China replaced the European Union as the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) largest trading partner last year, and since US imports from the region have been steadily falling, it is no surprise that both sides are looking to consolidate and upgrade their ties. Over the years, China has become the key market for all oil-producing nations as Beijing is eager to secure a stable supply for its ever-growing energy demands. Currently, Gulf countries play a leading role in supplying China with over 40 percent of its oil imports.
In an effort to speed up the signing of the China-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and security cooperation initiated in 2004, a high-profile delegation from the GCC countries went on a five-day visit to China on January 10. The delegation was led by foreign ministers from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the Secretary-General of the GCC.
A high-profile delegation from the GCC countries went on a five-day visit to China on January 10.
This has been considered a diplomatic maneuver by Beijing, which is trying to ease the Gulf countries’ concerns regarding China’s accord with Iran and its 25-year cooperation agreement exchanging Chinese investments for Iranian oil. These diplomatic activities are also closely related to China’s efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal, which is a precondition for reaching security and stability in the Middle East.
These developments are closely monitored by Washington, which considers China as the main rival and threat to its global geopolitical agenda. Lately, the US has increased its efforts with its allies to counter China in emerging strategic competition, with the Gulf possibly becoming one of the main arenas of Sino-US tactical rivalry.
While enhancing trade and economic cooperation has been China’s main focus for decades, Beijing has gradually broadened its interests outside the economy through the inclusion of military and security phases.
Dr. Alessandro Arduino, the principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI) at the National University of Singapore, told Inside Arabia that Beijing becoming the Gulf and the overall MENA region’s economic and technological juggernaut will advance its geopolitical objectives on the global chessboard.
So far, China has only pursued a non-alliance approach and stayed absent from the conflict zones, avoiding any costly military expenses and obligations attached to making commitments to defend other parties’ interests.
But this traditional approach may bring about some changes. Last November, the Wall Street Journal obtained a US intelligence report from March 2021, which claimed that China was secretly building a military site at Khalifa Port near Abu Dhabi.
A US intelligence report from March 2021 claimed that China was secretly building a military site at Khalifa Port near Abu Dhabi.
According to Guy Burton, adjunct professor at the Brussels-based Vesalius College and visiting fellow at Lancaster University, it is still unclear what has happened at the port near Abu Dhabi since the news first broke. Although the Emiratis halted work, we don’t know whether this was previously agreed upon and the UAE was just caught by US officials or if the construction was taking place without Emirati approval, which, if true, would be a shocking state of affairs.
For a long time, China avoided deploying its armed forces outside its territory. Thus far, it has only established one military base, located in Djibouti, which is tasked with suppressing piracy in the Horn of Africa region.
Therefore, having a military installation in the Gulf would be quite a step up for China, as it could also bring Beijing closer to the Gulf’s problems, especially those between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Burton’s opinion, it’s not entirely clear whether China wants to become embroiled in those differences.
“Although it has cultivated both sides and encouraged the two to talk to each other […] it’s hard to see what benefit it can get from inserting itself directly between them, or even taking on an active role to resolve their differences,” he told Inside Arabia. Any failure regarding the mediation would certainly damage China’s prestige.
Dr. John Calabrese, professor of US foreign policy at American University in Washington, DC, also thinks that China has yet to abandon its non-alliance policy, nor has it developed the ability to establish a permanent military presence in the Middle East. Though, this does not mean that Beijing has foregone all efforts militarily. He believes that engagement in military diplomacy, limited joint exercises, regular ports of call, and arms sales in niche categories are now well-established features of China’s involvement across the region.
These activities represent – and are justified by – Beijing as “normal affairs” of state, conducted in parallel with the development of comprehensive relations with regional partners. However, “as the recent case in UAE perhaps indicates, China might well be interested in developing facilities in the region that would increase its capacity to gather (military) intelligence,” Calabrese told Inside Arabia.
The decades-old policy of non-interference will not shield Beijing from getting entangled in the Middle East’s conflicts.
Still, according to Dr. Arduino, the decades-old policy of non-interference will not shield Beijing from getting entangled in the Middle East’s conflicts. Beijing will shape its policy according to what he likes to call “balanced vagueness,” placing bets on all sides. There is still a policy of non-alignment in the region, but it differs from its previous stance of non-interference.
The same could be said for many Middle Eastern countries when it comes to China, observes Dr. Burton. He says the relationship is a form of hedging: where a government tries to spread its bets and maximize benefits while minimizing risk by being as friendly as possible and avoiding confrontation.
