The rapidly strengthening ties between China and Qatar are evidence of China’s desire to be a major player in the Middle East.
It is also a sign that China is willing to be, and is being embraced as, an alternative to traditional influences, such as the US, in the region.
The latest step forward in China-Qatari relations came in the form of the opening of Dragon Mart, a Chinese superstore selling Chinese-made products, in the Qatari capital, Doha in late-February. (Source)
Dragon Mart’s launch came shortly after it was revealed that bilateral trade between the two nations totalled US$8.45 billion in 2012, a 45 per cent increase on the year before. (Source)
In contrast, Chinese trade with Saudi Arabia increased by 14 per cent in 2012. (Source). Trade between China and the United Arab Emirates increased by 10 per cent, while trade with Iran in 2012 decreased by 8 per cent.
Of the $8.45 billion of trade between China and Qatar, exports from Qatar totalled $7.2 billion, with exports from China totalling just over $1.2 billion.
China and Qatar’s booming bilateral trade in 2012 coincided with visits of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Qatar and Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani’s to China in the same year.
Such high level visits are indicative that there is a mutual desire for strong political and economic relations between China and Qatar, which includes increased Chinese involvement in the wealthy Middle Eastern nation.
Besides geopolitical influence, China’s growing interest in Qatar predominantly lies in its continuing demand for resources to help fuel its growing economy.
While the Middle East is renowned for being the world’s epicentre of petroleum production, Qatar is also currently the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, commonly known by its abbreviation, LNG.
This has led to China becoming a major and stable customer for Qatar with regards to its LNG, with the resource accounting for most of the aforementioned $7.2 billion of Qatari exports to China.
Although strong relations with Qatar benefits China by helping it address its significant energy security concerns, relations with the emirate also increases its geopolitical influence in Qatar and the immediate region.
China’s increasing influence in Qatar makes it a counterweight to other nations with high regional involvement, especially the US.
The US views Qatar as a friendly and, more importantly, stable nation and a geostrategically significant and volatile part of the world.
This has made Qatar highly vital for the US in establishing its influence in the region, as seen by its presence in two military bases in the country – al-Udeid Air Base and As Saliyah Army Base. Both of these bases are used by the US in its operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
While increased Chinese-Qatari relations make China a major player in the nation, it is not in China’s interest for this to happen at the expense of US influence in Qatar.
In other words, China does not seek to have US influence in Qatar totally diminish – it currently wishes to be a player alongside the US.
The current US military presence in Qatar benefits China’s economic interests in the region, especially given that its own military is very much in the developing stages.
Like China, the US also has its own oil and gas interests in the Middle East and has a mutual interest in keeping Persian Gulf and the shipping lanes around it secure.
As a result of this, China can focus on further establishing its clout in Qatar whilst having peace of mind with regard to the security of its regional energy interests.
For Qatar, establishing solid relations with China, and continuing to have solid relations with the US is imperative to its present and future interests.
Qatar benefits strongly from the financial and security benefits the US brings with its military presence. This will be increasingly important in the future as Qatar hosts future global events such as the 2016 UCI Road World Championships and the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The emirate also benefits from being a reliable and favourable trading partner in China in two ways. Firstly, it has an economically powerful nation as a long-term customer of its resources.
Secondly, China has allowed greater access to Qatar in investing in China as part of its strengthening bilateral relations. This is important for Qatar as it pursues its desire to diversify its predominantly one-dimensional economy.
About the author: Bruno de Paiva
Bruno de Paiva is an analyst focusing on Geopolitics in Asia and Indian Ocean regions and North Korean issues.