China and the Persian Gulf: Energy and Security

By Calabrese, John | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

China and the Persian Gulf: Energy and Security

Calabrese, John, The Middle East Journal

Energy cooperation is the dominant aspect of expanding relations between China and the Persian Gulf countries. Propelling this is China's increasing reliance on Gulf oil imports. In pursuing its objectives in the Gulf, China has encountered as many challenges as opportunities-in the form of regional crises and conflicts, as well as US pressure. In seeking to balance its geopolitical and economic interests in the Gulf, China has proceeded cautiously and pragmatically. Yet, the possibility that China's arms transfers to Gulf countries and its positions on Gulf issues may have a negative impact on regional security cannot be ruled out.

Since the Cold War ended, the debate in the West, especially in the United States, about the nature and implications of China's foreign policy has sharpened. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, coupled with the robust growth of the Chinese economy, have prompted a reexamination of China's role within as well as outside the Asia-Pacific region. Some have argued that China's military modernization program, the hegemony and values of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the tendency of great powers to act boldly make China a potential security threat. Others have maintained that China's internal problems, non-imperialistic tradition, and comparatively limited ability to project military power will ensure the China will behave more cooperatively in world affairs.1 The debate over the "China threat" has focused on the Asia-Pacific region, where China's cultural and economic links are most extensive, where its military assets are concentrated, and where its claims to sovereignty over territory (Tibet, Taiwan and Macau, and the South China Sea islands) are lodged. Yet, China's foreign policy and the concerns that it has raised also encompass the Persian Gulf. Indeed, throughout the 1990s, Beijing's policy toward the Gulf has been closely scrutinized, particularly by US officials and primarily because of Chinese arms transfers to Iran, and China's cooperation with that country in the field of nuclear energy.

China's commercial military activities certainly deserve the attention they have received, but the preoccupation with those activities has tended to obscure the context and distort the content of Chinese policy toward the Persian Gulf. The Gulf is no longer of peripheral strategic significance to China, nor is China any longer a marginal player in the Gulf or, for that matter, in the Middle East. In recent years, Sino-Gulf relations have entered a new and important stage of development. A decade ago, arms sales were the core of China's interaction with the region. Today, however, complex energy linkages between China and the Gulf countries are developing. Before long, these linkages will constitute a major, if not the dominant, feature of Sino-Gulf relations. This study addresses two important questions: How have these growing energy ties shaped, and been shaped by, the political and strategic aspects of China's interests in the region? And, will intensifying Sino-Gulf energy interdependence exert a moderating influence on Chinese foreign policy behavior both in the Gulf and Asia-Pacific regions?


Since the early 1980s, China's leaders have sought to develop a foreign policy that reconciled the requirements of modernization with geopolitical considerations. With respect to China's policy toward the Persian Gulf, balancing these interests has become more complicated in the 1990s because of shifts in the global strategic balance of power, and the widening scope of China's economic involvement with the Gulf region. Chinese officials have long regarded the Persian Gulf as an area of global strategic importance. Their views on the significance of the Gulf have been derived from periodic assessments of the major trends in world affairs and their probable impact on China. In the post-Cold War period, China's leaders have identified three dominant features of international relations: an intensification of economic competition, the ascendancy of ethnic and religious sources of political identity and expression, and a tension between the forces of multipolarity and unipolarity. …

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