The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in the framework of attending a summit has received a lot of attention. The meeting resulted in 34 agreements between Chinese and Saudi companies concerning investments in green technologies and transportation.

Cooperation between the two countries was not built overnight. Both countries have had a number of summits and forums over the years which culminated in Saudi Arabia signing onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2014.

Washington responded to Xi’s visit that the U.S. approach to the region would not noticeably change. Tim Lenderking, the U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen, said, “The United States is a vital partner to not only Saudi Arabia but [to] each of the countries in the region.”

However, in the context of Xi Jinping’s visit to the kingdom, the Saudis stressed that they would not side with China over the United States. Saudi Arabia wants to build a narrative that this is an attempt to diversify its partners.

Signs of disharmony between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia can be seen in the recent efforts by the United States to have the Saudis increase oil production which was rejected by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

While the Iraq War in 2003 and other events helped weaken American influence in the eyes of the Saudis, former President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” certainly didn’t help matters. Professor Bernard Haykel of Princeton University summarizes this shift to also include the Iran nuclear agreement which the Saudis vehemently opposed.

China’s interests

Building bridges in the Middle East is very crucial for China. China is aware that having undue influence in the Middle East means priority access to oil which it needs to fuel its fossil fuel-dependent economy.

In addition, geographically this region includes vital sea transportation routes that connect the East and West, namely the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal in Egypt, and finally the Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. This is in line with China’s effort to get countries to sign onto its Belt and Road Initiative which emphasizes economic integration.

Apart from energy, China appreciates the fact that Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on arms. After India, Saudi Arabia is the second largest arms importer. In November, the Saudis bought $4 billion worth of Chinese arms. Historically, the U.S. has been the main supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. For Riyad, being heavily dependent on Washington means that issues like the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi will inevitably come up during high-level meetings and they would prefer not to get lectured. The Chinese in essence don’t really care who the Saudis murder as long as they get cheap oil.

Arms exports are one of the ways for Washington to stem China’s influence. However, the Saudis and others have started looking for new partners. China offers arms that the Saudis need without having to go through awkward conversations over human rights in the kingdom.

War drum signal

When referring to the results of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last October, Xi indicated that there is a big threat on the horizon. In his speech to the party faithful, Xi mentioned the word security 91 times. The word security is not only limited to foreign policy but also includes economic security.

Xi is aware that independence is the key to survival. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that the West, namely Europe and the United States, are formidable militarily, and through soft power tools have justifiably destroyed the Russian economy. If China wants to survive then the only way to ensure a strong economy is by securing access to energy resources.

China’s growing influence in Saudi Arabia further strengthens China’s position as the number one geopolitical rival to the United States. Washington views the threat from China as a top priority while acknowledging ongoing concerns over Russia.

The strategic position of the three countries

At a glance, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and China is a transactional one. China needs Saudi Arabia as an energy supplier and the Saudis need China as a source of arms and to give it diplomatic cover.

The relationship between China, Saudi Arabia, and the United States reminds us of Lowell Dittmer’s strategic triangle theory. Dittmer explains that the Saudis are attempting to develop a ménage à trois. That is, the Saudis can build positive relations with both Beijing and Washington without having to break up with either side.

The most interesting point of cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia is the principle of non-interference. China wants to show that cooperation must be based on the principle of trusting each other without having to answer for how they treat their own citizens.

China has somewhat succeeded in ingratiating itself with the Arab world. With various mega projects, China has become the Arab world’s new best friend.

China’s presence in the Middle East will give Saudi Arabia bargaining power to pressure Washington for certain concessions. But this is also a double-edged sword. As the U.S. becomes energy independent, it will need the Saudis less. It is still too early to tell whether this relationship will benefit the Saudis or the Chinese more.

Gufron Gozali is a junior research assistant from the Islamic University of Indonesia, whose research focuses on the United States and the Middle East.