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Endorsing the UAE, appeasing Iran: China’s stance in the Gulf islands dispute

June 10, 2024 at 8:56 am

Chinese President Xi Jinping and United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan shake hands following a signing ceremony at The Great Hall of People on May 30, 2024 in Beijing, China. [Photo by Tingshu Wang – Pool/Getty Images]

Last week, China took the controversial decision to reaffirm its support for the UAE regarding the sovereignty of three strategically important islands — Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb — which have been under Iranian control since 1971. In a 47-point joint statement made during UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed’s visit to Beijing, China said it supported Abu Dhabi’s efforts to resolve the issue of the disputed islands peacefully through “bilateral negotiations under the norms of international law.”

As a particularly sensitive issue for Iran, the move by Beijing prompted the Islamic Republic to summon the Chinese ambassador in Tehran for clarification and protest against the “baseless claims.” This happened before over a similar incident when, in 2022, the Chinese ambassador was summoned and the Iranian foreign ministry expressed “strong dissatisfaction” following a joint statement by China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. This included a demand for a resolution to the long-standing islands dispute.

Russia’s envoy to Iran was also summoned last year after Russia and the GCC issued a joint statement which affirmed their support for “all peaceful efforts, including the initiative of the UAE and its endeavours, to reach a peaceful solution to the issue of the three islands.”

China’s stance on the disputed islands is a delicate one, reflective of its broader strategy in the Middle East, where it is increasingly exercising its diplomatic clout and growing status as a reliable mediator in regional conflicts. In this context, China’s endorsement of the UAE’s efforts is arguably an attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the islands’ status through bilateral negotiations and international law.

Iran, however perceives this as a betrayal given its strategic partnership with China.

It considers the islands as an “inseparable” part of Iranian territory. The UAE, though, deems the islands to be “occupied” territory.

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Despite the current diplomatic spat, China’s relationship with Iran remains robust, especially in the realms of energy and strategic cooperation, including the 25-year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement implemented in 2022. China is a major buyer of Iranian oil, importing almost all of Iran’s crude exports. This energy dependency forms a cornerstone of their bilateral relationship. Moreover, both countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS group, which further strengthens their economic and strategic ties.

Iran’s full-time membership of the SCO and its membership of BRICS alongside the UAE highlight their strategic importance to Beijing’s regional strategy. These memberships facilitate deeper economic integration and political cooperation, creating platforms for collaborative initiatives that can bypass Western economic sanctions and simultaneously promote multipolarity.

Following Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s death last month, China expressed deep condolences and reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining its ties with Tehran. Under “hardliner” Raisi, Iran had fostered closer ties with China through initiatives such as the “Look to the East” policy, which prioritised economic and diplomatic engagement with China over the West. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his official statement about Raisi, remarked that the Chinese people had “lost a good friend” and highlighted his contributions to strengthening Sino-Iranian relations.

China’s Foreign Ministry also reiterated that the strategic partnership between China and Iran would remain steadfast, continuing to evolve in alignment with the shared interests and mutual respect that both nations uphold.

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Beijing’s endorsement of the UAE’s position must also be viewed in the context of its strategy in the region. The UAE is a critical partner for China, providing substantial investments and being a significant buyer of Chinese goods, as is Saudi Arabia. In fact, both are also key oil suppliers to China, which is crucial for the latter’s energy security; the energy trade is at the core of the China-Gulf relationship.

Thus, China’s support for the UAE’s claim to the islands can be seen as an attempt to strengthen its ties with GCC states, at a time when relations with the West, in particular the US, are far from optimal. This strategy also helps China diversify its partnerships and mitigate the risks associated with over-reliance on any single country, such as sanctions-hit Iran.

An additional layer of complexity in China’s Gulf policy is the contentious issue of the name of the region itself.

The body of water is referred to as the “Persian Gulf” by Iran and as the “Arabian Gulf” by Arab states. Although the term “Persian Gulf” is more accurate and accepted historically, China’s official stance on this naming dispute is less clear, but it typically aligns its terminology with the audience it addresses, reflecting its pragmatic approach to regional diplomacy.

Placing energy supply and economic ambitions at the forefront, the recent move can be seen as intended to fortify relationships with key GCC states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are crucial to China’s energy supply and economic ambitions, despite causing friction with Iran.

While Beijing’s ties with Tehran are strong — cemented through significant energy trade and collaborative initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — its interests among Arab states in the Persian Gulf are equally vital. Purely pragmatic China’s strategy then, involves engaging with multiple players to ensure that its geopolitical and economic interests are safeguarded amidst regional conflicts.

China’s approach to the Persian Gulf is thus emblematic of its global strategy; it seeks to balance relations with multiple states, often with competing interests, to secure its long-term goals. This balancing act is fraught with challenges, but it reflects China’s ambition to be a stabilising force and a major mediator on the world stage.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.