With the Middle East already China's largest oil supplier and with China's growing energy needs, Beijing's relations with the Gulf countries are becoming more important. But they are also fraught with difficulties.
The Middle East is China's largest oil supplier
The Persian Gulf region is the world's largest single source of crude oil. China is not the most important trading partner of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries yet, but it is the fastest growing one.
At a recent conference on China and the Gulf region held by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, Emile Hokayem from the Middle East office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain said, "by 2030 Chinese oil imports from the Mid-East will grow by the factor of 5, and its gas import by factor of 4. By then China will have overtaken Japan and India. According to McKinsey, by 2020 China-GCC trade will reach 350 billion dollars, and that's the low number."
Strategically important region
China meanwhile defines the region as China's "Greater Neighboring Area", which means a higher position for the Mid-East in China's foreign policy, said Wu Bingbing, Professor in Arabic Studies at the Beijing University. Although the region is of strategic significance to China, the Beijing government has been implementing pragmatic policies there and playing on both sides of the fence, criticized Wu.
The Iran Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo
Despite China's strong economic ties with Iran, Beijing voted for tougher sanctions against Tehran at the UN last month. "To what extent China can support Iran is still unknown," Wu Bingbing said. "This could be regarded as the contradiction in China's Persian Gulf policy."
Balancing Iran and Saudi Arabia
There is another problem regarding another main energy supplier for China in the Gulf region: Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been competing for the leadership of the Islamic world. The Iranian nuclear program, Lebanon, Iraq - all these issues have been fueling competition between the two countries.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia welcomes China's President Hu Jintao to Riyadh in 2009
China wants to keep good relations with both of them, but this is proving difficult. King Abdullah came to the throne in Saudi Arabia in 2005, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iran's president in the same year. However, the Chinese President has visited Saudi Arabia twice since 2005, but has not visited Iran yet. Wu Bingbing expressed concerns that "although China doesn't mean to lean towards Saudi Arabia at the expense of Iran, some impressions of this kind have come up in the Gulf Region, and have played a negative role in Sino-Iranian relations."
"Common interests" with the US
While different from the economic-driven Sino-Gulf relations, the US has positive ties with most governments in the region. But mostly it is a relationship based on dependency. Most governments in the Middle East and especially the oil-rich Gulf rely on the United States for defense, said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Programme in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
He holds the view that there is a "Vital Triangle" in the region: the Middle East, China and the United States. "It has been made easier by the fact that all three sides of this triangle share a basic interest in regional stability and a free flow of energy."
Those common interests, argues Alterman, could create a platform for future cooperation that might improve not only security in the Mid-East, but also Sino-American relations.
Author: Dai Ruyue
Editor: Grahame Lucas