China’s recent foreign policy activism in the Gulf serves a specific strategic purpose – that is, to institutionalize China’s political relationship and economic cooperation with regional states and to promote a new approach to regional security cooperation. It also highlights China’s enduring challenge of balancing its strategic engagement with Iran while seeking to deepen its ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
The visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing in February 2023 can be seen as part of this delicate balancing act. During Raisi’s visit, numerous agreements were signed between Beijing and Tehran to pursue the ambitious goals of bilateral trade and investment outlined in the 25-year agreement signed by China and Iran in 2021. The implementation of these agreements, however, continues to be constrained by US sanctions and the stalled process of resuming the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The long-term prospect of China’s interplay with Iran and the Gulf is likely to be shaped by the interactive dynamics of US power, local agency of regional states, and China’s strategy towards the Gulf – or the lack thereof. Beijing’s success in brokering the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran signals its willingness to play a distinctive role in promoting regional security cooperation.
Notwithstanding, the Gulf region is likely to remain peripheral to China’s grand strategic concerns – unless a direct contest for regional supremacy between the US and China in the Middle East occurs.
New Chinese foreign policy activism in the Gulf
In the past decade or so, China has become an increasingly important geo-economic actor in the Gulf region, which is seen by Beijing as central to its pursuit of energy security. According to Energy Information Administration (EIA) statistics, 40 per cent of China’s crude oil imports in 2021 came from the Gulf states, with 17 per cent from Saudi Arabia.1 In 2020, China replaced the European Union as the GCC’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade reached $161.4 billion.2
Beyond trade and oil, China has been massively involved in regional physical and digital infrastructure investment. Cooperation in digital, space and green technologies between China and the Gulf states has also developed rapidly. The strategic location of the Gulf region in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has facilitated this intensified economic engagement. Beijing is increasingly committed to pairing the BRI with national development strategies in the region, such as Saudi Vision 2030, the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and Qatar National Vision 2030.
This ‘leapfrog growth of China-GCC relations’, as the Chinese President Xi Jinping calls it,3 has not been, however, matched by commensurate Chinese efforts at institutionalizing this bilateral relationship. Although China established contact with the GCC at its inception in 1981, until very recently there has been no bilateral mechanism for regular contact and consultation between the two, except the rather obscure China–GCC Strategic Dialogue first held in 2010.4
The China–Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) was established in 2004 by China and the Arab League as a biennial ministerial-level meeting. But not until Xi’s recent visit to Riyadh in December 2022 was the China–Arab States Summit launched – a pace which is in sharp contrast to the case of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
The Riyadh visit also launched the China–GCC Summit. It was, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, part of Beijing’s plan to implement ‘a top-level design for the development of China-Arab relations in the new era’.5 This suggests that recent Chinese Gulf policy initiatives are directed personally by Xi. Practically, these new initiatives serve a specific strategic purpose – that is, to institutionalize the rapidly expanding political and economic relationship between China and the Gulf states and more broadly, the Arab world. Xi’s summit diplomacy in Riyadh marks a decisive move in that direction.
Promoting security cooperation in the region is also part of this new foreign policy activism. The joint statement issued by Saudi Arabia and China after the Riyadh meeting reaffirmed both parties’ determination ‘to develop cooperation and coordination in defence fields’. The focus of such cooperation is, however, on non-traditional security issues such as terrorism, extremism, organized crime, and ‘in the areas of early-warning risk intelligence, security risks assessment and combating cybercrimes’.6
At the summits, two attempts by Xi clearly indicate that China is less risk-averse than before regarding a more proactive involvement in regional security issues. At his address at the China–Arab States Summit, Xi floated the idea of ‘building a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security architecture in the Middle East’. This call has elicited only lukewarm responses from the Arab states. In his speeches at the summits, Xi also invited the GCC and Arab states to participate in China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI).7 The joint statements of both summits are, however, silent about this invitation.
At a bilateral meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Riyadh visit, Xi expressed his desire to broker dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resolve regional tensions. Xi’s proposal was warmly welcomed by the crown prince.8
Iran’s reaction has been rather muted to the deepening of institutional links and security cooperation proposed by China with regional states in the Arab world – although not so its reaction to the China–GCC joint statement.
