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China’s Relations with Gulf States

March 24, 2018

China’s Relations with Gulf States


China’s diplomatic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states started with Kuwait in 1971 and continued with Oman (1978), UAE (1984), Qatar (1988), Bahrain (1989), Saudi Arabia (1990). 2004 was a watershed for Sino-Arab relations as China made further inroads into the Middle East, especially by virtue of Beijing’s proliferating needs for oil given that the country became a net importer of oil in 1994. In 2004, the GCC and China signed a Free Trade Agreement and announced the start of negotiations for the establishment of a free trade area. Ever since, relations between the GCC states and China have gained further traction in various fields including defense.


GCC’s Defense Spending in Comparative Perspective


In 2011, the combined defense spending of the GCC states ranked third in the world, trailing behind the United States and China. While the GCC spent close to $80 billion dollars on defense, Saudi Arabia was by far the biggest spender allocating $48.5 billion dollars to defense. By 2015, the defense spending of the GCC had risen precipitously to 136 billion (87.2 billion for Saudi Arabia). Whereas the average world-wide spending on defense accounted for 2.3% of the GDP during the same year, this figure was 9.5% for the GCC states (with Oman spending 16.8% and Saudi Arabia 13.3% of their GDP on defense)


China’s Defense Relations with the GCC


China’s defense relations with the GCC are relatively underdeveloped despite various contacts between both. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the Sino-Saudi defense cooperation started in 1985, five years before the inauguration of the official diplomatic relations, with the purchase by Saudi Arabia from China of 36 units of CSS-2 East Wind intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and 9 launchers. The covert nature of this deal also led to a crisis between Riyadh and Washington since the missiles were initially intended to carry nuclear warheads. The crisis could be averted when Saudi Arabia agreed to join the NPT. It was later revealed that the CSS-2 missiles were extremely inaccurate and Saudi Arabia knowingly purchased these missiles in a bid to counter the rising Iranian influence and obtain additional benefits from its existing security relations with the US.


As relations between Saudi Arabia and China further developed, it was later revealed that Riyadh had secretly purchased CSS-5 (DF-21) missiles from China, which was also confirmed by an anonymous official source. Yet, other sources call into question the reliability of the reports that China exported DF-21 missiles to Saudi Arabia, stating that such a move is not in line with China’s non-proliferation practices in recent decades.


Recently, China’s defense relations with Saudi Arabia have focused more on drone technology as Beijing has struck a deal with Riyadh to manufacture drones at a factory in Saudi Arabia. The deal worth $60 billion was agreed during the King Salman’s visit to China in the wake of the unprecedented race by Gulf countries for arms. Given that the United States has been reluctant to grant the Gulf countries access to its own military technology, China seems to be filling the void. The deal includes to jointly produce as many as 100 Rainbow drones in Saudi Arabia, including a larger, longer-range version called the CH-5.


Defense relations have also been improving between China and the UAE. According to the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, “there have been frequent high-level visits between the two militaries, mutual trust has been deepened and extensive cooperation has been made in various fields with fruitful achievement”. High level visits between defense ministers have also taken place between China and Bahrain.


The emergence of the Qatar crisis between Qatar, on the one hand, and the “Anti-Terror Quartet Members (ATQ), on the other, does not seem to have precluded China from engaging in defense collaborations with both sides. Despite China’s close security partnerships between the ATQ members, Beijing is still invested in security relations with Qatar, which is indicative of China’s bid to balance both sides. In fact, Doha has recently purchased a SY-400 missile system, which is noted both for its offensive and defensive capabilities. This collaboration between Qatar and China comes in the immediate aftermath of China’s deal to establish a drone factory in Saudi Arabia.


Vahid Yucesoy for iStrategic