Israel War: China, Saudi Arabia Hold Military Drills As Riyadh, Tel Aviv Deal Falls Apart

After a hiatus of four years, China and Saudi Arabia finally kicked off their joint naval drill aimed at simulating actions centered on overseas maritime counterterrorism operations.

According to the PLA Daily, the official publication of the Chinese military, the Blue Sword-2023 special warfare joint training was inaugurated on October 9 at a marine brigade base in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province. The drills got underway less than a month after the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that they would be resumed.

At the time, the Chinese defense ministry noted that the military exercise, called “Blue Sword 2023”, is the second iteration of these drills. The first was the Blue Sword 2019 hosted by Saudi Arabia in 2019. The latest iteration of this drill format comes as Beijing seeks to strengthen military cooperation with the Saudi kingdom.

“The joint training between the special warfare units of the two navies is of great significance to deepening the pragmatic and friendly cooperation between the two militaries and improving the actual combat training level of the troops,” said an unnamed commander of the Chinese joint training unit.

According to a press release, the exercise aims to increase mutual trust and friendly relations between the Chinese and Saudi Arabian navies, improve the naval combat skills of the two participants, and significantly improve the joint operational capabilities of overseas armed rescue units, Global Times reported.

Troops line up at the opening ceremony of the China-Saudi Arabia Blue Sword-2023 joint naval special operations exercise at a camp in Zhanjiang, South China's Guangdong Province, on October 9, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of China's Ministry of National Defense
Opening ceremony of the China-Saudi Arabia Blue Sword-2023 joint naval special operations exercise: Chinese Defense Ministry/Global Times

The reports published in PLA’s official mouthpieces noted that the exercise, which is anticipated to run into three weeks, will be divided into three phases: an essential training phase, a professional training phase, and a comprehensive drill phase with more than 20 training topics like live-fire shooting, fast-roping from helicopters, cabin searches, underwater reconnaissance, sniping-on-command, and underwater explosives disarming.

The drills were accompanied by the optimism expressed by China’s naval experts, who touted the collaboration as a win-win situation for both states.  The simulation of counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations adds teeth to their collaborative efforts, especially since China has generously made inroads in the Middle Eastern region with significant investment, military assets, and shipping lanes it would like to guard.

A Chinese military expert who requested anonymity said, “China has many overseas interests, including investments, cooperation projects, and overseas nationals. Sea routes connecting the Middle East to China are also vital to China’s trade and fuel imports.”

The drills are significant as they come in the wake of China seeking closer ties with Saudi Arabia, including military cooperation. In contrast, the relationship between traditional allies Saudi Arabia and the United States has come under strain recently, especially after the Ukraine War and Riyadh’s stance on volumes of oil production.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman

China has continued to see the strain in Saudi ties with the US as a window, which, according to analysts, became most evident when it swooped to facilitate an agreement this year in which historical adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to fix relations and re-open their respective diplomatic missions.

Having said that, even though the scheduling of this week’s joint exercise was planned in September, it occurs amid an intensifying military war between Israel and Palestine that started on October 7 with unannounced attacks by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip against southern Israeli cities.

Needless to say, with the Hamas attacks, the US attempts to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel are believed to have fallen flat.

US Attempts At Saudi-Israel Peace Falls Apart

A “historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia” appeared to be within reach less than three weeks ago as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat beside President Joe Biden and expressed his astonishment. He projected that this diplomatic development may result in a durable peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In their meeting in New York, Biden and Netanyahu expressed similar optimism, according to the Associated Press. He said, “If you and I were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia 10 years ago, I think we’d look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?'”

However, after being struck by a surprise Hamas attack that caught his country off-guard, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his nation was at war, and Israeli forces encircled the Gaza Strip. This was followed by large-scale air strikes on the Gaza Strip and a complete siege of the enclave. By October 10, there had been more than 1,500 fatalities on both sides.

The attacks, somehow, pulled the breaks on the normalization of ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. In fact, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the potential agreement may have been one of the immediate triggers of the launching of the attack. The US has been trying to broker peace between Israel and Arab countries, in a bid to unite them against regional adversaries like Iran.

The so-called normalization campaign, also known as the Abraham Accords, was launched under the previous administration of President Donald Trump and is an ambitious initiative to alter the region and elevate Israel’s standing in significant ways. However, some have cautioned that it ignores the Palestinians’ quest for statehood.

It might make it possible for additional Arab and Muslim-majority countries to end their opposition to Israel since it was founded in 1948 on territory long occupied by Palestinians. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco all ratified agreements for normalization with Israel under Trump’s prodding.

However, the shocking attack by Hamas and a large portion of the Arab world’s response to it has also raised concerns about whether Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty can be set aside. If Saudi Arabia had signed an agreement with Israel, it would have taken away one of the last Arab countries rallying for Palestine’s sovereignty, in Israel’s corner.


The region is now preparing for even more death and damage and an extensive military campaign by Israel after Netanyahu promised to reduce all Hamas hideouts in Gaza to ashes.

Saudi Arabia has also noted that negotiations for normalization with Israel were impossible, as Tel Aviv declared war on Hamas and has launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip. In a statement issued shortly after the bombings, the foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia refused to denounce Hamas.

Instead, the ministry pointed out that it has repeatedly warned that Israel’s “occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations” had led to this situation.