How Arab states perceive the US-China standoff

Mohammad Salami, The Cradle, August 29 2022 — West Asian countries recognize China’s sovereign claims over Taiwan, yet many of them still rely on the US militarily and politically, so where do they stand?

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan earlier this month sent waves of concern across Asia – both east and west – further straining already not-so-conciliatory relations between the US and China.

During Pelosi’s provocative trip, most West Asian nations supported China and the “One China” policy, illustrating Beijing’s increased clout across the region.

Arab countries in particular are committed to the One China policy, and given their fast-growing economic ties with Beijing, have not shown willingness to sacrifice these for the sake of any country, including the US.

Arab support for China

It is important to stress that Arab support for China has international legitimacy: The UN has supported Beijing’s position since 1971, when the UN General Assembly backed a united China in Resolution 2758, recognizing the envoys of the People’s Republic of China as the only representatives of China.

“Our position is very clear. We abide by General Assembly resolutions, by the One China policy, and that is the orientation that we have in everything we do,” Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, said in a press conference on 3 August, the day after Pelosi landed in Taiwan.

Similarly, the Arab League weighed in to support China’s sovereignty. In a phone call with the Chinese ambassador in Cairo, Secretary General Hossam Zaki said the League’s stance “is based on upholding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and firmly adhering to the one-China principle.”

Balancing relations

In the past, Arab states – especially the US-backed Persian Gulf ones – have had to carefully balance important considerations when taking a stance in disputes involving Beijing and Washington. However, over the past decade, a number of shifts have occurred in that formula:

First, China has been rapidly forging strong economic, trade and infrastructure deals with the Arab word, which has somewhat reduced US influence in the region. Beijing has now struck agreements with around 20 Arab nations to further the implementation of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aspires to create connectivity and land/sea routes throughout the Asian land mass.

Secondly, the tension between the US and China has compelled the regional states to actively strive to strike a balance between the two, while maintaining their independence from both. Decreasing US influence and increasing Chinese clout makes this all the more precarious an exercise.

In November 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that China was building a secret port in Abu Dhabi. The US strongly protested, and the UAE quickly stopped the construction of the facility, while maintaining that project was not for military purposes.

During a speech at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC last December, Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic advisor to the president of the UAE, noted that the UAE “stopped the work on the facilities. But our position remains the same, that these facilities were not really military facilities.” He added that the UAE takes its allies’ concerns (here referring to the US) into consideration.

Yet on the flip side, when the US asked Emirati authorities to provide guarantees that it would not to transfer technology to China over the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, the Emiratis opted instead to cancel the contract. Additionally, Abu Dhabi did not respond to Washington’s concerns about cooperation with Beijing over the development of a Chinese 5G network.

China’s growing influence

This balancing act is perhaps best exemplified by Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, because of Riyadh’s perception of a growing security threat from the then-newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, Riyadh engaged in a clandestine deal with China to establish a missile base on its territory.

When the Reagan administration learned of this in 1988, it asked King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud to immediately shutter the base. The Saudi monarch refused to comply, instead expelling the US ambassador in Riyadh. The missile base remains active to date, symbolizing a major early setback in bilateral relations.

Ties between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and China have changed over the last decade to Washington’s detriment. China’s massive BRI project has heavily penetrated the economic and investment infrastructure of Arab countries and narrowed the scope for Washington in a zero-sum sense.

China has now found more space in West Asia than the US. Much of this has to do with the region’s fatigue with the pressures of a unipolar order, and the sudden emergence of a less intrusive, multipolar system.

Indeed, Beijing’s West Asia policy is to practice non-interference in the political affairs of the region’s countries. Arab nations, in particular, find it more agreeable to gain China’s economic and technical assistance without being forced to reform their political systems in response to selective and inconsistent western ‘humanitarian’ concerns.

China’s lack of imperial history in West Asia has made it simple for Arabs to welcome Beijing’s proposals without prejudice, while the west – withstanding its colonial legacy – continues to aggressively interfere in some of the most contentious and destructive conflicts in the region.

A vital consumer

Crucially, the Chinese have become one the biggest buyers of Persian Gulf fossil fuels during this period. This development conveniently coincides with an increased US reluctance to purchase oil from West Asia in order to reduce its foreign energy dependence and pursue greener energy policies.

