Middle East looks to the East and China to the West

Middle East looks to the East and China to the West

By Dr. Yang Chen *

From December 7 to 10, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the first China-Arab States Summit, the first China-GCC Summit, and also paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia. This is the first trip of Chinese heads of state to the Middle East after the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. President Xi met with the heads of more than 20 countries in the Middle East and this trip was called the new epoch-making milestone of China and Middle East relations. First, President Xi’s visit to only one country highlights the importance of Saudi Arabia. Second, the in-depth interaction between China and the sub-regional organizations like GCC was unseen in history. Third, the first China-Arab States Summit is known as China’s largest and highest-level diplomatic action to the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Saudi Arabia takes priority in China’s Middle East diplomacy

During the visit, President Xi pointed out that the current international and regional situation is undergoing profound and complex changes, and the strategic and overall nature of China-Saudi Arabia relations have become more prominent. China puts the development of relations with Saudi Arabia as a priority in its overall diplomacy, especially its Middle East diplomacy. That’s why China and Saudi Arabia signed the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement”, in which there is a very eye-catching sentence in the agreement, both sides agreed to hold a meeting of heads of state between the two countries every two years. This shows that Saudi Arabia’s status in China’s diplomacy is already very high.

From the Chinese perspective, one reason why China-Saudi Arabia relations have improved so quickly is based on Saudi Arabia’s position in the Middle East and the global landscape. For example, as a major Gulf country, Saudi Arabia has an important position in the Arab world; as the birthplace of Islam and the location of two holy cities, it has a special status in the Islamic world; as a world energy power and the only one Arab country and one of the only three Islamic countries of the G20, it also plays a pivotal role in the global energy market and economic development pattern. Especially since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in order to contain Russia and suppress oil prices, the West desperately hopes to get the support of Saudi Arabia. But contrary to expectations, Saudi Arabia’s sense of strategic independence continues to improve.

Another reason is that China and Saudi Arabia have huge common interests. From China’s perspective, there are three major benefits for improving relations with Saudi Arabia. The first is to ensure the security of energy supplies such as oil and natural gas. The second is to actively participate in Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision plan, especially the construction of the Line City, and enhance the cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia in 5G, infrastructure, power grid and tramway. The third is to promote military exports and enhance military cooperation between the two countries.

For Saudi Arabia, upgrading its relationship with China also has three major benefits. The first one is to maintain the largest customer of oil exports. Currently, the world oil market is shifting from the seller’s market to the buyer’s market. In 2021, the value of Saudi exports to China was US$57 billion, while Saudi imports to China was US$30 billion, and Saudi Arabia still has a trade surplus of US$27 billion. For a country with a large oil demand like China, it is difficult for Saudi Arabia to find other alternatives in the world.

The second is to obtain China’s continued support for Saudi Arabia’s security. The United States has expressed dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia due to the Khashoggi incident and its not willing to bow to the pressure on the issue of oil production reduction. Although Saudi Arabia has always followed the policy of “depending on China for economy and relying on the United States for security”, China also plays a major role in Saudi Arabia’s security. In the face of challenges from Iran and the Houthi armed forces in Yemen, it has become increasingly important for Saudi Arabia to obtain weapons and equipment from China. More importantly, compared with the United States, China’s arms trade has never attached any political conditions, and the United States will not sell advanced weapons in order to control Saudi Arabia, but China is different and has no such burden. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia bought 35 DF-3 ballistic missiles from China at a sky-high price of 3.5 billion U.S. dollars, which became a good story between the two countries.

The increasing importance of the Arab world to China

President Xi proposed four major partnerships in his keynote speech entitled “Building on Past Achievements and Jointly Creating a Brighter Future of China-GCC Relations”: partners for greater solidarity, partners for common development, partners for common security, and partners for cultural prosperity.

To explore the deep-seated reasons for the leapfrog development of China-GCC relations, President Xi summed it up with four “roots”, one of which is “the solidarity between the two sides in times of adversity”. There is a proverb in both China and Arab countries: “A friend in need is a friend indeed”. In the face of an epidemic of the century, we have witnessed what true friendship is. The first head of state to call President Xi was King Salaman of Saudi Arabia. In the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, Saudi Arabia was also the first to call and provided the most assistance. The landmark buildings in the UAE are marked with “Stay strong, China, Stay strong, Wuhan”. Egypt cooperated with China on 5G and donated 12 million masks. Israel, Iran and other countries recorded videos for China. China will never forget it. At a time when Arab countries, including the GCC countries, are facing severe challenges from the epidemic, China has donated generously.

