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Proposal for Mediation by Iran, Pakistan, and China – The Diplomat

The recent security situation between Iran and Pakistan created consternation in a world already concerned with rising conflict in the region, but it also brought to fore the rising presence of China as a mediator. This was not the first time, given China’s role last year in the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China’s offer to mediate between Iran and Pakistan can be understood as a result of three factors. One, China has immediate security concerns for state-owned Chinese firms and Chinese nationals in the region, including those working on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects in Pakistan. Two, China’s diplomatic approach has undergone an assertive shirt under President Xi Jinping, who is intent on “building a global community of shared future.” And last, China’s growing role is a result of the political vacuum in the region, including Afghanistan and the Middle East.  Late on January 16, Iranian forces launched strikes inside Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, claiming they were conducting a counterterrorism operation. Iranian press reported that Iran’s missiles and combat drones had wiped out two major strongholds of the group Jaish al-Adl, or “army of justice,” in the Koh-e-Sabz area of the province. The strike was retaliation for the killing of 11 police officers in December, during an attack on police headquarters in Iran’s province of Sistan and Baluchestan, which Jaish al-Adl had claimed.

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, in a telephone conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Jalil Abbas Jillani, emphasized that the operation was not against Pakistani citizens but Iranian terrorists.  Pakistani officials, however, condemned the attack, claiming it had killed  “two innocent children while injuring three girls.” They called Iran’s cross-border strike a flagrant breach of international law and withdrew their ambassador from Iran and informed Iran’s ambassador not to return to Pakistan from his trip.  Within 12 hours of the foreign ministers’ call, Pakistan carried out operation Marg Bar Sarmachar,  conducting reciprocal strikes inside Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran against Pakistani-origin terrorists. An Iranian security official in the province reported that Pakistan’s strike used three drones and killed 10 Pakistani women and children. The emphasis by the Iranian official on the nationality of the victims – Pakistani, not Iranian – suggests that Iran may consider the matter settled, given Iran had stated it was targeting non-Pakistanis in its own operation.  Another phone call between the foreign ministers, this time agreeing to de-escalate the situation, appeared to confirm the matter is more or less closed – for now. It remains to be seen if their rhetoric will ratchet up in coming days, given both countries will be holding elections soon, Pakistan in early February and Iran in March this year.  The Iran-Pakistan strikes stood out internationally because of their timing and proximity to other security incidents in the region. Amid the ongoing destruction Israel has been carrying out in Gaza, within the space of one week the United States and United Kingdom carried out counterterrorism operations against the Houthis in Yemen, and Iran struck targets in Erbil, Iraq, and northern Syria in security operations. With such intense violence in such a short space of time, there was real danger of escalation in the region, with Pakistan’s angry rhetoric and counter-strikes added to the mix. But then China publicly raised concerns about Iran’s counterterrorism operation in Pakistan’s Balochistan, noting that “all countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity should be earnestly respected and protected.” The same Foreign Ministry spokesperson asked both “close neighbors and major Islamic countries” to show restraint. Following Pakistan’s counter-strike in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan region, China once more appealed for calm. What’s more, Beijing expressed a desire to play the role of mediator, potentially via the Pakistan-China-Iran trilateral consultation on counterterrorism and security, set up in June 2023. While the United States had also officially expressed a desire to see de-escalation between Iran and Pakistan, their public response was not the same as China’s offer of mediation. Given the immense U.S.  diplomatic engagement already in the region, as a result of their support for Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza, and counterterrorism operations against the Houthis in the Red Sea, Washington appeared less concerned with events between Iran and Pakistan than China was. Three factors help explain China’s response. First, and most immediately, China was concerned for the security and safety of state-owned Chinese companies and Chinese workers inside Pakistan’s Balochistan province, the site of Iran’s strikes. Chinese companies are active throughout the province as part of CPEC. The China Metallurgical Group Corp’s Saindak Copper-Gold Mine project is in the northwest corner of Balochistan. In southwest Balochistan, companies such as the Chinese Overseas Ports Holding Company (COPHC) are responsible for Gwadar Port and the Free Trade Zone. Other Chinese projects in Balochistan include the New Gwadar International Airport (NGIA), and a coal-fired power plant, to name but a few. The safety of those companies and their Chinese workers is paramount for the Chinese government.  Any further deterioration in relations between Iran and Pakistan – and an accompanying security crisis – could threaten the future of CPEC, considered the crucial flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. (While China and Iran have also signed a 25-Year Strategic Cooperation Agreement, partly due to U.S. sanctions, the Chinese footprint inside Iran has been limited.) In May 2023, China’s short tenured foreign minister, Qin Gang, in a rare occurrence publicly censured Pakistani politicians out of concern for the progress of CPEC. Any tension between Iran and Pakistan, especially in Balochistan province, where security is already an issue for China, would be of concern to Beijing. The second factor in China’s mediation offer is the assertive shift seen in China’s diplomacy under Xi Jinping. It is based around “China’s contribution to global efforts to protect our shared home and create a better future of prosperity for all” – China’s version of a new global order. This was underlined in the recently held Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in December. Xi appeared to emphasize breaking new ground in major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, urging Chinese diplomats  to “forge a diplomatic iron army.” In Pakistan, this became evident in the flurry of newspaper articles written by China’s new ambassador, Jiang Zaidong, as well as a television interview for a news channel. Other Chinese diplomats in Pakistan followed suit, writing similar articles to explain important takeaways from the December conference.  Before the Iran-Pakistan tensions, China had also offered to play a constructive role in what they called the “Ukraine crisis,” reflecting this newly assertive diplomatic shift. China’s role in restoring diplomatic relations  between Saudi Arabia and Iran is another example of China’s willingness to assert its diplomatic credentials in the region. Although China did not initiate the talks, they nevertheless chose to act as a neutral broker toward the end. The success of Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation, so far, appears to have given China confidence to put itself forward in mediation between others, such as in the case of Iran and Pakistan.  A third factor that helps to explain China’s mediation offer is the political vacuum in the region. The U.S. influence in Afghanistan has plummeted after the withdrawal of American forces and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban. The U.S. presence in the Middle East  more broadly has been impacted by Washington’s strategic decision to focus on competition with China instead. This made it not only easier but imperative for China to step in and lead diplomatic endeavors in the region.  China’s growing role in Afghanistan became evident when Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Tianjin with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, then the head of the Taliban’s Political Commission, ahead of the U.S. withdrawal. Later, Chinese leader Xi Jinping participated in regional forums discussing Afghanistan’s future, such as the Meeting on Afghanistan of the Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). China also set up a regional forum to discuss Afghanistan’s future, the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Afghan Issue Among the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan. From these meetings emerged the China led  Tunxi Initiative, an economic and humanitarian agenda, in which Afghanistan’s neighbors, including China, pledged support for the country. Chinese diplomats however, emphasize China’s support comes with the requirement that the Taliban must not allow any group to engage in…

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