Will Beijing help Riyadh go nuclear?

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

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As negotiations between the West and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program reach a critical juncture, those most likely to be directly affected by an “Iranian nuclear threat” are showing great alarm. While the media fixates on Israel and its possible reaction, other regional players have no less at stake.

It can be said here that the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran which were launched following the visit of the Iranian President Rowhani to New York could lead to a “deal” sparing the Gulf region of an arms race with weapons of mass destruction. Despite the “waves” of optimism since Obama’s phone call; the failure of the negotiations remains a strong possibility and the Iranian nuclear program could become a reality. This situation begs the following question; if Saudi Arabia decided to go nuclear would China help the kingdom?

Strategic cooperation

In theory, the Saudis could pursue a nuclear option with the Chinese. Although Beijing and Riyadh have not had close military relations, there are many indications which point towards strategic cooperation between the two countries. In the late 1980s China supplied Saudi Arabia with long range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has introduced some modifications, these missiles are old and have limitations that have led Saudi Arabia to examine possible replacements. IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review recent satellite intelligence photographs (July 2013) show the Saudis have a new ballistic missile facility, near the capital Riyadh, stocked with powerful Chinese-made DF-3 surface to-surface missiles with a range of up to 2000 miles. They are targeted at Israel and Iran. Interestingly, the Israeli DEBKAfile’s security website recently reported that Saudi Arabia has set itself on the path to nuclear weapons capability and is negotiating with Beijing for the purchase of Chinese nuclear-capable Dong-Feng 21, DF-21 (NATO-codenamed CSS -5) ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. According to DEBKAfile, China has agreed to the transaction in principle.

If the Saudis pursue the “nuclear option,” China could theoretically be an attractive partner. Although in the current strategic environment it’s hard to imagine that this could be a realistic scenario

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

The second issue is a mirror image of the first. China and Saudi Arabia signed several security agreements, although the details of the agreements have not yet been disclosed. During Chinese President Jintao Hu’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2006, the two sides signed a security cooperation agreement and a contract for some defence systems. On October 11, 2010 China and Saudi Arabia agreed to set up a joint security commission. Interestingly, the special envoy of Saudi King Abdullah then-national security advisor to the king, Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited China in March 2011. That visit has raised a few eyebrows, since Prince Bandar was the “architect” of the Chinese missiles deal with the kingdom in the 1980s. This was followed in April 2013 by the visit of Prince Khalid Sultan, then-deputy defense minister of Saudi Arabia.

Most importantly, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited Saudi Arabia in January 2012 and signed a landmark nuclear agreement with Beijing agreeing to assist with the development of a civilian atomic energy program. Within the framework of that agreement, Saudi media reported last June that a delegation headed by Dr. Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, head of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, visited China to promote cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China in the fields of peaceful nuclear energy.

Perhaps a more critical factor in the equation is China-Saudi Arabia energy relations. Due to Saudi Arabia’s dominance of the world oil market, China is increasingly focusing its attention on Saudi Arabia as a reliable oil supplier while Saudi Arabia sees China as an enormous potential market and strategic trade partner. Saudi Arabia is China’s top supplier of oil as of 2012 Riyadh supplied Beijing with almost 20 per cent of its oil imports. Today Saudi Arabia remains China’s top trade partner (and top oil supplier) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and has been for eleven consecutive years. According to the IMF, two-way trade between Saudi Arabia and China over the last two decades has increased almost 58 times from $1.28 billion in 1990 to about $74 billion in 2012.

Looking ahead, the numbers behind China’s seemingly insatiable thirst for oil are mind-boggling. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) August 2013 Short-Term Energy Outlook forecasts that China’s net oil imports will exceed those of the United States by October 2013 on a monthly basis and by 2014 on an annual basis, making China the largest importer of oil in the world. In addition, the Chinese demand for oil is projected to jump to around 13.6 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2020 to hit 16.6 mb/d by 2030, which will eventually be importing around 10-12 mb/d, roughly 70-80 percent of its future petroleum consumption, according to EIA’s International Energy Outlook 2013. In this context, the security and stability of Saudi Arabia will be at the top of China’s interests in the coming years.

Chinese reluctance

Against this strategic backdrop, China’s past record is not necessarily equal to its future desire to be entangled in a formal strategic alliance with the Saudis, because Beijing needs to take into account its economic and military relations with the United States, and even Iran. In this regard, Beijing and Riyadh have never had close military relations largely because Washington has provided the Saudis with advanced military equipment as well as security assurances against international threats that China cannot provide. While Beijing and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, including the severity of the Iranian threat, it is unlikely that Beijing would jeopardize its trade and other relations with Washington by helping the Saudis to acquire nuclear weapons.

However, if the Saudis pursue the “nuclear option,” China could theoretically be an attractive partner. Although in the current strategic environment it’s hard to imagine that this could be a realistic scenario. If U.S.-Saudi relations should falter, the Chinese would doubtless view it as an opportunity to take a more active role in Saudi affairs. However, there is no evidence suggesting that this relationship will sour in the near future; on the contrary, Saudi Arabia is currently linked to arms deals with the United States for at least the next decade. Additionally, China, since joining in 1992 the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), is obliged to promote the three NPT goals of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, progress in nuclear disarmament and promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In this context, China emphasizes Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear programs, while urging Iran to put its nuclear program under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). From Beijing’s perspective Tehran did not reach the point of “no return;” thus there is still time to find a peaceful solution to Iran’s quest for nuclear power.

There is no doubt that with China’s economic, technological and military ascent there will be the potential for a comprehensive global power shift. With Beijing’s increasing dependence on oil imports from the Gulf States, it may seek to strengthen its military presence in the region and could open the way for a strategic alliance with Riyadh. However, this development could take years to materialize if it occurs at all. In addition, there is no solid evidence that Riyadh has taken firm steps to go down the nuclear route, nor is there any evidence of Saudi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that both the Saudis and Chinese will be keeping their options open. A shift in the geopolitics of oil and gas could bring with it a shift in political relations.

This article was first published in China Policy Institute Blog on Sept. 29, 2013.


Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst and author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” (Routledge: 2013). His particular research interest is in energy politics and the political economy of the Gulf, as well as relations between the Middle East and Asia. The writer can be reached on Twitter: @ nasertamimi

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