Ever since the Gulf crisis between Saudi Arabia and its allies and Qatar, China took a neutral stance, because, for it, this dispute is an unwanted complication between important economic partners that may affect its modern Silk Road trade route. All parties in the crisis are involved in the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which stretches across 65 countries and encompasses Asia, Africa, and Europe.
In 2013, President Xi Jinping raised the initiative of jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (hereinafter referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative). In 2015, China issued the “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt” and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which suggests promoting policy coordination, connectivity of infrastructure and facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds, adhering to the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration in propelling the “Belt and Road” construction.
Chinese politics expert and professor of political science Nadia Helmy believes that China’s relation with the four countries boycotting Qatar (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain) will be affected, especially amid the vital relation between China and Iran and because the four countries are accusing Doha of supporting Tehran, while Iran considers China an indispensable partner. Also, there are concerns about turning the Saudi-Iranian dispute over the region to a China-US dispute amid the American support to Gulf states and the US military bases in the Gulf, which could lead to abusing the China-Gulf relations pressing by the Iranian issue.
On 5 June, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya’s eastern-based government, in addition to the Maldives, cut their diplomatic and travel ties with Qatar. The six Arab governments accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, supporting Iran, and disturbing security and stability in the region, charges that Doha denies.
Helmy added that the denotations of the US pressure appeared after US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the US-Islamic summit, which sent a message to Beijing that the Arab nations still trust the US as a strategic ally. The US is suspicious of the Chinese initiative (Belt and Road Initiative) and considers it a revival of Chinese influence regionally and internationally, so the US is trying to disrupt the project that may lead to a new US-Chinese competition in the Arab world amid the vital relations linking Iran to China, Helmy said. The US perhaps use the initiative to terrorise the Gulf states from the Iranian hegemony, he added.
Despite China trying to be neutral in the Gulf crisis, Chinese political experts believe that the idea of neutrality could not defend Beijing’s interests for a long time amid the Saudi-led coalition’s condition for Qatar to cut ties with Iran. While most Gulf states are expected to involve in the Belt and Road, they are suspicious of China’s strong relations with Iran, suspecting that Tehran will achieve major gains from the initiative.
Programme Associate for China at the Jamestown Foundation Peter Wood said that China maintains close relationships with states on both sides of the Gulf. Its foreign policy statements describe both Saudi Arabia and Iran as “comprehensive strategic partnerships” in the dense bureaucracy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This level of partnership means that China has built a deep relationship with both countries and maintains significant cooperation on security issues.
By contrast, its relationships with Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain are primarily economic and defined as “friendly cooperative relations”. Examining China’s response to the Saudi embargo of Qatar, as well as China’s broader relationship with the small but strategically important state, provides insight into Beijing’s broader Middle East strategy, Wood added in his article.
The Chinese official position towards the crisis was announced by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who said that his country sees the solution of the crisis should be inside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Wang Yi called upon the two sides to negotiate in an Arab frame and inside the GCC, pointing out that China commits a neutral position and still a trustful friend for all Arab states.
In 2014, during Jinping’s visit to Qatar, the two countries upgraded their relationship to “strategic partner”, a status that recognised Qatar’s role not only as an economic partner, but also as a security partner. In his speech at the signing of the joint statement on the establishment of the relationship, Xi Jinping stressed the opportunities to improve military exchanges and work together to combat terrorism.
However, earlier this year, China and Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on investment cooperation valued at US$65bn, including joint efforts in energy and finance. China has also signed a partnership with Saudi Arabia for the manufacture of CH-4 unmanned drones, according to Chinese media reports.