Currently, there is confusion about China's role in the Middle East and its relations with Saudi Arabia. In lights of developments (the Arab Spring) that have swept recently in the Middle East and North Africa , the spotlight on China-Saudi relations is of great significance, as it will help in understanding China's role in the Arab world. Additionally there are doubts among many of the ruling elite in the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, about the United States' credibility as a strategic ally after they witnessed the speed at which the American administration abandoned its allies in the region (Al Tamimi, 2014).
China has long considered Saudi Arabia under the enduring influence of imperialism. The country has fallen under British influence before it came under the American influence in 1902 onwards. On the other hands, Saudi Arabia has viewed China in a rather negative manner. As a Communist country, Saudi considered China as an un-Islamic country as well, to the point that the Arab nation was not interested in extending a hand in such a "godless" country. Saudi Arabia was also a marginal country, and had no substantial weight in Middle East politics until the mid-1970s (Hickey and Gou, 2010).
While China was pro-Egypt and supportive of President Gamal Abdel Nasser's agenda to promote international liberation in Arabia, Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was a conservative and status quo-oriented monarchy. In fact, Egypt's military intervention in the civil war in Yemen in support of the revolution against the monarchy brought Egypt and Saudi Arabia in collision. Egypt bombarded southern Saudi urban centers repeatedly in the 1960s, and promoted divisions within the Saudi royal family. The division grew out of control, to the extent that the royal family deposed King Saudi and installed his brother Faisal in 1964. King Saudi took exile in Egypt, united the royal family, and confronted Nasser and Arab nationalists. His goal was to undermine the legitimacy of nationalists through the advancement of Pan-Islamism instead of Pan-Arab nationalism (Olimat, 2013).
Meanwhile, while China perceived Saudi Arabia as a reactionary state, hostile to communism, and closely aligned with capitalist camp, Beijing's leaders still hoped to win its goodwill for many reasons, including:
1. Saudi Arabia abstained consistently on UN votes when it comes to China;
2. Saudi Arabia, compared to other Arab states, did not condemn China as an aggressor in Korea;
3. Saudi Arabia did not support the US-sponsore resolution to postpone consideration of any proposal to exclude Taiwan from the UN;
4. Saudi Arabia refused to join regional alliances with the West and disputed the British over the Burayami Oasis;
5. Saudi Arabia concluded a mutual defense treaty with Egypt in 1955 and cooperated with Nasser in efforts to contain Iraq and prevent others, including Syria and Jordan, from joining the pact (Huwaidin, 2003).
6. Saudi Arabia supported Nasser's move in September 1955 to conclude arms deal with Soviet Union, in which the Chinese played a large role;
7. Saudi Arabia support Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, broke off its diplomatic relations with Britain and France, and declared an embargo on oil shipments to the two European powers when they invaded Egypt in 1956.
China began to take notice of the growing stature of Saudi Arabia especially during the oil embargo imposed by King Faisal on the United States and the West is support of the Palestinian Question in 1973. The increasing price of oil provided Saudi Arabia with a distinguished status in the region as it provided the government with financial resources to fund local development, as well as regional developmental projects. Another factor contributing to the status of the Saudi government was the utter defeat of Arab nationalists in the 1967 War with Israel. After the conflict, Saudi Arabia took a leading in Middle Eastern affairs advocating Pan-Islamism as an answer to the challenges facing the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia called for the establishment of the Organization of Islamic States, and led the organization to the point of weakening the institutions of Arab nationalism (Hickey and Guo, 2010; Olimat, 2013).
China admired the sense of independence that Saudi Arabia's King Faisal demonstrated, as he had used oil as a weapon to advance the Arab cause, contrary to the interests of Saudi Arabia's closest ally, the United States. Relations between China and Saudi Arabia eventually developed, which culminated in an arms deal in the 1980s. However, after the 9/11 terrorist attack, Sino-Saudi partnership grew at a much faster pace due to the deterioration of American-Saudi relations. It is astounding to find that the United States was responsible in one way or another for the Saudi-Chinese partnerships. In the mid 1980s, Saudi Arabia sought to purchase advanced American weapon systems to boost its security in the sahdow of the Iran-Iraq War and Israeli military superiority.
While the Reagan administration was supportive of supplying Saudi Arabia with quality arms needs, the U.S. Congress, acting under the influence of a strong Israeli lobby, opposed the sale of any advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, fearing threats to Israel. Saudi Arabia then sought military cooperation with China, since at the time the Soviet Union was not an option given the epic confrontation between Islam and Communism in Afghanistan, in which Saudi Arabia played a central role. In doing business with China, Saudi Arabia attempted to send a clear message to the United States that it has an alternative arms supplier. China sold Saudi Arabia some of the most advanced ballistic missiles in its arsenal. China sold Saudi Arabia CSS-2 intermediate range missiles, with a range of 1,500 miles and the ability to carry a payload of over 4,000 lbs.
