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Can China play a positive role in mitigating the Iran-Israel conflict?

Can China play a positive role in mitigating the Iran-Israel conflict?

Beijing is in a strategic position to push for dialogue and easing of tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

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Last Updated : 16 April 2024, 08:26 IST
Last Updated : 16 April 2024, 08:26 IST
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The April 1 attack by Israel on the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria which led to the killing of Iranian generals, pushed Iran to retaliate with 300 drones and missiles on April 13-14. Iran considered this to be a direct attack on its sovereign soil. Even though most of these missiles and drones were intercepted by Israel, this was the first direct attack by Iran on Israel. Iran has said that the attacks are over for now.

However, after years of managing proxy warfare and not engaging in a direct conflict, Iran has attacked Israel’s sovereignty and engaged in a direct conflict. It would be an understatement to argue that the tension in the region which was already very high due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, has exacerbated. Mitigating this will prove to be a major diplomatic challenge too.

The United States has been firmly standing on Israel’s side and, thus, has no diplomatic route to engage Iran. Before the attack on April 12, 2024, Washinton had urged Beijing to prevent the outcome by talking to Tehran. However, the West has continued to argue that China has shown no diplomatic engagement, as Iran went ahead with its retaliation over the weekend. Washington urging Beijing to get involved is also because the latter seems to be the only country with some considerable influence over Tehran. However, the Chinese reactions to the attacks have been asserting concern and wanting the implementation of ‘UN Security Council Resolution 2728 and end the Gaza conflict as soon as possible’.

China is Iran’s largest trading partner and the biggest buyer of oil. Given the ongoing sanctions by the US, Beijing has been the only option left to Iran. China has also been very proactive in engaging West Asia while also expanding its role and influence. To everyone’s surprise, in March 2023, Beijing successfully brokered a deal with Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has put China in a better position than the US in West Asia. The statement by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi underscored that (China will)… “continue to support countries in the Middle East in exploring a development path that suits their own national conditions, strengthening communication and dialogue, adhering to unity and self-improvement, and realising good-neighbourliness and friendship”. The statement underscores that Beijing is not keen to meddle in their domestic affairs but will be keen to provide the platform for communication. The deal has been a success as both countries after years of animosity had moved ahead with the opening of diplomatic channels with each other.

China has not condemned the drone attacks; however, it was quite vocal about Israel’s bombing of the Iranian embassy in Damascus. Explaining this, Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center has argued that, “…the Chinese are particularly sympathetic to Iran given their own experience of the US bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade. That’s why China does not condemn Iran”. This argument underscores Beijing’s understanding of respecting and protecting sovereignty.

Given this backdrop, it is logical to think that Beijing is in a strategic position to push for dialogue and easing of tensions. The West has been comfortable with the shadow warfare between Iran and Israel; however, it is not comfortable with Iranian retaliation as it has the potential to draw the US into the region again — an outcome Washington would like to avoid, especially with the upcoming presidential elections.

This is also a good opportunity for Beijing to underscore its position as the peace broker and firmly establish itself in the region. Washington’s support of Tel Aviv has alienated many West Asian countries and if Beijing is successful in urging Tehran to maintain peace and not violently retaliate again, it will elevate China’s position. Lobbying for peace and stability seems to be the best possible option for Beijing too.

China is one of the major nuclear powers to have diplomatic relations with Iran, and in a conflict scenario, China should be working with the US. This fulfils its interests and improves Beijing’s own self-perception of a new type of major power relations. It also enhances China’s centrality as a peacemaker.

Gunjan Singh is Associate Professor, OP Jindal Global University.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH).

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