned on to “reform” their systems like the U.S. frequently does and China steadfastly avoids.

The Chinese approach has the potential to make Beijing far more acceptable in the long run for countries where versions of despotic or non-democratic governments are in place.

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