This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.
Jonathan Fulton, Zayed University
In January 2016 President Xi Jinping paid state visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran, upgrading relations with both states to comprehensive strategic partnerships, China’s highest level in its hierarchy of diplomatic relations. It was a deft balancing act, recognizing competing regional rivals within days of each other, and signaling that China would continue to pursue an unconventional path in intensifying its regional role on both sides of the Gulf.
Observers of Gulf politics may wonder how long China can manage this, with the assumption that sooner or later Beijing will have to get off the fence. However, a closer look at China’s view on alliances and partnerships provides insights into how Beijing approaches developing relations in the Gulf. It is an important component of a long-standing strategic hedging approach to building influence that China has used effectively during the unipolar era, taking advantage of the US commitment to maintaining the Gulf status quo in order to develop relations with all states in the region. Beijing’s Gulf strategy is therefore an example of a regional policy shaped by pressures and opportunities at the international level. As the international system looks set to transition from a US-led order to an as-of-yet undefined one, regional orders will transition as well, and China’s hedging in the Gulf may position it as an important external actor. Its partnership diplomacy, vague but inclusive, is an important factor in building that role.
Chinese Thinking on Partnerships
China’s non-alliance strategy has been in place since the 12th Party Congress of 1982, when Deng Xiaoping articulated “an independent and self-reliant foreign policy of peace.” This was a natural outcome of a more modest foreign policy orientation that Deng introduced upon taking power in 1978, the beginning of the Reform Era, as Chinese leaders realized that the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had weakened them both at home and abroad. In order to address a severe domestic development lag, China needed a stable international environment, and its leaders sought to reassure states that were previously threatened by the PRC’s revolutionary zeal during the Cultural Revolution.
To this end, Beijing adopted its partnership policy. There is a scale of relations, ranging from a friendly cooperative partnership at the bottom to a comprehensive strategic partnership at the high end. (see Table 1) Each of the five categories of relations features specific priorities, signaling the level of importance Beijing attaches to that particular state. Relationships can be upgraded depending upon the progress made, as in the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with which China established a strategic partnership in 2012; during President Xi’s state visit in 2018, the China-Emirati relationship was elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
Table 1: Levels of Chinese Strategic Partnerships
|Comprehensive Strategic Partnership||Full pursuit of cooperation and development on regional and international affairs|
|Strategic Partnership||Co-ordinate more closely on regional and international affairs, including military.|
|Comprehensive co-operative partnership||Maintain sound momentum of high-level exchanges, enhanced contacts at various levels, and increased mutual understanding on issues of common interest|
|Cooperative partnership||Develop cooperation on bilateral issues, based on mutual respect and benefit|
|Friendly cooperative partnership||Strengthen cooperation on bilateral issues such as trade|
Source: South China Morning Post, “Quick guide to China’s diplomatic levels,” January 20, 2016
The literature on strategic partnerships focuses on several common features, the most important being an emphasis on flexibility while limiting explicit commitments. There is an understanding that relations in a strategic partnership will not be purely cooperative, but that the two states will work to manage “unavoidable conflicts so that they could continue to work together on vital areas of common interest.”
Nadkarni describes a strategic partnership as a “diplomatic instrument that allows for hedging against all eventualities while allowing for the common pursuit of mutual interests.” Struver describes them as “flexible interstate relations intended to serve the pursuit of political, security, and economic objectives in a globalized world” that are process-oriented means of “cooperation for the sake of cooperation.” He also highlights that they are goal-driven rather than threat-driven, an important contrast with alliances. Analyzing China’s practice of strategic partnerships, Goldstein offers a four-point description, calling them a commitment to:
- Build stable bilateral relationships without targeting a third state
- Promote deep economic engagement
- Focus on cooperation in areas of mutual interests while not focusing on domestic affairs of potential disagreement
- Routinize official visits and military exchanges
Taken together, these provide a useful framework of understanding China’s choice to use strategic partnerships rather than alliances.
To understand how Chinese officials perceive these partnerships in practice, it is instructive to see former Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments when defining the features of the China-European Union comprehensive strategic partnership, demonstrating that the features of this comprehensive strategic partnership are consistent with the values and commitments described in the literature:
By ‘comprehensive’, it means that the cooperation should be all-dimensional, wide-ranging and multi-layered. It covers economic, scientific, technological, political and cultural fields, contains both bilateral and multilateral levels, and is conducted by both governments and non-governmental groups. By ‘strategic’, it means that the cooperation should be long-term and stable, bearing on the larger picture of China-EU relations. It transcends the differences in ideology and social system and is not subjected to the impacts of individual events that occur from time to time. By ‘partnership’, it means that the cooperation should be equal-footed, mutually beneficial and win-win. The two sides should base themselves on mutual respect and mutual trust, endeavor to expand converging interests and seek common ground on the major issues while shelving differences on the minor ones.
