Get Involved

China’s Camp David Moment?

Weaponizing economic prowess, military might and expansionist doctrines may limit China’s role notwithstanding Saudi Iran deal

Dr Amritpal Kaur

Camp David Accord of 1978 was a diplomatic coup for President Jimmy Carter. It was an Accord that brought open hostilities between Israel and Egypt to an end and peace in Sinai Peninsula. Though President Sadat of Egypt had to pay for the Accord with his life, it was an unprecedent moment in West Asia when a major Arab country concluded a pact with the Jewish State.


It was also an exhibit of American diplomatic heft, a stroke of politics in optics where Muslim and Jewish states could be brought to the negotiation table.

One assumption of world power is its belief that its mediation would be welcomed by parties engaged in disputes to break the stalemate as well as find a solution. Camp David is also an example to bring currency to the idea that a powerful mediator could possibly bring seemingly antagonist parties together and alter the tone of international relations. It also emphasizes psychological acceptance of the greater power by other nations. It is announcement of the superpower on global stage.

Though US superiority could be contested even then, Egypt and Israel were forced into the accord. What perhaps could not have been denied is USA’ ability to project itself as an accepted world power.  

Recently, China sought to enact its own Camp David moment through a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia is the leading Sunni country and Iran is an undisputed Shia leader. For decades these countries have been at loggerheads stemming from their alternate Islamic belief systems and competitive bid to be undisputed leader of the Islamic world.

The deal between the two would be a milestone if it enables the two warring countries to better manage their differences better though permanent solutions are nowhere in sight. If this happens, then there’s outside chance to ring in peace across MENA region with direct implication for Yemen war that has been going on for years now.

On the other hand, USA bid to broker a diplomatic deal between Saudis and Israel has not worked till now. US failure may be attributed to chilly relations between Washington DC and Riyadh since Democratic White House under President Joe Biden took charge. Also, Saudi Arabia seems to have played the China card deftly to counter-balance US, its long standing ally.

Given the changing global power equations, countries seem to be playing one power against the other to secure their respective interests. In this melee, China has upped the diplomatic ante. By leaving East Asian shores and engaging with West Asia, China seems to be testing waters. Saudi Arabia – Iran deal may be an opportunity for China to attempt shifting its positioning globally more as a deal maker rather than being seen as a global encroacher. However, there are limits to Chinese capacities to act as a credible global power broker of first resort.

Since 2013 there has been a sense of urgency in Chinese set up to project itself as an acceptable global power. But then, turning a global power may not be easy and has to turn a ‘magnanimous player’ rather than limiting itself to Chinese interests under Xi’s new doctrine.

For long, West Asia, especially Saudi Arabia was seen as a close USA ally. Geographical location of Israel along with its security challenge, another close ally of USA, the need for petroleum products had necessitated good relations between the Saudis and the West.

From Saudi perspective also, allowing China to broker a deal with Iran may tantamount to ‘testing waters’ with the dragon state, at the same time signaling to USA of diversification of its interests.

Increased Chinese assertiveness and aggression coupled with ambition is the phenomenon which has taken the western world off-guard. Wolf Warrior diplomacy coupled with expansionist military posturing on the borders, both territorial and maritime points demonstrates Beijing’s intentions vis-à-vis it’s much sought after branding of a ‘peaceful negotiator’.

‘Image makeover bid’ of China has been seen through as it weaponised its economic power to coerce other countries across the oceans. Diversification of Supply Chains, Friend-shoring, Near-shoring, China plus One are the strategies adopted by several countries to hedge against the Chinese coercion. 

Bonhomie between two communist powers China – Russia is something that worries to no end most global community that believes in free and open democratic order. This bonhomie got cemented in the wake of Ukraine crisis and their noise on ‘possible alternative global order’.

Given the limitations, Saudi – Iran agreement may not translate into a Camp David Moment as the deal may not translate into gains for either of countries. Resumption of diplomatic relations between the two has been put on a tentative timeline which only suggest that there is a tip-toeing around the idea of lasting peace between leading Shia and Sunni countries. The acceptance of Chinese mediation has not convinced them to shed their differences unlike the accord between Israel and Egypt in the bygone era.

The world has clearly moved away from cold war mentality of bipolar world order. Each country has its calculations in place of the blind camp following. For example, Saudi Arabia has accepted Chinese mediation because of its stressed relations with USA in aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi murder and pricing of petroleum products in the wake of Ukraine crisis. Same is the case with Iran. Crippling sanctions placed by USA under the Trump regime has pushed Iran into a tight corner with an acute economic impact felt across the country.  Covert role of Russia in the deal takes the number of mediators to two.

China and Russia, it is argued, were busy enlisting anti-USA countries as friends. Apart from Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were others to be brought into the orbit. Will China manage to create one such group in the near future where world order gets altered? What would be Russia’s standing given that its diplomatic legacy has cleared the ground for China in mediation?

In this transition, India is uniquely placed by pursuing an independent calibrated stand on Ukraine and maintained strategic maneuvering space based on its core interests. Evolution of Indian foreign policy in last decade has shed India’s ideological baggage of the bygone era and brought some of its own interests to the fore.

As the situation evolves in West Asia post Saudi – Iran deal, India will have to keep a hawk’s eye on relations with both these countries. One big option for India may be to evolve into a sharp power from limiting itself to being a soft power.

(author is a contributing fellow with non-partisan think tank, Centre for Integrated and Holistic Studies based in New Delhi)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *