[By Amin Saikal]
As the rivalry between the United States and China spirals into a new cold war, it carries the potential to widen and deepen many geopolitical fault lines in world politics. One such fault line is dangerously embedded in the strategically vital, oil-rich, but unstable, Persian Gulf. It divides the Gulf into northern and southern zones.
China has so far sought to operate above this division in its dealings with both sides of the divide. Yet it shares strong anti-US interests with the states and subnational actors that make up the northern zone, where it could enhance competition with the US at the cost of further regional volatility.
The adversarial lines are more clearly drawn in the Persian Gulf than in any other part of the Middle East. The traditional ethnic, sectarian, cultural and historical rivalries between Arabs and Iranians are now topped by a new fault line that has been fuelled primarily by the US and Russia in recent years.
A US-backed, Saudi-led Arab coalition has, with Israel’s support, come to dominate the southern zone against Iran as the ‘destabilising’ actor in the region. A Russian–Iranian axis has established a countering dominance in the northern zone, where Moscow and Tehran, backed by the Iran-allied force of Lebanese Hezbollah, have acted to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In this zone, Tehran’s influence stretches from Baghdad to Beirut.
China hasn’t remained aloof from this regional development. Having forged an all-round camaraderie with Russia, it has operated across both zones in the Gulf for two main objectives. One is to meet its economic needs by securing oil and expanding trade relations with all of the region’s constituent states. The other is to forge deeper strategic ties with those actors in the region who are adversarial to the US.
China has become an indispensable economic and strategic partner for Iran. Over the last decade, Chinese companies have invested more than US$5 billion in upgrading Iran’s gas refinement and oil infrastructure, expanding highways, updating Tehran’s metro system (which was originally built with Chinese assistance) and developing the Mehran Petrochemical Complex in western Iran.
China has also provided funding and technical assistance for projects ranging from railways to hospitals. In 2018, a Chinese state-owned investment company, CITIC Group, established a US$10 billion credit line, and the China Development Bank promised US$15 billion more.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in January 2016, President Hassan Rouhani announced that ‘China and Iran plan to build economic ties worth up to $600 billion’. The volume of trade between the two sides grew from US$1.6 billion per year in the 1980s to US$15 billion in 2007 and around US$45 billion in 2014–15 (in 2018 it dipped to US$33 billion).
Today, China is Iran’s second largest trading partner after the United Arab Emirates, and despite American sanctions on Iran, China still imports some 9% of its oil from Iran. Beijing has also found it in its interest to have Iran on board as an important link in its Belt and Road Initiative for global influence.
After Russia, China has been a major arms provider to the Islamic republic, especially since 1986. China’s supply of weapons has included HY-2 Silkworm anti-ship missiles, and the country has played an instrumental role in Iran’s ballistic missile program, particularly in providing technological and design help. The two countries signed a defence agreement in November 2016, pledging closer military and counterterrorism cooperation.
Although Beijing has refrained from providing military support to Russia and Iran in Syria, it has strongly backed those operations and joined Russia in vetoing any proposed UN Security Council resolutions against its Syrian adventure, or against Iran.
As the US–China cold war and US–Iran hostilities progress, and in the event President Donald Trump is re-elected in November, Beijing can be expected to deepen its strategic involvement in the Gulf’s northern zone. This doesn’t mean that it will seek to jeopardise its economic relations with Arab states in the Gulf and, indeed, with Israel, with which it maintains a level of intelligence and technological cooperation. If Xi is pressed hard by Trump, though, he has plenty of space to up the ante in conjunction with like-minded forces in the Gulf.
An escalation in US–China rivalry in the Gulf can only solidify the dangerous geopolitical fault line in a region that is economically and strategically significant, but highly unstable and insecure. Under Trump, the US and Iran remain on a collision course and the Gulf doesn’t need any further stimulus to become even more explosive.
Amin Saikal is adjunct professor of social sciences at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia and author of Iran rising: The survival and future of the Islamic republic.
This article appears courtesy of ASPI’s The Strategist blog and may be found in its original form here.
