by Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero
On Qatar National Day, the Qatar Armed Forces showcased their newly acquired Chinese SY-400 short-range ballistic missile system with a range of 400 kilometers. China’s sale of the SY-400 missile system to Qatar underscores how the Doha-Beijing defense relationship has reached its strongest point since these two countries officially established diplomatic relations in 1988.
Despite China’s close security partnerships with the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) members—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—Beijing is investing in good relations with all states in the Persian Gulf and balancing both sides of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) diplomatic row to China’s geopolitical and strategic advantage. China’s sale of the SY-400 system—which is both offensive and defensive—to Qatar enables Doha to assert greater clout as its geographically larger neighbors continue their siege.
Beijing’s decision to sell Doha the SY-400 system amid the Qatar crisis was driven by numerous factors. Since China participated in the 2014 Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition, Beijing has sought to export its military technology to Qatar. Doha’s plans to purchase this ballistic missile system from China date back to 2014, the year of the GCC diplomatic spat in which the GCC’s ATQ members withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar for eight months. As the Arabian emirate is China’s second-largest provider of liquefied natural gas (LNG), such defense sales serve Beijing’s interests by further balancing bilateral trade. Odds are also good that Qatar came under a degree of pressure from Beijing to take steps toward deepening Sino-Qatari relations amid growing competition from America as a rival LNG exporter to China.
Since Qatar’s 21st century economic ascendancy, China has invested in deep ties with Doha. In 2014, Qatar and China renewed a 2012 agreement on currency and investment tools, and in 2013 the two countries signed trade, aviation, transportation, and investment agreements that served to cement Sino-Qatari relations. Also, in 2014 Beijing signed agreements to participate in telecommunications and other infrastructure projects in Doha worth roughly $8 billion.
China’s sale of the SY-400 system to Qatar must be interpreted within the context of Beijing’s grander objectives in the Middle East pertaining to the ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Both Qatar and countries within the Saudi/UAE-led bloc play important roles in China’s vision for a multicontinental trade corridor that positions Beijing at the center of the 21st century global economy. Beijing recognizes Qatar, which is a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as one of the countries that supported OBOR early on.
Until six months ago, the Chinese were hopeful about a China-GCC Free Trade Agreement, which is currently unrealistic given the Qatar crisis. This represents one area in which the GCC dispute has undermined Beijing’s interests. Ultimately, stability in the Persian Gulf is directly linked to the economic health and stability of China and all major economic powers that rely heavily on the GCC, Iraq, and Iran for oil and gas. Thus, Beijing is determined to promote a resolution to the Qatar crisis that averts any risks of further escalation in tensions that jeopardize China’s interests, namely the specter of the GCC’s internal dispute leading to a military confrontation.
Additionally, when it comes to unresolved conflicts where Beijing has vested interests in peaceful resolutions—from Afghanistan to Israel/Palestine to Syria to Yemen—China sees Qatar as having a valuable role to play as an interlocutor between different parties in those conflicts. Given the importance of many parts of the Middle East for OBOR, Doha could make itself highly useful to China by continuing to play a role in brokering talks and negotiations aimed at restoring peace and stability to sections of Beijing’s planned economic corridor.
By selling the ballistic missile system to Qatar in the same year that China established a drone factory in Saudi Arabia, Beijing seeks to further portray itself to all GCC members as an indispensable trade and defense partner, arms dealer, and alternative superpower to the United States. Thus, while the Qatar crisis has directly undermined and threatened Beijing’s interests in numerous ways, the diplomatic row has also represented an opportunity for China to gain influence in the oil-rich region.
Along with virtually the entire international community, China has supported Kuwait’s mediation efforts while playing a relatively quiet and distant role in the GCC dispute. Yet to step up its position as a pillar of stability and security throughout the greater Arab world, Beijing may soon invest seriously in diplomatic initiatives to help both sides of the GCC’s Qatar rift resolve the Council’s crisis. China is demonstrating its importance to both Qatar and the Saudi/UAE-led bloc, seeking to further position Beijing as a responsible and effective superpower that helps both sides of the Qatar rift find new sources for advanced weapons deals while the regional political climate remains tense.
For Doha, deeper security links with China will further diversify its alliances away from Washington and other Western capitals, building on Qatar’s growing defense ties with Turkey and Russia. Yet the implications of stronger Sino-Qatari relations for the Doha-Washington alliance remain unclear. Now that U.S. President Donald Trump has put forth his first national security strategy based on his vision of America becoming more confrontational toward China and Russia—the two “revisionist” powers—countering China’s global economic ascendancy appears to be an increasingly central focus in Trump’s foreign policy.
The blossoming of Sino-Qatari ties may enable Doha to gain greater leverage in its relationship with the Trump administration, positioning the gas-rich emirate to effectively balance the competitive Washington-Beijing relationship to Qatar’s strategic advantage. Doha’s deepening of its links with China will enable Qatar to further hedge its bets. Continued discussion about the possibility (even if remote) of Washington relocating the U.S. military presence at Qatar’s al-Udeid to another Arab state—such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan—raises questions about China potentially filling the void and making Qatar the first Arab Persian Gulf state to host a Chinese military base. Looking ahead, the growth of Doha-Beijing relations in the domain of defense could pave a path for a watershed in China’s Middle East foreign policy.
Photo: the 2017 Qatar National Day parade (YouTube)
Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics.