The first GCC-China summit, held in Riyadh on 9th December 2022, marked the beginning of a broad strategic alliance between China and the region. They adopted a five-year joint action plan to strengthen their partnership in some key areas, from comprehensive political and security dialogues to deeper economic partnership and greater cultural engagement. In addition, they issued a public statement summarizing their shared views on significant regional and international issues. This strategic relationship can change China’s regional leadership and broaden its reach into various new areas when wholly executed.
The official name of the meeting, the Riyadh GCC-China Conference for Security and Cooperation, did not sit well with Iran, which summoned the Chinese ambassador in Tehran to express displeasure with the joint statement released at the summit’s conclusion. Iran’s foreign minister criticized the Chinese over the statement on Twitter. The envoy vowed that China’s deputy prime minister would visit Iran soon, seemingly to calm any ruffled feathers.
The UAE islands that Iran has been occupying since 1971 were the focus of Iran’s official protestations, but the country’s media has attacked the entire gathering as being hostile to Iran. Iran is trying to attribute its current domestic unrest to the outside world, particularly the US, EU, and GCC, to divert attention from the protests that are becoming increasingly violent. Iran was more anxious not because of the summit’s timing but because of China’s increasing alliance with the GCC countries and the several references to Iran’s behavior in their joint communiqué, aside from its control of the islands.
The gathering in Riyadh was not at all hostile to Iran. It merely emphasized that relations between Iran and the GCC states should be based on international standards, including refrain from meddling in domestic affairs, respecting political independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and resolving conflicts through peaceful means “following the UN Charter and international law.”
It urged Iran to cooperate with the IAEA fully, uphold the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a party, and maintain the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. The statement also emphasized the need to address destabilizing regional activities, stop support for terrorist and sectarian organizations, stop the spread of ballistic missiles and drones, and ensure the safety of international shipping and oil installations that Iran has attacked directly or indirectly.
China’s position and effectiveness in the region depend on its willingness to speak out against Iran’s destructive regional operations. While it makes sense to encourage communication between and among regional players, it is equally vital to outline the guidelines for successful discourse.
Aside from their disagreements with Iran, the GCC and China have long held similar views on Palestine and Yemen. China has consistently backed all UN resolutions concerning these two pressing issues and has, for the first time, denounced terrorist attacks carried out by Houthi militias in different areas. The summit agreed on most regional concerns, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya, even though disagreements over details and opinions still exist between several close allies.
On Afghanistan, they concurred on preserving the nation’s security and stability and advocated for further efforts to deliver humanitarian aid, where both parties have set down significant positions. They urged the Taliban to follow through on their repeated promises to protect all Afghans’ fundamental rights, interests, and liberties and set up an open government. China and the GCC nations share concerns about terrorist organizations and drug traffickers using Afghan land.
Regarding Ukraine, they supported “all international efforts toward de-escalation and the search for a political solution… under international law and the UN Charter” to protect lives and preserve regional and global security and stability.
President Xi Jinping gave an overview of the five key aspects of Beijing’s GCC strategy when speaking about other elements of the GCC-China alliance.
China first suggests a brand-new, diversified energy equation. It wants to “take advantage” of the Shanghai exchange as a venue for oil and gas trade in Chinese currency, even if it intends to keep importing oil and gas from the Gulf. China also wants to work with the GCC to promote clean and renewable energies, including hydrogen. In addition to training 300 GCC citizens in this field, it suggested creating a GCC-China conference for peaceful nuclear energy purposes.
Secondly, China looks to expand financial and investment cooperation opportunities, increase GCC investment company participation in the Chinese capital markets, and foster collaboration between Chinese and GCC wealth funds. It recommends using the CIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System) for yuan-based settlement to fund transactions through currency bartering. A council for GCC-China joint investment and a forum for industrial and investment cooperation have been proposed to oversee these developments.
Thirdly, China wants to increase innovation and technical cooperation in significant and innovative fields, such as the creation of important joint data and cloud computing centers, collaboration on the development of 5G and 6G communication networks, digital trade, and meteorological technologies.
Fourthly, China is urging new developments in international space cooperation. It demands increased collaboration in satellite technology and space exploration infrastructure. It has proposed a new GCC-China center for collaborative lunar and deep-space exploration and encouraged GCC astronauts to work with their Chinese colleagues on joint space experiments.
China aims to revitalize cultural involvement, which is the fifth goal. It announced that it has partnered with 300 GCC universities and schools, set up 300 new smart classrooms to teach Chinese, and provided 3,000 grants for GCC nationals to study Chinese in mainland China. These initiatives build on prior agreements that emphasized teaching Arabic and Chinese languages in their respective regions. Additionally, it has ambitions to host the GCC-China Forum for Language and Cultures and the GCC-China Library, promoting cultural interaction in both Arabic and Chinese.
The Riyadh summit outlined a shared vision for the GCC-China strategic alliance. Still, it should not be seen as harming the GCC’s relations with its regional allies, its strong alliances with the US and the UK, or its nascent strategic alliances with the EU and others. The GCC states individually and collectively use all those connections in their quest for regional and global security, stability, and prosperity. Thus, this GCC summit has brought new hope for these oil-dependent Gulf states regarding their economic and technological advancement. A key component in reaching that goal is collaboration with China.