The shape of the global political and economic order is likely to remain fluid as the world adjusts to the new realities of the coronavirus. One interesting geopolitical question is how it will affect the expansion of China’s influence across Eurasia through Belt and Road Initiative projects. China has made impressive gains in the Gulf Arab states since the BRI was rolled out in 2013, building upon its enormous regional trade relationships to become a major actor in investment and contracting for Gulf infrastructure projects. The complementary nature of the BRI and Gulf “vision” development programs has established another pillar of China-Gulf cooperation. Gulf economies were already weak before the pandemic; their current state makes it natural to wonder if this will put the brakes on a lot of these projects and slow the expansion of China-Gulf ties.
At the same time, the BRI is more than just splashy infrastructure projects. While billion-dollar deals dominate the headlines, the BRI is designed around five cooperation priorities: policy coordination, infrastructure development, trade, financial integration, and people-to-people ties. Obviously, these are not weighted equally and are not at similar levels of accomplishment with all partnering countries, but Beijing considers each of them important features of the BRI. As such, they might offer an idea of what types of cooperation are likely between China and Gulf states in the near term.
The first cooperation priority, policy coordination, has come to the forefront in recent years. A major feature of China’s diplomacy is the use of strategic partnership agreements, an alternative to alliances. It is a hierarchal structure of relationships and those countries at the highest level, a comprehensive strategic partnership, have the most well-developed economic and political relations with Beijing and are perceived as meeting a wide range of Chinese interests at the regional and international level. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran all have comprehensive strategic partnerships with China, and each has appointed a senior official to coordinate the bilateral relationship.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia and China established the High Level Joint Committee, co-chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and then-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. Zhang has since retired and has been replaced by Han Zheng, who also assumed the Saudi brief. On the UAE side, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, CEO of Mubadala, was appointed the country’s first special presidential envoy to China in 2018 and China designated Yang Jiechi, former foreign minister and current member of the Politburo Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission, as special representative. The China-Iran relationship is being managed by Foreign Ministers Wang Yi and Mohammad Javad Zarif.
That these bilateral relationships are being coordinated by such senior officials indicates the importance that each government places on the partnerships. The establishment of formal mechanisms to institutionalize the partnerships is further evidence of a structured approach to developing sustainable long-term relationships. As Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan said during his 2019 state visit to China, “the two sides are laying pillars of a road map for the next 100 years.”
In practical terms, this policy coordination has been at work through China-Gulf responses to the coronavirus. At the early stage of the crisis, Gulf countries were supplying aid to China; as Beijing got it to a manageable level, support started to flow in the other direction. China sent material aid such as masks, disinfectants, gloves, and other protective gear. It helped build field hospitals. And Chinese medical professionals and officials consulted with counterparts in the Gulf states, sharing their experiences and best practices, as well as how to use big data and information technology to track the spread of the virus. While this material and experiential support was extended to all countries in the Gulf, the utility of a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement has been apparent, as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iran appear to have the deepest level of cooperation with China in tackling the pandemic. All other Gulf states are at the next partnership level, a strategic partnership, except Bahrain, which has yet to establish one.
The UAE offers an impressive example. In March, Group 42, an Abu Dhabi artificial intelligence company, announced that it had opened a massive laboratory in Masdar City for detection and diagnosis of coronavirus cases through a partnership with BGI, a Shenzhen-based genetics firm. The lab is capable of conducting tens of thousands of tests per day and is the largest testing center outside of China. By late June, the UAE, with a population of nearly 10 million people, had conducted over 3 million tests. Its coronavirus cooperation with China has moved beyond testing, with G42 partnering with Sinopharm, a Chinese pharmaceutical company, to launch a Phase 3 clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine.
Beyond the pandemic, there will likely be more policy cooperation in the digital realm. Digital transformation is on the agenda for all Gulf Arab countries as they work toward knowledge-based economies, and this too lines up with Chinese ambitions for the region as articulated in the 2016 China Arab Policy Paper. China’s Digital Silk Road, a potential alternative to “a U.S.-dominated technology world,” has been making strides in the Gulf states as yet another example of policy synergy. Cooperation with Huawei in building 5G networks has received the lion’s share of attention, but Chinese firms have been actively engaging with Gulf counterparts, signing memorandums of understanding across a wide range of information and communication technology applications, including satellite services, electronic security, digital content creation, cloud computing, human resource development and training, and broadband network development.
Even people-to-people cooperation has been gaining momentum. This is the soft power component of the BRI, and it has traditionally been weak in the Gulf states, where a lack of historical, social, and cultural interaction has meant that few in the region have deep personal understanding of or connection to China. In 2019, during their respective state visits to Beijing, both Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed announced ambitious plans to expand Chinese language instruction in their countries’ K-12 curriculum. For the UAE, a pilot program that started with 10 schools in 2017 had grown to 100 by the 2019-20 school year and will continue to expand over the next three years.
Even if there is a slowdown in the major infrastructure initiatives, such as port expansion or real estate projects, there is enough focus on these less celebrated BRI cooperation priorities to continue the momentum in China-Gulf relations.