Did China just kill peace in the Middle East?

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On the eve of what was projected to be a seismic Israel-Saudi Arabia peace deal brokered by the United States, thousands of Hamas terrorists burst out of Gaza and engaged in a vicious rampage of rape, torture and murder against Jews in southern Israel, creating a regional crisis so severe that conventional wisdom now holds that any deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia is impossible.

Because Hamas lacks the logistical or material capacity to execute such a sophisticated operation on its own, it’s obvious the terrorist organization had the support of a nation-state with a significant military and intelligence capacity. Iran’s long sponsorship of Hamas is well known, and the Oct. 7 attack demonstrates how thoroughly Tehran has trained, equipped and directed Hamas’s activities.

Given Iran’s well-documented intention to eradicate Israel, the regime has good reason to want to disrupt an Israel-Saudi deal that would build on the legacy of the Abraham Accords and solidify relations between the Jewish state and Iran’s leading regional competitor. 

Xi and Raisi

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 24, 2023. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via Getty Images)

But Iran may have had a patron of its own that also has a vested interest in killing the deal – one that was ultimately calling the shots: the People’s Republic of China.

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China’s imports from Saudi Arabia have come down recently from their 2020 record highs, but the kingdom is still the world’s largest oil exporter and so a critical source for China of about 1.33 million barrels a day. 

A successful Israel-Saudi peace deal would cement Saudi’s security partnership with the United States, which would give Washington more control over supplies coming out of the Gulf. Recent Chinese inroads in Middle East diplomacy, notably the Iran-Saudi deal on Yemen brokered in Beijing last March, could be derailed, all of which gives China, as well as Iran, a vested interest in disrupting such a deal.

Retaining access to Saudi supplies is only one component of the PRC’s aggressive campaign to establish energy security, which goes back decades. This campaign also depends on retaining access to cheap energy from both Iran and Russia. 

Chinese imports of Iranian oil, still technically under U.S. sanctions that the Biden administration stopped enforcing, started creeping up from the roughly 400,000 barrels a day in 2020 to 600,000 by the end of 2021. 

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In 2022, the secretive Beijing took the unusual step of publicly reporting these imports, perhaps to see how the Biden administration might respond. It didn’t, and imports have burgeoned in 2023 with August seeing a 10-year high of 1.5 million barrels a day. 

Xi, Putin

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow, March 21, 2023.  (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Following President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, China has stood firmly with the Kremlin. Imports of discounted Russian products shot up as secondary sanctions from Washington on this supply never materialized. 

This year, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia to become China’s biggest supplier, providing a record 2.13 million barrels a day in June. Iran and Russia now represent a captive source for about a third of the roughly 10 billion barrels a day China needs.

As an added bonus from a Chinese perspective, the disruptions created by Russia in Ukraine and Iran in Israel create challenging obligations and headaches for the United States, making the much-vaunted pivot to Asia ever more difficult. 

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President Biden has assured Ukraine that America is in it with “as much as it takes for as long as it takes,” which has created a broader European dependence on the United States taking the lead for the duration. 

More starkly, for Israel it will be Israel and America or Israel alone in the war with Hamas and Iran, potentially making this the priority effort. And if Biden eventually signs some version of the “emergency” supplemental he has proposed to deal with these crises, it will add billions more in debt to our already spiraling deficits – making it even more problematic for America to address a third conflict, notably in Taiwan.

While the burgeoning collusion between China, Russia and Iran is daunting, the United States still has opportunities, if it has the will to seize them. 

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If America stands resolutely with Israel while engaging in concerted outreach to Saudi Arabia, peace might not be dead yet. And in an historic shift previously-nonaligned India is standing strongly with Israel – and by extension with the United States. 

Given the reality that India is surpassing China as the world’s most populous country and is a democracy, if America is looking for an alternative to China for both market and manufacturing given the PRC’s increasingly hostile and destabilizing activities with our enemies, India may well represent a much more promising long-term partner to our mutual benefit.

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