InterRegional for Strategic Analysis hosted a new panel discussion as part of its Authors’ Corner series to discuss the book Asian Perceptions of Gulf Security with the editors Dr. Jonathan Fulton, assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Dr. Li-Chen Sim, professor of politics at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
The panel discussion tackled the relationship between the Gulf and China, including the following topics:
1. China’s growing importance in global politics: Several countries are concerned about signs that after 15 years of US policy in the region, things are about to change. This potential change in the US’s stance makes understanding Asia increasingly important in global politics. The countries that the book discusses, such as India, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, are US allies and partners that have adopted policy approaches towards the Gulf in cooperation with the US. China has become the main strategic rival for the US among these rising Asian powers.
2. Convergence of economic and security issues in relations with Beijing: The Gulf seems to be oscillating between rival strategic partners. During the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate in November 2022, Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash, senior diplomatic advisor to the UAE’s president, stated that "our primarily strategic security relationship remains unequivocally with the United States." At the same time, he added that China was also of great importance, and that the UAE had "no interest in choosing sides between great powers." By this, Gargash meant that the UAE, like most Gulf countries, could address national security and economic security concerns separately. However, US policymakers do not see such an approach as within the realm of possibility and indeed take the opposite tack. They believe that economic and national security are one and the same and cannot be separated. Instead, the US argues that cooperation with China in the field of critical infrastructure and technology will also have security implications.
3. Washington’s opposition to expansion of Gulf relations with China: The US has been very clear on this issue: increased cooperation with China means undermining relationships with Washington. This is something countries in the region do not want to hear. Fulton said this was apparent from his trips to many countries in the region in recent months, during which he attended events and spoke with participants from Israel, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. They stated that the US saw China as a threat but did not necessarily arrive at the same conclusion themselves. These countries did not see the US position as persuasive and felt that US concerns were largely theoretical.
4. Waning US commitment to Middle East security: The Middle East has been under US hegemony and dominance since Operation Desert Storm. Prior to this point, the US was one of many players in the arena, and did not have a major presence in region. However, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, defense cooperation agreements were signed between Washington and four Gulf countries, followed by a Facilities Access Agreement with the Sultanate of Oman, as well as greater cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The US began to have more clout in the region and to establish forms of hegemony. However, the US is now showing clear signs that it wants to cut back on that role. Washington engaged in talks for a nuclear deal with Iran without involving Arab Gulf countries. It also previously announced a Pivot to Asia policy. As a result of these factors, Middle Eastern countries feel that the US commitment to the region is declining.
The Trump administration pursued an approach to dealing with partners and allies that focused on "win-win" policies. The former US president made controversial remarks after the attacks targeting Saudi Aramco facilities. He promised to "Make America Great Again," pursued an "America First" manufacturing policy, and focused on developing US capabilities and achieving energy self-sufficiency. The Trump administration did not appear concerned with maintaining the US’s security role abroad. Under the Biden administration, it seemed like things might change, but during Biden’s first term he has primarily focused on cooperation through fostering shared democratic values. This has made it difficult for many allies and partners in the Middle East to coordinate with Washington.
5. Regional preference among some countries for China’s approach: China’s Belt and Road Initiative of 2013 offered an alternative to the US. This proved an appealing option for some countries in the region because China was not telling them to do anything and respected their sovereignty and decision-making according to their own interests without preconceived expectations. This generated new power dynamics and set up a rival to the US in the region. Many countries appreciate what China has to offer, even if it a new partner. The speakers indicated that this state of affairs has been misunderstood. This is the point that the US has driven home with its allies, i.e., that they do not realize what they are doing with China. That might be true for the countries which are closest to China, and which have had mixed experiences, as is the case with Japan, India, and South Korea. However, Southeast Asian countries perhaps have a fuller picture.
The US had become less interested in the Middle East and the Gulf and was turning instead towards other regions:
1. Growing US interest in the Indo-Pacific: The common denominator between the previous and current US administrations is that the Indo-Pacific region is being given priority. It is clear that there are many reasons for this, including Asia’s huge economic potential. The US is also frustrated with its involvement with the Middle East: people feel like there have been decades of engagement in the region without the US achieving what it had hoped to do, and the US and its allies are both weary of this. This stance is also somewhat contradictory: people in the region complain that the US abandoned them, but at the same time want them to go.
2. Indo-Pacific as an arena of conflict between Washington and Beijing: Chinese involvement in the Indo-Pacific is more important to the US than the economic opportunities there. The US has decided that strategic competition is the new defense policy from here on out and that China is its rival. If the US has learned one thing from the disastrous war in Ukraine, it is that Russia is not the threat that it imagined a year ago, and that the war is also related to issues with China. In general, it sees China as its economic, technological, and ideological rival.
