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Aftermath of 2020 Crises: Can China Advance Gulf Stability?


China, more than any other country in the world, needs a stable Gulf region. China’s economy depends heavily on oil and gas imports from the GCC states, Iraq, and Iran. This dependence will, if anything, increase if China follows through on its declared intention to reduce its consumption of coal, the principal domestic energy source. No one believes China can replace even a fraction of its coal demands with sustainable hydroelectric, wind, and solar energy in the foreseeable future. While China has also cultivated the region as a market for its exports, the Gulf’s role as a prime source of energy takes priority.

Despite this vital dependence, China has shown little appetite for participating in the preservation of stability in the region. In fairness, for decades China’s foreign policy beyond its immediate neighborhood has been guided by the following principles: (1) non-interference in domestic politics of other countries; (2) subordination of political exchange – other than pressuring countries not to have ties with Taiwan – to trade relations, and (3) a preference for bilateral diplomacy and trade rather than working through multilateral trade mechanisms.

Additionally, China does not possess the instruments to support a robust foreign policy role in the region. Its increasingly powerful navy remains largely a “sea denial” force to keep the Americans at distance, rather than a “force projection” navy that can operate further from the homeland. Furthermore, the Chinese have taken pains not to get involved in regional disputes by maintaining decent relationships with all countries in the region. With the exception of rejecting US withdrawal from the JCPOA, China has signaled no intention of competing with American hegemony in the region and has often indicated that it appreciated the American role in maintaining stability. However, Sino-American relations have worsened sharply in the last year and confrontation looms in October over US efforts to snap back a UN ban on arms sales to Iran.

Can China change its position in the Gulf given its structural inability to do much? What will the Chinese position be regarding the end of the arms embargo on Iran in October? How much can Gulf States influence Chinese policy? Will China retain its hands-off position as rivalry and tension in the Gulf region increase?  How will worsening Sino-US relationships play out in the region?

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