China swims in Gulf waters

Abdullah Bishara

Published: Updated:

The new Gulf headline is that China has found itself a seat in the region in an unexpected precedent born out of Chinese ambition and Iranian distress amid a Gulf surprise.

Many years ago, China has embarked on an investment expansion program. Asian and African countries played a role in the Chinese investment project by providing China with maritime and land-based facilities that will enable it to build ports and roads that will connect China with European markets through Africa and the coast of South America.

China did not expect to be whisked by surprise to the Gulf coast during this period; however, Iranian conflicts with Western countries--and particularly with the United States--opened the doors of the Gulf region to China, which was warmly welcomed by the Iranians as an unexpected rescuer.

The West’s sanctions on Tehran varied and escalated commensurate to the scale of the tension created by Iran’s hurried acts to expand its influence in the Gulf, the Levant Basin, and Yemen. The Iranians have also benefited from conflicts brewing in Palestine between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, from the brutal Israeli actions, and from Houthi intransigence and aggression. Iran never hesitates to infiltrate any crack to build Iranian positions that may spare the Islamic Republic the detriment of a confrontation.

China had no historical presence in the Gulf and only recently did it become acquainted with the Gulf environment. Similarly, Russian tsarist expansions did not reach the Gulf. The region has maintained relations with Great Britain from the nineteenth century until recently. No heavyweight visitor with an oversized ambition—Asian or Russian—had ever before arrived in the region. Relations remained stable with Britain because of the confluence of interests and acceptance of security arrangements that were not so stringent, nor did a foreign guest from Britain or the United States arrive in the region to possibly pose a threat to the interests of Gulf allies.

It can be said that the circumstances provided China with a warm invitation from Iran to be hosted on Iranian islands in the Gulf where it can set up ports, warehouses and roads that will aid China—with all its ambitions—to reach European markets.

Iran’s call for China was prompted by political distress and the need for financial support, which it receives through a Chinese guarantee to buy Iranian oil, enabling Tehran to thwart the blockade mechanisms imposed by the West, particularly the US. Moreover, it endows Iran with the political cover it needs to evade any international condemnation, protects its reputation from being smeared by accusations, and safeguards it from tough sanctions. Iran is further heartened by these arrangements it struck with China due to the onlooking Russians monitoring the situation and watching China play a part in strengthening Iranian immunity. All the aforementioned only adds to the notion that Iran is capable of overcoming the damage it incurred and that its record is worthy of allowing goodwill a chance, notwithstanding its troubled internal situation.

But the danger that the Gulf Cooperation Council must heed from this bloc is that Iran might indulge in championing itself as the beacon of revolution and the protector of the vulnerable, which will ultimately harm the Gulf communities, especially on the background of international efforts against Iran’s actions towards Gulf States. This will lead the region to resurrect the gunboat diplomacy that had prevailed during the past two centuries.

What are China’s goals from the Belt and Road Initiative?

Here, there are a variety of objectives at play that constitute a whole array of ambitions, including access to world markets, exporting and excerpting from the finest technological configurations monopolized by giant corporations, particularly in the US, as well as the imposition of a Chinese presence in world trade with ever-expanding influence. This is prompting the world to understand China’s diverse realities with its innovations, achievements, population weight, geographical movements, and its omnipresence in the financials of most world budgets.

The Chinese proliferation resulted from the crystallization of a Chinese vision to move out of age-old borders towards global frontiers. It was furthered when China was able to create world-class industries formulated in a manner that was free of technological complications, offered at attractive prices, was easily maintained, and applied a marketing strategy permeated with patience and diligence while exuding confidence that Chinese industries would not be brought to halt by US objections.

Not so long ago, China’s foreign minister paid a state visit to Riyadh, where he engaged with officials about possible cooperation with Saudi Arabia within the Belt and Road Initiative before heading to Tehran to sign a strategic trade agreement, under which China acquired an Iranian island in the Gulf waters. The island will serve as a new springboard for China to access Europe across Iranian territory since Gulf waters have never before been exposed to the Chinese Navy.

In the Kuwait Vision 2035, a reference was made to the establishment of a city in the north with development of certain islands; however, these ideas will never translate into a reality as long as tensions continue between Iran and Western countries, particularly with the United States.

The Iraqi situation is not helpful either as turmoil continues in the country ever since the downfall of Saddam’s regime and the failed negotiations between major powers and Iran regarding the Iranian nuclear project.

Can China remain clear of the US-Iranian conflict, having come all this way in its trade and political relations with Iran?

China has signed a 20-year agreement with Iran blessing the latter with a guarantee to export oil to China and to bankroll these new revenues in an alliance comprising China and Russia—both of which will provide support and assistance to Iran.

China is no longer the power we once knew. China has changed its approach in the Security Council voting 10 times with Russia in favour of Syria after its reluctance to resort to a veto had dissipated. China has embarked upon a new chapter titled: protecting interests, defending alliances, and preventing Chinese spheres of influence from the infiltration of adversaries. China is a trade giant riding a steamroller and has always been an elusive political player with unbridled aspirations and sweeping investment impulses. From this perception, there is no guarantee that the Gulf will remain immune to turmoil as the confrontation between Iran and the US continues, nor will there be any guarantee that Iran will cease meddling in the internal affairs of the Gulf States in line with the longstanding legacy echoed by the Supreme Leader in Tehran.

The final communique issued in London after the G7 meeting carried a strong reference to Western concerns about China’s programs, particularly with respect to cyber security, warning against a potential penetration of Western governments’ secrets and revealing their intentions. In the meantime, an unyielding European-US position unfolded vis-à-vis Russia in the run up to the historic meeting between Presidents Putin and Biden, with premonitions of festering divergence and confrontation, reminiscent of the Cold War tensions that ended in the 1990s. All of this red-flags Chinese presence in the Gulf as a nuisance and a thorn in the region’s side.

There are also concerns of a possible repetition of the Chinese project in Sri Lanka, which borrowed from China to set up a port in the north of the island along Indian territories. When the Sri Lankan government was unable to repay the loan, China simply seized the port it built for Sri Lanka. The same scenario unfolded in an African country, which drove Washington to accuse China of engaging in bonded labor.

No matter how unlikely we may find the above-mentioned storyline applicable to the Iranian example, there is no guarantee that Iran will be able to fulfil its obligations if sanctions—that may be increased in the future—continue to cripple the country.

What would the situation in the Gulf be if China tightened its chokehold on the Iranian island, turning it into a naval base? In a world of receding geography and overlapping interests, nothing can be ruled out as impossible.

This article was originally published and translated from Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas.

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