Russia's intervention in Kazakhstan contains a cautionary message for Gulf foreign ministers visiting Beijing this week.
The intervention to stabilize the government of Kazakh President Kassym-Johart Tokayev, following mass protests, cemented Russia's primacy when it comes to security in Central Asia, a swathe of land that is as much Russia's backyard as it is China's.
At least 164 people were killed in the protest, thousands wounded, and some 10,000 arrested. Mr. Tokayev described the protests as a foreign-instigated coup attempt involving terrorists.
The intervention reaffirmed a long-standing understanding that Russia, at least for the short-term, shoulders responsibility for security while China focuses on economic development in the region.
“China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions,” noted Central Asia scholar Raffaello Pantucci. Like in Kazakhstan, “in the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.”
The question ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council ought to ask themselves is why China would wish to adopt a different approach toward security in the Middle East if it is reluctant to play an upfront role in its own backyard.
The Gulf ministers may point out that their region is key to China’s energy supply and increasingly important for its geopolitical influence. But that does not explain why China played second security fiddle to Russia in Central Asia, a region of equal strategic importance.
China's problem and the Gulf's bet have to be that there is no alternative to the United States, the Middle East’s current, increasingly unreliable security guarantor, which leaves both with few good choices.
With Russia having neither the apparent will nor the wherewithal to commit to a role in the Middle East similar to that it plays in Central Asia, China may have little choice but to step up to the plate ultimately.
As the United States, NATO, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this week discuss with Russia the crisis over Ukraine, the Gulf states will likely closely monitor US and European responses to a possible Russian invasion of the East European state or efforts to destabilise it further.
The Gulf states are likely to find little reassurance in what already is evident with the massing of some 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's border.
The US and European response will be limited to economic sanctions against Russia and military support for Ukraine but will stop short of direct military confrontation to reverse any Russian action.
Gulf states may be betting on a possible silver lining. China has much at stake in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. It has invested billions of dollars in the region central to its Belt and Road initiative that is designed to tie Eurasia to China through infrastructure, telecommunications, information technology, and energy.
Moreover, Central Asia borders on China's strategic but troubled province of Xinjiang, with which it has close ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious ties.
In a rare move, China reportedly offered to send law enforcement and special forces to Kazakhstan, although only after Mr. Tokayev’s Russian-backed crackdown had already brought the situation under control.
The Gulf states are likely to hope that a greater, albeit gradual and discreet Chinese engagement in Central Asia, where it already before the Kazakh crisis had begun to expand its security presence, will persuade China to be more assertive in protecting its investments, assets, and interests further afield, including in the Middle East.
China established its first foreign military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa several years ago, just opposite the Gulf.
Yet, greater Chinese assertiveness is hardly a panacea. It won't happen overnight and, therefore, will not help the Gulf deal with immediate threats, including a rise in regional tension should the Vienna talks between Iran and world powers fail to revive a 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme.
Initial greater Chinese engagement is likely to focus on internal security in Central Asia by further assisting in creating surveillance states in a swathe of land prone to popular revolts.
That focus may be welcomed in the Gulf. Yet, with surveillance already a fact of life, that may not be what the Gulf most wants from China.
Like the United States, China could also attempt to improve the Gulf states’ ability to defend themselves through enhanced arms sales, joint exercises, and training.
Meanwhile, China has already exploited the US reluctance to sell certain weapons systems or to do so only under strict conditions. For example, China has in recent years opened its first overseas weapons facility for the production of drones in Saudi Arabia and is enabling the kingdom to manufacture ballistic missiles. In doing so, China risks fueling a Middle Eastern arms race.
Undoubtedly, Chinese engagement will come with strings. Unlike the United States, the Chinese won't make pesty demands related to human and other rights but will want to ensure that Gulf states do not divert from the broad lines of Chinese policy.
As a result, the best the Gulf can hope for is that greater Chinese assertiveness will create an environment in which they have margins of manoeuvrability to play one against the other. It’s a modus vivendi, but not an ideal one.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.