A massive fire broke out at the Port of Beirut on Thursday, incinerating a warehouse full of tires and oil within the port’s free zone. The same area was heavily damaged in the ammonium nitrate explosion that leveled the central port area and the adjacent waterfront on August 4. According to Lebanon’s civil defense agency, […]
Over the course of the past five days, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority arranged a medical intervention for an injured aboard a freighter in the Indian Ocean. On Saturday evening, the Spliethoff tweendecker Dolfijngracht called for assistance while under way about 1,000 nauical miles off the coast of Western Australia. A crewmember had sustained serious […]
The UK government’s new post-Brexit tariff regime will result in both winners and losers. The new regime is set to replace the European Union’s Common External Tariff from the end of the Brexit Transition Period on December 31, 2020. The UK’s commitment to the ongoing Brexit process and ending the UK’s transition from EU membership […]
The U-Freight Group (UFL), with its considerable involvement in eCommerce logistics, says that the latest statistics showing that global e-commerce sales hit $25.6 trillion in 2018 are a further vindication of its decision to enter this sector of the international freight market several years ago. The latest available estimates, up 8% from 2017, were recently […]
The First DP2, Twin-Hulled SOV in the World, NB72 Groene Wind met the Sea on September 29. 2020 in Yalova, Turkey. The Groene Wind will be directly chartered to Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy for the maintenance of the Rentel and Mermaid & Seastar (known as SeaMade) offshore wind farms in Belgium. This is the first DP2, […]
DSV Belgium has solid experience in the transport of pharmaceutical products for different customers. With a pharma hub based at Brussels Airport a lot of experience and know-how has been built up over the years. Last weekend, the forwarder handled one hundred million mouth masks, an important milestone for its Belgian organisation that has put […]
Astral Aviation has increased its intra-African network with cargo freighters during the pandemic. While there has been a reduction in capacity to, from, and within Africa, which has been caused by a stoppage of passenger flights and limited frequencies on freighter aircraft, Astral Aviation continues to operate cargo freighters from its Nairobi hub to 13 destinations […]
The naval forces of the US and Bahrain recently staged a joint force training exercise which showcased the interoperability between coalition warships operating I the Arabian Gulf. Coalition Task Force Sentinel executed combined exercise Sentinel Shield supporting Sentry and Sentinel patrols in the coalition’s area of operations. The guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones and […]
Emirates SkyCargo has expanded its weekly scheduled cargo flight operations to cover 75 destinations across six continents. Through its wider reach, Emirates SkyCargo is able to transport essential commodities and other urgently needed cargo more rapidly across the world, allowing exporters and importers across markets to benefit from direct access to widebody cargo capacity. Some […]
With close to 100 daily cargo flights operated to a destination network spanning more than 65 cities across six continents, Emirates SkyCargo is delivering essential supplies and commodities to people around the world. The air cargo carrier is currently operating 11 Boeing 777 freighter aircraft, each with a capacity to transport about 100 tonnes of […]
Best known as a leading passenger airport serving Germany’s most populated federal state North Rhine-Westphalia, Düsseldorf has become transformed into a vital distribution point, during the COVID 19 pandemic, for medical equipment and other life-saving goods, mostly from China. Gerton Hulsman, managing director of cargo operations, reports that the handling teams are working hard to […]
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about an accident that occurred on April 15, 2019, involving the towing vessel DeJeanne Maria which struck the end of a submerged dredge pipeline while pushing two spud barges to the Gulf of Mexico. The incident occurred on the Mississippi River in Pass […]
Operators can continue to use pilots and other crew members who have unable to comply with certain training, recent experience, testing, and checking requirements due to the COVID-19 outbreak in support of essential operations. Additionally, this Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) provides regulatory relief to certain persons and pilot schools unable to meet duration and […]
Global commercial aviation charter company Albion Aviation Group is reporting that it is seeing a considerable uptake in its professional cargo broker training courses from the current global pandemic crisis and surge in charter demand. “We have completed a number webinar courses for a whole of host of companies, looking to manage their own cargo […]
Callan Marine is serving as the prime contractor to the Texas Department of Transportation for a maintenance dredging project located at the Bolivar Ferry Terminal, in Galveston, Texas. Work began in May and is estimated to be complete in late July 2020. The project consists of the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of material and […]
Network Airline Management and TAAG Angola Airlines are pleased to announce the renewal of their long-term freighter aircraft contract by an additional 12 months, sealing an ongoing partnership for the foreseeable future. Operating a regular weekly scheduled service from Liege, Belgium, to the capital of Angola, Luanda, Network Airline Management provides a Boeing 747-400F aircraft […]