Jonathan Fulton, China’s Relations with the Gulf Monarchies (London: Routledge, 2018).


Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jonathan Fulton (JF): I wrote this book because there was a big hole in the literature. There had not been any book-length treatments of China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations that were asking the same types of questions I was since Mohamed bin Huwaidin’s book, which was published in 2002. So much had changed in the relationships since then, and in the GCC’s international politics, and China’s larger international role—it seemed like a great topic for a book that examined all of this through an international relations (IR) lens. There is a lot of country-specific history and politics that had to be addressed, and a lot of IR theory as well.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JF: This book required a lot of cross-disciplinary reading. Generally, it is a book about China-GCC relations, and specifically, it has three case studies focusing on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. There is a lot of country-specific history and politics that had to be addressed, and a lot of IR theory as well. In order to understand the foreign-policy orientations and decisions for each of the countries, I analyzed the domestic political and economic pressures they are facing, the tools leaders have to address them, and the international pressures as well. Making sense of China’s presence in the Gulf at the theoretical level means looking at a lot of variables at this domestic-international nexus.  

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JF: This is my first book, so I see it more as a foundation for future topics I want to work on. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JF: I hope this reaches a broad audience because I think the topic has important implications for a lot of people, organizations, and states. In the academic community, I think political science/IR scholars looking at China and the Middle East will find it useful. Within the policy community specifically, I have already gotten a lot of positive responses. This past summer, two events contributed to the book’s relevance—a China-Arab States Cooperation Forum meeting, which signaled a deeper level of Chinese engagement in the Middle East, and then a state visit to the United Arab Emirates from China’s President Xi. This underscored my book’s point that China has rather quietly become an important actor in the Gulf, and people from different ministries and embassies have been reaching out to ask about the book and to learn more about what China’s doing in the Gulf. The business community would benefit from the book as well; Chinese firms are becoming much more active in the Gulf, and I think this book can provide some useful perspective to help understand why and how this has been happening. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JF: My current projects follow this book in a sense. On one track, I am working on the Belt and Road Initiative. This is China’s signature foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, and it is really the most significant foreign policy initiative the People’s Republic of China has ever undertaken. The goal is to increase connectivity across Eurasia and the Indian Ocean through infrastructure investment, which is largely being carried out by Chinese state-owned enterprises. This is expanding China’s influence tremendously and will have a lot of important political implications. I am putting an edited book together that looks at different regions in the Belt and Road, groups of states that could be classified as regional security complexes, and what the implications of Chinese involvement in these challenging environments might have on its foreign policy. I am also starting a research project on the Belt and Road in the Middle East specifically. On the other track, I am starting a project that looks at changing dynamics of the regional order in the Gulf. Other external powers are becoming more active in the region, and I think this will have interesting consequences at the regional and international levels. 

J: Why are China-Gulf relations significant?

JF: Beyond the significance of the relationships for the states in question, it also forces us to consider several larger issues: how do China’s relations with the United States feature, and does this represent a Chinese challenge to the US-led order? Does China’s growing role in the Gulf signal the emergence of a more competitive, multipolar regional order? How will other powers, like India, respond? The Gulf is a very interesting laboratory for testing IR theories, and China’s increasing influence is going to have some very interesting consequences. 


Excerpt from the Book:

This book analyzes and explains the growth in China’s relations with the Gulf monarchies, a group of six states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It is a relationship that has seen significant growth in recent years and has developed from a set of largely commercial relationships to multifaceted ones, involving a wide range of mutual interests, and can be characterized as dense interdependence. Writing in 2008, Alterman and Garver described China’s role in the Middle East as “simple” and “shallow”, describing its regional policy as being guided by its need for energy, “with other commercial, military and diplomatic interests playing a subsidiary role.” Since then, how- ever, these subsidiary interests have become significant features in the Sino- GCC relationship. There are over 4000 Chinese companies operating in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone, servicing construction and infrastructure projects across the Arabian Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese expatriates live and work in GCC states. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been using GCC ports for rest and replenishment in its ongoing naval escort to protect Chinese shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Diplomatic interactions between China and each GCC state are frequent and at a high level; every Chinese head of state has visited at least one GCC member since 1989, and every GCC member except Oman has sent a head of state to China on a state visit. Soft power tools also come into play, with religious, educational, and cultural exchanges featuring heavily. And trade, of course, is sub- stantial. In 2000, Sino-GCC trade was valued at $9.9 billion. By 2016 it had reached $114 billion. One optimistic projection forecasts it to reach $350 billion by 2023. Collectively, the GCC is China’s eighth largest export destination and its eighth largest source of imports. Importantly, the states that rank higher than the GCC are all, except Germany, Pacific countries, indicating a set of relationships with important geostrategic implications that have not yet been adequately analyzed.