Why not Alliances?
The risk of entrapment – “being dragged into a conflict over an ally’s interests that one does not share, or shares only partially” – features significantly in Beijing’s thinking about the potential problems with Middle Eastern alliances. Liu and Liu’s survey of official attitudes towards alliances in China describes an orthodox view of “an archaic and entangling system that only increases the chances of costly military conflict.” A loose, nonbinding and interest-based approach to partnerships solves the alliance security dilemma, albeit at a cost: it creates the perception of an opportunist and potentially unreliable partner. There is considerable debate within China on the benefits of adopting alliances, but for the time being it is academic, as the non-alignment principle continues to guide diplomatic practice.
Beyond the reluctance to become entrapped in alliance partners’ conflicts, there is a structural explanation for China’s aversion of alliances in general and Gulf alliances in particular. Post-Cold War unipolarity has provided rising powers like China with a unique strategic opportunity to develop power and influence without facing overt challenges from the USA. Balancing against the USA during the unipolar era would not advance China’s interests, but at the same time neither would bandwagoning nor neutrality. Active balancing is too risky, and bandwagoning or neutrality are not consistent with Chinese ambitions. Instead, China has taken advantage of the relative stability provided by US preponderance to develop strong ties with strategically important states around the world. These relations have been built mostly on economic foundations, but as they become increasingly multifaceted, there is a corresponding growth of strategic considerations. This is happening in the Gulf, as China has transitioned from a distant power of marginal influence to the largest trading partner in the region, with increasingly expansive interests with the Gulf monarchies, Iran, and Iraq.
While this approach has been derided as freeriding, most notably by President Obama, it is more useful to understand it as an example of successful strategic hedging. Successful hedgers improve their competitive abilities while avoiding conflict or confrontation with the region’s dominant power. In a competitive regional dominated by the USA, China has had to build a regional presence that does not alienate the USA or any Gulf states while pursuing its own interests. Strategic partnership diplomacy has provided the space to methodically build up its economic relations while the US security umbrella provided a low-cost entry into the Gulf. Beginning with trade, the economic ties became increasingly multifaceted and sophisticated, incorporating finance and investment. As Struver’s description of strategic partnerships anticipates, the relationships have progressed beyond economic to include political and security objectives, but in a way that has consistently allowed Beijing to sit on the fence in a competitive regional environment. Alliances would force China to pick a side; strategic partnerships allow it the flexibility of being everyone’s friend.
China’s Gulf Partnerships
China’s partnership diplomacy in the Gulf began when then-Premier Wen Jiabao visited the UAE in 2012 and established a strategic partnership. Since then, every state in the region except Bahrain has signed either a strategic or comprehensive strategic partnership with China. (see Table 2). This growing diplomatic attention to the Gulf can be attributed to a number of factors. First, China-Gulf trade has seen substantial growth this century. China-GCC trade volume, valued at just under $10 billion in 2000, had increased to $123 billion by 2016. Trade with Iran and Iraq saw similar spikes. China-Iran trade grew from approximately $2 billion in 2000 to over $31 billion in 2016, and China-Iraq trade increased from $975 million to nearly $19 billion over the same period. Another important factor is the nature of this trade. Energy dominates, with over 50% of Chinese oil imports coming from the Gulf states. This makes for a particularly important set of relationships for Beijing and Gulf exporters, who look to East Asia in general and China in particular as a reliable long-term energy export market. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is another important factor, and underscores the increasingly strategic component of China’s Gulf orientation. The signature foreign policy of President Xi’s administration, the BRI is a series of Chinese-led maritime and overland infrastructure development programs across Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. This is extending Chinese influence and interests far beyond its traditional East Asia sphere, and with the Gulf’s geostrategic location connecting several important states and regions in the BRI, the Chinese government places a premium on Gulf stability, evident in the fact that seven of eight regional states have the two highest levels of diplomatic relations with China.
Table 2: China’s Partnerships with Gulf States
|Iran||Comprehensive Strategic Partnership||2016|
|Saudi Arabia||Comprehensive Strategic Partnership||2016|
|United Arab Emirates||Comprehensive Strategic Partnership||2018|
It is not surprising that Saudi Arabia and Iran were chosen as comprehensive strategic partners; they are the dominant regional states, and both are important trade partners for China. The elevation of the UAE is indicative of Beijing’s view of it as an increasingly important regional actor, made explicit in the joint communique in which the Chinese side praised “the constructive role being played by the UAE in regional affairs.” A Chinese Gulf specialist said that from China’s side, the UAE is perceived as having several advantages over its neighbors that contributed to its elevation to a comprehensive strategic partnership: its relative political stability, its position as a regional logistics and infrastructure hub, and its business-friendly trade and investment environment.
