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What China Can Deliver to the Middle East

May 23, 2024
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

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Dignitaries including Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (center) at the China-Arab States Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in December 2022. Xinhua News Agency

The last decade, and the last two years in particular, saw the robust development of Chinese relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is to China that the Saudis turned for mediation of security reconciliation in late 2022. Though applauded, this is still something hard to understand for American and other Western scholars.

What can China deliver to Saudi Arabia? This is a question frequently asked by American academics in the field of Middle Eastern studies. I received this sort of question several times in my academic exchanges with American scholars on the sidelines of 2023 Doha Forum and other bilateral webinars and workshops in recent years.

What is interesting is that by asking the question, American scholars signal that they might not truly understand the rationale behind the quick development of China-Saudi relations, or the momentum behind China-Saudi relations, or why China is trusted by countries in the region.

It is a deep-seated belief among American scholars and policy-makers that because the U.S. remains militarily the single most powerful country in the world, it therefore should be taken for granted that only the U.S. can make a difference in the region or the world at large. They assume that the U.S. will remain permanently the only country the region will turn to on security and other issues.

Power politics could be everywhere in some ways, but power mentality can obscure the eyes all by itself. China-Saudi relations are comprehensive and multifaceted, and so there are many things China can offer to Saudi and GCC countries. But there are three main things.

First, China has made and will make more contributions to regional security. For many years, Saudi Arabia together with its GCC neighbors had relied on the United States for security protection. But this has proved to be an illusion. Saudi almost gave up on the U.S. when it failed the country after oil facilities were seriously hurt by Houthi strikes in 2019. That’s why Saudi is now seeking a defense treaty with the U.S.

China would never claim that it could be a unilateral provider of security because it believes in building a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable kind of security. In other words, real security can only be achieved through the joint efforts of countries in the neighborhood, augmented by a well-defined role of external actors. While external actors can neither decide the security issues nor just stand by and watch, they should assist and push for reconciliation and peace. Peace is the best security. In this way, China has and will continue to make contributions to regional security.

China’s mediation of the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran served to enhance security for all countries in the region by way of de-escalation of tensions. Saudi, together with GCC countries, saw promising security prospects as tens of thousands of business people from all over the world, including China, visited the region for commercial opportunities after Saudi and Iran reached reconciliation in March 2023. They brought a major wave of confidence in regional prospects of economic development. The country has never been so comfortable as it is now in pushing forward its 2030 vision.

The significance of China’s mediation for reconciliation lies in the fact that it created a second paradigm for security building in the region. The United States had tried to provide security to the region via containment of Iran and building alliances. Yet the U.S. failed to deliver security under this paradigm. The reason for this failure lies fundamentally in the fact that Iran is a nation with a huge population, abundant resources and rich civilization, and it cannot be contained at all.

China does not have a colonial burden, so it maintains balanced and friendly relations with GCC countries and Iran alike. Based on its new security concept, China can push and promote reconciliation from outside, and will continue to do so in the future.

Second, China has and will continue to contribute to the efforts of Saudi Arabia and the region by creating prosperity. It has already become the world’s second-largest economy and contributed to 30 percent of global economic growth in the last decade. China has also been the largest importer of oil in the last decade, and will continue to be the largest for many years into the future. The year 2023 saw China import about 564 million tons of oil, half of which was from the Middle East.

This suggests that China, not other major economies, will remain to the largest, or at least a major, oil importer from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. This means it will be an important source of Saudi Arabia’s wealth and economic growth in the future.

Moreover, with capabilities in many areas, China will be an indispensable partner for Saudi Arabia in achieving the Saudi 2030 vision, which involves diversifying its economic structure and the construction of futuristic cities. For Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, China’s relevance is its potential contribution to regional economic prosperity and social stability.

Third, China has and will continue to demonstrate respect for Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. For a long time, China has been enshrining the principle of mutual respect between civilizations by manifesting very clearly that it adheres to the principle of non-interference — specifically, respecting the rights of countries to choose their own political systems and development paths. This constitutes a sharp difference from the policy of the West, which has frequently meddled in the domestic affairs of countries in the Middle East.

China has also demonstrated its respect for customs and religions in the region, while every year or two we can observe serious incidents of desecration by the West of Islam. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, the anti-Islam movie “Innocence of Muslims” and the burning of the Quran are just a few examples.

Both the Chinese people and Muslims have produced great civilizations, but both have been humiliated by the West in recent history and are still facing a deficit of respect as a result of the West’s sense of superiority, long-standing hegemony and power politics. The future will see China and Muslim countries working together to promote mutual respect between civilizations.

All in all, China is deeply intertwined with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. It is contributing to regional security and will be one of the major sources of the future wealth of the region. It will always respect the way of life in the region, including religion.

The U.S. certainly will remain very powerful into the distant future, and it will certainly be able to deliver something. But one may strongly doubt that the U.S. can really do what China can do. It seems that the United States will continue to fail to deliver security to the region as it keeps the containment of Iran in mind. And it seems that the U.S. does not have the habit of respecting other cultures and civilizations.

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