The US should not worry about China-Gulf relations

But it should be nervous about how close Israel has grown to Beijing.

China helped broker the detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran
The foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia met in Beijing in the first formal meeting of the two countries’ top diplomats in seven years, on April 6, 2023 [Handout via Al Jazeera]

In the span of just six months, China has made great diplomatic strides in two regions the United States considers of vital importance: the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

In November, Beijing struck a deal with Doha to supply liquified natural gas over 27 years – the longest such agreement to date, which came as the US’s European allies struggled to secure their own gas supplies. In February, it put forward a “peace plan” to end the war in Ukraine, positioning itself as a powerful mediator.

And then in early March, China brokered a Saudi-Iran rapprochement which led to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two archenemies.

All of this has naturally left the Americans quite anxious, especially about the engagement of its Gulf allies with Beijing.

But Washington has to recognise that its own diplomatic decision-making under the Obama administration, with its “pivot to Asia”, triggered fears in the region about a US departure.

And it is not just Gulf countries that are worried. In a personal communication with one of the authors, a former European Union ambassador to Iraq referred to the lack of Western engagement in Iraq as a “catastrophic negligence” with “high costs” and said that “China is now building partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and other regional players in an attempt to occupy the vacuum” that the West has left.

The Americans are scrambling to prove that the “pivot to Asia” would not mean diminished influence in the Gulf. But Washington should not obsess too much about the region’s relationship with China, as it remains quite superficial. Instead, it should be more concerned about Israel’s engagement with Beijing and the destabilising role it is playing in the region.

In recent years, trade volumes between China and the Gulf have indeed increased. Four out of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states now have significantly larger bilateral trade with China than with the US. This could be worrying for Washington, but it must understand that Chinese energy needs remain at the heart of the China-Gulf ties.

In other words, these relations are primarily transactional rather than strategic.

The recent Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran deal could mean that China is attempting to transcend this nature of the relationship and compete with the US for regional influence, but surpassing the US’s standing will be quite a challenge.

The US remains the top security partner of the Gulf and maintains multifaceted relations with Gulf states, which encompass not just trade but also close military, diplomatic, cultural, educational and social ties.

The hurried abandonment of the Chinese military base in the UAE after an intervention from Washington in 2021 reflects this reality.

By contrast, Israel has maintained substantial technological cooperation with China since the 1980s. There have even been accusations that Israeli companies sold sensitive high-tech military equipment to Beijing, although the sales have reportedly stopped under US pressure.

Still, Israel has continued to sell spyware to the Chinese authorities and has welcomed large Chinese investments in its tech sector, which reached $325m in 2018. For a long while, the Israeli authorities failed to regulate investments in companies involved in dual-use technology production, which has made Washington nervous.

Trade relations between China and Israel have blossomed, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2021 bilateral trade reached $22.8bn. Chinese companies also won tenders for large infrastructural projects, such as a strategic port near Haifa, which has worried US defence officials given the potential for Chinese espionage on US navy vessels docking there.

The Chinese and Israeli governments are also negotiating a free trade agreement; if signed, it will be the first in the Middle East.

In other words, Israel is way ahead of the Gulf in the depth of its relations with China and has engaged in practices that may be much more threatening to US interests than the energy deals the Gulf countries have struck with Beijing.

What is more, Israel has played a role as a spoiler of regional stability. It has fuelled tensions with Iran and encouraged conflict. It has also engaged in attacks on Iranian soil and sought to undermine the Iran nuclear deal which the US put much effort into negotiating.

Given Washington’s own efforts to reach an agreement with Tehran, the Saudi-Iranian deal, brokered by China, should not be seen in a negative light.

If the US wants to curb Chinese influence in the region, then it should look to Israel, not the Gulf. Its engagement with the region, on the other hand, would benefit from clear reassurances of its reliability as an ally and respect for the internal dynamics and economic aspirations of the Gulf states.

It would be wise for the Americans to start talking to the Arabs the way they talk to the Israelis – as equal partners.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.