Saudi-Iran Détente: Implications For Chinese Energy Security – OpEd


The Saudi-Iran Détente surprised the western intelligentsia, as they never expected the reconciliation between the dichotomous Arab-Persian regional powers. Recently, both countries announced that they would mend their diplomatic ties under the auspices of the People’s Republic of China. Although it will definitely impact the geopolitics of the Middle Eastern (ME) Region (such as the Yemen Ceasefire), the most indispensable area will be the geo-economics in the form of China’s energy security. Therefore, this study hypothesizes that China will certainly diversify its oil supply chain following the easing of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran as it seeks to attain energy security.

During the Cold War, China was hugely dependent on Russia and Eastern European countries for its oil needs. The Sino-Soviet Split in the 1960s compelled China towards oil self-sufficiency through oil exploration on its own soil. After Deng Xiaoping’s policies of “Opening Up”, the demand for energy increased as the process of modernization increased, China converted from an oil-exporting country to a net-oil-importing country in the mid-1990s. Afterwards, energy security became one of the prime objectives of Chinese foreign policy. In the following years, to attain energy security through diversification, President Hu Jintao introduced the “Going Out” policy and encouraged the National Oil Companies (NOCs) to invest in overseas oil assets. Similarly, his successor, Xi Jinping, has continued the oil diplomacy through the “1+2+3 Formula” the Maritime Silk Route (MSR), and One Belt, One Road (OBOR). Xi has also opted for a policy of diversification of the oil sources by importing more oil from Russia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

In China’s energy demand, it mainly imports Oil, LNG, and Coal. The insecurity related to LNG and Coal is not critical for China as compared to oil due to abundant resources (Coal) and long-term contracts (LNG) with foreign companies. Oil remains the most insecure energy source for China due to the lack of alternatives, supply disruptions, or transportation disruptions along the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). China mainly imports the oil through private vessels or Very large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), as its domestic “Tanker Working Group” is negligible or facing sanctions. Recently, China has been applying the 4As (Availability, Applicability, acceptance, and Affordability) framework to secure energy security. In addition, China wants to overcome the insecurity of chokepoints, primarily the “Malacca Dilemma,” in case of minor skirmishes such as the Taiwan issue or Piracy attacks.  Therefore, the construction of oil Pipelines such as Sino-Myanmar Pipelines, China-Russia East Route Pipelines, Kazakhstan-China Oil Pipelines, and China-Central Asia Pipelines has been completed.

The Emerging Geopolitics in the ME region can be analyzed by Robert Gilpin’s Neorealism or “Hegemonic Stability Theory,” which tries to emphasize the power of the economy of Challenging Power over the Security and Survival of Declining Power. Due to regional instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region following the Arab Spring, China pursued the concepts of Bilateralism and Multilateralism through cooperation, respect for sovereignty, and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of the oil-exporting countries. It develops its influence over the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) through its Soft Power because it sees regional instability as perilous to its energy security.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia pursue the policy of negotiation, as both countries are “Strategic Partners” of the PRC and both have strategic interests in implementing the policy of Peace. On the one hand, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has some security concerns after the 2019 drone attacks by Iran on Oil fields. The lack of retaliation by the USA has led Riyadh to choose Beijing as its security guarantor against Iran’s emerging nuclear program. In return, China pledged to pursue the 2030 Vision of KSA. On the Other hand, Iran wants to overcome its isolation following the failure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and international sanctions. By overcoming the security dilemmas of both states, China will definitely pursue peace and energy security in the ME region.

In conclusion, we can say that as long as the strategic interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia are preserved, China will seek to maximize its energy security through diversification, cooperation, and investment in the energy, industry, transportation, and security areas. Similarly, China will try to challenge the US hegemony in the ME region by portraying itself as a more reliable partner to regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia as compared to the global hegemon.

Shah Hassan Abbas

Shah Hassan Abbas is an Undergraduate student of International Relations at the National Defense University in Islamabad. He is interested in China Studies and International Political Economy.

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