Iran–Israel exchanges are a test for China’s influence in the Gulf

Beijing’s diplomatic activism shows it is worried Iran–Israel tit-for-tat may undermine Saudi–Iran reconciliation.

Expert comment
Published 19 April 2024 4 minute READ

The drone and missile attacks launched by Iran against Israel on 13 April, and the subsequent Israeli response, have thrown into doubt the stability of the SaudiIran reconciliation facilitated by China last year.

The attacks have dramatically altered the strategic landscape, casting uncertainty over regional security and testing China’s recently earned reputation as a credible mediator.

Beijing views the new round of escalation as a ‘spillover’ from the war in Gaza, not its catalyst.

After the Iranian drone attack, Beijing promptly initiated emergency phone diplomacy to prevent the SaudiIran agreement from being undermined by the volatile situation. Following calls with his Saudi and Iranian counterparts, Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, applauded ’Iran’s stress on not targeting regional and neighbouring countries’ – a tacit reference to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.    

Similar calls may well have been made following Israel’s response strike. On 19 April, foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jan publicly stated that ‘China opposes any actions that further escalate tensions ’.

A notable aspect of China’s reaction has been its consistency. It has remained committed to safeguarding its own interests while simultaneously expressing criticism towards Israel and the US, and calling for de-escalation.

Similar to its stance on the Houthis escalation in the Red Sea, Beijing views the new round of escalation as a ‘spillover’ from the war in Gaza, not its catalyst. This suggests ending the Gaza conflict may create a ripple effect, bringing peace and de-escalation across the Middle East.

This explains why China did not condemn Iran’s 13 April attack, but called it an act of self-defence. It has positioned itself right in the centre of the war of narratives, effectively putting Iran’s claim of self-defence up against Israel’s similar charge used to justify its collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza. China has done the same in its exchanges with the US, asking it to play a ‘constructive role’ and rein in Israel when urged by Washington to dissuade Tehran from retaliation.  

Saudi–Iran reconciliation at risk

Concerns about the Saudi–Iran deal set alarm bells ringing in Beijing. Two key mutually reinforcing factors drive China’s concerns. First, Iran’s strategic purpose behind its retaliation was to establish a new deterrence paradigm, moving from plausible deniability pinned on its proxies to strategic clarity in its longstanding shadow war with Israel. Israel, with its counter-strike, is testing Iran’s red lines while searching for a new security mechanism to replace the one shattered on 7 October.

Gulf countries may conclude that thawing with reckless Iran delivers more risks than benefits. 

The new paradigm increases Tehran and Tel Aviv’s risk appetite, resulting in the escalating tit-for-tat strikes and making the direct conflict scenario more credible, whether now or later. 

That confrontation may extend to the Gulf region, pushing Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia) to recalibrate their security positions. They may conclude that thawing with reckless Iran delivers more risks than benefits. A second Trump presidency in the US could further accelerate this process.  

The second factor is the slow progress the SaudiIran agreement has made since its signing a year ago. It has remained focused on security issues, failing to proceed to exploring economic and cultural opportunities. 

Another related factor is Israel’s perception of this deal as a direct threat and its potential desire to see it unravel. Israel may view the thaw as a zero-sum opposite to its own normalization with Saudi Arabia, just as Iran will view with suspicion the forming ArabIsraeli security coalition under the auspices of the US.

Leaks to Israeli press stressed significant Saudi and Emirati participation in the collective defence system that shot down almost all Iranian missiles and drones on 13 April, although this was later denied by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The perception in the Gulf and wider MENA region is that Israel was unable to rely on its own capabilities in a war scenario with Iran.   

For China, such a scenario would create risks to its energy security and nullify its vision for a new security framework in the Middle East. A pillar of this notion is establishing a multilateral dialogue platform in the Gulf region under the Global Security Initiative. Its vision could be easily undermined by escalating regional turbulence. 

China’s ambitions to curb US influence over Gulf countries could also be reversed. The biggest lesson for Gulf countries from the direct US involvement in defending Israel against Iran’s attack is that when push comes to shove, only the US will have the capabilities to provide them with substantial security assistance. However, another lesson is that while the US have put its interests on the line to defend Israel, it may not do the same for them.  But the fact remains that the perception in the Gulf and wider MENA region is that Israel was unable to rely on its own capabilities in a war scenario with Iran.   

What this means for China’s regional role

This assumption presents China with both opportunities and challenges in its quest to promote itself as a responsible and principled mediator in the region.

The prevalent perception in the Gulf since 7 October is that the US is Israel’s top ally, which fuels doubts about Washington’s reliability and increases incentives for Saudi Arabia to further commit to de-escalation with Iran. 

Mistrust in the US also encourages Iran to take advantage, by trying to isolate the deal from the rapidly shifting dynamics of its confrontation with Israel. In other words, neutralizing the Gulf. The diplomatic united front the US and European countries formed with Israel after Iran’s attacks, including increasing sanctions on Iran, also consolidates Tehran’s partnerships with China and Russia.

content

However, the crisis has exposed China’s limits in safeguarding the agreement beyond asking Iran to de-escalate, rhetorical signalling and carrying messages between Riyadh and Tehran. This is partly due to China’s role as a mere facilitator, not a Western-style mediator or guarantor of the deal, despite misperceptions in Western and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) capitals. 

Another reason is China’s benign economic clout. Under no circumstances will China deploy its economic might to punish either side had they violated the terms of the deal. From a Chinese perspective, sanctions may backfire if used in MENA – a swing region that could turn its back on Beijing, directly hitting its oil supplies. 

China will continue to be consistent in MENA. As the US tightens the screws on Iran’s oil exports, China’s purchases will plummet for the rest of this year to avoid secondary sanctions. Ironically, this could make China’s balancing between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel easier as it will reduce the perception that Beijing is financially propping up Iran’s forward defence strategy.  

In the bleak scenario of wider conflict, China could be expected to apply the same playbook it used during the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea: a careful balancing act with the ultimate goal to protect its economic interests, while castigating the US and Israel.