3. Fears in some Asian countries about growing Chinese influence: South Korea, Japan, India, and Singapore, which are US partners and allies, prefer the current status quo. All of these countries have issues with China and are nervous about China’s trade-focused approach to international policy. They are afraid that China is not planning to follow the rules of the current world order, or that Beijing could try to get what it wants by taking advantage of its economic clout. At a 2010 summit, Asian countries developed a united stance regarding negotiations with China, which provoked the ire of the Chinese foreign minister, who informed them that they were inconsequential countries and that China was the major power.
4. Dynamic Asian rivalries impact regional security: The book sheds light upon another issue, namely the effects of internal rivalries within Asia, which some see as different than in the West. In recent years, Asia does not appear to have had the same history of war and expansionism compared to Europe. However, a quick look at the last several years suggests that many conflicts have been happening in Asia, if less overtly. There has not been a cold war or US primacy of the kind that occurred unlike when Trump adopted a win-win approach towards Asian alliances, or when he threatened preemptive strikes against North Korea. Things were particularly tense after missiles test-launches occurred over Japan and South Korea. The problem is that the security of northeastern Asia depends on its alliance with the US. If the US pulls back, Japan and North Korea could return to a level of hostility unprecedented since the end of Japanese colonial rule in Korea. There are also other conflicts and tensions in Asia such as those between India and Pakistan. The idea that the Asian security structure could support the Gulf is unconvincing because these structures are not institutionalized for the most part, which could complicate matters for the Gulf.
The panel discussion focused on case studies of Asian countries that have been engaged with the Gulf and other regional powers. The conversation centered around Japan, South Korea, and Singapore:
1. Close ties between South Korea and Iran: South Korea-Iran relations in light Seoul’s previous decision to send a naval unit to the Gulf. South Korea and Iran have longstanding ties since Seoul imports large quantities of high-quality, low-price oil and steel from Iran. These are crucial for South Korean industries, including construction and shipbuilding. South Korea, which could be seen as aligned with Washington, will need to ramp up its anti-piracy patrols, which it carries out in coordination with the US. This could endanger its relationship with Iran, which is a major issue for South Korea and has caused a great deal of domestic concern since this could also have implications for relations with North Korea, which has seen eye to eye with Iran on many issues.
2. South Korea strengthens defense cooperation with the Gulf: South Korea has significant opportunities to diversify security relationships. This is partly because South Korea has not previously engaged much in this regard with the Gulf, either in energy or defense spheres. South Korea established a special counterterrorism training unit in the Gulf and also agreed to sell of medium-range missiles to the UAE. South Korea has also planned to sell its nuclear energy for civilian use in the UAE, which could lead to broader engagement. South Korea could also further develop shipbuilding with the UAE and Qatar, both of which intend to expand their oil and LNG fleets in order to develop their hydrocarbon transport. Many engineering companies in South Korea are undertaking various construction projects and the country has numerous further opportunities for growth, including in the defense sphere.
3. Japanese interest in South Korea’s growing international presence: Japanese officials are closely following what South Korea is doing, especially in the Gulf. These developments are not surprising given that South Korea has recently cooperated on an unofficial basis with Israel, the UAE, and Singapore. There have been many informal diplomatic encounters between businesspeople from these four countries. They have explored how to expand cooperation in light of many issues of mutual interest, such as cutting-edge technology, and the shared sense that they are all relatively small countries that could work together.
4. Japan utilizes Gulf oil to counter China: Japan has important ties with the US, but also with Iran. Iran and Japan have a history of cooperating on oil imports, particularly during the second half of the twentieth century. Japan is importing oil from Iran as part of its journey towards energy self-sufficiency. China has also been somewhat important for Japan for obvious historical reasons and because Japan has begun to exert greater influence on Middle East oil supplies. In the 1990s, China became a major importer of oil; before that it had been relatively self-sufficient. However, after the mid-1990s, it began to compete with other countries, including other Asian countries, for Middle Eastern oil. Japan had always imported a great deal of oil and gas from the Middle East, and began to sense that China might try to take these supplies for itself. This is a source of concern for Japan’s energy security and it has responded by rolling out facilities for Middle Eastern oil in Okinawa and two other prefectures in Japan, where it stores oil from Aramco, Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait. These oil reserves function as a means of countering Chinese threats to its oil supply.
5. Renewable energy opportunities for the Gulf and Japan: Japan does not have a significant presence beyond the energy sector. Japan is interested in renewable energy, but the country’s many projects do not extend to engineering or purchasing and supply due to limited availability of funding. It is only starting to test the waters in non-energy fields. Japan plays a leading role in funding renewable energy projects in the Gulf. It is unlikely to engage further in the defense sector in the near future, because it is restricted by its pacifist constitution, although it has some capacity to exercise self-defense in international contexts. However, there are opportunities for the region beyond gas and oil in the renewable energy sector.
