Competing for Friendship: The Two Chinas and Saudi Arabia
Wang, T. Y., Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
DURING THE PAST FOUR DECADES, both sides of the Taiwan Strait have competed for diplomatic recognition from Saudi Arabia. This competition ended on 22 July 1990 when Riyadh terminated forty-four years of formal relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) and established diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC). This event was a major diplomatic setback for Taipei as Saudi Arabia had been one of few diplomatic allies of the ROC. Why did Riyadh suddenly switch its diplomatic recognition to Beijing--an athesistic and oppressive regime in Saudi eyes? What tactics did Taipei and Beijing use throughout these years to compete for Riyadh's friendship and what are the implications of this event for relations across the Taiwan Strait?
This study addresses these questions through an examination of relations between Saudi Arabia and the two Chinas. It demonstrates that the ending of the ROC-Saudi formal relations was a consequence of diplomatic initiatives from the PRC beginning in the late 1970s. Yet, this change of diplomatic ties had been long delayed due to shared anti-communist sentiments and strong political and economic relations between Taipei and Riyadh. Although this event signified a diplomatic victory for Beijing, it has increased mistrust across the Taiwan Strait and may hinder reunification of the two Chinas.
THE TWO CHINAS' MIDDLE EAST POLICIES
The two Chinas' Middle East policies have faithfully reflected their perception of national security. Each has had a different view on factors affecting its safety, and hence each adopted a different foreign policy on the Middle East. However, their policy goals converged in their long standing competition for the friendship of Saudi Arabia.
ROC's Middle East Policy
Since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the Nationalist government of the ROC at Nanking has ruled Taiwan while the Communist government of the PRC controlled the Chinese mainland. The centerpiece of the ROC's foreign policy has been to survive the constant threat of the Chinese communists and to prevail against the PRC over which government represents China.(1) Due to its anti-communist stand, Taipei sought cover beneath the US political and military umbrella in a bipolar international system dominated by the two superpowers. The main goal of the ROC's foreign policy has thus been to improve and maintain relations with the US, and "leaning to one side" characterized the primary focus of Taipei's foreign policy for the following four decades.(2) By comparison, ROC's foreign policy in the Middle East was limited.(3) During the past three decades, only eight of the two dozen or so countries in the region had established diplomatic relations with Taipei(4) and through 1991, the ROC government had unofficial commercial offices in only eight countries in the region.(5) Within this framework of a limited Middle East policy, Taipei devoted much effort to maintaining official and unofficial relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The most compelling reason for Taipei's concentration on relations with Riyadh was economic necessity. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil supplier to the ROC and Taiwan's state-run Chinese Petroleum Company imports about forty percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia annually.(6) Since Taiwan has virtually no oil and little quality coal, petroleum from Saudi Arabia and other nations is an economic necessity. Thus, to ensure an ample supply, Taipei expended considerable effort to ingratiate itself with Riyadh.
A second reason for Taipei's active policy toward Riyadh lay in the fact that the Kingdom was one of the few countries in the world that officially recognized the ROC. Since 1949, both sides of the Taiwan Strait adopted a "one China" policy and each claimed for itself recognition as the sole legitimate government of China. Over the years the growing importance of the Communist regime in international affairs caused many countries to break relations with the ROC as a necessary condition for establishing formal ties with the PRC.(7) After the loss of its Security Council seat in the UN to Beijing in 1971, Taipei's international status declined precipitously. The ROC lost an important part of its national identity and was treated as nothing more than an international entity which is "a part of China." By 1979, when the US finally switched its recognition to the PRC, 121 nations recognized Beijing while those retaining relations with Taipei had dwindled to 25.(8) Saudi Arabia was an important member of the latter group and keeping those few remaining allies became the primary task for the Foreign Ministry in Taipei.
Thus, notwithstanding its emphasis on maintaining strong ties with Washington, relations with Saudi Arabia have been deemed crucial to national survival by the leaders in Taipei. As one observer noted, the ROC's Middle East policy can be characterized as "diplomacy with emphasis."(9)
PRC's Middle East Policy
Due to its physical control of the Chinese mainland, asserting its claim to represent the Chinese people is only one of many objectives for the PRC. Beijing's leaders have been more concerned with national security in a bipolar international system. Although right after its establishment in 1949, the PRC leaned to "the Soviet Big Brother" to resist "US imperialism," Beijing's leaders soon realized that the Soviet Union had become a threat to its national security. Beijing felt betrayed when Nikita Khrushchev called for peaceful coexistence with the West in 1956. This mistrust was deepened when the Brezhnev doctrine was announced in 1968. That doctrine affirmed the legitimacy of Soviet intervention in the affairs of members of the socialist camp.(10) Perceiving both the US and the Soviet Union as imperialist powers, the communist leaders in Beijing knew that they needed support from Third World countries to contest the superpowers. The PRC's Middle East policy reflected these considerations.(11)
Beijing's leaders saw the Middle East as a vital area for its national security not only because of its rich oil resources but also because of its strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe. Control of this area by a hostile power would seriously endanger the PRC's national security. As a result, the main task of Beijing in the Middle East was to urge the local governments and national liberation movements to resist foreign intervention. This anti-imperialist and pro-revolutionary stand was clearly seen in the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence"(12) advocated by Zhou En-lai at the Bandung Conference in April 1955. It was also exemplified in the PRC's support, verbally and materially, of the Dhufar Liberation Front, the People's Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the late 1960s.
It was not until the early 1970s, after the rapprochement between Beijing and Washington and the admission of the PRC to the UN, that Beijing's Middle East policy began to change. Preference was given to relations with established governments, while interest in revolution declined considerably. With the added political power of being a permanent member of the Security Council, the PRC established diplomatic ties with many Middle Eastern countries in the 1970s and 1980s. After Bahrain recognized Beijing in 1989, Saudi Arabia was the only Arab country that remained without diplomatic ties with the PRC.
Although perceiving Saudi Arabia as a reactionary, theocratic, and feudal
kingdom that was extremely hostile to communism, Beijing's leaders still hoped to win its goodwill for a number of reasons. In the early years, Beijing had particularly appreciated Riyadh's consistent absention on UN votes concerning the status of the PRC. Saudi Arabia neither condemned the Communist regime as an aggressor in Korea in 1951 nor supported the US-sponsored resolution to postpone consideration of any proposal to exclude Taiwan from the UN in 1953. Riyadh's dispute with Britain over the Buraymi Oasis and its refulsal to join regional alliances also won Beijing's appreciation. Chinese leaders considered Riyadh as pursuing an independent foreign policy and resisting imperialist aggression.
As the Soviet Union extended its military strength to Asia in the 1970s, Beijing appreciated Riyadh's role in actively opposing Soviet expansion. In a commentary in May 1981, Xinhua News Agency indicated that "... after the Afghan incident ... [Saudi Arabia] has resolutely opposed the Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan and advocated that the countries in the Gulf region unite to strengthen themselves and to resist foreign intrusion and intervention, effectively coordinating with the United States in checking Soviet aggression and expansion in the Gulf and Middle East region."(13) Moreover, since the early 1970s …
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Publication information: Article title: Competing for Friendship: The Two Chinas and Saudi Arabia. Contributors: Wang, T. Y. - Author. Journal title: Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ). Volume: 15. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 1993. Page number: 63+. © 1998 Association of Arab-American University Graduates and Institute of Arab Studies. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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