What are the prospects of the other Gulf states also moving to a comprehensive strategic partnership? Struver’s research indicates that Chinese leaders are especially cautious with partnerships at this level, with three conditions needing to be met: high levels of political trust, dense economic ties, and good relations in other sectors such as cultural exchanges. Beyond the structure of the bilateral relationship, the state’s stature in global affairs is an important consideration; Beijing only considers this level of partnership with states that “play an important role international economics and politics.” Given these requirements, it is unlikely that other Gulf states would be elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership. China-Qatar relations are quite dense but not at the same level as the UAE or Saudi Arabia, and given Qatar’s ongoing dispute with the self-styled Anti-Terror Quartet (Saudi, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE), it is more likely that Beijing continues to pursue quiet diplomacy. Oman’s relations with China are also deep, and with the Duqm port project, indicates a more strategic direction. Economically, however, Oman is less important to China, making it an unlikely candidate. Iraq does not meet any of the three conditions, and because Bahrain has no formal existing partnership with China and bilateral trade is negligible, there is no chance that it will be considered.
For the time being then, China’s approach to the Gulf will largely rest on the three pillars of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. If this is the case, there are two likely scenarios. In the first, Beijing prefers a US-led status quo under which it can continue to hedge, building relations with minimal security responsibilities. In this view, China’s regional presence quietly reinforces the US-led Gulf order, taking advantage of and, in the process, supporting it. Alternatively, it anticipates an emerging regional security order which includes Iran, and in which US hegemony is therefore challenged. Given China’s ambitions, evident in the BRI, the second scenario seems more likely, and if this is the case, Chinese leaders are quietly and patiently laying the groundwork for a post-hedging role in a future Gulf order.
This is not to say that leaders in Beijing perceive China as a future Gulf hegemon. It currently enjoys the benefits of friendship without the costs of leadership, an ideal situation for a state looking to maximize its regional presence under the US security umbrella. A more realistic approach is to prepare for a regional order characterized by competition among Gulf states, with a number of extra-regional powers, including a deeply-entrenched USA along with India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China among others – all of which have a stake in Gulf stability – working to ensure that this competition does not lead to conflict. In such an environment, China’s strategic partnership diplomacy has it well-positioned to protect its interests and continue developing a deeper and broader regional footprint.
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 Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 135.
 Vidya Nadkarni, Strategic Partnerships in Asia: Balancing Without Alliances. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 46.
 G. Struver, ‘China’s partnership diplomacy: International alignment based on interests of ideology’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics 10(1), (2017), pp. 32-37.
 Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge, p. 134.
 For a deeper discussion of alliances in the Middle East, see Ryan’s contribution to this collection.
 In Feng Zhongping and Huang Jing, 2014. China’s Strategic Partnership Diplomacy: Engaging with a Changing World.” European Strategic Partnerships Observatory Working Paper 8: 8-9.
 G. Snyder, ‘The security dilemma in alliance politics,’ World Politics 36(4), (1984), p. 467.
 R. Liu and F. Liu, ‘Contending ideas on China’s non-alliance strategy,’ The Chinese Journal of International Politics 10(2), (2017), p. 153.
 See F. Zhang, ‘China’s new thinking on alliances,’ Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 54(5), (2012); Liu and Liu, ‘Contending ideas’ (2017).
 See B. Tessman, ‘System structure and state strategy: Adding hedging to the menu,’ Security Studies 21(2), (2012); Evelyn Goh, Meeting the China Challenge: The United States in Southeast Asian Regional Security Strategies. (Washington: East-West Center, 2005).
 ‘The Obama interviews: China as a freerider,’ The New York Times, (2015), available at https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000003047788/china-as-a-free-rider.html (accessed 13 Nov 2018)
 M. Salman, M. Pieper, and G. Geeraerts, ‘Hedging in the Middle East and China-U.S. competition,’ Asian Politics and Policy 7(4), p. 579.
 International Monetary Fund, ‘Direction of Trade by Country Statistics’
 U.S. Energy Information Administration, ‘China Country Report,’ (2015), available at https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=CHN (accessed 13 Nov 2018)
 ‘UAE, China Issue statement on strategic partnership,’ Gulf Today, (2018), available at http://gulftoday.ae/portal/fe7e22af-6fcf-4caf-ac37-134985a5f88f.aspx (accessed 13 Nov 2018)
 Author interview, Beijing, China, September 2018.
 Struver, ‘China’s partnership diplomacy,’ p. 45.
 J. Fulton, ‘China’s approach to the Gulf dispute,’ Asia Dialogue, (2018), available at http://theasiadialogue.com/2018/05/03/chinas-approach-to-the-gulf-dispute/ (accessed 13 Nov 2018)
 Jonathan Fulton and Li-Chen Sim, eds., External Powers and the Gulf Monarchies (London: Routledge, 2019).