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C3S Book Review: Bridging the Gulf: China's Navigation of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry by Lucille Greer

By Vidhya Vighasini K

Image Courtesy: Wilson Centre

Article: 21/2023

Bridging the Gulf: China's Navigation of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry (Wilson Centre), ISBN: 978-1-7359401-9-9

In this book, Lucille Greer analyses how China has balanced its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, amidst the two nations’ decades-long rivalry. Greer provides policy recommendations for the USA based on the insights derived from the analysis of this balancing act of China, as she fears that the US Foreign affairs establishment is not adequately equipped to face the challenge of growing Chinese influence in West Asia in the future.

Greer points out that China has managed to steer through entrenched rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia by treating both nations with “transactional eye and claimed even-handedness,” unlike the USA. China’s status as a non-western outsider with no bitter history with the region is also an advantage. However, Beijing has different interests in maintaining relations with each of the two nations, and its nature of relations with each is unique. The author analyses China’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran in the two major areas of cooperation: Trade and Investment and Security Engagement, in two sections of the book.

The author argues that while China’s relations with capital-rich Saudi Arabia are more positive and profitable, they are transactional and hence impersonal; the Kingdom is unlikely to support China’s manoeuvres to undermine its security guarantor and closest ally USA in the competition for international leadership. In contrast, China’s relations with Iran continue to be close due to historical and political links, even though US-backed sanctions and the dire straits of Iran's economy have severely affected China's commercial interests in Iran. Iran’s unexplored oil-producing capacities and arms deals are leverage against the USA, Iran’s avowed opponent and China’s competitor.

Greer identifies stability as the ultimate interest of China in the region. The lynchpin of Chinese policy in West Asia is to avoid conflict. Getting involved in ubiquitous conflicts and rivalries would affect the balance of relations with West Asian states and endanger its main interests in the region – connectivity, energy security, counterterrorism and building international prestige. Yet, China’s ambitions for international leadership have grown along with its economic relations with West Asia and security is an inevitable aspect of this ambition, although Beijing’s engagement in the security sector remains even more restrained than its economic engagement in the region. Greer states that China’s intention behind military engagement is strengthening bilateral relations, which is markedly different from the USA’s goals of increasing partners’ capabilities. China sells arms and conducts joint naval drills with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is a major source of concern for the USA. China’s arms trade with Iran is more problematic to the USA than that with Saudi Arabia. According to Greer, in the current scenario of escalating tensions in US-China relations, the USA must be mindful of China cultivating its ties with Iran which could potentially endanger the USA and its allies in the region. Therefore, the USA must seek to diminish Chinese influence in the region in all ways possible.

Lucille Greer’s academic credentials and extensive diplomatic experience of working in Chinese and West Asian affairs for the US State Department provide the necessary depth and perspective to her analysis of China-Iran-Saudi Arabia relations and its implications for the US. The impact of external pressure exerted by the USA and the domestic politics and conflicts of the region in shaping the dynamics of these relations are explored in detail. The book provides updated data on China’s investment, trade, and military engagement with both countries, through analysis of news articles, official government releases, interviews of top diplomats, experts and leaders, existing literature on the subject, etc. The author’s knowledge of the political milieu and business and social culture of West Asia and China adds to the comprehensive nature of her analysis.

The Book’s main limitation is that by viewing China’s increasing engagement in West Asia as a ‘challenge’ for US interests, the author does not fully consider the possibility for Iran and Saudi Arabia in engaging with China as an alternative for the USA to bring a détente in bilateral relations and that China might abandon its previous policy of non-interference in West Asian regional conflicts to protect its primary interest, which is stability in the region. This perhaps hinders the full-fledged exploration of Chinese interests and the possible role Beijing could have in establishing stability in the region, either altruistically or to suit its interests. This limitation is demonstrated in Greer’s prediction that China would not take “significant role in facilitating regional relations beyond closed-door talks and multilateral efforts.” This was not the case in the recent Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume bilateral relations after 7 years, which is seen as a shift in attitude from the Chinese policy of strict non-interference in West Asian bilateral conflicts.

The author has also not sufficiently explored the role of China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang province as a factor influencing the relationship dynamics between the three countries. While Greer does link the Uyghur issue to China’s increased military engagement in West Asia, Saudi Arabia’s silence and near-complicity to this repression of fellow Muslims despite claiming to be the guardian of Sunni Islam is not investigated.

Yet, the author succeeds in her main objective of deriving the implications for the USA and providing policy recommendations through her analysis of the complexities of China-Iran-Saudi relations. Her analysis, arguments and policy recommendations are compelling and backed with ample sources and evidence, which further adds value to the study, especially for those who seek to understand the dynamic roles China and the USA play in Saudi-Iranian rivalry and conduct further research in this area.

(Vidhya Vighasini K is a Research Intern at C3S. The views expressed in this book review are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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