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Xi of Arabia

BEIJING – Those who have criticized China’s cautious foreign policy need to reconsider their position, following President Xi Jinping’s just-completed visit to Saudi Arabia and Iran – two major Middle Eastern powers that are currently at each other’s throats. The visits reflect the more active foreign-policy approach that Xi has spearheaded, particularly in the Middle East. This new approach raises an important question: Can China’s impact on the region be more constructive than that of the United States?

Now is certainly a tense time to become involved in the Middle East, a region where, as Richard N. Haass argues, a New Thirty Years’ War, in which “civil wars and proxy wars become impossible to distinguish,” is unfolding. A key factor in unleashing the current chaos – which represents the convergence of numerous deep-rooted challenges and conflicts – was America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. By eliminating Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, the US paved the way for a Shia-led government, a development that tilted the regional balance of power toward Iran and left Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia feeling encircled by a Shia coalition.

That is why Iran and Saudi Arabia are so deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. They know that the fate of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime will have significant implications for the regional order. For Saudi Arabia, reining in Iran is all the more important in the wake of the recent agreement on the country’s nuclear program, which has resulted in the lifting of international economic sanctions that have long constrained Iran’s regional leadership ambitions.

Of course, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran – or Turkey, which has also joined the competition for regional influence – is seeking a direct confrontation. These countries would rather empower other actors, even if it means fueling dangerous religious radicalization and the privatization of violence. The terrorist movements that have emerged as a result of this approach – namely, the Islamic State – cannot be defeated using traditional counter-terrorism operations.