During his keynote address at the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted his trip to Saudi Arabia heralded a “new era” in the China-Arab partnership and invited the Gulf states to join the Global Security Initiative (GSI) “in a joint effort to uphold regional peace and stability.”
“China will continue to firmly support GCC countries in safeguarding their security, and support the efforts by regional countries to resolve differences through dialogue and consultation and to build a Gulf collective security architecture,” Xi declared.
Is there a shift underway in China’s long-standing neutral stance toward the Gulf region, especially when the United States is stepping away from its security commitments there? Will the GSI affect the security architecture in the Gulf and the U.S.-Gulf states strategic partnership?
The Global Security Initiative
The GSI, launched by Xi at the Boao Forum for Asia annual conference in April 2022, contains broad general principles reiterating China’s previous foreign policy and security statements. In February of this year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a new concept paper on the GSI, which elaborates on the “six commitments”and identifies priority areas of cooperation. While the content mostly restates long-standing principles and groups existing activities under a new label, it is packaged as a “global initiative.” It should be seen as a statement of China’s intent to claim a much more significant role in international politics. The sketched Chinese security agenda differs significantly from the United States’ in both its principles and practices, making this field a new arena of competition between both powers.
The GSI is the latest expression of China’s international discourse that seeks to challenge the Western-led global governance system, primarily to de-legitimize the United States’ role in Asia and advocate an exclusivist approach to Asian security governance. However, none of these six commitments are new in Chinese foreign and security policies. They consolidate the basic norms of modern China’s foreign policy as codified in the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. The GSI concept paper highlights 20 priorities and five major cooperation platforms and mechanisms for major problems: deficits in peace, development, security, and governance.
The GSI quickly entered various foreign policy and diplomatic activities across Africa and the Middle East. Against the backdrop of China’s existing strategic partnerships with the Gulf states, which adhere to the non-interference principle, many Gulf governments will likely see the GSI as well aligned with their regional and international security views. Given China’s significant trade and investment profile, the GSI will likely garner support in parts of the Gulf region. Moreover, like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the GSI could be seen by some Gulf countries as an opportunity by China to have greater sway in global economics and politics.
The GSI concept paper casts China as an honest broker ready to serve as a guarantor and provider of inclusive security worldwide. In the Middle East, the GSI concept paper calls for establishing a “new security framework” based on the Chinese five-point proposal for realizing peace and stability in the region, “including advocating mutual respect, upholding equity and justice, realizing non-proliferation, jointly fostering collective security, and accelerating development cooperation.” Moreover, China promises to use the GSI to support the efforts of regional countries to “strengthen dialogue and improve their relations, accommodate the reasonable security concerns of all parties, strengthen the internal forces of safeguarding regional security, and support the League of Arab States and other regional organizations in playing a constructive role in this regard.”
The GSI and the Security Architecture in the Gulf
Relations between China and the Gulf states have thrived over recent decades, as seen by their strengthened connections in energy, trade, politics, investments, technology, tourism, and culture. The Gulf states also play a crucial role in China’s BRI and westward expansion, owing to their favorable geographic position and proximity to the Red Sea. The Sino-Gulf economic exchange is not limited solely to energy and chemicals (although it is a central dimension in the relationship), nor does it operate in one direction. Instead, it has become a bidirectional process that has diversified and deepened at either end to include the development of renewable forms of energy, construction of infrastructure, and transport. In addition, China-Gulf cooperation has also begun to move into other, more advanced, value-added forms of economic activity, including investments in finance, tourism, and the digital economy.
China’s GSI represents a significant effort to engage with the Gulf region and promote stability and prosperity. As China’s influence grows, its involvement will significantly impact the security architecture in the region. Currently, China has actively engaged with Gulf states on various security issues, including arms exports, military visits and exercises, counterterrorism, maritime security, and cybersecurity. It has signed cooperation agreements, trained security officials, researchers, and military personnel, and established Chinese branches of People’s Liberation Army academies and colleges.
Overall, China’s GSI represents a significant shift in its approach to global security affairs. China seeks to become a more effective player in international security affairs by expanding its presence and influence in the Middle East’s security issues. Thus, its engagement with the Gulf states is a critical component of this strategy.
Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 marked a turning point in China’s foreign policy toward the Gulf states. China stated that it would assist Gulf states in maintaining their security, resolving disputes peacefully, and developing a new and comprehensive security architecture for the Gulf. Xi noted that his trip heralded a “new era” in the China-Arab partnership. The summit participants announced a new five-year joint action plan for strategic dialogue, which would also develop their partnership in various security and regional economic issues.
