Page 1 of 2 China builds up role in Gulf By Chris Zambelis
China's diplomatic, economic, and security interests in the Middle East
continue to expand commensurate with its energy interests and growing
international clout. With the country the world's second-largest consumer and
the third-largest net importer of oil overall, Beijing's energy security rests
on the steady flow of oil from the Middle East.
The multifaceted bilateral relationships that are being forged between China
and the leading oil producers in the Middle East and, in particular, the
Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia - China's largest oil supplier - and Iran -
China's third-largest supplier of oil - reflect Beijing's myriad stakes in the
region. China today enjoys close ties with the individual member states that
comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely Saudi Arabia, the United
Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
While China's bilateral relations with key players in the Middle East continue
to receive ample coverage in Western analyses, its burgeoning engagement with
multilateral bodies in the region such as the energy-rich GCC has lagged by
China's engagement with the GCC is, in essence, analogous to its dealings with
multilateral bodies such as the European Union (EU), the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union (AU). As GCC members
increasingly pool their diplomatic and economic resources to maximize their
influence in the region and beyond, the nature of China's relationship with the
bloc warrants a closer look.
GCC China Business Forum
The first GCC China Business Forum (GCBF), which took place from March 23-24 in
Manama, Bahrain, represents the efforts of GCC members to engage China as a
unified bloc. The GCBF was the product of a joint effort by the Federation of
GCC Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the China Council for the Promotion of
International Trade, and the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry to
strengthen the already robust economic bond between China and the GCC.
The event featured, among other things, presentations on economic trends and
opportunities in China and the GCC as well as networking sessions meant to
facilitate contacts between Chinese and GCC business leaders. The majority of
China's oil imports from the Middle East originate in the GCC and Iran.
While oil wealth drives the economies of the GCC - member states boast 45% of
the world's recoverable sources of crude oil - the bloc is also a major
aluminum and phosphates producer. Some predict that the GCC will account for
18% of the world's output of aluminum by 2015. GCC members are collectively
working to diversify their economies away from oil exports. Considering that
the smelting process required to produce aluminum is oil intensive, the GCC is
well-positioned to broaden its capacity to produce aluminum to meet rising
demand in China and other parts of Asia. In addition, the GCC is also keen to
expand its stake in another oil-intensive sector: the global plastics
With an eye on tapping markets in China and elsewhere in Asia, the GCC is
expected to account for up to 11% of the total plastics conversion market in
the coming years, an increase from its current market share of 2%. China is the
world's largest importer of converted plastics. The Aluminum Corporation of
China Ltd (Chalco), a subsidiary of Aluminum Corporation of China (Chinalco),
is also interested in developing an aluminum production plant in Saudi Arabia.
Bilateral trade between China and the GCC topped US$70 billion in 2008;
according to some estimates, the Sino-GCC trade volume will reach between $350
billion and $500 billion by 2020.
In another first in Sino-GCC relations, both sides held their inaugural
Strategic Dialogue gathering in Beijing on June 4 to discuss a range of topics.
Co-chaired by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Kuwaiti Deputy Prime
Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammed Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah , GCC
secretary general Abdul Rahman al-Attiyah, and Minister of State for Foreign
Affairs of the UAE Anwar Muhammed Qarqash, the ministerial-level meetings in
Beijing showcased the growing significance of Sino-GCC ties.
Both sides used the occasion to highlight the rapid development of mutually
beneficial economic, diplomatic and cultural relations between China and the
GCC. The meeting also prompted a statement denouncing Israel's May 31 attack
against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and a call for the lifting of Israel's
blockade against Gaza. A second ministerial-level Strategic Dialogue meeting is
planned for 2011 in the UAE.
Bloc power and politics
The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (commonly referred to
as the GCC) was established in 1981 amid the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War and
the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as a trade and security bloc to foster closer
economic cooperation and political and security integration among its six
constituent members.  The GCC has since evolved into an organization keen to
maximize the respective influence of its individual members as a collective
body on a range of issues.
GCC members share a great deal in common. The group is composed of monarchical
Arab dynasties, each of which is ensconced in a strategic alliance with the
United States. The United States, in essence, guarantees the sovereignty and
security of individual GCC members. The network of US military bases and naval
assets positioned in and around GCC member countries reflects the strategic
importance of the Persian Gulf. Bahrain, for instance, is home to the US Navy's
The regional headquarters of US Central Command (USCENTCOM) is in Qatar. Fixed
US military installations and forward operating bases (FOBs) are also located
in Kuwait, Oman and the UAE. While the United States has removed its troop
presence from Saudi Arabia, close military and security cooperation between US
and Saudi forces continues; Saudi Arabian military bases are also available to
US forces in the event of a crisis.
Patrols by US Carrier Strike Groups are a fixture of the Gulf's waters. GCC
countries also spend billions of dollars on purchases of advanced US weapons
platforms and technology; the United States just concluded its largest arms
deal ever: a $60 billion deal to supply advanced weapons platforms to Saudi
Due to their role as logistical hubs for US forces, GCC countries have also
proved indispensable to launching and sustaining the US-led wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. The GCC states, along with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, are also
critical to US efforts to contain Iran and project US power in the greater
In spite of China's growing interests in the Persian Gulf, the region remains
firmly entrenched in the US security orbit. Even with the United States engaged
in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no indications that Beijing is
willing to challenge Washington's position as the preeminent force in the
Oil and natural gas
The collective oil and natural gas wealth of individual members underlies the
power and influence of the GCC and their importance to China, the United States
and the global economy; four GCC members are part of the Organization of the
Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). 
In spite of their modest populations - the combined population of GCC member
states is around 37 million - the group wields a tremendous amount of leverage
internationally. GCC members with the exception of Bahrain  are among the
world's leading energy producers. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil
producer and home to approximately one-fifth of the world's proven oil
reserves. Saudi Arabia is also a major source of natural gas. The UAE is the
world's eighth-largest oil producer, and boasts the world's seventh-largest oil
reserves and sixth-largest natural gas reserves. Kuwait is the world's
ninth-largest oil producer and has the world's fifth-largest oil reserves.
Qatar boasts the world's third-largest natural gas reserves and is the world's
top exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Qatar is also a major oil exporter
and Oman is an important producer of oil and a potential exporter of LNG.