How to expand the China-GCC strategic partnership

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China enjoys warm ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states. Most GCC countries have upgraded their engagement with China to a “strategic partnership,” with close cooperation in all fields, including political and security areas. While these developments are important and real, I will suggest some steps to make it closer and enduring.

GCC-China engagement was not always this close. The contrast is clear in the case of Saudi Arabia and China, which did not exchange diplomatic ties until 1990. Then, Saudi Arabia accepted the “one China” policy and  downgraded Taiwan’s embassy in the Kingdom to a trade mission. However, most of the change came from the Chinese side. For much of its history, the People’s Republic of China supported revolutionary change around the world, including the Gulf. In the 1970s, it supported the Dhofar rebellion in Oman and the socialist regime in South Yemen, among others. In 1979, it embraced the Iranian revolution, which ended the US influence in Tehran and gave a wider opening for China in the Gulf.

More recently, as China sought to solidify its position as a global economic superpower, it replaced revolutionary zeal with support for pragmatism and respect for international norms, stability and preserving the status quo. With that transformation, China has been able to establish a solid presence in the Gulf. In particular, as its thirst for energy increased with rapid economic growth, it recognized the need for a stable and reliable security architecture in the Gulf, the source of much of its oil, gas and petrochemicals.

The legacy of support for Tehran lingers as a relic from China’s revolutionary days, but is waning in terms of strategic interests; for example, in 2019, Iran provided China with a minuscule 3 percent of its oil imports, a trifle that could be replaced from other sources.There has been a similar transformation in economic ties. At $180 billion, GCC trade with China accounts for over 11 percent of the GCC’s overall trade. In 2020, China became the GCC’s top trading partner, replacing the EU for the first time. This is quite a change in a relatively short time. In 1992, for example, trade with China accounted for only 2 percent of GCC total trade, compared with the EU share of 24 percent. China imports more than 32 percent of its crude oil from the GCC.

The transformation in China-GCC relations is quite profound, but is still evolving. The most difficult part is managing its relations with Iran. China relies on the security architecture in the Gulf to protect its oil supplies from the region, and that security system is based on a decades-old partnership between the US and GCC states. As China-US rivalry intensifies, Beijing’s support for that security architecture grows more ironic, but it still makes pragmatic sense. The alternative of China providing security for its own oil supplies from the Gulf would be expensive.

The growing ties are not only about the security of energy supplies. The GCC has supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative and some GCC member states are actively involved in its development in the region. China has become the top export destination of GCC petrochemicals and chemicals, accounting for about 25 percent of GCC exports. During a visit in February 2019 by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a $10 billion deal was concluded for a refining and petrochemical complex in China. Coinciding with the same visit,35 bilateral economic cooperation agreements worth over $28 billion were signed at a Saudi-Chinese investment forum in Riyadh attended by more than 1,000 participants.

China can play a constructive role by persuading Iran to change its revolutionary colors, as China itself did and became a global powerhouse for it.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

“We've seen huge growth in Chinese companies in the Kingdom. There was a 100 percent increase in entry to the Saudi market in the first half of 2019 compared with last year,” a Saudi official said in July 2019.

China-GCC relations have grown to include mutual support in international meetings. China has also dispatched military attaches, most of whom speak excellent Arabic, to countries of the region, seeking to expand military ties. Cultural ties are being revived and expanded. Chinese language schools are being established in the region and Saudi Arabia is moving to make Chinese a third language in its schools after Arabic and English.

A meeting in November between China and GCC foreign ministers touched on most of areas of the growing ties between China and the GCC, collectively and bilaterally. The enthusiasm in these meetings is genuine and palpable.

What could be done to expand those ties? There are several suggestions from the GCC perspective. First, China needs to reconcile its support for international norms with its Iran ties. No one doubts China’s commitment to stability in the region through compliance with international law and the UN Charter. That would mean respect for national borders, political independence, and the territorial integrity of neighboring countries. All of these norms are frequently violated by Tehran, as it continues to recruit, train, arm, fund and dispatch motley groups of terrorists and sectarian fanatics to destabilize just about every country in the neighborhood.

The UN Charter also bans the use of force or threats and calls for conflict resolution through peaceful means, including resort to multilateral legal agreements and organizations. Iran’s hardliners have dismissed these legal instruments and forums as Western-orientated and biased.

China can play a constructive role by persuading Iran to change its revolutionary colors, as China itself did a while ago, and respect the international and regional order, starting by ceasing support for sectarian and terrorist groups.

The GCC expects China to support expanding negotiations with Iran to include ballistic missile development and Tehran’s regional activities and to support GCC involvement in those talks when they resume.

For the China-GCC strategic partnership to thrive, it needs to be comprehensive and consistent, with candid and regular dialogue on all aspects of that partnership.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1