China’s worldwide expansion has resulted in a firmer determination to get more involved in regional security and politics, most notably through the GSI as a new security architecture for the Gulf. The GSI framework enables China to work with Gulf states on security issues and become a major provider of security-related public goods.
Gulf states, for their part, are frustrated with the United States for abandoning the war-torn region in favor of its pivot to Asia. As a result, in March, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations in a deal mediated by China. The agreement signaled the sharp increase in China’s influence in the Gulf region, where the United States has long been the dominant power broker, and could complicate efforts by Washington and Israel to strengthen a regional alliance to confront Iran as it expands its nuclear program. This was the first time China had intervened so directly in the Gulf’s political rivalries.
China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said the dialogue between the two countries has “become a successful practice for the strong implementation of the Global Security Initiative.” Wang described the Iran-Saudi agreement as a victory for dialogue and peace, adding that China would continue to play a constructive role in addressing challenging global issues. China’s successful hosting of the talks that led to the breakthrough highlights its goodwill and endeavor to promote peace in the Middle East through political dialogue and its efforts to advance the implementation of the GSI.
Nevertheless, it will likely take longer to lessen the longstanding security and sectarian tensions that have divided Saudi Arabia and Iran for decades and fueled their competition for regional dominance. The Iran-Saudi rift represents the often violent schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that has dominated the Middle East for decades.
Moreover, the Saudi-Iran deal was signed following reports that Riyadh offered to normalize its relations with Israel in exchange for a U.S. commitment to Gulf security, support for the Saudi nuclear program, and more expansive American arms sales to the kingdom. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, after the signing of the agreement to renew relations with Iran, brokered by China, Saudi officials said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expects that by maneuvering the great powers against each other, he will be able to increase pressure on the United States as part of the Saudi attempt to obtain security guarantees and a green light to develop a civilian nuclear program.
The China-U.S. rivalry is first and foremost about a struggle for who will set the global rules, essentially a struggle for discourse power on the international stage. China’s GSI is a component of a larger push to establish a post-Western multipolar world and set global agendas that reflect its interests and values. Like any other great power, China pursues its national interests, but as a rising superpower, it also seeks to establish its global leadership.
At first sight, the increasing levels of engagement in the Gulf demonstrate that China seeks to play a more significant role in shaping the prospect of regional security arrangements. China’s expanding presence has resulted in a firmer determination to get more involved in regional security and politics, most notably through the GSI as new security architecture for the Gulf.
Nonetheless, China’s increasing engagement in the Gulf does not necessarily mean it aims to replace the United States and finance a new security system. There is no substitute for Washington’s security and diplomatic dominance in the region. China cannot (and is not in fact interested in) replacing Washington in the Gulf. The United States remains the region’s apex security provider, not only in terms of selling the most weapons to the Gulf states but also in terms of its on-the-ground military presence. China’s GSI needs to provide viable alternatives to Washington’s integrated deterrence in the Gulf. Although there is a growing variety of Chinese options in public security goods and dual-use and military technologies, it cannot replace overall U.S.-integrated deterrence in the Gulf.
That said, China currently provides limited security alternatives that directly and indirectly undermine U.S. dominance, even without displacing it.
Even though China’s alternative vision for a new security architecture (most notably through the GSI) in the Gulf still needs to be developed when addressing actual security needs, China can significantly reshape the geopolitical environment, given its growing strategic engagement with the Gulf states. This engagement will only sometimes be in the interests of the United States or its allies. Washington cannot expect its Gulf state allies to reject the GSI, any more than China cannot count on them to abandon the U.S. security architecture and network of alliances. While China has begun to articulate a bold vision of how global security governance ought to develop, the success and impact of this initiative in the Gulf will ultimately depend on local partners’ willingness to cooperate under the framework of the GSI.
Ultimately, it remains essential to watch the evolution of the GSI and its relationship to China’s broader ambitions to reform global governance in the coming years. Despite the narrative of the Biden administration, the actual prospects of the United States pulling out of the region seem scarce. This is particularly true for the Gulf region, where the U.S. military presence has grown steadily in the last decade. Washington still maintains vital interests in ensuring freedom of navigation and safeguarding global oil supplies.
Even if the United States eventually withdraws from the Gulf, China must expand its power projection capabilities to replace the U.S. security architecture. For now, China lacks the military ability – especially air cover that would require regional military bases – and political will to provide a viable alternative. Nevertheless, growing projects under the BRI framework and regional volatility may change these calculations in the long term.