China enjoys good relations with Gulf Cooperation Council countries these days, especially after this engagement has been upgraded to a “strategic partnership,” meaning close cooperation in all fields, from economic to political to security. How can this partnership be further developed, as both sides are eager to see?
GCC-China relations were not always this strong and positive. For example, China and Saudi Arabia did not establish a diplomatic relationship until 1990, after China began its political and economic transformation. Since the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it has favored revolutionary change everywhere, including the Gulf.
With the economic transformation led by Deng Xiaoping, the adoption of a socialist economy and opening up to the outside world, and the race to build a global economic power, China has traded in revolutionary slogans for a more pragmatic policy and respect for international standards, including support for stability and the existing political systems. China’s rapid economic growth has fueled its need for energy, leading it to recognize the need for a stable security structure in the Gulf, which provides the lion’s share of its oil, gas and petrochemical imports. With this transformation, China was able to establish a strong presence in the Gulf.
The GCC-China political rapprochement led to the rapid development of economic relations. Trade exchange between China and the GCC countries exceeded $180 billion in 2019, accounting for 11 percent of the GCC’s foreign trade. In 2020, China replaced the EU as the GCC’s top trading partner. This represents a big shift from 1990 when diplomatic relations were first established between Saudi Arabia and China; at the time, China-GCC trade was less than $1.5 billion, representing a mere 1 percent of the total volume of Gulf trade.
With regard to Gulf security, there is a clear paradox. As China-US rivalry intensifies, Beijing still relies on the existing security structure in the Gulf to protect its oil supplies and exports, a structure that is based on a decades-old partnership between the GCC states and the US. But this arrangement shows China’s pragmatism, as any alternative security for China’s oil supplies would be costly and complicated to set up.
The growing China-GCC ties are not related to securing oil supplies only. During a visit by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to China in February 2019, several bilateral agreements were signed, including a $10 billion deal to establish a refining and petrochemical complex in China. In parallel to this visit, a Saudi-Chinese investment forum was held in Riyadh, in which 35 agreements worth more than $28 billion were signed. There was a 100 percent increase in the volume of Chinese investment in Saudi Arabia during 2019. The developments are similar with the rest of the GCC countries, where 25 percent of chemical and petrochemical exports are destined for China.
Years ago, the GCC welcomed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and some GCC member states are actively involved in implementing the initiative on the ground. China-GCC relations have grown to include mutual support in international forums. China sent several military attachés speaking fluent Arabic to countries of the region in an effort to develop these relations. Cultural ties are also being strengthened, with the establishment of Chinese language schools in the region, and Saudi Arabia’s decision to teach Chinese in schools.
A meeting in November 2020 between Chinese and GCC foreign ministers highlighted the real and tangible enthusiasm for the development of this cooperation.
Here are some other suggestions to help expand China-GCC ties.
The first involves Beijing’s relationship with Tehran. As of 2019, China imported only about 3 percent of its oil needs from Iran, a small percentage that can be easily replaced from other sources, compared to imports from the GCC countries, which constitute more than 32 percent of its oil needs.
In an indication of the current status of China-Iran relations, the chief nuclear negotiator to Iran, Ali Salehi, in December 2020, expressed Tehran’s readiness to stand by Joe Biden against China, in the event that the new US administration showed flexibility in dealing with Iran.
In what seems to be an attempt to shuffle the cards, the Persian text of a proposed agreement between Iran and China was leaked. Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif said that the agreement establishes a strategic partnership between the two nations for the next 25 years. The leak raised some questions as to the real value of the agreement and whether or not it was exaggerated.
One of the requirements for the strategic partnership between the GCC and China is for the two to have regular mechanisms for frank dialogue on all issues. In particular, there is a need to reconcile China’s support, as a permanent member of the Security Council, with international standards governing relations between states, and its relationship with Iran. There is no doubt about China’s keenness to stabilize the Gulf region, by adhering to international law and the UN Charter, which are based on respect for national borders, political independence, and non-interference in internal affairs. All of these principles are frequently violated by Iran as it continues to recruit, train, arm, fund and dispatch terrorist groups and sectarian fanatic militias to destabilize its neighbors.
Likewise, the UN Charter prohibits the use or threat of force, and calls for resorting to international charters and organizations to resolve disputes between states. Iran’s hard-liners refuse to abide by such organizations, such as the International Court of Justice, and view them as pro-Western and inherently biased against Iran.
China can achieve an important breakthrough by persuading Iran to give up its revolutionary orientation, as China itself did several decades ago, starting by ceasing support for terrorist and sectarian groups.
China could have a greater role through support for the expansion of negotiations with Iran regarding its regional activities and its missile, drone, and nuclear programs, while supporting the participation of the GCC countries in those negotiations.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.