China backs Russian proposal for Gulf security

Beijing has traditionally not asserted itself in the Gulf regional context or in its US-dominated security realm. It had focused on trade development and building ties through bilateral frameworks.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Maritime concerns. The guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul’s visit alongside a Bahraini dhow during routine maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf. (AFP)
Maritime concerns. The guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul’s visit alongside a Bahraini dhow during routine maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf. (AFP)

DUBAI - China is backing a Russian proposal for stability and security in the Gulf region, which has been roiled by the simmering standoff between the United States and Iran.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing, while welcoming the Russian proposal, “would also like to boost cooperation, coordination and communication with all the corresponding parties.”

Russia’s proposal envisages an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf, with a view to establishing a regional security organisation.

Moscow has called for “energetic and effective action” for “improving and further stabilising the situation” and suggested a new process of bilateral and multilateral consultations between key stakeholders, including the UN Security Council, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Hua said Beijing views “peace and stability” in the Gulf to be “of utmost importance to ensure safety and development of the region and the world as a whole,” stressing the need to “establish good neighbourly relations based on mutual respect.”

Following talks July 29 in Vienna between Iran and the other signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), China called on the United States to drop its “maximum pressure” policy against Iran and to avoid creating “new obstacles” that jeopardise the nuclear accord.

Fu Cong, China’s delegation head at the emergency talks in Vienna, said the parties at the meeting “expressed their strong opposition against the US unilateral imposition of sanctions.”

European officials have told US counterparts that its “maximum pressure” approach was unhelpful but Washington feels that approach is moving Iran into a negotiating mode.

The Gulf and the wider region are of great strategic importance to energy-hungry China. Trade and investment flows have grown substantially over the past decade between China and its key regional partners in the Gulf but the emergence of the Belt and Road Initiative offers a potentially game-changing paradigm.

Beijing has traditionally not asserted itself in the Gulf regional context or in its US-dominated security realm. It had focused on trade development and building ties through bilateral frameworks.

Beijing has been deepening political and trade ties with Arab Gulf oil producers, in particular, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in recent years but it also attaches strategic importance to its broader relationship with Iran.

Beijing supports Tehran’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, whose members include Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan. In June, a flotilla of ­Chinese destroyers and a logistics ship conducted joint naval exercises with the Iranian Navy near the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran has been a major supplier of crude oil to China for many years. Beijing is not only Iran’s largest oil customer but also its biggest non-oil trading partner. However, following US sanctions against Iran, overall Iran-China trade declined by more than one-third so far this year.

Reports suggest Iran may be exporting significant volumes of crude oil to Asia, including to US allies, and that a large oil storage facility for Iranian crude was being set up in China. The US State Department imposed sanctions against the Chinese state-run energy company Zhuhai Zhenrong for the sale and delivery of Iranian oil after sanction waivers expired in May.

China has criticised Washington’s “long-arm jurisdiction” and its approach to link other countries’ business to US domestic laws but, like many other countries, there is little China can do against unilateral US economic sanctions against Iran without incurring a disproportionately higher cost.

US sanctions against Zhuhai Zhenrong add a new dimension to US President Donald Trump’s trade war against the world’s second-largest economy. The US-China relationship is increasingly strained, particularly in the Far East over disagreements on territorial disputes. The Chinese Foreign Ministry labelled the recent unrest in Hong Kong to be “the work of the United States” and warned “those who play with fire only get themselves burned.”

Officials from China and the United States resumed trade talks after tit-for-tat measures that raised tariffs on bilateral trade and global markets. More than half of the $600 billion in trade between the United States and China every year has become the subject of new tariffs as a dangerous trade war heats up.

Yet with increasing mistrust between the world’s two largest economies, expectations for major breakthroughs in US-China trade talks appear to be low.

The US-China rivalry is unlikely to play out in the Gulf although Beijing continues to call for a revision in the US approach to the crisis involving Iran.

China’s position on the JCPOA and tensions with Iran appear increasingly aligned not just with its traditional partner, Russia, but also Europe.

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