The COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant challenge for China, with unprecedented lockdowns and occasional horror stories of the origins and spread of COVID-19 and how it has been dealt with, resulting in nationwide protests that have partially been successful in achieving the easing of excessive COVID-19 restrictions. President Xi Jinping, emboldened after being crowned for the third time by the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), did experience the ire of the people and his limitations as the Chinese economy suffered and a downward trend became apparent. During the three years of self-imposed quarantine, President Xi Jinping only ventured out three times: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, where Iran was admitted, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar became dialogue partners; the G20 in Bali, where he met many world leaders, including President Joe Biden; and most significantly, his second visit to Riyadh in December 2022, when a bilateral, GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), and the SCO In terms of spectacle, depth, and consequences, his trip to Riyadh in July of this year is frequently compared to that of US President Joe Biden (against the backdrop of animosity and recriminations between the Saudi and American leadership). The potential for geostrategic competition and confrontation between China and the US is genuine, especially as the global order remains in a problematic transition state. Riyadh and the Arab world want to make their own decisions.
In 2016, before his first visit, during which he also visited Cairo and Tehran, a significant ‘Arab Policy’ paper was issued that placed the vital Middle East on the developing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) tracks. The expansion of commerce and investments has persisted. China’s pursuit of energy security and maritime chokepoints necessitated a dense 1+2+3 matrix approach to the oil-rich region. It covers energy cooperation at its core, along with accompanying infrastructure; construction, trade, and investment facilitation; and innovative and emerging technologies, such as those in space, renewables, and nuclear power. Collaboration has grown in defence and security as Beijing has readily met regional leaders more than halfway. No wonder it has successfully managed intra-regional disputes and has reaped the dividends in crucial infrastructure and economic engagement from Tehran to Tel Aviv.
China has used some factors to the fullest extent possible. The rising belief in the region that, following its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington, DC, is likely to reduce its security presence to focus on the Indo-Pacific. The free-flying violations and drone and projectile attacks by Iran-backed Houthi militias against Saudi and UAE energy infrastructure and the inadequacy of the United States’ reaction have reinforced their suspicions. Second, the efforts of the Biden Administration to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear deal, without incorporating Israel or Arabs or their concerns increased their fear once more. Moreover, China’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the necessity of securing it is significant, especially now that the United States has become self-sufficient and a rival to the region’s hydrocarbon producers. The Chinese ability to quickly fill a hole and be present is advantageous. Moreover, China’s policy is free of value judgments, prescriptive and overbearing approaches to domestic affairs, and non-interference, at least with the affluent guys in the region, which plays well with the regional leaders who are still battling the effects of the Arab Spring and the pandemic.
Arab and Gulf countries wish to diversify their economy and strategic and diplomatic options through more strategic autonomy while placing their bets on their markets in Asia, including China, India, Japan, and South Korea. Therefore, the Chinese strategy is compatible with the “Act East Policy” of the Arab world. As a highly uncertain geopolitical scenario unfolds due to the Eurasian War, the maxim is “spread the risk and be realistic.” When the weaponisation of financial instruments, energy, food, and fuel has become the new currency, and Cold War 2.0 is on the horizon, West Asians and others find themselves in a peculiar predicament. As a result, they are utilising their resources intelligently to gain influence and serve national interests. In light of these circumstances, the significance of President Xi Jinping’s visit has increased.
In addition to the high-level interactions and political assurances during the three summits, 34 MoUs and Agreements totalling over US$ 30 billion were signed for long-term cooperation in a variety of fields, including Huawei’s 5G rollout, cloud computing, space and satellites, renewables and green energy, refineries and connecting the digital economy to traditional oil industries, missiles or defence manufacturing, infrastructure, health, and projects in NEOM, among others. To connect the value and supply chains, a regional centre for Chinese production facilities has been proposed. This is consistent with the Saudi strategy of awarding contracts primarily to domestic enterprises. Cultural exchanges and soft power projection, shown by teaching Mandarin in schools and the Mecca-Media high-speed railway link, will be the linchpin of P2P relations between the two countries, whose official diplomatic relations are not that old. For obvious reasons, only some aspects were crystal clear, but the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership has been refined and expanded. At the same time, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 for modernising and reforming the Kingdom was aligned with the objectives of the BRI, which tells a great deal about the future trajectory if both sides move on with the anticipated zeal.
As for the most important takeaways, the Riyadh Declaration and debates throughout the different Summits outline and emphasise the future and targeted trajectory of Chinese engagement in the region. Given China’s proximity to Tehran and the rumoured 400 billion dollars strategic partnership arrangement with them, the Iranian file and factor are significant worries for Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which have been effectively identified and addressed. The Iranian Foreign Ministry asked the Chinese Ambassador to explain the issues. It is challenging to navigate the sensitivities of competitors rowing in opposite directions. However, China desires to play a pivotal role in the regional security architecture, just as it has for the Palestinian cause.
The Chinese were able to get the unequivocal reiteration of the “One China Policy” as the Taiwan Straits and US interest in the Indo-Pacific, both of which Beijing considers unsettling and noxious. In addition, the Chinese were able to assure and purchase the Arab world’s silence over the predicament of Uyghur Muslims in China. They were commended for their deradicalisation. Similarly, terrorism was not a significant concern, as Beijing continues to shield the foreign terrorists hosted by Islamabad, despite the irony that both parties pledged to intensify counter-terrorism efforts and oppose “double standards” in the war against terrorism. Beijing was also successful in gaining Arab support for its new flagship programmes, namely the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative, with the two parties committing to make every effort to construct a China-Arab community with a shared future in the new era.
The two parties can feel satisfied regardless of Sino-American complications because their mutual interests have been met. Saudi Arabia may not openly take sides, but it may undoubtedly assert that it has options. Not surprisingly, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud reaffirmed, “We do not believe in polarisation or choosing between one partner and another… The economy of the Kingdom is expanding rapidly, and we need all partners.” China is carving out a long-term aim and a decisive role in the regional security architecture through the “String of Pearls and Ports” and other mechanisms. China is not currently seeking to replace the United States as the security guarantor in the area, nor is it entirely capable of doing so. Countries like India, which are geographically close and economically dependent on West Asia, would do well to assess China’s trajectory and develop comprehensive policies for the region.