First, China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that enjoys good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. In response to this observation, one Beijing-based Chinese expert on the Middle East quipped to Al-Monitor: “We don’t have good relations [with Iran and Saudi Arabia]. We have normal relations.” Yet, this normalcy may very well be the key to effective conflict resolution.
Indeed, in a climate where other major powers carry unhelpful baggage and are faced with deep mistrust by their own regional allies — Saudi Arabia’s hesitance about the United States is not very different from Iran’s reservations about Russia — China has a far greater flexibility due to its “cleaner” scorecard. The deep anxieties in Tehran and Riyadh about the potential for US-Russian collaboration over their heads should not be underestimated; even if great power convergence helps calm the situation in Syria, the anxieties it could unleash can very well spell trouble elsewhere.
Second, current economic realities also boost China’s unique opportunity to truly step up to the plate. Oil exports from South Sudan, where Beijing has not hesitated to roll up its sleeves, only account for a few percent of total Chinese oil imports. In comparison, Tehran and Riyadh have at some points this year provided one-quarter of China’s crude imports.