Another “root” is high degree of complementarity. China has maintained its position as the largest trading partner of the GCC for a long time. Last year, China-GCC trade volume bucked the trend and increased by 44%. Among China’s top ten oil import source countries in 2021, the GCC countries occupy four seats. The economic synergy of China-GCC cooperation is constantly injecting new connotations of the times. On the one hand, it is the highland of regional economic development and the pioneer of reform and transformation; on the other hand, it is the new development concept of innovation, coordination, green, openness and sharing, bursting out unprecedented cooperation potential.

For a long time, the positioning of China’s foreign policy has been summarized as a multi-faceted diplomacy that “with neighboring and major countries as the focus and on the basis of relations with other developing countries in multilateral arenas”. The difference between President Xi’s trip to the Middle East and the one in 2016 is that, against the background of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the strategic competition of the United States against China, the importance of the Middle East to China has become more prominent. This is manifested in the following four aspects.

First, the status of the Middle East on the global stage has been significantly elevated, and the strategic competition among major powers around the Middle East has become increasingly fierce. The Middle East has become an important battlefield for major power competition after Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Second, the Middle East is China’s main source of energy. The world’s energy crisis has become more prominent after the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Energy supply security involves China’s core interests. Therefore, the Middle East has increased strategic significance for China. Third, the Middle East is an important area for the success of the “Belt and Road” initiative, which involves China’s development interests. Fourth, there are many middle powers in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Turkey, etc. The position of these countries is very important for the balance of the future international structure, especially the comparison of power between the East and the West.

Good relations between China and all parties in the Middle East are conducive to the multi-polar world order

However, the joint statement by China and the GCC countries caused some dissatisfaction in Iran because some of the content involved three islands in the Persian Gulf that Iran and the United Arab Emirates have disputes. The specific content is “The leaders of both sides affirmed that they support all peace efforts, including the initiative and efforts of the UAE, through bilateral negotiations, in accordance with the rules of international law, to peacefully resolve the three islands issue, and to resolve this issue in accordance with international legality”. On December 10, 2022, Iran summoned the Chinese ambassador to express its concerns.

In fact, China’s position is not problematic, and it has always been China’s position to resolve the disputed issue in a peaceful manner and also in accordance with the rules of international law. Although China and Iran have signed a 25-year cooperation agreement, and Iran is about to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China cannot favor Iran just because it makes friends with Iran. It is unreasonable and unworkable for not making friends with Sunni Arab countries. Therefore, the diplomacy of major powers cannot be hijacked by a certain party or country, nor can it be hijacked. Otherwise, China will never be able to cooperate deeply with the Gulf countries. In fact, Iran also understands this point that China implements all-round diplomacy, and it is impossible to be tied down by Iran.

On December 12, 2022, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press conference that China will not ignore its relationship with Iran just because it is developing its relationship with the GCC countries. Wang responded: “Both the GCC countries and Iran are friends of China. China’s development of relations with both sides is not aimed at any third party. China has always supported the GCC countries and Iran in improving their relations in line with the principle of good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation. The purpose is to achieve mutual benefit and win-win, and jointly promote the development and stability of the Gulf region.” It can be seen from the statement of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that China’s position has not changed. China has contacts with Iran and the GCC countries at the same time, and there is no preference for any side, let alone sacrifice of any side’s interests or friendship.

To sum up, China has created a model to be friendly with Sunnis and Shiites in the Islamic world at the same time. On this basis, China hopes to play a role in easing conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also hopes to contribute Chinese wisdom and Chinese strength to the security framework of the Middle East. If the situation in the Middle East can ease and move towards development, then the situation in the Middle East will change, and this new situation will be beneficial to the creation of a multi-polar world. The successful visit to China by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on February 14, 2023 also shows that the exchanges between China and Saudi Arabia do not constitute an obstacle to the relationship between China and Iran.

* Associate Professor & Executive Director, Center for Turkish Studies at Shanghai University

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June 2024