The GCC States and the Viability of a Strategic Military Partnership with China
By Imad Mansour, Qatar University, The Middle East Institute, Mar 17, 2015
The term “strategic partnership” has been increasingly used in GCC circles to signify that relations with China are important and worthy of long-term investment. In a March 14, 2014 speech during his visit to Beijing, Saudi Arabia’s then Crown Prince Salman announced that “we are witnessing the transformation of the relationship with China to one of strategic partnership with broad dimensions, to the benefit of both our countries.” Saudi Arabia’s position was echoed by the emir of Qatar during a 2014 visit to China in which issues of common concern to all GCC states, especially combating terrorism, were discussed. Abdel-Aziz Aluwaisheg, GCC general assistant secretary for negotiations and strategic dialogue, has also noted that there is growing interest in the Gulf to develop a “strategic dialogue” with China.
Despite this growing GCC recognition of China’s strategic role in the region, what exactly a “strategic partnership” or “strategic dialogue” would look like remains unclear. This essay discusses why officials in GCC member states might be hesitant to embrace the idea of China as a viable strategic military partner, while at the same time recognizing the need to further develop relations with China.
Securing Independent Military Capabilities
From the perspective of GCC leaders, the main military advantage of partnership with China is Beijing’s potential willingness to provide weapons that the United States is currently reluctant to sell. Given the United States’ lukewarm responses to recent regional unrest, the GCC countries are seeking to augment their independent capabilities, and China could be an important supplier, whether or not it is a full “strategic partner.” These GCC views are based on the understanding that as economic interdependence grows, China might be more willing to provide advanced weapons systems in greater quantities. It is important to note that looking to China for arms sales is consistent with the GCC states’ broader strategy of expanding their network of suppliers.
However, GCC leaders continue to assess the benefits of such an arrangement through the prism of their enduring relationship with the United States. This is largely due to historical momentum. GCC states have long procured most of their military hardware, training, intelligence systems, and combat systems directly from the U.S. government or from American businesses. In addition, the United States and its allies share GCC concerns about containing regional conflicts in Iraq and Syria, as well as the region-wide threat posed by al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates. Furthermore, it seems that despite its reluctance to sell certain weapons directly to the GCC, the United States has tacitly approved GCC purchases of such weapons from China. This balance―whereby the United States sells the GCC most of its conventional weapons systems, while GCC states purchase other approved weapons elsewhere―allows the GCC to accrue the benefits of remaining within the U.S. umbrella while also buttressing its defenses. Obtaining military hardware from China that the United States has not approved would involve an extremely delicate diplomatic game—one in which the GCC stands to lose more than it would currently gain. (more…)