There is no shortage of issues for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to raise on his upcoming trip to China. U.S.-China relations are at a low point over Chinese support for Russia in Ukraine, trade disputes, and rising threats against Taiwan. But one area could provide space for cooperation that would benefit both parties and the wider world: preventing a new crisis in the Middle East.
The Stimson Center recently convened a symposium of experts to talk about risks and opportunities in an increasingly multipolar Middle East. One consensus view was that China need not be a U.S. adversary there but could contribute to de-escalation of tensions.
In recent years, China has become the region’s main trading partner but has largely remained a free rider in terms of diplomacy and security. In March, however, Beijing helped finalize an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia restoring normal diplomatic relations between these historic rivals. Then, on June 14, Chinese leader Xi Jinping conspicuously hosted Mahmoud Abbas, the long-time leader of the Palestinian Authority. No one believes China can broker an end to the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but Beijing could use its economic leverage with Tehran – the largest backer of Palestinian militant groups – to pressure the groups to take or refrain from taking certain actions.
As the largest importer of Middle Eastern oil, including sanctioned Iranian oil, China is in a unique position to push Tehran to cool tensions with the United States and Israel both regionally and on the nuclear file. As previously observed by experts at our Stimson exercise, “The fact that China is the major purchaser of Iranian oil is a disincentive to Iran ever carrying out its repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz to tanker traffic.”
China can also encourage Tehran to accept what appears to be an emerging understanding with the United States that Iran will not enrich uranium to weapons grade. Enriching to 90 percent purity appears to be a red line that could spark an Israeli and/or U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. That could lead to a wider conflagration. In preventing such a scenario, China would be serving its own interests as opposed to those of Russia, which would see prices for its oil skyrocket in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf. China would also be contributing more generally to global non-proliferation.
Despite all the talk of a “pivot to Asia,” the United States is not leaving the Middle East. There are still some 30,000-40,000 American troops stationed in 10 Arab countries, Israel, and Turkey, and the United States is still the main supplier of military aid and weapons to the region. The U.S. Central Command has now officially assumed responsibility for relationships with both the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel—a significant change from when the U.S. European Command dealt with Israel to avoid offending Arab partners. But the perception among many in the region is that the United States can no longer be counted on. There have been too many strategic debacles, like the 2003 Iraq invasion which largely benefited Iran, and the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. There is also concern about the lack of consistency in U.S. policy toward the Middle East as vividly demonstrated by the Trump administration, which withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 when Iran was still in full compliance with it. This led Iran and Iran-backed proxies to retaliate against both Americans in Iraq and Syria and U.S. Arab allies. The 2019 strike on Saudi oil facilities and attacks on ships sailing from the United Arab Emirates – which met with no immediate U.S. response – have helped push the region to diversify its great power relationships and to seek de-escalation with Iran.
The Biden administration has continued one policy of its predecessor – trying to expand the so-called Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. Blinken was just in Saudi Arabia, where he reportedly pushed the Saudis to also formally recognize the Jewish state. But the Saudis are putting forward pre-conditions – such as access to uranium enrichment technology and U.S. security guarantees – that the U.S. Congress is unlikely to accept. The Saudis are also demanding Israeli concessions to the Palestinians that the current right-wing government in Tel Aviv is loath to provide. In addition, Riyadh is unwilling to portray the Abraham Accords as an anti-Iran alliance, as its Trump administration architects envisioned, and is eager to see an end to the destabilizing war in Yemen.
Détente is the mood of the moment in the Middle East, and China can help. It can show that it is a constructive global power, not just a consumer of fossil fuels, a provider of cheap consumer goods, and a lender of last resort.
If China succeeds in helping lower Middle East tensions, it shouldn’t be seen as undercutting the United States, which can return to the role of offshore balancer rather than heavy-handed hegemon. Not all competition needs to be zero-sum.