On July 31, the Ministry of Defense in Beijing announced that the first-ever joint fighter jet exercise between China and the United Arab Emirates will take place in China’s western Xinjiang region in August. This is the latest development in what is proving to be the rapid growth of Beijing’s security role in the Gulf, a region in which China has already established itself as the foremost economic and trade partner of many countries.
The traditionally U.S.-aligned states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are attempting to reduce their overdependence on Washington for their security by developing ties with Beijing. For Iran, under heavy U.S. sanctions, economic links with China have become a lifeline. That Beijing has constructive relations with both Riyadh and Tehran allowed it to broker a deal to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two in March, the defining moment of China’s expansion into the Gulf so far.
But while China is moving into the Gulf, the United States, in the words of the Biden administration’s Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl last year, is “not going anywhere.” American consumption of Gulf oil remains high, and while Washington has fewer troops stationed there than during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it maintains a larger military presence (approximately 40,000 personnel in 2020) than in the 1990s, at the height of American global unipolarity.
The United States’ commitment to its role as the region’s dominant security guarantor rules out the possibility of Beijing simply replacing a vacating Washington there. It also raises the prospect of China as a revisionist power in the Gulf, attempting to undermine and usurp a United States that is determined to keep hold of its privileged position.
China’s Alternative Approach to Gulf Security
China’s role in Gulf security appears insignificant if one is thinking in terms of Washington’s deterrence-based approach. China has no military bases in the Gulf. Its arms exports to the region are not insignificant – the Saudis reportedly purchased Chinese drones in December, for example – but are only a fraction of that of the United States. Beijing plays little role in naval patrols of the region’s sea lanes.
By taking these measures the United States deters against disruptions to the supply of oil, creating a stability that, although tense, ensures the energy security of those countries that rely on the flow of this critical commodity – including China. Around half of China’s crude imports come from the Gulf, and Beijing’s apparent absence has led to accusations of free-riding.
However, by putting the Washington playbook to one side and adopting a different notion of security, it becomes clear that China is beginning to play a major security role in the Gulf. In February, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a paper defining the Global Security Initiative (GSI), a collection of principles that Beijing claims can create a more just global order. One does not have to accept the effectiveness of these principles, nor their normative content, to use the GSI as a guide to how China is becoming a significant actor in Gulf security.
All of the GSI’s main principles are visible in Beijing’s policy toward the region. The GSI places a strong emphasis on mediation, which can be seen in China’s brokering of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal. The GSI also places importance on multilateral cooperation as a means of avoiding conflict, meshing with the announcement that China will “support the League of Arab States (LAS) and other regional organizations in playing a constructive role.” When President Xi Jinping visited the region in December 2022 he personally attended summits between China and the Arab League and the the GCC. Beijing’s eagerness to induct Saudi Arabia, following Iran, into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can also be viewed as an attempt to use multilateralism to help resolve the region’s most dangerous rivalry.
The GSI urges the non-interference of external powers in local conflicts; in recent decades, China has managed to avoid taking sides in the Iran-Saudi feud and other conflicts in the Gulf. The GSI also designates economic development as a crucial contributor to security. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which had brought $123 billion in financing to the Middle East as of 2021 (including to all of the Gulf countries), should therefore be considered an aspect of Beijing’s approach to Gulf security – especially when it involves the transfer of surveillance technology that authoritarian governments in the region are using to help maintain control over potentially restive populations. The GSI, therefore, reveals China’s Gulf security strategy to be both substantial and highly differentiated from that of the United States.
A China-U.S. Division of Labor?
While the American and Chinese approaches to Gulf security diverge on the question of means, they have the same end: stability. While American naval patrols and the Chinese brokering of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal reflect different approaches, both are aimed at preventing military conflict that would threaten their oil supply. Unlike in the Asia-Pacific, where China’s apparent intention to absorb Taiwan is considered a major security threat in Washington, in the Gulf the two superpowers share strategic interests. If China can contribute to security in the region without threatening the United States’ well-established policy, their strategies can therefore coexist or even reinforce each other.
The conditions are there for this, at least in theory, since China’s Gulf strategy is so distinct from that of the United States. Beijing doesn’t appear to be attempting to challenge Washington’s dominance as a provider of military deterrence in the region, which would likely lead to a dynamic of zero-sum competition developing there. Instead, China is attempting to contribute to stability in alternative ways – enabling mediation, leading multilateral initiatives, driving economic development, and backing authoritarian regimes domestically with investments and technology – that could potentially slot in alongside the traditional American policies. The possibility exists for a division of labor that would minimize the potential grounds of competition between the region’s two greatest external actors.
This division of labor is only viable, however, if two conditions hold as China’s stock continues to rise in the region. The first is each side sticking to its own defined role and not attempting to challenge the dominance of the other beyond it. China’s apparent perseverance in its attempts to build a military base in the UAE represents a potential obstacle in this regard. The second condition is that each side not attempt to obstruct the activities of the other. A warning sign here is Washington’s voicing of concern that BRI projects being built near American military installations could enable Chinese spying on them.
However, these pressure points are the exception rather than the norm. If China ever hopes to challenge the U.S. military’s dominance in the Gulf, this is a distant prospect, given that Beijing’s potential UAE base is apparently the only such example in the region. The American reaction to BRI projects in the Middle East has so far generally been confined to expressions of concern, rather than genuine attempts at obstruction.
The bottom line is that both sides find the role of the other in the region to be broadly inoffensive. This has even been the case with China’s provision of surveillance technologies to Gulf regimes, at least since the Biden administration dropped its early attempts to pressure GCC states on human rights issues. Some U.S. officials, at least off the record, were even willing to tentatively praise the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal facilitated by China in March.
The only major issue on which Beijing and Washington are at cross purposes is Iran. China’s imports of sanctioned Iranian oil and its investments in the country partly nullify the U.S. approach to Tehran – attempting to force nuclear concessions through sanctions. However, one of Beijing’s motivations for maintaining an economic relationship with Iran may be to prevent Tehran from becoming so isolated under sanctions that it would become a more destabilizing force, either through an internal collapse or externally (potentially through escalating the seizure of oil tankers, or by pulling out of the nuclear deal). Beijing’s Iran policy arguably softens the hard edges of the U.S. approach, helping to maintain the current status quo that ensures both superpowers’ energy security.
The Iran issue demonstrates again the key to understanding why China is not a revisionist power in the Gulf like it is in the Asia-Pacific: its shared security interests with the United States. The U.S. military-backed status quo in the Gulf suits China, protecting its oil supply without being perceived by Beijing as compromising Chinese national security. China is therefore happy to contribute to Gulf security in ways that complement, rather than challenge, this status quo. The result of this is the division of labor developing as China becomes the second superpower in the Gulf.