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China is Quietly Mending the Turkish-GCC Split

The recent climate of detente between Turkey and the Gulf appears to have had an unexpected beneficiary: China, which now has the potential to play a constructive and instrumental role in the development of Turkey-Gulf relations. Due to its position in the international order and its potential to offer new alternatives to regional countries, China has assumed a central role in any analysis written on the dynamics of the Middle East, particularly at a time when the basic framework of Middle Eastern international relations is being questioned. The positions of global actors are generally indicated when they take part in ongoing issues, and how their meddling in these issues affects their outcomes. Along these lines, China’s position in the Middle East has become more relevant, even as America’s has slowly shrunk.

After years of a standoff in relations, Turkey and some Gulf countries have entered into a fresh era of reconciliation. This process was triggered by several factors, related to both Turkey’s international and domestic context. While the U.S. played a crucial role in the 2017 Gulf dispute, which impacted Turkey-Gulf relations, China, another global actor that has great stakes in the region, refrained from interfering in this dispute. By offering to act as a mediator, rather than a spoiler, in the crisis, China positioned itself as a neutral outsider that all parties could gain from interacting with. However, America’s assertive policies in the region, and its deep involvement in regional crises, have adversely affected Chinese interests, both economic and security, in the Middle East. In order to preserve its interests, Beijing started to deepen its relations with Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – all traditional allies of the United States.

As rapprochement efforts started between Turkey and the Gulf countries, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a six-country tour of the Middle East at the end of March that aimed to broaden the Chinese sphere of influence in these countries and reinforce Beijing’s commitment to the region’s stability and security. The visit included Turkey, Iran, and four of the GCC countries, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Oman. All of these countries have an important role in China’s international economic interests, including its high-profile “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), and unity among them is a necessity for Chinese interests. The visit was a timely and significant one in terms of the messages it delivered, as well as the prospects for a future role for China in Turkish-Gulf relations.

Timing and the International Contexts

Interestingly, the timing of the visit coincided with Joe Biden’s first few months in office and the onset of a climate of reconciliation in the region. The new U.S. administration made it clear that it would prioritize Asia and push for diplomacy in the Middle East, unlike the preceding administration, which had deepened its commitments to historical partnerships in the region. This change in the global context came as the U.S. re-evaluated its military commitment to the Middle East, causing America’s allies to question the reliability of its security guarantees. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its subsequent reconquest by the Taliban, made it clear for regional countries that the U.S. is disengaging from the regional conflicts as it pivots to Asia. On the other hand, China has increasingly made its presence obvious in the region, and Wang’s tour to Turkish and the GCC capitals was a clear indication in this direction.

It would be an exaggeration to argue that China is likely to fill America’s place; however, it is safe to argue that the shrinking of America’s position in the region, in addition to Washington’s tense relations with Turkey and some GCC states, has created an opportunity for China to develop a multifaceted relationship with Turkey and the GCC. Beijing provides both Turkey and the Gulf countries with an opportunity to lessen their dependence on the U.S. as the only superpower in the region. The positive response to Chinese outreach by Turkey and the Gulf countries signifies an important reorientation in Turkish and GCC policies to obtain greater diplomatic and economic leverage.

However, focusing on U.S.-centric explanations is a one-sided explanatory approach, given the multifaceted nature of Chinese relations with Turkey and the GCC. In recent years, both Turkey and the GCC states began to diversify their political, economic, and security partnerships with Beijing, and China’s partnerships with Turkey and the GCC countries have different layers according to the importance of the country. For instance, while Beijing has “comprehensive strategic partnerships” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it has “strategic cooperation” with Turkey and “strategic partnerships” with Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman – each classification conveying a different level of importance. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are considered as “pivot states” which are crucial to China’s global network politically and economically, Turkey is considered a “node state,” serving as a bridge for Chinese interests.

Tools and Roles: China in Turkey-Gulf ties

In 2013, China launched its ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to connect the world, including GCC countries and Turkey. For China, both Turkey and the Gulf stand at a vital crossroads for the BRI’s expansion. Turkey’s geostrategic location between Europe and Asia and its status in the Middle East give it a strategic position within the framework of the BRI, bringing a new level of engagement to Turkish-Chinese relations. The Gulf, which supplies China’s increasing demand for energy, is also a focal point of China’s strategic interests in line with the BRI. Both Turkey and the Gulf have been the beneficiaries of Chinese mega-project investments; Ankara, which launched the “Asia Anew” initiative to strengthen its political, economic, military, and cultural relations with China and other Asian countries, has high expectations from this project, which seems to overlap with Turkey’s development goals at a time when Ankara is seeking new partners in international politics. For the GCC, through their “Look East policy”, China’s BRI overlaps with their own strategic “Vision” plans. Thus, indirectly, China’s BRI could become a significant tool in the improvement of Turkey-Gulf ties.

However, economy is not the sole tool that China can use in relations between Turkey and the GCC states; mediation and diplomacy are other tools. During his tour in the region, the Chinese foreign minister announced a five-point proposal for regional stability. Although it is not the first time that Beijing has issued such a proposal for the region, the recent five-point proposal also includes conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, where Turkey and the GCC states have sometimes found themselves backing opposite sides. Unlike the previous proposals that focused mostly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Wang had also revealed concrete suggestions for how tensions in the Gulf might be managed, recommending that China hosting a “multilateral dialogue conference” to help trust-building. China took a neutral stance in the 2017-2021 Gulf dispute because all parties involved were economic partners. However, it seems possible that Beijing concluded that the dispute would not preserve its long-term interests. Consequently, there were reports that Beijing held secret meetings between Qatari and Emirati diplomats. Wang even received Qatari and Emirati top officials in 2017, raising prospects of an increased Chinese role in the mediation to end the Gulf crisis. In 2014, former Chinese ambassador to Turkey, Yao Kuang Yi, also revealed that China is changing its “passive and reactive diplomatic posture.”

Both Turkey and the GCC states greatly appreciate Beijing’s policy of strict non-interference in their domestic affairs, in contrast to Washington. The partnership that China has with both Turkey and the GCC states alleviates political pressure for reform in these countries, unlike the U.S. which has been urging them on political and economic “democratization.” Both the GCC states, which are embarking on diversification visions, and Turkey, which struggles to overcome economic and technological stagnation, view China as an important source of political support in the international system, even as they face increasing Western pressure on issues related to human rights and democratization.

In light of the new U.S. policy under the Biden administration and the detente in the region, Beijing pays particular attention to the stable ties between Turkey and the GCC states in order to realize its long-term goals for the region, both bilaterally and generally. Although it is difficult to determine now whether Beijing will ever become a major security guarantor in the region, it seems likely that the economic and political concerns will push Beijing to attempt to weaken future regional rivalries, including those between Turkey and some GCC states, rather than exploit them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Sinem Cengiz is a Research Assistant at Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University and Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. She is a Turkish researcher with a focus on Gulf affairs, and Turkey’s relations with the broader Middle East. She is a regular columnist for Arab News and the author of the book “Turkish-Saudi relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East.” Sinem is born and raised in Kuwait and currently based in Doha. She tweets at @SinemCngz

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