A new round of indirect talks between the United States and Iran on resuming the 2015 nuclear agreement restarted in Vienna on Monday (December 27). Before the start of this round of negotiations, US media reported that Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia was manufacturing ballistic missiles with the help of China. The latest development of Saudi Arabia’s military cooperation with China comes at a time when Beijing is accelerating its deployment in the Middle East and strengthening ties with regional countries. How will China’s influence in the Middle East affect regional affairs? Will the Middle East become a new arena for the competition between major powers between the United States and China?
CNN and The Wall Street Journal last week quoted intelligence officials and analysis agencies as assessing that Saudi Arabia has imported ballistic missile technology from China and, with the help of China, is actively building its own ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles can carry conventional warheads and nuclear warheads. The United States has consistently refused to sell ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia out of concerns about proliferation. CNN quoted people familiar with the intelligence community as saying that Riyadh used to buy ballistic missiles from China, but never made it itself. According to the report, satellite images showed that Saudi Arabia had built missiles at a site previously assisted by China.
Saudi Arabia secretly purchased Dongfeng-3 ballistic missiles from China in 1987, and the US media disclosed the news the following year. In 2014, the US media disclosed that Saudi Arabia purchased China’s Dongfeng-21 missile in 2007. This time, the news reported by the US media is that Saudi Arabia has made missiles with the help of China.
Some analysts believe that this may have a knock-on effect in the Middle East and increase the difficulty of the Biden administration to restrict Iran’s nuclear program.
The Joint Commission on Comprehensive Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Issue held its eighth round of talks on Monday in Vienna on the US and Iran’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. The Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018 and imposed strict economic sanctions on Iran. Iran later announced that it would suspend the implementation of the nuclear agreement and speed up the enrichment of uranium.
RAND international defense expert Timothy Heath told VOA: “Saudi’s ability to build ballistic missiles may increase tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and increase regional instability. Iran may be holding nuclear weapons. And expanding nuclear arsenals. These two opponents may also intensify proxy struggles in Yemen and other parts of the Middle East.”
Saudi Arabia is a country dominated by Sunni Muslims, while Iran is mostly Shia Muslims. The two countries have been fighting for influence in the Middle East for a long time. Saudi Arabia is considered an ally of the United States, but after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States was greatly damaged, and the relationship between Riyadh and Washington was strained.
Beijing has been trying to maintain a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China is currently Saudi Arabia’s main economic and trade partner and oil export market. In reply to CNN, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that China and Saudi Arabia have a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and “maintain friendly cooperation in all fields, including military trade.”
At the same time, China also maintains economic and trade ties with Iran, and signed a 25-year economic and trade security agreement with Iran in March this year, incorporating Iran into China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, believes that the impact of China’s latest military cooperation with Saudi Arabia should not be exaggerated. He told VOA: “We need to look at the details of the agreement and its impact on regional security. These are still unclear.”
I-Wei Jennifer Chang, a senior researcher at the Global Taiwan Studies Center (GTI), a Washington think tank, believes that China’s assistance to Saudi Arabia in the development of ballistic missiles will not play a decisive role in affecting the development of the Middle East situation.
She told VOA that from the perspective of U.S. policy, restricting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional activities is the main challenge, “although the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China on ballistic missiles may make the Biden administration pay more attention to their relationship with Saudi Arabia, However, China’s assistance may increase Saudi Arabia’s relative military capabilities against Iran, which does not go against the interests of the United States in Saudi Arabia.”
Zhang Yiwei said that the latest developments, coupled with China’s role in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, show that China is strengthening its position relative to the United States in Middle East affairs.
She said that if Western countries want to put pressure on Iran, they will need the city of Beijing to play a constructive role in the nuclear talks. However, given the current tensions between the United States and China, China will not push forward in the short term. Western countries provide assistance on the Iran issue, but use their relationship with Iran as a bargaining chip to obtain concessions from Western governments on more important national goals such as Taiwan and other issues.”
As China’s military cooperation with Saudi Arabia moves forward, some other US allies in the Middle East also appear to be closer to China.
Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates announced the suspension of a US$23 billion arms purchase program with the United States. The transaction includes advanced weapons and equipment such as F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters and Reaper drones. The Wall Street Journal quoted officials familiar with the matter as saying that the deal was stranded because the U.S. believed that the United States had attached too many conditions to the arms purchase, including a ban on the use of China’s Huawei’s 5G equipment.
The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that US intelligence agencies discovered this spring that China was secretly constructing suspected military installations at a port near the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. After several rounds of meetings and visits by US officials, the construction of the above-mentioned project was stopped.
The United States also warned Israel that close cooperation with China in the fields of high technology and infrastructure will bring security risks to the common national interests of the United States and Israel.
A commentary published by CNN on Monday stated that as the United States shifts its foreign policy focus to the Indo-Pacific region, China is establishing broader cooperation with Middle Eastern countries through the “Belt and Road” initiative. The battlefield of economic competition.
In March this year, Chinese State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi visited six Middle East countries. Wang Yi visited six countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. During that visit, China and Iran signed an extensive economic and security cooperation agreement, and jointly issued the “China-Arab Data Security Cooperation Agreement” with the League of Arab States, saying that it will promote cooperation between the two sides in global digital governance.
Some observers believe that although China is eager to strengthen relations with the Middle East and make progress, the United States has been deeply involved in the Middle East for decades and still has a huge influence, and this does not mean that Middle Eastern countries choose sides between the United States and China.
He Tianmu said: “In general, it seems that Middle Eastern countries want to take advantage of any benefits that China may offer to maintain friendly relations with China, but this does not mean that these countries are close to China and far away from the United States. More likely, These countries do not think there is any contradiction between reaping benefits from China and at the same time continuing to regard the United States as the highest priority strategic partner.”
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Zhang Yiwei believes that the Middle East is for China to hedge against Western criticism and pressure on China on human rights and other issues, but it is not China’s main foreign policy and national interest concerns, except for energy. She said that from a strategic point of view, as the United States moves eastward, China also pays more attention to competition with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.
She said: “For China, the Middle East as a whole is not of high strategic importance, especially when Beijing faces challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, including the US strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region, Taiwan Strait issues, and South China Sea issues. Although Beijing has demonstrated its contribution to easing regional conflicts and tensions by participating in multilateral dialogues on regional issues, Beijing has always remained cautious to avoid being involved in endless conflicts in the Middle East.”
But analysts say that as the relationship between China and Middle Eastern countries deepens, how to maintain a balance between countries will become a problem.
Gao Jingwen said that China’s ballistic missile cooperation with Saudi Arabia highlights China’s “catch all” Middle East strategy and foreign policy, trying to maintain good relations or cooperation with all parties. But he said: “China is currently able to maintain a balance among its partners in the Middle East, but how long can it be maintained?”