by Jacopo Scita
In the aftermath of the September 14 attacks on two Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia, China followed its well-established playbook, encouraging all parties to exercise restraint and calling for a ‘full and fair investigation’ into the events. Beijing’s reaction has not surprised pundits used to Chinese typical prudence and equidistance when it comes to tensions in the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, China’s hesitation in taking a strong stance on security issues in the region remains the elephant in the room, especially considering that the People’s Republic enjoys a unique position in the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding its clear interest in avoiding a full-scale war, China is not going to play the role of the peace broker in the current crisis in the Persian Gulf.
The fact is that the current (dis)order in the Gulf is everything but Chinese. The entire security system and international political environment of the region are built along the lines of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The endogenous fragmentation of the Persian Gulf, then, has been exploited and crystallized by the heavy presence of an external superpower—the United States—that, after the 1979 Revolution in Iran and the trauma of the subsequent hostage crisis, has abandoned its “Twin Pillars” policy, firmly siding with Riyadh and the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms. In contrast, Beijing’s approach to the Persian Gulf has been that of navigating within this environment by creating commercial links and strategic partnerships with all the regional actors, which enjoy Beijing’s voracious energy appetite and non-political stance.
Acting like an archetypical “free rider,” Beijing has exploited the security and political architecture that has emerged in the Persian Gulf from the turbulent interaction between the regional actors and Washington. Notably, that architecture has not necessarily been particularly successful—as current tensions show—but has proved to be flexible and stable enough to offer Beijing sufficient room to secure its interests without paying the cost of acting as a security guarantor—a cost that may be particularly high in a region characterized by fragmentation, political turbulence, and the still strong and polarising presence of the United States.
China has a strong interest in avoiding a full-scale conflict in the Persian Gulf. Beijing can profitably manage moderate regional tensions. Indeed, China has proved to be able to navigate among skirmishes, exploiting the degree of flexibility offered by its non-political approach. In contrast, a war between the United States and Iran, which will certainly involve the Gulf monarchies, is likely to be disruptive for Beijing’s energy security, investment projects, and regional involvement. That outcome would force China to safeguard its interests in the Persian Gulf via a more political—if not militaristic—approach. Such a radical change in its strategic approach does not suit Beijing’s desires.
Therefore, the major obstacle for China acting as a peace broker in the current Gulf crisis is the security and political layout of the region itself. An external actor that engages with every Gulf power regardless of regional rivalries sets itself in fundamental contrast with the foundations of a system that is exactly based on exploiting those rivalries. Acting openly as a peace broker will drag Beijing directly into the confrontation between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, undermining its characteristic posture and, to some extent, even its less spectacular but smart attempt to control tensions in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the reasons why China keeps buying Iranian oil—while it has substantially increased its purchase of Saudi crude—is to give Tehran a lifeline that reduces the chance of a full-scale escalation in the Strait of Hormuz.
The question of whether China will ever become a major diplomatic actor and security guarantor in the Persian Gulf remains open. However, Beijing’s support for the the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and a regional trip by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016 could suggest an answer. China supported a comprehensive diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear issue, considering it the trigger for ‘a more relaxed environment‘ in the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, Xi embarked on its first trip to the Middle East, visiting Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt, in January 2016—a week after the JCPOA’s implementation day. On that occasion, Xi signed comprehensive strategic partnerships, the highest in the Chinese hierarchy, with both Riyadh and Tehran. If this tells us anything it is that China has a vision of the Gulf based on downplaying regional rivalries rather than exploiting them. If such a vision becomes the pillar of the next security architecture in the Persian Gulf, then China will actively participate in the resolution of future crises.
Jacopo Scita is H.H. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah doctoral fellow at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University. His doctoral project explores the history of Sino-Iranian relations and the Chinese involvement in the JCPoA. He tweets as @jacoposcita.