China to pay a steep price in Saudi-Iran conflict

Heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil, China cannot afford a full-scale war in the region.

Uighur Muslim women trading food at the Turpan city market in Turpan, China [Getty]
Beijing is worried about how worsening sectarian disputes in the Middle East will further fuel extremist ideology in its Muslim-populated regions, writes Heydarian [Getty]

The ongoing Saudi-Iranian diplomatic crisis has quickly morphed into a full-scale regional Cold War.

Shortly after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy and consulate in Tehran and Mashhad, Saudi Arabia chose to cut off diplomatic ties with Iran. Other Sunni Arab nations, from Bahrain and Qatar to Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, have followed suit by either downgrading or totally severing their diplomatic ties with the Shia powerhouse.

Worried about a dangerous escalation of regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has already affected conflict-ridden nations such as Yemen and Syria, world powers have stepped in.

Inside Story – Stern message from Saudi Arabia

The Obama administration called for maintenance of “diplomatic engagement and direct conversations”, while John Kerry, the US secretary of state, directly appealed to his Iranian and Saudi counterparts to de-escalate tensions.

Emerging discords

A Russian official, meanwhile, has indicated Moscow’s willingness to mediate “the settlement of existing and emerging discords” between the two estranged neighbours.

Both Washington and Moscow are worried that the Saudi-Iranian spat will torpedo ongoing efforts at bringing about peace in Syria, while undermining the prospects of mobilising an international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). China is another major power that is deeply worried about the geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East.

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia and Iran and how we got here

The Asian juggernaut is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil. And it can’t afford a full-scale conflagration in a region, which is the source of the bulk (51.2 percent) of its energy imports.

Beijing is ... worried about how worsening sectarian disputes in the Middle East will further fuel extremist ideology.


Confronting a burgeoning insurgency in its Muslim-populated regions, particularly in Xinjiang, Beijing is also worried about how worsening sectarian disputes in the Middle East will further fuel extremist ideology, providing a haven for international terror groups, which have China in their crosshair.

Alliance of civilisations

In The Clash of Civilizations (1996), one of the most controversial books in recent times, Samuel Huntington warned the West about the emergence of a hostile “Confucian-Islamic” alliance of civilisations, which is bent on “opposing the West” on a range of issues, including human rights and arms build-up.

Among Confucian countries, he singled out China and North Korea, emphasizing their long-running strategic and military cooperation with (Shia) Iran and (Sunni) Pakistan. China was instrumental to the development of conventional military as well as nuclear capabilities of both Muslim nations.

With respect to Iran, Beijing viewed the Middle Eastern power as both a reliable bulwark against Western hegemony in the Middle East as well as a steady and affordable source of hydrocarbon resources.

North Korea's top leader Kim Jong-un [EPA]
North Korea’s top leader Kim Jong-un [EPA]

Over the years, amid deepening tensions between Tehran and the West, particularly over the former’s nuclear programme, China replaced Europe as Iran’s top source of technology and capital.

But this didn’t prevent China from cultivating deeper economic engagement with Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which gradually anticipated a post-US order in the Middle East.

Over the past decade, China’s trade with the Middle East expanded by 600 percent, reaching $230bn. Despite its growing economic preponderance, Beijing’s policy approach to the region, however, was marked by commercial pragmatism and low-key diplomacy.

Proactive diplomacy

The deepening sectarian conflagration in the Middle East, however, is threatening China’s expanding interests in the Middle East. Though Saudi-Iranian tensions have so far had a minimal impact on oil prices, any major regional conflict will adversely impact China’s energy security.

READ MORE: Iran and Saudi Arabia: The art of Islamic tolerance

It was precisely the concern over regional stability that encouraged Chinato play a key role in facilitating the implementation of the Iranian nuclear agreement, even if this allows a post-sanctions Tehran to reduce its economic dependence on Beijing. Saudi-Iranian cooperation is also key to resolving the ongoing civil wars in places such as Yemen and Syria, which have gradually become a haven for extremist groups.

Beijing's troubled relations with its Muslim minority ... is a key reason behind China's growing anxieties...


Amid the diplomatic breakdown between Tehran and Riyadh, China expressed its concern “that this may intensify regional disputes”, encouraging involved parties to “enhance their communication on the issue of counter-terrorism” and focus on forging “joint efforts” against terror groups.

Beijing’s troubled relations with its Muslim minority, particularly the Uighur population in Xinjiang, is a key reason behind China’s growing anxieties over the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and beyond.

Just recently, China introduced its first “counterterrorism” law, which is broadly seen as a new measure to suppress any form of protest and rebellion among the Uighur population, who have opposed socio-political and cultural marginalisation under Beijing’s rule.

Communal violence

In light of increased communal violence and the spread of radicalisation in Xinjiang, Beijing fears that the infiltrationof ISIL and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups into its western borders.


Crucially, ISIL’s execution of a Chinese national in late-2015 prompted Beijing to discard its low-key diplomacy in the Middle East in favour of a more proactive, albeit calibrated, approach. And regional powers such as Iran have openly welcomed this development.

There have been reports that China has dispatched military advisers to aid the fight against ISIL in Syria, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy roaming the Mediterranean to provide any necessary support in an event of contingency.

More than ever, China finds itself sucked into the quagmire that is the Middle East. And as other great powers have long ago discovered, China has no easy options in this hostile theatre. Any conflict between its two leading regional partners, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will only compound China’s dilemma. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.