Competing for Friendship: The Two Chinas and Saudi Arabia

Article excerpt

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 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. …