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Chatham House: Iran-Israeli Escalation Tests China's Influence in Gulf

28.04.2024
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https://www.chathamhouse.org/2024/04/iran-israel-exchanges-are-test-chinas-influence-gulf

Iran's drone and missile attacks on Israel on April 13 and Israel's subsequent response have cast doubt on the stability of the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation facilitated by China last year. The attack dramatically changed the strategic landscape, creating uncertainty over regional security and calling into question China's newly built reputation as a trusted broker.

Following the Iranian drone attack, Beijing immediately initiated emergency telephone diplomacy to prevent the Saudi-Iran agreement from being undermined by the volatile situation. On April 19, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jiang publicly stated that “China opposes any action that further escalates tensions.”

A remarkable aspect of China's response is its consistency. He remains committed to protecting his own interests while criticizing Israel and the United States and calling for de-escalation. Similar to its stance on the Houthi escalation in the Red Sea, Beijing views the new round of escalation as a “side effect” of the Gaza war rather than its catalyst. This suggests that ending the Gaza conflict could cause a ripple effect, bringing peace and de-escalation to the Middle East.

This explains why China did not condemn Iran's April 13 attack but called it an act of self-defense, taking its own position in the war of narratives, effectively contrasting Iran's claims of self-defense with similar accusations Israel uses to justify its attack on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. China has done the same in its spat with the US, asking it to play a “constructive role” and rein in Israel as Washington calls on China to dissuade Tehran from retaliating.

Concerns over the Saudi-Iran deal have raised alarm bells in Beijing. Two key complementary factors are causing China concern. First, Iran's strategic goal behind its retaliation was to create a new deterrence paradigm, moving from plausible deniability entrusted to its proxies to strategic clarity in its long-running shadow war with Israel. Israel is testing Iran's red lines with its counterstrike, while trying to find a new security mechanism to replace the one destroyed on October 7.

The new paradigm increases Tehran and Tel Aviv's appetite for risk, leading to escalating retaliation and making a direct conflict scenario more likely, whether now or later. This confrontation could spread to the Gulf region, forcing the Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia) to reconsider their security postures. They may conclude that a thaw in relations with Iran carries more risks than benefits. A second Trump presidency in the United States could further accelerate this process. The second factor is the slow progress the Saudi-Iran agreement has made since it was signed a year ago. It remains focused on security issues without exploring economic and cultural opportunities.

For China, such a scenario would create risks for its energy security and undermine its vision of a new security structure in the Middle East. The basis of this idea is to establish a multilateral dialogue. His vision could easily be undermined by escalating regional instability.

China will continue to be consistent in the Middle East and North Africa region. The US is tightening controls on Iranian oil exports, with Chinese purchases set to fall sharply through the end of this year to avoid secondary sanctions. Ironically, this could ease China's balancing act between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel by reducing the perception that Beijing is financially supporting Iran's advanced defense strategy.

 

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