The GCC-China summit held in Riyadh last Friday was the first between China and the GCC as a bloc, establishing a multifaceted strategic partnership between them. In addition to a public statement summarizing their shared views on important regional and international issues, they adopted a five-year joint action plan to develop their partnership in 15 key areas, from comprehensive political and security dialogues to deeper economic partnership and greater cultural engagement.
When fully implemented, this strategic partnership has the potential to transform China’s role in the region and enlarge its footprint in many new areas.
The Riyadh GCC-China Summit for Security and Cooperation, as it was officially called, did not sit well with Iran, which summoned the Chinese ambassador in Tehran to register its unhappiness with the joint statement issued at the conclusion of the summit. Tehran’s foreign minister took to Twitter to bad-mouth the Chinese over the statement. In an apparent attempt to smooth ruffled feathers, the ambassador promised that China’s deputy prime minister would visit Iran in the near future.
While Iran’s official protestations focused on the issue of the UAE islands occupied by Iran since 1971, its media has lashed out against the whole gathering as being anti-Iran. Trying to distract attention from the growing protests at home, Iran is trying to blame the outside world, especially the US, EU and GCC, for the unrest. The timing of the summit added to Iran’s anxiety, but of greater concern was the growing partnership between China and the GCC states and the several references in their joint communique to Iran’s conduct, besides its occupation of the islands.
The Riyadh meeting was far from being anti-Iran. It merely stressed that relations between the GCC states and Iran should be based on international norms, such as noninterference in internal affairs, respect for political independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and resolving disputes by peaceful means “in accordance with the UN Charter and international law.”
It called on Iran to adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a party, ensure the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The statement further stressed the need to address destabilizing regional activities, of whatever source, end support for terrorist and sectarian groups, prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles and drones, and ensure the safety of international shipping and oil installations, both of which have come under attack by Iran directly or through its proxies.
This may be the first time that China has publicly expressed such concerns in relation to the Gulf, indicating its frustration with Tehran’s conduct, including its failure to adhere to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the NPT and IAEA safeguards, but also its constant threats to Gulf stability and energy supplies.
Taking a stand against Iran’s malign regional activities is important for China’s regional standing and effectiveness. While its call for dialogue between and with regional actors makes sense, it is equally important to state the principles under which such dialogue may be carried out to be effective.
Outside the issues with Iran, the GCC and China have long shared common positions on Palestine and Yemen, with China firmly supporting all UN resolutions on these two important issues, condemning for the first time the “terrorist attacks carried out by Houthi militias on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, UAE, inside Yemen, in regional waterways, and against international navigation.” While differences of opinion and nuance remain, as between many close partners, the summit reached consensus on most regional issues, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya.
On Afghanistan, where both sides have staked important positions, they agreed on the need to safeguard the country’s security and stability and called for greater efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance. They called on the Taliban to fulfill their repeated commitments to secure the basic rights, interests and freedoms of all Afghan people and establish an inclusive government. China and the GCC states are also concerned about the use of Afghanistan’s territory by terrorist groups and drug traffickers.
On Ukraine, they expressed support for “all international efforts toward de-escalation and the search for a political solution … according to international law and the UN Charter,” to save lives and safeguard regional and international security and stability.
On other aspects of the GCC-China partnership, President Xi Jinping outlined five main components of Beijing’s GCC strategy.
First, China proposes a new, diversified energy equation. While China plans to continue importing oil and gas from the Gulf, it would like to take “full advantage” of the Shanghai exchange as a platform for oil and gas trade in the Chinese currency. China also seeks GCC cooperation in developing clean and renewable energies, including hydrogen. It proposed the establishment of a GCC-China forum for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the training of 300 GCC nationals in this area.
Second, China wants to open new areas for investment and finance cooperation, for GCC investment firms to be more active in China’s capital markets, and for GCC and Chinese wealth funds to work together. It suggests utilizing the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, known as CIPS, for yuan-based settlement to finance deals by bartering national currencies. A council for GCC-China joint investment and a forum for industrial and investment cooperation are proposed to manage these developments.
While differences of opinion and nuance remain, as between many close partners, the summit reached consensus on most regional issues.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Third, China would like to enhance innovation and technical cooperation in important and pioneering areas, including the establishment of joint centers for large data and cloud computing, cooperation in 5G and 6G communication technologies and network building, digital trade, and meteorological technologies.
Fourth, China is calling for new breakthroughs in space cooperation. It calls for a greater partnership in space exploration infrastructure and satellite technologies. It has invited GCC astronauts to join their Chinese counterparts and work on joint space experiments, proposing a new GCC-China center for joint lunar and deep-space exploration.
Fifth, China seeks to create new momentum for cultural engagement. Building on previous agreements that put emphasis on teaching the Arabic and Chinese languages in their respective regions, China announced that it has partnered with 300 GCC universities and schools, established 300 new smart classrooms to teach Chinese and offered 3,000 grants for GCC nationals to study Chinese in China. It also plans to host the GCC-China Forum for Language and Cultures and the GCC-China Library for cultural engagement in both Arabic and Chinese.
The Riyadh summit articulated a common vision for the GCC-China strategic partnership, but it should not be read as adversely affecting the GCC’s relationships with regional allies, its close partnerships with the US and the UK or its budding strategic partnerships with the EU and others. In the search for regional and global security, stability and prosperity, the GCC states, individually and collectively, are enlisting all those relationships for that purpose. The partnership with China is an important building block in achieving that goal.