The Debate

The China Wildcard in the Qatar Crisis

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The Debate

The China Wildcard in the Qatar Crisis

A closer look at the stakes for Beijing and what that might mean.

The China Wildcard in the Qatar Crisis
Credit: Flickr/Sam Agnew

In the ongoing crisis pitting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its allies against Qatar, China’s position has been relatively clear: remain neutral and encourage the two sides to work out their differences before they do any real damage to Persian Gulf stability – or worse, to Beijing’s interests. Qatar, however, clearly has other ideas. The Gulf state has responded to its neighbors’ demands by coming out swinging. After lodging complaints with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Civil Aviation Organization, Qatar has now agreed to a $6 billion purchase of warships from Italy.

China’s official engagement in the crisis has remained low-key: the Foreign Ministry’s stance remains that the dispute and its resolution are internal matters for the GCC. Nonetheless, rumors of secret meetings between Qatari and Emirati diplomats in Beijing have raised the prospect of China acting as a decisive mediator in the crisis. While officially remaining “above the fray”, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has indeed been active on the sidelines of regional security forums and bilateral visits, advising his Emirati, Qatari, and Iranian counterparts to discuss an end to intra-GCC disunity.

Of course, considering China’s longstanding neutrality towards what it sees as other countries’ “internal matters”, neither Wang nor Chinese president Xi Jinping can be expected to insert themselves into negotiations over a multilateral resolution to the crisis. Not yet, at least.

Beijing’s Skin in the Game

The Gulf is Beijing’s largest supplier of oil and second-largest provider of natural gas, while also accounting for 46 percent of China’s exports to the Middle East. With such high economic stakes, it goes without saying that a long-term deadlock is not a productive outcome for China.

Whether or not the Middle Kingdom decides to get more involved may now hinge largely on Qatar’s next moves. The quartet of Arab states – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – blaming Qatar for its support for Islamist groups and regional machinations have moderated and refocused their initial demands; there is now increasing pressure on the Qataris to make concessions in return. With shifting power dynamics and large-scale investment projects on the table, both Doha and the GCC are anxious to see whom Beijing will side with in the ongoing dispute.

Qatar may be banking on its strategic partnership and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to earn it a sympathetic ear in Beijing, but that bet is likely misplaced. If Doha continues to hold out, it will only be a matter of time before Chinese support starts shifting towards the Saudi-led bloc. Qatar may be a bilateral partner for China, but the greater GCC is ultimately a more important one. As China’s regional influence grows, with a new military installation in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and expanded trade flows, logic dictates that the good relations with the wider bloc will take precedence over sympathy for one member.

The Iran factor

One Belt, One Road (OBOR) will play a factor in that decision as well. OBOR is most pertinent to Iran, but GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman have done their best to find a place for themselves (and to counterbalance Tehran) within the ambitious development project. Although China sees Doha as a “strategic partner” in the Middle East – and Qatar has been equally enthusiastic about upgrading ties with Beijing – the country by itself is not altogether a vital cog in the Belt & Road.

On the other hand, the ever-deepening ties between Iran and China pose further questions on China’s position on the Gulf crisis. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are vital energy suppliers and export markets for the Chinese economy; after historically favoring its relationship with revolutionary Iran, China’s contemporary Middle East policy has focused on the delicate balancing act between Tehran and Riyadh.

Could GCC’s pressure on Qatar cause Iran (which shares a major gas field with Qatar) to take a more active role, placing China squarely on the Iranian side? It’s unlikely. Tehran may take advantage of the conflict to score points, but the Islamic Republic rarely challenges its regional rivals directly. The example of Bahrain is informative; when GCC troops entered the country to quell a Shia opposition movement in 2011, Iran contented itself with verbal responses.

Finding Silver Linings in the Turmoil

Of course, Beijing certainly has sympathy for some of the GCC’s demands. Those include a stipulation that Qatar – which has been linked to several radical Islamist groups and terrorist organizations – cease financial and material support for Islamist extremism and militancy. Beijing, concerned by the impact of Islamist extremists in the restive Xinjiang province, certainly does not mind seeing the Arab bloc take a stand on stopping terror financing.

Although there’s no solid evidence of a Qatari role in radicalizing Xinjiang’s Uighurs, large groups of Uighurs have traveled to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and fought in and alongside the same militant groups Qatar stands accused of financing. China is understandably eager to support any development that reduces the domestic threat posed by transnational terrorism, especially since many of those Uighurs may be headed back to Xinjiang.

Beijing likely also appreciates the GCC’s complaints about Qatar’s government-owned Al-Jazeera broadcasting service, considering the network’s coverage of China caused a diplomatic incident between China and Qatar, which led to the expulsion of Al-Jazeera’s correspondent from the country in 2012.

Qatar may have the ball in its court, but if Doha– short on time and friends– is hoping China may step in on its behalf, it is sorely mistaken.

Rob Edens is a London-based researcher.