As tensions between China and the United States mount over Taiwan, Beijing has been actively ramping up its economic and diplomatic engagement in the Gulf region. After Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited California to meet with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on April 5, China engaged in a series of military drills around the island, and Beijing issued a series of heated statements condemning what it characterized as American interference in its internal affairs. At the same time, China has signed a slew of economic and energy deals with the Gulf states in recent months, while also seeking deeper involvement in regional diplomatic mediation efforts.
At first glance, these two developments, taking place halfway around the world from one another, appear unrelated and coincidental. When viewed through the lens of Beijing’s foreign policy, however, it is possible to see how China’s cultivation of good relations with the Gulf states could aid it in its future plan to “reunify” with what it regards as a rebellious province. The Gulf states, with their strong economic ties with both China and Taiwan and increasing openness to Beijing’s diplomatic mediation efforts, may prove pivotal in shaping the trajectory of China’s approach when it comes to Taiwan in the future.
From Economic Engagement to Diplomatic Leverage
China and the Gulf states have long been natural partners. The Gulf region is rich in energy resources like oil and natural gas, and these resources have been instrumental in fueling China’s sustained economic growth over the past three decades. China has emerged as the largest energy importer and overall trading partner for each of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, with the GCC accounting for more than 40 percent of China’s total crude oil imports in 2022.
In recent months, China has ramped up its economic engagement with the Gulf states even further. In November 2022, China’s state-owned Sinopec oil company signed a 27-year-deal with QatarEnergy to supply the country with liquefied natural gas (LNG), the longest such agreement to date. The following month, China and Saudi Arabia inked a series of economic deals during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the kingdom in December, agreeing to further boost their cooperation in the energy sector.
Such deepening economic engagement has coincided with an increasingly active Chinese diplomatic presence in the Gulf. This was most clearly seen in the agreement brokered by Beijing to re-establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ending the two countries’ seven years of separation and setting into motion the process of reopening embassies and resuming flights. As a follow-up, China has plans to host a summit between Iran and the GCC states later this year, and has facilitated Saudi Arabia’s participation as a ‘dialogue partner’ in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization security bloc.
Beijing’s increased economic and diplomatic engagement in the Gulf region has several motivations. One is purely practical; China’s expanded ties with Gulf states have strengthened its energy security at a time of significant volatility in supply flows and prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another is to demonstrate China’s rising profile on the international stage. Because China has diplomatic relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and has largely refused to implement U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran, it has more goodwill in Tehran and greater credibility than Washington as a neutral mediator between the two sides.
The Taiwan Connection
Yet there could be a third, understated motivating factor to China’s growing engagement in the Gulf: Taiwan. While China’s pledge of non-interference in other nations’ domestic affairs has facilitated its mediation role in the region, Beijing has insisted on reciprocity of this pledge from Gulf leadership regarding its own affairs. (Its “own affairs,” as Beijing defines them, include Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.) So far, the Gulf states have seen little reason not to accede to this request. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated during his last meeting with Xi in Riyadh that he “firmly supports the one-China principle” and that he “firmly rejects interference in China’s internal affairs by any external forces.”
Rhetorical support for Beijing’s current position on Taiwan is meaningful on its own, but Xi’s government clearly hopes that that support would be maintained even if China pursued a direct military intervention in Taiwan in the future. Beijing has been closely observing Russia’s war in Ukraine, and one of the key lessons from the war has been economic: despite mounting pressure from the West, Moscow has been able to cushion the blow of sanctions by leaning on its relationship with non-Western countries including China, India, and South Africa. Indeed, the Kremlin’s strengthening of economic ties with non-aligned states has given it greater room to maneuver, as these states have not joined the West’s isolation efforts (even as many of them have their own misgivings over Russia’s war of aggression).
If China were to attempt an invasion of Taiwan, it would certainly expect similar economic retribution from the United States and Europe in the opening hours of the conflict. As with Russia, the stability of the Chinese economy would therefore depend in large part on whether it could salvage ties with non-aligned nations, such as those in the Gulf. At the very least, Beijing would want to ensure the neutrality of the Gulf countries and continuation of economic relations in such a case. Having close economic ties and active diplomacy, buttressed by practical interests and the established principle of non-interference, could help China do just that.
But Beijing could also potentially seek to leverage its Gulf ties to pressure Taiwan more directly. Like China, Taiwan is also heavily reliant on the Gulf for its energy supplies, with Qatar providing nearly 25% of its natural gas imports and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Oman collectively accounting for nearly 70% of its oil imports. Because China is a much larger energy market than Taiwan for the Gulf states in terms of absolute value, this could give Beijing leverage to undermine Taipei’s energy supply as a pressure tactic. For example, China’s Maritime Traffic Safety Law could potentially be used by Beijing to redirect energy shipments from Gulf states to Chinese ports under the guise of security concerns. In such an event, China’s close diplomatic ties with Gulf states could make them more amicable than the Western nations.
As with Russia and the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Gulf states are unlikely to formally or actively support China in the event of a major war over Taiwan. But their political neutrality and continued economic engagement with China could go a long way for Beijing, given the sizable GCC role in Taiwan’s own energy supply. As such, China’s growing economic weight and associated diplomatic leverage with the Gulf could make the Gulf states surprisingly important actors in shaping how Taiwan tensions play out in the future.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.