Party time in Beijing: Xi Jinping coronates self, thumbs nose at U.S. with Saudi-Iran deal

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By John J. Metzler, March 13, 2023

The theatrical pomp and circumstance of China’s National People’s Congress presents an annual political ritual on the verge of Spring. Nearly 3,000 delegates assembled in Beijing to participate in the week long sessions and delivered-on-demand results for the ruling Communist Party leadership; formalizing the unprecedented third term for Chairman/President Xi Jinping, endorsing the new Premier Li Qiang and approving an 7.2 percent increase in the defense budget.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines China orchestrated a diplomatic surprise in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed in Beijing on March 10, 2023 to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions. / China Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Congress allows for rhetorical flourishes, political sideswipes at the United States, and grandiose posturing about key themes such as the Belt and Road initiative. Equally, it dutifully endorsed the decisions already made by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 20th  Congress last October.

The key point is that Xi Jinping solidified his status as the longest ruling Chinese communist leader since the despot Mao Tse-tung. He was enthusiastically reelected by delegates from across Mainland China’s vastness.

Cheering and clapping on demand remains a rote ritual of the National People’s Congress delegates. Their role is to endorse the CCP’s diktat.

Politically scapegoating the USA has been ramped up; the new Foreign Minister Qin Gang, himself a former Ambassador in Washington, knows how to dial the vitriol and control the narrative towards the U.S. Both the U.S. and Chinese speak of “guardrails” to channel and protect the two-way political relationship, but events may have bypassed this aspiration.

Yet such rhetorical antics are not novel; the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949, regularly espoused strident anti-Americanism throughout the majority of its history. In recent decades Beijing’s mercantilism overshadowed its traditional Marxist animus towards the West but now that business ties have temporarily soured, it’s game on for old school politics.

In the wake of the COVID crisis and the global economic turndowns affecting China, Xi Jinping has directly criticized the U.S. as being to blame for China’s economic problems; “In the past, Western countries led by the United States have continued and suppressed us in an all-round way, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our development.”

Despite commercial frictions between Washington and Beijing, the two-way trade between both countries reached $691 billion last year. Beijing benefits from a whopping $383 billion trade deficit with the U.S.!

The new Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned Washington bluntly:  Sino/U.S. relations have “seriously deviated,” adding “if the U.S side does not put on the brakes and continues down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can stop the derailment and rollover into confrontation and conflict.”   Such bellicose statements coming from a Foreign Minister are troubling.

Significantly, China’s Foreign Ministry orchestrated a landmark Middle East peace deal between rival states Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The surprise announcement after four days of hushed negotiations in Beijing saw the wary Saudis agree to reestablish diplomatic relations with arch rival Iran.  But in the bigger picture both Saudi Arabia and Iran are closely tied to Beijing; China remains the biggest market for Saudi petroleum.

Last December Xi Jinping made a high profile visit to the Kingdom with plans to supplant the U.S. as the Saudi’s key ally.

Clearly Beijing is profiting from Saudi nervousness about American commitments and changing regional power dynamics. Veteran Chinese diplomat and former Foreign Minister Wan Li said, “This is a victory for dialogue, a victory for peace, offering major good news at a time of much turbulence in the world.”

It’s also a victory for China in a part of the world where Washington’s influence may be waning, especially following Joe Biden’s humiliating Afghanistan debacle.

While the Saudi/Iran deal may defuse tensions in the long running Yemen proxy conflict, the true dynamic rests in China’s sidelining the U.S. State Department efforts, enhancing Iran’s political role, and highlighting Beijing’s emergence as a regional power broker in the Middle East.

Equally it’s a big economic win for Beijing whose oil imports from Saudi Arabia will presumably be paid for in China’s currency the Yuan, not U.S. Dollars as was the past standard.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Saudi Arabia is in discussions to sell its petroleum to China and be paid in Yuan, after trading crude exclusively in American dollars for nearly 50 years.  Such transactions would emerge as a genuine game changer.

Both Israel and the United States seem to have been surprised by Beijing’s diplomatic gambit. But is China set to play a long-term political game in the Middle East?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]