Seven pillars on which to grow GCC-China partnership
China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are seeking to strengthen their partnerships in a number of important areas, including economic and energy cooperation, political support and coordination, and security coordination. They are focused on trying to return to healthy economic growth levels in 2021 as they recover from the recession induced by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in 2020.
The trade disputes and trade wars of the past few years have highlighted the need to return to a reliable and consistent rules-based international system. China has felt demonized by the media over its handling of the pandemic. The heightened tensions with Washington over the South China Sea, Taiwan, Huawei and other issues have added to Beijing’s concerns. Having a new administration in Washington has contributed to the uncertainty.
In such times, it makes sense for China and the GCC to work together to revive and accelerate their partnership. For the GCC, this engagement is not meant to replace other relationships, such as the strategic partnership with the US or other traditional relationships that the GCC as a collective or its individual member states have.
Here are seven pillars that could help the GCC-China partnership grow further.
The first pillar is trade and investment. Over the past three decades, GCC-China trade has grown rapidly. In 1990, Saudi Arabia was the last GCC country to establish diplomatic relations with China and, at the time, total GCC-China merchandise trade amounted to less than $2 billion. Within a decade, that trade had grown by 480 percent. In 2004, the GCC and China signed an agreement on economic, trade, investment and technical cooperation. Economic relations took off from there, as trade grew by another 525 percent over the following 10-year period. In 2019, a Saudi-Chinese investment forum was held in Riyadh and attended by more than 1,000 participants. Thirty-five bilateral business agreements worth more than $28 billion were signed at the conference. Last year, China became the GCC’s top trading partner, but there is still potential for more growth in trade and especially in investment. Concluding a free trade agreement would help achieve that goal. The two sides are in the final stages of FTA negotiations.
Second is energy cooperation. China imports more than 30 percent of its crude oil and 10 percent of its natural gas from GCC countries. About 25 percent of GCC chemical and petrochemical production is exported to China. In addition, there are significant GCC and Chinese energy investments. During a February 2019 visit by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a $10 billion deal for a refining and petrochemical complex in China was concluded, to be added to previous GCC energy investments in China. The GCC-China Energy Expert Group could be revived and empowered to expand this pillar.
The third pillar is supporting multilateralism by working together to strengthen the world trading system and multilateralism in general. The US’ Donald Trump-era trade disputes with China and other countries negatively affected international trade and highlighted the risks involved in unilateral actions. There were accusations and counteraccusations, some of which were probably true, but the right way to address them is through the World Trade Organization (WTO). Strengthening the WTO and other international organizations would help address thorny issues. The GCC-China Strategic Dialogue framework allows for such consultations and could be utilized to coordinate action before international forums.
The fourth pillar is solidarity in dealing with COVID-19. The GCC-China plan of action, which was agreed in 2013, included cooperation on public health issues. That mechanism made it easier to work together when the pandemic started to spread last year. There were contacts and joint efforts at both the collective GCC level and bilaterally to exchange views on prevention, facilitating the import and distribution of equipment, and testing vaccines. Those efforts need to be continued and enhanced until the pandemic is defeated.
Fifth is cooperation in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery. The pandemic has caused the worst recession in years throughout the world. As the GCC and Chinese economies are now closely linked, the recovery could be accelerated by taking advantage of those links. The GCC has supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative and some GCC member states are actively involved in its development in the region.
Sixth is regular political dialogue. The 2010 agreement to establish a GCC-China strategic dialogue should be utilized to discuss political issues of concern to one or both sides. For example, China has long accused Western countries of using human rights advocacy as a pretext for interference in its internal affairs.
The 2010 agreement to establish a strategic dialogue should be utilized to discuss political issues of concern.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Similarly, the GCC may want to discuss Gulf security and Iran’s behavior, which undermines it. They could discuss how China might play a constructive role by persuading Iran to respect the international rules and regional order, starting by ceasing its support for sectarian and terrorist groups. Moreover, the GCC expects China to support expanding any negotiations with Iran to include ballistic missile development and Tehran’s regional activities, and to support GCC involvement in those talks when they resume.
The seventh pillar is cultural and people-to-people contacts. There have been close contacts over the centuries between the Gulf and China, and those ties are now 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. Cultural tourism and student exchanges should also be encouraged and facilitated.
COVID-19 has presented formidable challenges to China and the GCC. Fortunately, they had a good start on their strategic partnership and cooperation before the pandemic hit. However, to help each other speedily recover from the current recession, they need to explore more robust and regular channels of cooperation through the seven pillars outlined above.
- 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