Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the right, looks over at King Salman of Saudi Arabia, second from the left during a welcome ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Thursday, March 16, 2017.
Credit: AP Photo / Ng Han Guan
Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject matter experts, policymakers, and strategic thinkers around the globe for their various insights into US Asian policy. This conversation with Dr. Jonathan Fulton – assistant professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zayed University in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council – is the 295th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Explain the strategic calculation of the Gulf states in building relations with China.
The Gulf Cooperation Council countries have long relied on extra-regional partners to help navigate a challenging regional security complex, and since the end of the Cold War we have become accustomed to the idea that the United States would play this role. indefinite time. However, US interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been changing, and there is a strong sense in the Gulf – despite continued US military dominance – that they need to secure a post-American future, or at least one in which the American role is not quite as central. As a result, you see that the GCC is developing stronger ties with a lot of other countries.
It is not just a matter of choosing between the United States or China. The European Union, Britain, India, Korea, Japan and many more all play major roles. China is getting more attention because most countries that are actively involved in the region are US allies or partners, so the expectation is that they will not challenge the status quo in any fundamental way, while China is the US main strategic competitor and is less likely. to wagon or accept American leadership.
When the Gulf countries look at China, I suppose they see a deeply committed long-term economic partner with a growing importance across Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. It makes sense to cultivate relations with China, but it must be emphasized that it is one among many countries with a rising profile here.
Analyze Gulf states’ hedging strategies as rivalry between China and the United States escalates.
For most of this century, it was possible for the Gulf countries to think of China as an economic partner and the United States as a political and security partner, and pursuing deeper commercial ties with China was not particularly problematic. The Saudis and the Americans have a security relationship dating back to World War II, Oman and the United States have had an agreement on access to facilities since 1980, and the other four GCC countries have had defense cooperation agreements with the United States since the 1990s. Despite concerns about a shaky US engagement in the region, it remains the most important extra-regional partner of all the GCC countries. China offers nothing near the range of political and security commitments that the United States makes, so any hedging is done with an eye to the long-term future, I think, rather than a short-term pivot to China.
What is the strategic relevance of the Gulf states to China’s broader ambitions in the Middle East?
The Arabian Peninsula is key to what China wants to achieve in the MENA region. On the Persian Gulf side, there is the energy component, where much of China’s imported oil and LNG comes from the Gulf countries, and there is also significant trade, investment and contracts for Chinese companies. Looking at the best sources of contract revenue for Chinese companies in MENA, it is not surprising that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran and Iraq since 2005 have been major sources of contracts for Chinese construction and infrastructure. So economically, the Gulf countries are important partners for more than just energy.
At the same time, their ports and free zones along the Arabian Peninsula’s coastline fit nicely with China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative ambitions, and there have been a lot of projects to bring the Gulf countries’ industrial park and port development in line with MSRI. This connects business clusters and supply chains from the Gulf to the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and Mediterranean and helps China reach European markets without expensive naval bases. Projects that are primarily about financial results therefore help to serve greater strategic ambitions.
Identify the challenges and opportunities that China poses to Saudi Arabia-US relations.
There are many gaps between the United States and Saudi Arabia on a wide range of issues, with or without the China factor. Despite deep ties at the elite level, the Americans and the Saudis do not look like a natural partnership. White House support under the Trump administration masked many of the underlying tensions, but there are not many Saudi allies in either the Democratic or Republican parties. Both countries have to do a lot of work to repair the bilateral relationship because it is important despite their problems.
China plays a major role in Saudi Arabia’s economy – it is consistently Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, and Chinese companies are engaged in a huge range of construction and infrastructure projects throughout the kingdom. There is also a lot of synergy between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Vision 2030, the economic diversification program that Saudi Arabia hopes can build a more diverse and sustainable economy. Seen in this way, engagement with China is an opportunity, as it can help Saudi Arabia achieve its development goals. It can also be seen as a challenge, I suppose, because the technology that Chinese companies export promotes integration into Chinese systems and networks and weakens US dominance in that area. We have especially seen this with the US downturn in the use of Chinese 5G networks.
Assess the key geopolitical and technological risks to the United States in China’s growing influence in the Gulf states.
At present, I’m not sure I want to say that there is a geopolitical risk to the United States, because China does not have much in the way of power projection into the region, and it is not entirely clear that China is interested in it anyway. . China’s interests in the region are primarily economic, and the country has avoided a major security role. The United States has troops and bases up and down the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and as I said above, deep security partnerships. China has only one naval support base in Djibouti. More importantly, it does not have the naval capacity to pose a geopolitical threat to other countries’ interests in the Gulf or MENA.
As for the technology, it’s a different matter. Chinese companies are making a big inroad into the region at every level of the technology stack. In terms of infrastructure, hardware, software, apps, China has a competitive advantage. When you look at how China has developed its own “smart” infrastructure in its cities, transportation, trade, healthcare, its performance gives it an advantage over the United States. This can lead to spillover effects – technology also involves a lot of normative collaboration, and one can see how the greater use of Chinese applications will also result in greater Chinese influence across other related platforms.