6. Singapore’s interest in securing Gulf oil supplies: Singapore has been very concerned about extremism the Middle East over the past two decades, because Singapore and Asia have been dealing with their own struggles with extremism. Singapore therefore felt that it needed to engage with the Gulf to protect its oil supply routes. It runs an oil refinery and re-export hub and has worked with the US to combat piracy. Singapore’s decision to become more involved with the Gulf was largely due to issues with China. China has long seen Singapore, a majority-Chinese country, as if it were an extension of China. Approximately 70% of Singapore’s population is of Chinese descent, and China has felt this population should adopt Chinese culture and follow Chinese foreign policy. The government of Singapore has always treated its Chinese and non-Chinese residents very differently. China was unhappy when Singapore joined the US’s Combined Task Force for counterterrorism efforts to help run patrols in Gulf waters. Singapore is charting its own future, building on decades of balancing relations with China and the US.
The panel discussion provided an assessment of Gulf security in light of Asia’s involvement in various spheres, including with regard to the following issues:
1. Asian countries appear unconcerned about Gulf security: It is worth evaluating whether the Gulf is a key foreign policy issue for Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. These three countries import more than 70% of their oil and petroleum products from the Gulf. But although Gulf hydrocarbons are central to their economies, they do not necessarily see Gulf security as their foreign policy challenge. This is not seen as a foreign policy concern for various reasons, including because the US is involved in the region, and could bring back its forces if needed. In other words, even if there are concerns, Asia feels that the US will take care of it.
These three countries have conducted business with the Gulf in many fields. They want to maintain their strategic oil reserves, for which they largely rely upon the Gulf, even after the Qatar crisis. The Arab Gulf continues to play an important role for these three Asian countries, but they are not concerned about the Gulf’s security situation. This is because these countries are preoccupied with their own regional issues, e.g., the state of affairs between India and Pakistan, Japan and South Korea, Japan and China, and Singapore and Malaysia. As a result, they are more anxious about their neighbors than about the Gulf.
2. China’s difficulties with its "zero-enemy" policy: China’s "zero-enemy" policy in the Gulf raises an important question regarding whether China can permanently maintain this policy and keep up cordial relations with all countries in the region. The speakers said that they could see any reason why China would not, since its interests in the Middle East are primarily economic. China is primarily focused on domestic issues, in light of enormous internal pressures as well as regional tensions in the South China Sea and neighboring countries. That is what China is focused on, while it engages with the Gulf primarily on an economic level. This is at odds with the stance adopted by the US, which sees the Gulf as strategically important and has pursued a policy of maintaining a balance of power in the Gulf. It works with countries who can serve as allies vis-à-vis other regional actors. For its part, China has pointed out that it has not experienced what the US has gone through in the region, alluding to issues such as the Iran hostage crisis, and indicated that the US should not expect China to take the same approach to the region.
3. China prefers to invest in Arab Gulf rather than Iran: China is the only country that holds sway in Iran, since Russia no longer has that kind of clout. China is an important economic lifeline for Tehran and always ranks among its top economic partners. Although it is perhaps the only partner that Iran can really depend upon, there is no comparison with regard to Chinese engagements with Iran versus the Arab Gulf. There are around 400,000 Chinese citizens in the UAE and stated that in Iran there were perhaps two. Bilateral trade between the Gulf and China is estimated to be around $200 billion, while in Iran it has not even reached 10 billion. China sees the Arab Gulf as an important investment opportunity where it can establish private corporations, which is not how it sees Iran. This is because it is afraid that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force could constrain its economic activities, that in general Iran is not an environment conducive to business. It is also hesitant to invest in Iran due to concerns about secondary sanctions.
4. Strategic hedging of Asian countries towards Iran: Some Asian countries are engaged in strategic hedging towards Iran. Gulf countries have said that they will continue to work with the US but are also working with many other forces beyond the region. They are trying to get these forces to see the region the way that it sees itself. This is happening through offering economic incentives, purchasing weapons, expanding trade, and establishing free trade zones. China and India are two prime examples of countries that are not particularly interested in economically engaging with Iran, since the Arab Gulf has much more to offer.
5. China struggles to manage Gulf security concerns: It is unlikely that China could ensure the Gulf’s security if the US were to withdraw from the region. This is because few other countries would be prepared to take on the role that the US has occupied. Two years ago, former Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a five-point security initiative for the Gulf, but this plan proved to be lacking. It included principles of mutual trust, strengthening justice and equality, promoting nuclear non-proliferation, fostering collective security, and accelerating development. However, it did not include provisions for protecting countries from hostile neighbors, building capacities, or promoting joint training. The Chinese approach depends upon Iran coexisting peacefully with its neighbors if the US withdraws from the region, but it is not realistic for China to overlook security issues and only focus on the economic sector.
In conclusion, many countries in Asia see Iran as the US’s problem, not theirs. This is also how the Gulf views Russia’s war, which it feels concerns the US and Europe only. That is why the Gulf has not imposed sanctions on Russia, with the exception of Qatar and Kuwait which have offered significant support to Ukraine. A crucial point here is that European countries appreciate the Gulf’s neutrality and where this could lead. The likelihood of getting Russia to the negotiating table dwindles day by day, but the Gulf’s neutrality could offer a platform for potential dialogue between Russian officials, the US, and Europe. Therein lies the great importance of the Gulf, beyond the question of energy.