China’s brokering of a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, coupled with its role in the development of Gwadar, will change the political map of the region. The Arabian Sea port plays a key factor in China’s growing ties with the Gulf and Middle East, with Pakistan’s geostrategic position serving as Beijing’s gateway to the energy-rich region.
China imports half its oil from the Middle East, with the bulk coming from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Beijing and Riyadh are also close strategic allies, with observers arguing “oil is the backbone” of this relationship, though Saudi Arabia in recent years has also started to rely on China for arms, including weapons it could not acquire elsewhere. China’s inroads to the rest of the Middle East also helps it supplant the traditional role played by the U.S. Despite frosty ties with Beijing, Washington has maintained that it would not prevent any of its regional partners from working with China, though would act to stop it from “accessing U.S. technology via its relations with the Middle East.”
The same policy seems to apply to Pakistan, where the U.S. has repeatedly tried to warn of a “debt trap” in a bid to lure Islamabad away from Beijing’s influence. However, distance hampers America’s bid to counter the broad geo-economic and geostrategic implications of Pak-China ties over the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. Reflecting the importance Islamabad accords to Gwadar, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Asim Munir visited the port city earlier this month, receiving a briefing on security for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects and announcing a series of uplift projects.
China’s quantum of trade with Arab states has been historically hampered by the long route it must travel to reach them. The Gwadar port offers it a land route through Pakistan as well as a sea route with direct access to the oil-rich region. CPEC, thus, serves not only as a reminder of China’s presence in the region but also a compulsion to look at trade relations within it. Much like it did with Iran and Saudi Arabia, China can facilitate a reset of ties between Pakistan and India, enabling the region to shift from relations based on conflict to trade. In addition to brokering the Iran-Saudi deal, Beijing has also reached out to Afghanistan, showing it is not averse to sponsoring conflict-resolution processes. In availing its help, Pakistan has nothing to lose and much to gain.