'Strategic trust' forms the basis of China's relationship with the Arab world

Xi Jinping's phrase accompanies some Middle East countries' crisis of confidence with US policy

US President Joe Biden meets Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022. Reuters
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A Chinese-American confrontation over Taiwan could have more global implications that would test the entire international system than even the war in Ukraine.

Despite the threat of it turning into a world war and the effects it has had outside Europe, from grain to oil, the Ukraine war remains a localised crisis rather than a global one, at least for now.

Another difference is that China is not soliciting solidarity in the conflict and prefers for states to remain neutral, while Russia and Nato are both looking for allies in their mutual stand-off. Ukraine has tested Washington’s leadership in Europe and its ability to shrink Russia’s international decision-making role.

But the world is watching Taiwan closely, hoping to avoid a direct clash between superpowers, and many countries are taking precautions.

The Arab world, especially the Gulf, does not feel particularly compelled to take sides between China or the US. Taiwan is not their battle, and they are likely to try to maintain neutral as long as possible unless developments force them otherwise. Nonetheless, the Gulf’s relations with China, which are advancing on multiple levels, deserve to be analysed along with the reasons for perceptions among many of a cooling in regional relations with the US. Perhaps understanding one can help make sense of the other.

It was not a coincidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping chose the words “strategic trust” as the basis of Chinese-Arab and Chinese-Gulf relations during his visit to Riyadh earlier this year. A crisis of confidence with the United States is something US politicians themselves admit to, on account of incoherent US policies that often shift and twist in astonishing ways.

It seems China has decided that the Arab lack of confidence in the consistency of US policies is an opportunity for it to invest in that trust deficit. It has decided to attract Arab trust not just in the consistency of Chinese economic, political, and commercial policies but also in the consistency of its belief in the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of, and the nature of systems of government in, these states.

China is fluent in the language of interests, with all the adaptations and bargains it requires. China made this approach the basis of its Belt and Road Initiative, the core of its strategy for international relations. To avoid colliding with issues it considers to be none of its business, China has adopted policies that respect sensitivities, accept differences in ideologies, and insist on non-interference in Arab and Gulf states, in line with its own principle of non-interference.

All of this does not invalidate the key security ties that bind the United States to the Arab Gulf States

By contrast, the US adopts policies that ignore the “exceptionalism” of others and address the Arab Gulf states with demands written in an American language that do not take into account differences in cultures and norms. Of course, this doesn’t negate at all the fact that the Biden administration is right in many of its foreign-policy stances stemming from principles of freedom and accountability.

The administration’s incoherence has many manifestations often stemming from a sense of American superiority vis-a-vis the Gulf, and at others stemming from a bad assessment and misreading of policies, or even simply from misspeaking. President Joe Biden’s remarks on the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, following their agreement brokered by China, is one example.

The US president made a gaffe, saying after the news: “The better relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, the better for everybody”. With these remarks, he appeared to dismiss China’s mediation and Saudi Arabia’s decision to improve relations with Iran, instead of joining the Abraham Accords with Israel. Indeed, Saudi rapprochement with Israel would not be a bigger gain for the kingdom than rapprochement with Iran with the support of China. It would have been better for Mr Biden not to go down this path and reinforce the conviction that the United States doesn’t understand Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Moreover, a warming of Saudi-Iranian ties supported by China went into immediate implementation – or at least into the testing ground – in Yemen, where US diplomacy failed to resolve the crisis in part because of the kneejerk American hostility to Saudi Arabia. The guarantees provided in the Chinese efforts are exactly what convinced Saudi Arabia to negotiate with Iran. China proceeded with steps for strategic confidence building, as a serious, coherent, and reliable partner able to make headway.

All of this does not invalidate the key security ties that bind the United States to the Arab Gulf states. Security of the Gulf is a cornerstone of international security and energy price stability. True, there are no longer US bases in Saudi Arabia, but there are American bases in Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Deterring technology has replaced the need for traditional bases, one example of which are nuclear-powered aircraft carriers seen for the first time in the Gulf. Therefore, China has not suddenly displaced the US as an alternative security partner of the Arab Gulf states, whose only security relationship remains that with Washington as part of their long-lasting strategic relationship.

The ambivalence expressed openly and persistently by some Gulf states will not destroy the strategic partnership with the United States, but will definitely have implications for the Chinese-American strategic confrontation and standoff over Taiwan.

Just like pragmatism has meant that the European partners of the US in Nato and the war in Ukraine have taken a neutral tone on Taiwan, pragmatism has required the same of the Gulf states. The Taiwan issue is between the US and China, not the West and China.

Following his return from a state visit to China, French President Emanuel Macron said that Europe had no interest in escalating the crisis in Taiwan, and must pursue a strategy independent of both Washington and Beijing. Interestingly, Mr Macron said in an interview with Politico: “The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction,” adding that Europe must take the time to build up its position as a third superpower alongside the United States and China.

These remarks are important because of the near-total European reliance on the United States in the Ukraine war, which is existential for the continent. They are important because they express European dissent from the US position on Taiwan, despite the US attempt to present the issue of Taiwan as a battle between democracy and autocracy. Europe is in a predicament because it relies on the US in Ukraine but objects to US provocations of China on Taiwan, at a time when trade between Europe and China is worth more than $500 billion.

Next month, the G7 will convene in Japan. The summit is expected to be hostile to China. Europe is anxious not only because a western confrontation with China would encourage further Chinese-Russian rapprochement, which would impact the war in Ukraine, but also because Europe’s reliance on American power in Ukraine will ultimately not be able to resist US pressures to take a position against Beijing.

The Chinese president is asking his friends not to interfere. Mr Biden is doing the opposite, expecting America’s friends to adopt his positions on what he considers a Chinese design to swallow an independent, democratic nation. Through friendly lobbying or crude demand, it will be hard for states to maintain neutrality if the battle heats up and becomes a direct US-Chinese confrontation. In that scenario, the Ukraine war could look like a picnic compared to the global implications of the Taiwan crisis.

Published: April 16, 2023, 2:00 PM