According to the report by CNN based on the US intelligence agencies’ report and satellite images, Saudi Arabia is developing its solid-fuel missile program with the help of China in the al-Dawadami region. The traces of casting of missile engines and the solid fuel remains can be seen in the satellite images. China-Saudi cooperation in developing the ballistic missile program which can have enormous impacts on the balance of power in the Middle East is questionable. China, as claimed, while developing ties with all Middle East countries has not entered into the regional geopolitical conflicts and rivalries and not taken sides with any regional actor. China says it has adopted the policy of “impartial interaction” and “friend of all, enemy to none”, with and economic approach , and for this reason, it has established comprehensive ties with all regional countries from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to Israel.
But helping a regional country to advance its ballistic missile program is not a step of the economic cooperation type, but a strategic step with specific geopolitical consequences. This has not only helped Saudi Arabia in creating balance against Iran which has so far had the upper hand in terms of missile capabilities and has questioned Iran’s deterrence in this area, but has seriously challenged the traditional notion that Iran, in the Middle East region, is the sole country out of the US orbit, and therefore the sole reliable and potential strategic partner of China. But how and within what framework of reason and logic this behavior of China and missile cooperation with Saudi can be interpreted?
The first case of cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia in the missile area goes back to 1985, five years before the formation of diplomatic relations between the two countries, during which Saudis purchased CSS-2 midrange ballistic missiles named Dongfeng ( East Storm) and related launchers. The orchestrator of this action was General Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz who received the title of Saudi Arabia’s Father of Missile program. The transaction was not revealed until 1988. In 2007, too, Riyadh purchased DF-21 Dongfeng missiles from China. The point to be made is that both batches of these missiles had the capability of carrying nuclear warheads and brought up the speculation that Riyadh had in mind to equip these missiles with nuclear warheads. In 2019, the US intelligence agencies provided a report of China/Saudi cooperation for creating the Saudi missile program, which the Trump administration showed no reaction to. The reports published in that year indicated the existence of missile production factories in the al-Watah region in Southeast of Riyadh.
China-Saudi cooperation is not limited to the missile sector. Both countries have cooperated in the military UAV and nuclear areas. The Saudis have since long ago considered using nuclear energy and China’s ambitions for becoming a big nuclear energy actor of the Middle East have facilitated their cooperation. The Chinese, since 2017, have helped in discovering Uranium and Thorium resources and developing light-water reactors in Saudi Arabia. Also, there has been talk of construction of two nuclear reactors in the country. The US intelligence agencies’ reports indicate that there is a suspicious construct near Riyadh that could be one of the set of undeclared nuclear sites in Saudi Arabia. Another facility is the factory for producing yellow-cake in the far away region of al-Alla in Northwest of Saudi Arabia. These reports have raised the possibility of clandestine activities by Saudi Arabia and China for producing un-enriched uranium to be used later as fuel for the enriched nuclear weapons. This is while Bin Salman has stated if Iran becomes a nuclear power, this country will immediately take actions to follow suit.
In making offensive UAVs, Saudi Arabia has relied on China. In the 2017 King Salman trip to China, the two sides signed a protocol for establishing a drone factory for producing CH-4 UAVs and Saudis bought a number of these drones along with the Wing-long 1 and Wing-long 2 models from China.
The military ties between Saudi Arabia and China are some sort of strategic and security partnership. While the US-Saudi alliance has not been based on shared political values and has been merely interests-centered, in the China-Saudi relations, the gap of political values are not important and even the Chinese model of totalitarianism could be interesting to the Saudis. On the other side, to the two countries’ officials, the two plans of the Saudi Vision 2030 and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative have enormous synergy and convergence.
In response to reports about missile cooperation, the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman has said that the two countries are strategic Omni –lateral partners and enjoy friendly cooperation in all areas including military trade. China considers Saudi Arabia one of its major partners in the Middle East and sine 2005 to present has invested about $45 billion in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has become the main source of China’s crude oil. These signs tell us that the two countries’ partnership could be called a strategic partnership in the real sense of the word.
Reasons for China’s Strategic Partnership with Saudi Arabia
- Given the downsize in the US presence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf and adoption of the Offshore Balancing Policy by the Biden administration, China has practically declared readiness to fill the US void with the traditional US allies. While the US allies of the region have been of the belief that China could not provide security and replace the US in this area, China is trying to prove it will spare no effort for cooperation with them in the security area and could be a reliable partner even in providing security. The significance of China’s missile cooperation with the Saudis will be clearer when the US has never been willing to help Saudis in this area.
- In the global rivalry between China and the US and the perspective of their conflicts which go beyond the Asia-Pacific, one of China’s major strategies is separating the US from its allies. Preventing the US from alignments against China by developing ties with the US allies is another Chinese strategy which is pursued through economic interests and strategic partnerships.
- In the Middle East, China can by strengthening its influence in the US-allied countries, especially in the Persian Gulf region, and comprehensive strategic partnership with them, minimize the possibility of cutting the flow of its interests, especially securing energy in the future conflicts with the US and equip itself with the necessary tools of deterrence against the probable US actions.
- The economic benefits of entrance and presence in the arms market are huge for China. At present, the Chinese drones have a major role in the Middle East arms market. Saudi Arabia, as the richest country in the Persian Gulf and with the first rank in the defense budget of the region, is an attractive market for China.
- Also Saudi diplomacy has been important in drawing China’s support
China has so far claimed it has no intention of entering the global and regional geopolitical equations beyond its immediate national security area that is Taiwan and the East and South China Seas. Also, in the Middle East and Persian Gulf conflicts, China has not sided with any actor and has established balanced relations with all regional countries. But what could be interpreted from China’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia in producing and indigenizing ballistic missiles is contrary to this claim. With partnering in developing the Saudi ballistic missile program, an area even the US has great reservations about, China is entering and influencing the regional geopolitical equations and creating grounds for proliferation of unconventional arms in the interest of one of the region’s countries. With helping Saudis in developing their ballistic missile program, China is, consciously or unconsciously, undermining Iran’s upper hand status of missile deterrence, while Saudi Arabia, by access to advanced new generation US aircraft, has a big advantage on its side and Iran’s advantage so far has been its ballistic missiles. Continuation of China-Saudi strategic partnership in the military area, could have profound impacts on the West Asia’s military and security equations as well as on the regional balance of power.
Khalil Shirgholami, Senior Expert of IPIS
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)