An indication of Sino-Saudi partnership stems from the special attention given to it by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. His first visit as King in 2005 was to China, not the United States (China Daily, 2006). The Saudi-Chinese partnership is distinguished in that it has expanded its security coordination, trade and oil interests far beyond any expectations. Saudi Arabia not only exports oil to China but also is actively involved in the down streaming of the oil industry in China. For example, Saudi Arabia is building a $5 bn refinery in the Fujian province. In return, China is selling arms to Saudi Arabia, flooding Saudi markets with cheap industrial products, relieving Saudi Arabia from its reliance to Western oil markets, and balancing the American influence in the region. Currently, Saudi Arabia is supplying 16 percent of China's crude imports. State-controlled Saudi Basic Industries Corp is investing $4 billion in a Chinese ethylene complex that will give the Middle Eastern chemical giant a solid foothold in the fast growing Chinese petrochemical sector.
The Sino-Saudi partnership is understood but not welcomed by the United States. Washington continues to express its intention to protect its interests in Saudi Arabia, and is willing to overcome some of the consequences of the tragic attacks, such as the visa restrictions on Saudis (Wagner and Cafiero, 2013). In reciprocity, the government of Saudi Arabia, such as combating terrorist organizations, regulating charity organizations, reforming its educational systems, and monitoring financial transactions to ensure no funds would reach terrorist organizations. In a goodwill gesture toward the United States and Israel, Saudi Arabia rallied the Arab world in a 2003 Arab Summit toward comprehensive normalization with Israel based on the land for peace formula. As far as China is concerned, the Saudi peace initiative is consistent with its longstanding views on the conflict. Chinas has also shown sensitivity to U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia, and avoid any potential confrontation with the United States. However, China is proceeding with its own agenda, which is undisturbed given the warm welcome that Saudis have shown to their partnership with China.
China's communist ideology had initially created an unfavorable opinion of China in Saudi Arabia. King Faisal bin Saud was outspoken of his strong opposition to communist ideology as an alien ideology that encourages instability and revolutionary change and is in fundamental conflict with Islam (Quandt in Iuwaidin, 213). Likewise, China's close alignment with Soviet Union, its revolutionary policy, as well as its policy towards its Muslim minority, contributed toward Saudi's negative view of China in its first two decades as a communist nation. From Saudi's point of view, Chinese and Soviet support for the Marxist regime in Aden and the Dhofari insurgents in Oman, and China's continued revolutionary propaganda throughout the world generated a further threatening situation to the security of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula region. Likewise, China's harsh treatment of its own Muslim population in the early 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution had added to unfavorable Saudi sentiments toward China. (Iuwadin).
Since 1955, the China Islmaic Association sent a pilgrimage mission to Mecca every year until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1964 when the missions were terminated. The Cultural Revolution was a bitter struggle for supremacy within the Communist Party , between the radical faction of Mao Zedong and the more pragmatic group led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. The premise of the Cultural Revolution was to attack the "four olds" - old thinking, old culture, old morality and old custom. As a result, the Communist Party carried out harsh practice against Muslim minorities, as well as against other religious minorities, including Tibetans and Mongols, in order to solve the nationality problem and achieve ethnic uniformity in China. Most mosques and Muslim schools were forced to close down and many were destroyed, the use of minority language scripts was restricted, copies of the Quran and other religious texts were burned, Muslims were killed or arrested for their resistance and Muslims lost their high positions in the government.
On the other hand, the Saudi government's perception of the threat to its own security had changed in the late 1960s. The Saudis saw the following two major developments in the region as the two most threatening developments to the security of the kingdom:
1. the establishment of the PRSY under the control of the Marxist National Liberation Front and the proclamation of its dedication to overthrow all traditional regimes in the region; and
2. the revolutionary movement in Oman, which was originally supported by the Saudis, adopted a Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong though ideological in 1968 and proclaimed its duty as the liberator of the entire occupied Gulf Region.
At the beginning Chinese Muslim Hajj (pilgrims) traveling to Meccah resumed at the end of the 1970s, then economically, through the entry of Chinese goods to the Saudi market at the beginning of the 1980s and finally militarily by providing Saudi Arabia with long-range missiles in the second half of the 1980s. Relations developed later further to peak in 1990 after the resumption of formal diplomatic relations. Although the relations between China and Saudi Arabia have evolved steadily over the past two decades, economic interests are still the driving force behind the expansion of the Sino-Saudi relations. But with the political upheavals and recent oil discoveries in the U.S., the economic and military developments in China, as well as the great changes caused by the Arab Spring, the possibilities of building stronger alliance between China and Saudi has become even greater.
