Zhou Bo: Saudi-Iran deal is a stepping stone for China in its global role as honest broker

  • Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert.

    China’s success as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia is more than a milestone. It is also a stepping stone leading to higher expectations: can China help similarly elsewhere?

    In the Middle East, where it's sometimes said that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, there are enough troubles for Beijing to address. Being the only major power that befriends everybody thanks to its policy of non-alliance and non-interference, China can probably further help with another more pressing problem – the Iranian nuclear issue.

    According to the Pentagon, Tehran’s nuclear development has been remarkable; it can now produce enough material for a nuclear bomb in 12 days
    The Trump administration withdrew from a nuclear pact in 2018 and negotiations between the Biden administration and Iran on restarting the nuclear deal have stalled. Perhaps Beijing, one of the negotiators of the deal struck in 2015, can first persuade Tehran behind closed doors – like it did with the Saudi-Iran deal – to not cross the threshold of making a nuclear bomb, before bringing together like-minded stakeholders, including Washington, to renegotiate a new deal with Tehran.
    The situation is much more complicated in Ukraine where China’s two friends have been at each other’s throats. No one knows how long the war will last except that it will last.
    The challenge is to find the foundations for a peace agreement – whether it involves Russia’s unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine or territorial negotiations and concessions.

    Presumably Russia would want to be able to claim at least some victory. Otherwise, Russian President Vladimir Putin would find it hard to explain why he launched the war at all.
    Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in February that victory is inevitable if allies keep their promise. That means there is indeed a risk of the allies not keeping their promise if this war turns out to be a war of attrition.
    Perhaps the end game is an armistice akin to that between North and South Korea, which no one likes. The difference, though, is that Russia is much more powerful than Ukraine, and therefore the border, wherever it might be, would be much more difficult to secure.
    It is hard to tell what a new security architecture in Europe might look like. But there would have to be negotiations between Russia and Nato.
    The core question is how to address Russia’s sense of insecurity. Nato is right to say it hasn’t forced countries to join the security alliance, but it is Nato’s unrelenting expansion since the end of the Cold War that has backfired.
    If Moscow believes Nato’s expansion constitutes an existential threat to Russia that it has to use force to push back, then the more popular Nato is, the more insecure Europe will become. It is ludicrous for the most powerful military alliance on Earth, which includes some of the world’s strongest nations, to describe itself as a self-defence organisation.

    Like in the Middle East, China is the only major power that can play a constructive role in Russo-Ukrainian war. All other major powers have already sided with Ukraine. Beijing is not allied with Moscow, and still friendly with Kyiv. China has Russia’s trust even though it has not provided any military support.
    And Beijing’s role as an honest broker is likely to be welcomed by Kyiv. During then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s visit to Beijing in December 2013, China declared that it would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and would provide security assurances against any such threat by a third party.
    Beijing’s 12-point peace plan announced at the one-year anniversary of the war is a huge step forward from its carefully balanced position since the outbreak of the conflict. It includes some core concepts that few can challenge, such as the need for all parties to respect sovereignty, exercise rationality and restraint, and prioritise the effective protection of civilians.
    But there is no guarantee the peace plan will succeed when both sides have shown no inclination to stop fighting. In 2022, Zelensky even signed a decree banning any negotiation with Putin. The recent arrest warrant for Putin issued by the International Criminal Court will make any chance of a ceasefire slimmer.
    Washington is strongly opposed to a ceasefire too, saying that this will only freeze Russia’s gains on the ground.
    In spite of Russia’s announcement of deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, thanks to Beijing, the possibility of Europeans’ worst fear – that the war will spill over into a nuclear war – being realised has been considerably reduced
    In his meetings with German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz and US President Joe Biden, President Xi has made it crystal clear that no nuclear weapons could be used in Europe. Therefore, Putin’s reiteration in the joint statement with Xi this month that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought should be a huge relief to everyone.
    It remains to be seen what Beijing might do next, but it is clear that it has a long to-do list. Apparently in an ever-divided world, people look to China to be a stabiliser as well as an honest broker.
    When China kicked off its reform over four decades ago, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously said China needed to cross the river by feeling the stones on the riverbed. Now a global China has entered the ocean. It cannot feel the seabed, but there is no turning back.

    (This article was first published on South China Morning Post on Mar. 29, 2023.)

    Last:Gao Jian: Increasingly Americanized British diplomacy turns 'Global Britain' strategy into a joke

    Next:Liu Xiaoming: Act on the Global Security Initiative and Advance Political Settlement of the Korean Peninsula Issue