The significance of Sino-GCC relations has deepened with the announce- ment of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In September 2013, Chinese Pre- sident Xi Jinping gave a speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, when he announced a cooperative initiative in which China and Central Asia would build what he called the Silk Road Economic Belt. The next month, speaking at the Indonesian Parliament, he proposed deeper China-ASEAN ties and a multilateral construction of a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In November 2013, during the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he formally announced the BRI to connect China to states as far away as East Africa and the Mediterranean through a series of infrastructure construction projects. In the period since, Chinese political, business, and military leaders have been working toward what has been described as “the largest programme of eco- nomic diplomacy since the U.S.-led Marshall Plan.” The actual shape of the BRI was articulated by Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli at an Asia-Europe Meeting in Chongqing in 2015, when he announced six economic corridors connecting Eurasia through cooperative infrastructure projects:

  •  China-Mongolia-Russia
  •  New Eurasian Land Bridge
  •  China-Central and West Asia
  •  China-Indochina Peninsula
  •  China-Pakistan
  •  China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India


Each of these economic corridors serves a different geopolitical objective for China, and taken together indicate an ambitious plan to increase China’s pre- sence throughout Eurasia, potentially connecting China to over 4 billion people in over 60 emerging market countries, representing 65% of global land trade and 30% of global maritime trade. Wu Jianmin, former president of China’s Foreign Affairs University and a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Foreign Policy Advisory Committee, has described it as “the most significant and far-reaching initiative that China has ever put forward.” It is President Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative, and its centrality to China’s international ambition was emphasized when the CCP’s constitution was amended during its 19th National Congress in October 2017 with the pledge to “pursue the Belt and Road initiative.” By enshrining it in the constitution, the CCP has linked its long-term foreign policy agenda to the success of the BRI.

The states of the GCC are a crucial hub in the BRI. Their geostrategic location links China to Middle Eastern, African, and European markets, and their vast hydrocarbon reserves are an important factor in driving the devel- opment projects that comprise the Belt and Road. Sino-GCC cooperation can therefore be expected to expand as China’s footprint expands across the Indian Ocean. At the same time, BRI cooperation builds upon bilateral relationships that China and the Gulf monarchies have been developing over decades. From the Gulf side, each of the GCC states have undertaken ambitious national development plans that require substantial international investment in order to fund the infrastructure projects that are intended to ease the transition to post- hydrocarbon economies. Leaders in the GCC and in China have all emphasized the complementarity of these national development programs and the BRI, offering opportunities for further coordination.

The outlook is not completely rosy, however. One serious concern for China is the rupture between the GCC (specifically Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, as well as Egypt, a grouping that refers to itself as the Anti-Terror Quartet) and Qatar. Qatar’s relationship with its neighbors has long been difficult; as recently as 2014 Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha in a dispute over Qatar’s support for Islamist groups throughout the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. The events of the summer of 2017, however, are unprecedented. One important difference is that during the 2014 dispute, Washington was pushing for reconciliation; as Gause notes, “U.S. interests in the region are better served when these states sing from the same hymnal – the American hymnal.” In the 2017 dispute, Washington’s response has been unclear, with President Trump expressing support for the Saudi side while the State Department and Department of Defense calling for mediation, emphasizing the strategic importance of America’s relationship with Qatar. This lack of focused U.S. leadership has contributed to an environment where the Anti-Terror Quartet has pursued a more aggressive approach in its attempts to bring Qatar in line. The con- tinued viability of the GCC as an international organization is uncertain at the time of writing. There has been talk of a permanent expulsion of Qatar from the GCC, with the organization going ahead with the other five mem- bers. Until the last moment it was uncertain whether its annual summit would be held in Kuwait in December 2017. When representatives from the GCC did convene, only Qatar and Kuwait had heads of state present, indi- cating a reduced view of the efficacy of the organization that was underscored when Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced the formation of a new eco- nomic and military partnership hours before the summit began. The second day of the summit was cancelled, and the future of the GCC as a viable organization seems less certain that at any time since its inception in 1981.

For China, this would represent a serious complication for its regional policy. It maintains robust bilateral relations with each of the GCC member states but has also coordinated policy with them as a group through the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue, a multilateral mechanism in place since 2010. At the 2014 round, the two sides announced plans to elevate the China-GCC relationship to a strategic partnership, which is the second-highest level in China’s hierarchy of diplomatic relations, in which China and the partner states coordinate policy on regional and international affairs of mutual interest. There has also been a China-GCC free trade agreement (FTA) under negotiation since 2004. While talks stalled in 2006, the creation of the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue revived momentum. At the 2014 Strategic Dialogue, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated that the FTA is an important element of a broader relationship, describing it as “a driving force to boost pragmatic cooperation in all fields.” When President Xi paid a state visit to Riyadh in January 2016, he emphasized China’s commitment to a quick completion of negotiations, with the expectation that they would be concluded by the end of 2016. They were not, and with the future of the GCC unclear, it is unlikely that the FTA talks will resume until addressing the bigger question of how to manage a multilateral relationship with an organization that must first address internal tensions.

Another point of concern comes from the GCC’s side. Chinese leaders describe the BRI as an inclusive, cooperative development initiative, open to all, and devoid of strategic calculations. As such, the PRC is intensifying its relations with states with interests that diverge from those of the GCC, or at least from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, its two most powerful members. Iran and Turkey are both major partners in the BRI, and both have posed threats to the Gulf status quo. Deepening Chinese ties to Iran are especially a cause of concern for GCC leaders, who perceive Iranian strategic gains as a threat to their own position in the Middle East regional order. Despite the PRC’s insistence that the BRI does not have a political agenda, there are strategic concerns for states along the Belt and Road. While leaders in the GCC have voiced support for the BRI and interest in participation, they certainly have reservations about how it benefits Tehran economically, diplomatically, and strategically.

This book therefore begins with a question: what motivates China’s lea- dership to pursue these denser relationships with the Gulf monarchies? Is the motivation strategic, a response to international political considerations? Is it economic, and based on domestic political considerations? Or is it a combi- nation of the two? The motivations of GCC leaders in developing closer ties to China must also be addressed. Are they hedging their bets, concerned about the USA’s apparent frustrations with its involvement in the Middle East? Or do they see their futures as being linked with a rising Asia, and with China as a global power?