Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 21

By Thomas Woodrow

Although current Chinese relations with Saudi Arabia are largely linked to Beijing’s quickly growing appetite for imported energy resources, China’s long-term goal may be to replace the United States as the Persian Gulf’s security guarantor.

Beijing is rapidly becoming a major player in world oil markets, and increasingly sees access to energy resources as a critical component of its national security and long-term military strategy. It has assiduously cultivated ties with Riyadh since the mid-1980s, when it sold CSS-2 nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) to Saudi Arabia. Some reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has been involved in funding Pakistan’s missile and nuclear program purchases from China, which has resulted in Pakistan becoming a nuclear weapons-producing and -proliferating state.

China maintains a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia as a key component of its strategy to guarantee access to oil resources in the Persian Gulf. Until 1995, China was a net exporter of oil. In 2001, it imported over 60 million tons. Its need for imported oil to maintain its GNP growth will at least double over the next decade. It will very soon become a major influence in the global oil market, a development that will have immense ramifications on resource competition and international security ties.

China has already adjusted its foreign policy and energy strategy to accommodate its need for a larger share of the world’s oil reserves. It has forged major oil deals with Sudan, Venezuela, Iraq and Kazakhstan. With these deals have come important military and security agreements. For instance, thousands of Chinese oil workers–and Chinese military personnel disguised as oil workers–maintain security at facilities in Sudan. During Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s spring 2001 visit to Venezuela, he was greeted by that oil-producing nation’s leader Hugo Chavez with the declaration that the Chinese Maoist revolution was the source of his own social revolution. The Chinese and Venezuelan militaries have dramatically stepped up ties since Chavez came to power. The Kazakh deals involve the construction of a massive pipeline across China from the huge Kazakh oil fields. China hopes to become a land bridge for future oil deliveries to Japan and South Korea, giving Beijing important leverage in its strategic goal to replace the United States as the major power in the Eastern Asian basin.

China’s relations with Saudi Arabia involve military sales as well as commercial contracts. In the late 1980s, China sold thirty-six CSS-2 IRBMs to Saudi Arabia; Chinese military personnel maintain the CSS-2s at the two bases China built for the Saudis south of Riyadh. The CSS-2, China’s main regional nuclear weapon system, was originally developed to target U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. With a range of some 3,000 kilometers, the CSS-2s in Saudi Arabia can theoretically target almost all of the Middle East and parts of India. Requiring dozens of vehicles and hundreds of personnel to prepare for launch, the CSS-2 is a cumbersome system. Its liquid fuel is highly corrosive and, if inhaled, fatal, which makes fueling operations complicated. Saudi forces would likely depend on Chinese specialists to prepare and launch its CSS-2 force, which would give Beijing a great deal of say over how and under what circumstances these titularly Saudi missiles would be used. The CSS-2 is a nuclear system, but China claims it produced a conventional warhead for those CSS-2s it sold to Saudi Arabia. Assuming that the Saudi CSS-2s do have conventional warheads, and that Beijing has not secretly promised to deliver nuclear warheads in the event of a crisis, these highly inaccurate Saudi CSS-2s are basically junk. The Chinese in essence hoodwinked the Saudis into buying an antique missile system worthless without its nuclear warhead.

Press reports have speculated that China has approached the Saudis with offers to sell modern missile systems. The 600-km range CSS-6 and 1800-km range CSS-5 solid-fueled missiles have been mentioned. The 5500-km range CSS-3 intercontinental ballistic missile would be another likely candidate as it is basically the CSS-2 with an additional stage. Prince Sultan, the Saudi minister of defense, is reported to have arranged the original China missile deal along with his sons Prince Bandar Sultan–the current Saudi ambassador to the United States–and Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the Saudi commander during Desert Storm. Prince Sultan has in fact made a number of high-level visits to China over the past few years and the airfield at his ranch near Riyadh was where the CSS-2 missiles were reportedly secretly delivered in 1988. However, though Beijing would no doubt love to sell another complete missile system to Riyadh–the CSS-2 deal was worth US$3-3.5 billion–the Saudis are probably aware they were snookered. They are likely to be cautious before plunking down such huge sums again.

A more likely candidate as a source for future Saudi missile purchases is Pakistan. According to a number of press reports, including those regarding the 1994 defection of a Saudi diplomat, Saudi Arabia has been funding Pakistan’s nuclear and missile program purchases from China. The money certainly had to have come from somewhere, as Pakistan has been bankrupt for years and the Chinese are not known for their easy payment plans. In May 1999, following the Pakistani nuclear tests, Prince Sultan toured the uranium-enrichment plant and missile production facilities at Kahuta. Sultan may also have been present in Pakistan at a May 2002 test launch of the nuclear-capable Ghauri missile. If these reports are correct, what in essence has happened is that Saudi Arabia has given money to China for Pakistan’s missile and nuclear programs. If so, Saudi Arabia could be buying a nuclear capability from China through a proxy state with Pakistan serving as the cutout. If Riyadh’s influence over Pakistan extends to its nuclear programs, Saudi Arabia could rapidly become a de facto nuclear power through a simple shipment of missiles and warheads.

The recent announcement that Pakistan has since 1997 bartered a deal with North Korea in which Chinese nuclear weapons technology has been exchanged for North Korean missiles adds a new twist to the scenario. North Korea’s secret nuclear weapons program, according to statements from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld evidently centered at underground facilities near Kumchangni, violates a pledge made by Pyongyang in 1994. Chinese technicians working at Pakistan’s nuclear and missile facilities almost certainly had to have known about these transfers; Beijing deliberately kept this information hidden from Washington. These events underscore how America’s historically lackadaisical attitude towards Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation has come back to haunt it.

Although China and Saudi Arabia have a lot in common–they are, after all, both highly conservative police states paranoid about social unrest and succession issues–it remains unlikely that China could replace the United States as the security guarantor of the Persian Gulf in the near term. Speculation that the Sultan branch of the Saudi royal family would shift its allegiance to China if it were to come to power seems illogical in the face of the massive U.S. military and economic presence in the Gulf. The Sultans’ involvement in the missile dealings with Beijing was done not out of a desire to link Saudi Arabia closer to China. They did it for the money, and possibly to gain access to an Islamic bomb. This is not to say that unrest in Riyadh could not lead to a strategic realignment. Stranger things have happened–witness the sudden collapse of the Shah’s pro-U.S. regime next door in Iran–and China may be positioning itself to be able to swoop on an opportunity in case there should be a sudden crisis in the Saudi royal succession. What does seem certain is that China will assiduously attempt to enlarge its toehold of influence in the Persian Gulf as its oil appetite grows and that relations with Saudi Arabia will remain a key component of this strategy.

Thomas Woodrow was a senior China analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.