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TematicheCina e Indo-PacificoChina’s power projection in the Middle East is real...

China’s power projection in the Middle East is real and growing

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China has gone into a silence mode in the new year after a CNN expose revealed that Beijing was helping Saudi Arabia make its own ballistic missiles, in the process kicking off a weaponization spree in the Middle East.

The revelation, known to US intelligence agencies, has also put U.S. President, Joe Biden, in a spot. The Americans are worried that their attempts to restrain the nuclear dreams of Iran may come to a naught as the latter is expected to speed up its nuclear armament plans because of archrival Saudi Arabia’s missile program. The CNN stated that it has inconvertible proof of the ballistic missile plants in Saudi Arabia. The evidence is satellite imagery from late October and early November. However, details of the range and payload of the missiles are still a secret. The report said: “Saudi Arabia is known to have purchased ballistic missiles from China in the past but has never been able to build its own — until now, according to three sources familiar with the latest intelligence. Satellite images obtained by CNN also suggest the Kingdom is currently manufacturing the weapons in at least one location”. According to some sources, the US National Security Council received highly confidential briefings revealing multiple large-scale transfers of sensitive ballistic missile technology between China and Saudi Arabia.

Asked if there have been any recent transfers of sensitive ballistic missile technology between China and Saudi Arabia, the CNN quoted a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying that “the two countries are ‘comprehensive strategic partners’ and ‘have maintained friendly cooperation in all fields, including in the field of military trade’”. The Chinese statement also said: “Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” The Saudi Government and its embassy in Washington did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Reports revealed that the latest satellite images showed Saudi Arabian sites “previously constructed with Chinese assistance” where the missiles were being built. “Satellite photos taken by Planet, a commercial imaging company, between October 26th and November 9th show a burn operation occurred at a facility near Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia, according to researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who told CNN this is ‘the first unambiguous evidence that the facility is operating to produce missiles’.” The “key piece of evidence” is that the facility is operating a “burn pit” to dispose of solid-propellant leftover from the production of ballistic missiles. The crux of the CNN report is: “Considering the facility in question was built with Chinese assistance and new intelligence assessments showing Saudi Arabia has recently purchased sensitive ballistic missile technology from China, it is possible that the missiles being produced there are of Chinese design…” It is now a given that US intelligences agencies were aware of the Saudi Arabia-China “collaboration” for missile building in 2019. Then U.S. president Donald Trump soft-pedalled the issue inviting Democrat criticism that he was too soft on the Middle-Eastern kingdom.  

The Saudi ballistic missile program has heightened concerns among members of US Congress over a “potential arms race in the Middle East”. The CNN reported in 2019 about the apprehensions: “While the Saudis’ ultimate goal has not been conclusively assessed by U.S. intelligence, the sources said, the missile advancement could mark another step in potential Saudi efforts to one day deliver a nuclear warhead were it ever to obtain one.” In a 2018 interview to CBS show “60 Minutes”, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman made it clear that “should Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, Saudi would work to do the same”.

Two reasons are being put forward for Saudi’s ballistic missile program. The first is that though Saudi is among the biggest buyers of American arms, it is barred from purchasing ballistic missiles from the US under regulations set forth by the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime. Secondly, with the U.S. gradually withdrawing itself, politically and physically, from the Middle East theatre, China quickly entered the picture as if to fill the gap and engineered a working relationship with Saudi on the missile program.  As first Barack Obama and then Donald Trump initiated the U.S. policy to disengage from the Middle East, China’s influence in the region has been growing, also in tandem with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

As of date, China is the biggest buyer of oil from the Middle East – 72 per cent of oil is imported from the region. As oil consumption in the advanced regions of the world begins to decline because of a shift to renewables, China’s oil imports are becoming increasingly significant for Middle Eastern oil producers and so China’s geopolitical importance is growing fast. Alongside, China developed comprehensive strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, while its influence in Iran has increased significantly, following the signing of a 25-year cooperation plan with Tehran. 

According to some Middle-East experts, China has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as strategic partnerships with Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Turkey. Coinciding with the expansion of the BRI, this flurry of diplomatic activity indicates that Chinese leaders increasingly perceive the Middle East as important to their political and strategic goals. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive Beijing seeks to put China at the center of global trade and at the same time place the Digital Silk Road in the leading position of technological innovation, helping jumpstart digital development in the region. Telecommunication companies in Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all partnered with Huawei to build 5G networks.

The U.S. is beginning to realise that Chinese influence is growing in the region and that, along with its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, ensures that its global influence will only increase over time. That is probably why Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states view China as an important source of political support – particularly when they are embarking on diversification programmes and selective economic reforms, while resisting Western pressure on issues such as human rights and democratisation. China’s silence on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate last year makes sense from this perspective. China’s ambitions in the Middle East can be gauged from the importance it gives to the new land and sea routes that connect Asia with Europe and Africa. Thus, China increasingly sees relations with the Arab world as central to its geostrategic ambitions.

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