The recent truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia with both nations agreeing to re-establish diplomatic ties certainly took many by surprise. Particularly because it was mediated by China, a country hitherto not known for its peace-making skills. But it is a sign of Beijing’s growing ambitions that it was willing to get involved in the tricky Middle East with its multiple sectarian and political fault lines. Over the past decade, Iran and Saudi Arabia have engaged in multiple proxy conflicts in the wake of the Arab Spring upheaval to increase their strategic footprint in the region. The most brutal of these has been the conflict in Yemen where Iran-backed Houthis have frustrated the Saudi-UAE military intervention in that country.
But hit with crippling sanctions, which followed when Trump unilaterally reneged on the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and now facing domestic anti-hijab protests, Tehran needed strategic breathing space. While Riyadh’s testy relationship with the Biden administration, especially over Ukraine, gave it reason to spread out its strategic bets. China simply took advantage of this situation to bring the two Middle East rivals together and project itself as an alternative dealmaker to the US. Of course, this serves Beijing’s commercial interests as it sources more than 40% of its energy needs from the Gulf.
However, whether the Iran-Saudi deal survives and China’s new role sustains remain to be seen. For, China has now decided to strongly support Russia over Ukraine – much different from India’s nuanced position – and rewrite the international rules-based order. Plus, its debt-trap diplomacy has affected nations as diverse as Sri Lanka and Uganda. Even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has run into serious problems. This means there are limits to Beijing’s strategic outreach. And India – which is locked in a border standoff with China – should take this opportunity to step up its own international strategic outreach in tandem with countries like the US and Japan. The I2U2 platform in the Middle East and initiatives to strengthen defence ties with African nations must be bolstered. New Delhi must prepare for long-term strategic powerplay.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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