“Hedging is usually employed when the wider international situation is uncertain […] It’s not only because the US is perceived to be in relative decline or less interested, but also because of the large number of regional states who are able to act independently but are unable to subdue the others,” Dr. Arduino further explained.
As for Ahmed Aboudouh, a non-resident fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council and senior journalist for The Independent, Gulf countries may use the US and China’s increasing competition to keep hedging their bets between the two powers. At the same time, they realize no power can match the US military presence in the region and its ability to conduct a successful military intervention to protect its security and interests.
Gulf countries may use the US and China’s increasing competition to keep hedging their bets between the two powers.
The US also developed close military relations with local armies, which dwarfs any other power in regard to selling weapons to the GCC states. Finally, Calabrese points out that “when an attack occurs or a crisis erupts in or near the Gulf, the phone rings in Washington, and not in Beijing.”
That will remain the case for the foreseeable future since MENA – and especially the Gulf governments — seek to balance their relations with the US and China. The former continues to provide a security umbrella while the latter serves as an increasingly important economic partner.
This was more than evident after the recent Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi last month, which, Ahmed Aboudouh told Inside Arabia, were largely met with a muted reaction from China. Proof that the Gulf states do not see China as a potential security interlocutor in the region.
Some officials in Washington described China as the US’ top “adversary.”
However, as geopolitical rivalry with China has heated up over the years, and some officials in Washington described China as the US’ top “adversary,” there is still uncertainty regarding how the contention may affect the Gulf states – and whether they may expect increased pressure from the US, especially regarding its strategic and military cooperation with Beijing.
Calabrese observes that US officials have put more pressure on allies and partners in the Middle East to limit their cooperation with China, especially in high-tech areas. He thinks that “the US campaign against Huawei is highly relevant as US officials have sought to prevent the construction of a Sino-centered tech ecosystem that could enable China to become a dominant player in emerging technologies. “
While a Chinese role as a security provider in the Middle East is still a matter of foresight, Dr. Arduino observes that Gulf digitalization under the Digital Silk Road (DSR) is already here. The Gulf countries’ economic diversification to hedge against an overreliance on oil revenues is progressively pushing its monarchies towards Beijing’s digital embrace.
Dr. Arduino noted that from a security standpoint, integrating Chinese technologies into national Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructures has broader implications for national security. Particularly with the US as the primary security guarantor. “Unlike the US, China regards cyberspace as sovereign territory, and the use of Chinese Big Data and related hardware by the Gulf monarchies is going to have a longstanding impact on their security,” he told Inside Arabia.
The saga around the US selling the UAE F-35 stealth fighter jets is a case in point. Ahmed Aboudouh explained that although the UAE government insists that US high-tech weapon systems, such as the highly valued F-35 stealth fighter jets, are not vulnerable to Chinese espionage or technology transfer to China, many in the US administration are still concerned.
“The government and Chinese Communist Party is legally entitled to acquire any type of data they feel necessary to have.”
In part, this is due to the Chinese government’s free access to SOEs (State Owned Enterprises), as well as privately-owned companies, such as Huawei, and others’ data. “The data security law, passed last June, gave the government more powers to access ‘core state data,’ a loose term to ensure the government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP} are legally entitled to acquire any type of data they feel necessary to have, including data on the crown-jewel of the US fighter jet technology and military techniques,” Aboudouh explained to Inside Arabia.
It seems that the current state of relations between the US and Gulf nations is determined by mutual uncertainty and the absence of commitments, where both sides are exploring secondary options. While Gulf states have shown a willingness to operate independently and not always in line with US interests, Burton views this primarily in the light of the changing Middle East, which goes beyond US goals or capacity.
Dr. Rodger Shanahan, a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute, and other observers do not think that there has been any fundamental shift in the balance of power. While China is seeking to expand its influence, it also has natural limitations. The Gulf states are quite sensitive to international criticism. The closer one gets to China, the more open it becomes to external condemnation.
There is also the risk of relying on the Chinese military, which has little operational experience – particularly in overseas operations. Finally, “unlike other elements of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Gulf states don’t necessarily ‘need’ Chinese investments in the same way as other states do, hence their ability to limit their interactions with Beijing is more marked,” Shanahan told Inside Arabia.
Nevertheless, closer cooperation with China offers them a greater maneuvering space in their relations with other powers, especially the US, while improving their leverage and negotiating positions.