To the great displeasure of the Iranian government,9 the joint statement issued after the China–GCC Summit makes specific reference to the territorial disputes between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran over three islands in the Strait of Hormuz.10 It affirms support for the parties concerned to seek a peaceful resolution of these territorial disputes ‘through bilateral negotiations in accordance with the rules of international law’11
The specific reference to the three disputed islands using language that is less neutral than normally seen in China’s diplomatic parlance is contrary to Beijing’s own claim that China–GCC relations are ‘not targeted at any third party’. This suggests a misstep in China’s delicate diplomatic balancing act to avoid entanglements in regional disputes rather than a clear sign of the country changing its Gulf policy to favour the GCC over Iran.12
The joint statement issued in the English language as reported by the Saudi Press Agency also created the impression that China has sided with the Gulf states in regional conflicts. It urges regional states to engage in an inclusive and comprehensive dialogue to address ‘the Iranian nuclear file and destabilizing activities’ and ‘support for terrorist and sectarian groups and illegal armed organisations’, and ‘to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles and drones’.13
Interestingly, the Chinese version of the joint statement differs subtly yet significantly from the English version cited above on one important point. It calls for regional states to come together to ‘address the Iranian nuclear issue, destabilizing regional activities, …’.14 There is an additional comma in the Chinese version, which suggests that the Iranian nuclear programme is simply one of several regional security issues that must be collectively dealt with. It does not hold Iran solely responsible for other listed destabilizing activities in the region.
This discrepancy epitomises the enduring challenge for China to balance its strategic engagement with Iran as it seeks to deepen its ties with the Gulf and Arab states.
Raisi’s state visit to Beijing in February 2023 at the invitation of Xi clearly provided an opportunity for China to redress the Iranian grievances, not least the China–GCC joint statement. Xi went out of his way to reaffirm that ‘China supports Iran in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity’.15 Importantly, it was during Raisi’s visit to Beijing that the Chinese forwarded Riyadh’s proposals for dialogue, which were accepted by the Iranians.16
Numerous bilateral agreements on economic cooperation were also signed during that visit to implement the China–Iran 25-year Cooperation Programme signed in 2021. The visit can do little, however, to change the underlying structural factors – namely, US sanctions and the stalled processes of the JCPOA – that continue to constrain meaningful implementation of the ambitious trade and investment cooperation between China and Iran as laid out in the 25-year Cooperation Programme. Ironically, the full operation of the China–Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) signed in 2016 depends on the restoration of JCPOA.17
Iran and the Gulf states indisputably occupy different places in China’s geopolitical and geo-economic calculus. While developing its strategic partnership with Iran, China has avoided direct confrontation with the US. It is free-riding on rather than challenging the security order provided by US power in the Middle East. It is acutely concerned about Iranian destabilizing activities that may disrupt China’s energy supply chain and jeopardize its pursuit of energy security.
To the extent that there is coincidence of interests among the US, China and the Gulf states in maintaining regional stability and security, China is unlikely to leverage its strategic partnership with Iran to engage in regional security competition with the US.18 Drawing Iran into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a critical move on China’s part to socialize Iran into multilateral security cooperation rather than a counter-balancing measure vis-à-vis American power.
The long-term prospects for China’s interplay with Iran and the Gulf are likely to be shaped by the interactive dynamics of three particular challenges.
First is the question of US power in the region. In spite of intensified global strategic and technological rivalries between the US and China, it is thanks to the security umbrella provided by US military power that China has rapidly and steadily established itself in the past decade or so as a most significant geo-economic player with high stakes in the Gulf. The regional security that US power provides has enabled China to stay at arm’s length from the geopolitics of the region and to carry out its ‘zero-enemy’ and ‘all friends’ policy in the Gulf.19
So far, Washington does not seem to have considered the Gulf and more broadly the Middle East as a main theatre for US–China strategic rivalries. The National Security Strategy of the US published in 2022 in fact relegates the Middle East to the fourth tier in pursuit of a regional security strategy after the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and Latin America, and just above Africa.20
All this may change. As US–China strategic rivalries continue to intensify, will these spill over to the Gulf and the Middle East? Will regional security become collateral damage even if China does not seek any significant security role there?
Beyond the factor of structural power, there is the question of the agency of regional states. The strained relations of the US both with Saudi Arabia and with the UAE may have created an opportunity for China to deepen ties with these two regional powers. Yet both rely on Washington as a supplier of advanced weapon systems even while they move to cooperate more closely with Beijing on developing digital technology and even ballistic missile technology and armed drones. The US remains their partner of choice because of its irreplaceable role as a regional security provider, even as these states strive for strategic autonomy. China has neither the military capabilities nor the political will to provide a viable alternative to the US security umbrella.