A third of China’s oil imports come from the GCC, the largest of which is from Saudi Arabia. Chinese companies buy one-sixth of GCC oil exports, a fifth of Iran’s oil, and half of Iraq’s oil exports. It goes without saying that China is the largest foreign investor and trade partner in the region.

For example, annual bilateral trade volume with Saudi Arabia was worth $87.31 billion at the end of 2021, a more than 200-fold increase from the $418 million when diplomatic relations were established in 1990, just over thirty years ago.

Mere days after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Jeddah in July, Saudi oil company Aramco signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s state-owned Sinopec to cooperate in areas including “carbon capture and hydrogen processes.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s imminent visit to Riyadh – after a two-year Covid-19 travel ban since January 2020 – is further proof of the considerable influence China now wields in the region.

In July 2019, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) emphasized that the foundations of China-UAE relations have been laid for the next 100 years. “The truth is that our relations didn’t begin 35 years ago only, but they started with our Arab ancestors. Our history extends back thousands of years,” MbZ recounted.

Can the US be replaced?

Although the US is not silent about growing Sino-Arab relations, it does not currently have the ability to counter in any meaningful way. The Biden administration is eager to improve relations with the GCC – in part because of skyrocketing energy prices – and has so far restrained himself from applying further pressures on those Arab relationships.

However, Arab states also recognize that China cannot and does not want to replace the US as a security guarantor. For this reason, security and military cooperation is the US’s greatest leverage against Beijing’s growing influence.

Security guarantees aside, GCC states also depend on Washington for diplomatic support at the international level, in global forums. It is not an area in which Beijing tends to assertively exercise its clout. And as Persian Gulf sheikhdoms are not exactly known for their exemplary human rights records, the US remains their foremost supporter in that realm.

As a recent example, former US President Donald Trump supported Saudi Arabia when it came under scrutiny for the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. His administration did not permit the opening of a global case against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in international courts.

In contrast to the relentless, global pressures exerted against Iran over its nuclear ambitions, Riyadh has sought to develop uranium production and ballistic missiles, which Washington has conveniently ignored. Trump had even secretly permitted seven US companies to transfer nuclear energy information to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval.

The UAE also received similar backroom support after it paid Thomas Barrack, a private equity investor and close Trump friend, and two other people to lobby Washington decision makers on behalf of Abu Dhabi.

An unreliable ally

After Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, and China’s responding military exercises, a number of foreign companies operating in Taiwan are considering the possibility of relocating.

Regular Chinese military exercises near Taiwan could have serious implications for commercial air and sea traffic routes given the island’s strategic position along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Approximately 50 percent of the world’s container vessels and 88 percent of those largest ships passed through the Taiwan Strait in the first seven months of the year, according to Bloomberg.

The increasing tensions have caused regional states to express concern about what lies ahead. “There is a danger, even though I know you do not want to go to war, but there is a danger of accidents and miscalculations,” said Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan recently.

“We actually want temperatures to come down. It is actually very important for Southeast Asia for China and the United States to get along,” she explained.

Supporting China but siding with the US

When Arab states observe the US unable to take effective measures to secure Taiwan’s economy amidst growing confrontation with China, they lose trust in the US as a reliable partner. The Persian Gulf sheikhdoms have recently made great efforts to diversify their economy and host hundreds of foreign companies – they therefore have much to lose.

Relations between the GCC and Washington are not at their best. Disappointing recent experiences of failed US support – Yemeni Ansarallah missile strikes on Saudi and Emirati oil facilities, infrastructure, and cities, for instance – have caused a rethink about security, with Arab states looking to beef up their security independently, or collectively, within a regional framework. The latter option is actively supported by China, Russia, and regional power, Iran.

In order for continued investment in the region, there must first exist a stable and safe environment. It is in this context that Saudi Arabia has more earnestly sought rapprochement negotiations with Iran, and why Kuwait and the UAE have reestablished their ambassadors in Tehran.

The tension between the US and China in Taiwan has caused concern among West Asian states. Although they have supported China on this issue, their preference is to remain neutral while carefully trying to prevent Great Power fights from seeping into the region.

For the region, the most important implication of the Sino-US standoff is its growing disenchantment with Washington’s nonstop, unnecessary, Great Power provocations, and the US’s inability to ensure security anywhere. On the flip side, China continues to quietly apply the soft power strategies that most appeal to a fatigued West Asia: diplomacy, economy, and mutually beneficial cooperation on a whole host of key issues.

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