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The Gulf States in the China-US Rivalry – The Diplomat

The Gulf States in the China-US Rivalry

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, looks at King Salman of Saudi Arabia, second from left, during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, March 16, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers around the world for their diverse insights into US Asia 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 – marks the 295th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight series.”

Explain the strategic calculus of the Gulf countries when 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 grown accustomed to the idea that the US could hold this role indefinitely. play. However, US interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are changing and there is a strong sense in the Gulf – despite the continued US military ascendancy – that they must make provisions for a post-American future. , or at least one in which the role of the US is not so central. As a result, you see the GCC developing stronger ties with many other countries.

It’s not just a matter of choosing between the US or China. The European Union, UK, India, Korea, Japan and many more all play a bigger role. China is getting more attention because most of the countries actively involved in the region are allies or partners of the US, so they are not expected to challenge the status quo in any fundamental way, while China is America’s main strategic competitor and less likely to exaggerate or accept American leadership.

When the Gulf States look at China, I suspect they see a very committed long-term economic partner that is growing in importance in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. It makes sense to maintain the relationship with China, but it must be emphasized that it is one of many countries with a growing profile here.

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Analyze the Gulf States’ hedging strategies as the rivalry between China and the US escalates.

For most of this century, it has been possible for Gulf states to view China as an economic partner and the US as a political and security partner, and pursuing deeper commercial ties with China has not been particularly problematic. The Saudis and Americans have a security relationship dating back to World War II, Oman and the US have had a facility access agreement since 1980, and the other four GCC countries have had defense cooperation agreements with the US since the 1990s. Despite concerns about shaky US commitment to the region, it remains the most important extra-regional partner of all GCC countries. China doesn’t offer anything close to the range of political and security commitments the US does, so any hedging is done with a long-term perspective, I guess, rather than a short-term pivot to China.

What is the strategic relevance of the Gulf States to China’s wider ambitions in the Middle East?

The Arabian Peninsula is the key real estate for what China wants to achieve in the MENA region. On the Persian Gulf side, there is the energy component, with much of China’s imported oil and LNG coming from the Gulf countries, and there is also significant trade, investment and contracts for Chinese companies. Looking at the main sources of contract revenue for Chinese companies in MENA, it is not surprising that Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran and Iraq have been major sources of contracts for Chinese construction and infrastructure since 2005. Economically, therefore, the Gulf States are important partners for more than just energy.

At the same time, their ports and free zones along the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula fit neatly into the ambitions of China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative, and there have been many projects to align the Gulf States’ industrial park and port development with the MSRI. This connects business clusters and supply chains from the Gulf to the Arabian, Red and Mediterranean Seas, allowing China to reach European markets without expensive naval bases. Projects that are primarily about economic results therefore help to serve larger strategic ambitions.

Identify the challenges and opportunities that China presents for Saudi Arabia-US relations.

There is a lot of space between the US and Saudi Arabia on a wide variety of topics, with or without the China factor. Despite deep elite-level ties, the Americans and Saudis don’t seem like a natural partnership. White House support during the Trump administration masked many of the underlying tensions, but there aren’t many Saudi allies in the Democratic or Republican parties. Both countries have to do a lot of work to restore the bilateral relationship, because it is an important one despite their difficulties.

China plays an important role in Saudi Arabia’s economy – it has always been Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and Chinese companies are involved in a huge range of construction and infrastructure projects across 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. In this sense, involvement with China is an opportunity because it can help Saudi Arabia achieve its development goals. It can also be seen as a challenge, I think, because the technology that Chinese companies export is promoting integration into Chinese systems and networks and weakening US dominance in that area. We have seen this in particular in the US response to the use of Chinese 5G networks.

Assess key geopolitical and technological risks to the US from China’s growing influence in the Gulf States.

At this point I’m not sure if I would say there is a geopolitical risk to the US as China doesn’t have much power in the region and it’s not entirely clear that the PRC is interested in that anyway. China’s interests in the region are mainly economic and it has avoided a larger security role. The US has troops and bases along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and as I mentioned above, deep security partnerships. China only has a naval base in Djibouti. More importantly, it does not have the naval capacity to pose a geopolitical threat to the interests of other countries in the Gulf or MENA.

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As for the technique, that’s another matter. At every level of the technology stack, Chinese companies are making great strides in the region. In terms of infrastructure, hardware, software, apps, China has a competitive advantage. Looking at how China has developed its own “smart” infrastructure in its cities, transportation, commerce and healthcare, its performance gives it an edge over the US. This can lead to spillovers – 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 on other related platforms.