An emerging pattern of great power engagement in the Gulf region sees a tacit arrangement forming that is largely to the preference of the GCC states. Whereas the US continues to play the role of regional security public goods provider, China has increasingly become an economic public goods provider for the region. This is, interestingly, not dissimilar to the existing pattern in the Asia-Pacific. Crucially, though, the US and China are not contesting for regional supremacy in the Middle East as they are in the Asia-Pacific.
Can the Gulf states help to sustain this pattern of great power engagement with the region with effective policies that maintain the geopolitical and geo-economic equilibrium when they cannot agree on a unified regional approach to China?21 How can they navigate the escalating strategic rivalries of the US and China when promoting their regional agenda?
Finally, there is the question of China’s regional strategy towards the Gulf, or the lack thereof. As a geopolitical actor, China is relatively new to the Gulf region. Beijing has recently successfully brokered a deal for Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations.22 This proactive engagement in promoting regional security cooperation may suggest changes of China’s regional policies, which tend to be pragmatic and opportunistic. It is worth noting, however, that Beijing sees this deal as ‘a robust and successful effort to put the Global Security Initiative into practice’ and as demonstrating China’s constructive role in ‘facilitating the proper settlement of hot-spot issues around the world’23 rather than its changing regional strategy.
Notwithstanding, it remains unclear what Beijing’s strategic endgame is in the Gulf, and indeed whether Beijing has a Gulf strategy at all.
This is openly acknowledged. As one Chinese Middle East specialist asserts,
In the face of zero-sum geopolitical rivalry in the Gulf, perceived by China, China does not have a clear strategy. The essence of Chinese cooperation with the Gulf countries is to maintain strategic flexibility. Readjustments to its strategic policy in response to opportunities are made on a case-by-case basis according to the decision-makers’ view of trade-offs to avoid risks.24
This lack of a clear regional strategy should not perhaps be a surprise. Chinese foreign policy practice has long prioritized the country’s relationship with great powers. Relationships with neighbouring states in the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia come second. China’s relationship with developing countries in other regions more generally is rarely a strategic priority, its rhetoric notwithstanding.25 Unless a direct contest for regional supremacy occurs between the US and China in the Middle East, the Gulf region is likely to remain peripheral to China’s grand strategic concerns.
This research is supported by the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform (PeaceRep), funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for the benefit of developing countries. The information and views set out in this publication are those of the authors. Nothing herein constitutes the views of FCDO. Any use of this work should acknowledge the authors and the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform.
PeaceRep is a research consortium based at the University of Edinburgh. Our research is rethinking peace and transition processes in the light of changing conflict dynamics, changing demands of inclusion and changes in patterns of global intervention in conflict and peace/mediation/transition management processes.
Consortium members include: Conciliation Resources, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University, Dialectiq, Edinburgh Law School, International IDEA, LSE Conflict and Civicness Research Group, LSE Middle East Centre, Queens University Belfast, University of St Andrews, University of Stirling, and the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. PeaceRep is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UK.
 U.S. Energy Information Administration (2022), ‘China. Executive Summary,’ 8 August 2022, https://www.eia.gov/international/analysis/country/CHN
 Ghafar, A. A. (2022), ‘Sino-GCC Relations: Past, Present, and Future Trajectories’, Middle East Council of Global Affairs Issue Brief, 1 June 2022, https://mecouncil.org/publication/china-gcc-relations-past-present-and-future-trajectories-2/
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2022), ‘President Xi Jinping Attends First China-GCC Summit and Delivers Keynote Speech,’ 10 December 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202212/t20221210_10988406.html
 The visit of the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia, together with the Secretary General of the GCC to Beijing in January 2022, is said to be ‘unprecedented’ for the GCC. See Italian Institute for International Political Studies (2022), ‘The Gulf and China: A Broadening Partnership?’, ISPI MED This Week, 14 January 2022, https://www.ispionline.it/en/publication/gulf-and-china-broadening-partnership-32872
 Xinhua News Agency (2022), ‘王毅谈习近平主席出席中国－阿拉伯国家峰会、中国－海湾阿拉伯国家合作委员会峰会并对沙特进行国事访问’ [Wang Yi discusses President Xi Jinping’s attendance at the China-Arab States Summit and China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit and his state visit to Saudi Arabia], 11 December 2022, http://www.gov.cn/guowuyuan/2022-12/11/content_5731323.htm
 Saudi Press Agency (2022), ‘Joint Statement at the Conclusion of the Saudi-Chinese Summit,’ 9 December 2022, https://www.spa.gov.sa/2407997
 For more details about China’s Global Security Initiative, see Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2023), ‘The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper’, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/202302/t20230221_11028348.html
 Hafezi, P., El Yaakoubi, A. and Pomfret, J. (2023), ‘Analysis: Frustrated Khamenei pushed for Saudi-Iran deal clinched in China’, Reuters, 16 March 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/frustrated-khamenei-pushed-saudi-iran-deal-clinched-china-2023-03-16/
 Tehran Times (2022), ‘Raisi expresses Iranians’ angst over Chinese president’s recent stance’, 14 December 2022, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/479738/Raisi-expresses-Iranians-angst-over-Chinese-president-s-recent; Iran International (2022), ‘Iran Summons China's Envoy Over Joint Statement With GCC’, 10 December 2022, https://www.iranintl.com/en/202212106969
 These are namely Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa.