There are many reasons why Chinas looks to the Middle East, especially to Saudi Arabia. These include: to import oil, extend its political influence and diversify its trade ties. Other than gaining access to Saudi's rich energy resources, China also aims to deepen its relations with Saudi Arabia to: (1) enhance the security of its oil imports from the Middle East, (2) fight what the Chinese consider as the "three ugly forces": religious extremism, national separatism and terrorism. (3) China is seeking for the Arab states in the international arena on issues like Taiwan or the One China Policy, as well as its position on Tibet, among others.
Today, China is the world's most populous country, with over 1.3 billion people (Internet World Stats, 2014). It is also the world's second biggest economy (World Bank, 2014), which, according to the IMF in 2012, is set to eclipse that of the United States by 2017. A study by the World Bank even ranked China as the world's biggest economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) (Schuman, 2014). With the growing economy, China's demand for oil also increases and China's demand for oil is growing faster than any other country in the world. Clearly, China is hooked to the Middle East because of its thirst for oil (Rapoza, 2013). Until 1993, China was not dependent on any country for energy but with rapid growth, it needs foreign supplier for its growing energy needs. It is now the world's second largest oil consumer next to the United States, although it is expected to be the world's leading oil consumer in twenty years.
China's growing appetite for oil is the product of the country's three decades of economy boom, which has seen expanding external trade, rising incomes, a growing population and increasing urbanization. For the past 10 years, China's GDP has rose 5.5 times more than that of the U.S.'s, from $1.32 trillion in 2001 to $7.29 trillion by the end of 2011 (The Economist, 2014). However, China only produced less than half of the oil it consumed. The rest is imported and more than half of the oil it imports comes from the Middle East (almost 20 percent of that from Saudi Arabia alone). That situation will lead to a higher economic interdependence between China and Saudi.
In view of this, China considers Saudi Arabia with great importance for the following reasons: (a) Saudi's history as a reliable partner with all of its customers; (b) Saudi as the world's largest oil exporter, with current production capacity around 12 mb/d; (c) Saudi has a vast amount of oil which China desires; (d) Saudi as the largest economy among the Arab countries; and (e) Saudi as the biggest country among the OPEC members.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is adopting a "Look East" policy and sees China as one of the most important strategic markets for its oil exports. Because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabia has been seeking to rebalance its relations with the world's major powers. With this, Saudi has been pursuing a "hedging strategy" towards the U.S. by establishing closer ties with Asian countries, especially China. Likewise, the overwhelming uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011-2012, which resulted to the end of the regimes of some Arab leaders impacted Saudi's foreign policies. These political developments were coupled with changes in the demand for oil, which shifted Saudi's focus towards Asia.
Given their different intellectual origins and theoretical orientations, realism and liberalism from provided divergent interpretations of consequences of China's oil policy towards Saudi Arabia. Most realists believe that an economically powerful China will become more assertive and expansionist because of structural constraints. As China's capabilities increase, they argue its intentions will become less benign and within this context they see China's actions in the Middle East as intended to expand Chinese power and influence at the cost of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East. These may eventually lead to a conflict between the two powers. Liberals, meanwhile, contend that China's increasing role in the Middle East will foster greater dependence and cooperation between the United States, China, India and Middle Eastern states, which would led for benefits for all sides. Both realists and liberalists recognize the salience of high economic interdependence in determining China's future behavior, but they fail to offer a dynamix theory that will demonstrate precisely the conditions under which oil interdependence will have a positive or negative impact on Chinese policy towards Saudi Arabia.
Moving forward, some major questions are necessary for the success of this paper: What are the international repercussions of the "rise" of China in the Middle East? Will prosperous China contribute to regional prosperity or threaten American interests in Saudi Arabia? Will a strong China be tempted to use military power to challenge the American "order" in the Middle East, or will it be constrained by potent forces of global economic interdependence? Will a more open and reform-oriented China gradually move towards political freedom, thus, enhancing the stability and security in the Middle East, or will it throw its weight around and challenge the American hegemony in the Middle East, providing Saudi Arabia with a political and military alternative to America?
On Saudi's part, will its political and military ties with China lead the kingdom towards abandoning its strategic cooperation with the United States? Or will the economic, political and military cooperation between China and Saudi develop to the level of strategic alliance? Will China and Saudi Arabia enter in partnership "security for oil" as was the case with the United States? Will the U.S. try to contain China in the Middle East and block its access to the region's resources, or will it be cooperative and understand China's genuine need for resources to sustain its growth?
This paper will attempt to further delve into the political significance of the recent developments in the Sino-Saudi relation. Specifically, this study will aim to discuss and analyze the factors that triggered the emergence of the relationship between the two countries, determine whether or not the relationship between China and Saudi Arabia is purely economic or are there other reasons? Likewise, this study aims to find out if there is a significant relationship in the context of both states' historical relations with U.S. and Iran.
The method which the researcher will employ in this study will require a review of related literature, documentary analysis of sources, and synthesis of ideas from resources and literature cited.
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