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The New Silk Road

5 March 2012 By Una Galani

Russia has been roundly criticised in the Gulf for vetoing last month’s United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. China, which also vetoed the resolution, has come in for much less flak. This may be partly because the Gulf Arab countries see Moscow rather than Beijing as Bashar al-Assad’s main supporter. But it is also because the Gulf and China have $90 billion a year in bilateral trade. It’s in the interests of neither that this is disrupted.

China and Gulf Arab countries value keeping politics out of business. The Syrian conflict, though, is testing that position. The Gulf nations want to see the end of the Assad regime: partly because of the killing of thousands of fellow Sunnis; and partly because their main enemy is Shi’ite Iran and the Assad regime is its top ally. Beijing, by contrast, strongly values the principle that countries should not intervene in the internal running of other states. It doesn’t want foreigners meddling in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Middle Kingdom depends on the Middle East to meet its huge energy needs. The six-nation Gulf bloc supplied 34 percent of China’s total crude imports in 2011, according to Chinese customs data. That’s roughly three times the amount it imported from Iran.

But the Gulf can’t just cut off Beijing. Not only is China an important customer. It is, in turn, a supplier. For example, China is helping Saudi Arabia to increase the kingdom’s oil refining capacity and build giant railways connecting its holy cities. The pair also recently signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement that supports Saudi’s ambitious domestic energy targets.

Beijing has softened its position somewhat on Syria in the past week. Not only did it express “deep disappointment” at Syria’s failure to allow the U.N. humanitarian aid chief to visit the country. It condemned “violence against innocent civilians” while reiterating its opposition to “armed interference or pushing for regime change”.

Beijing will probably hope it can hold this line and still keep good commercial links with the Gulf. But if the Syrian conflict escalates, it may need to modify its position further – perhaps even abstaining from rather than vetoing future resolutions criticising Assad.

 

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