Growing ties between China and Gulf states will change the geopolitics of the region, boosting Pakistan’s significance as the state that connects Beijing to the oil-rich countries. Key to this is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is to be completed in three phases. Barring spoilers, CPEC aims to develop manufacturing and processing industries along its route by 2025, with further expansion aimed for completion by 2030. This will proceed in parallel to China’s bid to replace—or moderate—the influence of the U.S. in the Gulf.
Last month, President Xi Jinping attended the first China-GCC summit with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. to discuss trade and investment. This is being seen as the launch of a Chinese counter to America’s challenges to Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. CPEC, in this scenario, could prove a transformational boon for the areas it passes through in Pakistan—210km D.I. Khan-Zhob section; 449km Khuzdar-Quetta-Chaman section; 85km Surab-Hoshab section; and 193km Gwadar-Turbat-Hoshab section.
Xi Jinping’s overtures to the GCC followed years of steady consolidation of ties. Between 1980 and 2019, Gulf exports to China grew 17.1 percent annually; in 2021, 40 percent of Beijing’s crude-oil imports came from the region—17 percent from Saudi Arabia alone—more than any other entity. China has likewise benefited from increasing demand for its manufactured products, with exports to the Gulf growing at 11.7 percent annually over the past decade. It overtook the U.S. in 2008, and the E.U. in 2020, as the Gulf’s most important source of imports.
The GCC’s turn to China comes amidst a cooling of its ties with the U.S. Gulf states notably refused to support the West in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while also breaking from it culturally, as seen most clearly when Qatar actively banned rainbow flags supporting sexual diversity at last year’s FIFA World Cup. But the U.S.’s deep entrenchment in the region means this process will not proceed rapidly—Washington has military bases in all GCC states—a fact that is likely encouraging them to diversify their source of security. And that’s where the Belt and Road Initiative, and CPEC, stand to gain.