 Saudi Press Agency (2022), ‘Statement of the Riyadh Summit for Cooperation and Development between the GCC and the People's Republic of China’, 9 December 2022, https://www.spa.gov.sa/2408192
 For different views, see Golmohammadi, V. (2023), ‘China’s shifting Persian Gulf Policy: Is it favouring the GCC over Iran?’, Observer Research Foundation, 4 January 2023, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/chinas-shifting-persian-gulf-policy/; and Scita, J. (2023), ‘When it Comes to Iran, China is Shifting the Balance’, Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, 13 December 2022, https://www.bourseandbazaar.com/articles/2022/12/13/when-it-comes-to-iran-china-is-shifting-the-balance
 Saudi Press Agency (2022), ‘Statement of the Riyadh Summit for Cooperation and Development between the GCC and the People's Republic of China’, 9 December 2022, https://www.spa.gov.sa/2408192
 See Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2022), ‘中华人民共和国和海湾阿拉伯国家合作委员会合作与发展峰会联合声明’ [Joint Statement of the China and the GCC Summit on Cooperation and Development], 10 December 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/zyxw/202212/t20221210_10988401.shtml
 Xinhua News Agency (2023), ‘Xi holds talks with Iranian president, eyeing new progress in ties’, 15 February 2023, https://english.news.cn/20230215/f9b61d15caa04ccaaf46fc39b2ab9f44/c.html
 Hafezi, El Yaakoubi and Pomfret (2023), ‘Analysis: Frustrated Khamenei pushed for Saudi-Iran deal clinched in China’.
 For more details on the China–Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, see Official Website of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran (2016), ‘Full text of Joint Statement on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between I.R. Iran, P.R. China’, https://www.president.ir/EN/91435
 For a different assessment, see Stanzel, A. (2022) ‘China’s Path to Geopolitics: Case Study on China’s Iran Policy at the Intersection of Regional Interests and Global Power Rivalry’, German Institute for International and Security Affairs Research Paper 5, 21 February 2022, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/chinas-path-to-geopolitics#fn-d26215e1438
 See Sun, D. (2022), ‘China’s Zero-enemy Policy in the Gulf’, in Sim, L. and Fulton, J. (eds) (2022), Asian Perceptions of Gulf Security, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 30–49.
 The White House (2022), ‘National Security Strategy’, pp. 37–44, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf
 See Samaan, J. (2022), ‘China and the GCC: An Uncertain Partnership’, Gulf International Forum, 23 December 2022, https://gulfif.org/china-and-the-gcc-an-uncertain-partnership/
 Yumul, J. (2023), ‘Nation hailed for brokering Saudi-Iranian agreement’, China Daily, 15 March 2023, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202303/15/WS6411031ea31057c47ebb4741.html
 Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Vienna (2023), ‘Wang Yi: Saudi-Iranian Dialogue in Beijing is a Victory for Peace’, 10 March 2023, http://vienna.china-mission.gov.cn/eng/zgbd/202303/t20230313_11039691.htm
 Sun, D. (2022) ‘China’s Zero-enemy Policy in the Gulf’, p. 32. Some regional observers concur. As Tuvia Gering asserts, ‘China’s Middle East strategy is still woefully underdeveloped when it comes to addressing actual security needs’. See Gering, T. (2023), ‘Full throttle in neutral: China’s new security architecture for the Middle East’, Issue Brief, The Atlantic Council, 15 February 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/full-throttle-in-neutral-chinas-new-security-architecture-for-the-middle-east/
 Eisenman, J. and Heginbotham, E. (2020), ‘China’s Relations with Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East’, in Shambaugh, D. (ed.) (2020), China and the World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 291–312.