Beyond the 65 billion dollars of economic deals signed between Riyadh and Beijing, last month’s much heralded visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia to China confirmed the nascent strategic partnership developing between China and Saudi Arabia as Beijing seeks to secure the commercial sea routes along China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). While Turkey currently plays a marginal role in China’s MSR, the advance in Sino-Saudi strategic cooperation presents an opportunity for Ankara to open maritime security cooperation with Beijing in the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden Corridor.
Although the first day of the Saudi monarch’s visit, 16 March 2017, made international headlines with the signing of a 65 billion dollar Sino-Saudi trade and investment package, the 20 plus agreements on oil investment and energy largely follow the traditional transactional pattern of the Sino-Saudi cooperation. In the security realm, the King’s visit was truly noteworthy for consolidating the strategic partnership established between China and Saudi Arabia during President Xi Jinping’s January 2016 visit to Riyadh. Three days prior to King Salman’s arrival in Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry declared, “We stand ready to take King Salman’s visit as an opportunity to take China-Saudi Arabia comprehensive strategic partnership to a higher level.” King Salman reciprocated with his declaration in Beijing that “Saudi Arabia is willing to work hard with China to promote global and regional peace, security, and prosperity.”
The source of China and Saudi Arabia’s increasing alignment of interests is China’s effort to create its self-declared 21st Century MSR – a China-to-Europe maritime commercial transportation corridor consisting of a series of Chinese-built port installations extending westward across the Indian Ocean and then via the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the now Chinese-owned Piraeus seaport, on Greece’s Mediterranean coast. Having heavily invested in Piraeus to transform it into one of the world’s state-of-the container ports, Beijing now owns and operates one of the EU’s major seaports as the MSR’s main outlet point for Chinese goods to enter European markets.
Thus, Tehran’s effort to expand its sphere of influence to the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea corridor through its proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the Horn of Africa represents a disruption to the maritime security domain that China cannot tolerate. Overall, Beijing maintains a careful balance between its relations with Iran and its relations with Saudi Arabia. In January 2016, Xi Jinping visited both Riyadh and Tehran, where he and his Iranian counterpart agreed to a 10-year program to raise Chinese-Iranian bilateral trade to 600 billion dollars. Yet during the Saudi leg of his trip, the Chinese President declared his country’s support for Yemen’s efforts to defeat Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Two weeks after Beijing’s declaration for Yemen’s government, Houthi rebels supplied with Iranian technology attacked a Saudi frigate with an improvised ‘drone’ attack boat, a remote-controlled boat laden with explosives. Iran has continued to escalate its support to Houthi rebels with the provision of more sophisticated weapons technology including the transfer of Iranian aerial drones and quite likely anti-ship missiles. On 10 March, a Yemeni coast guard vessel was destroyed in the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
In April 2016, China began construction of its first overseas bases in Djibouti, which strategically straddles the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Just prior to Xi’s January 2016 Saudi Arabia visit, Djibouti formally severed diplomatic relations with Tehran and then signed a security cooperation agreement with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is currently finalizing arrangements with Djibouti for the establishment of a Saudi base in addition to the Chinese naval base that will have the capacity to house 10,000 personnel. The Sino-Saudi agreement to collaborate on drone manufacturing signed during King Salman’s Beijing visit serves as another indication that the two countries may be looking to their strategic cooperation to contain Iranian activities in Gulf of Aden-Red Sea corridor.
During the September 2011 commissioning of the MİLGEM program’s first warship, TCG Heybeliada, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared Turkey’s national interests as “residing in the Suez Canal, the adjacent seas, and from there extending to the Indian Ocean.” In December 2015, President Erdoğan advanced Turkey’s strategic footprint in that maritime domain by securing the creation of a Turkish base in Qatar and the establishment of a joint Turkish-Saudi Strategic Cooperation Council.
In addition, Turkey will soon open its own military facility in Mogadishu on Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast. While primarily intended to serve as a training academy and military supply depot, the 50 million dollar base has the capacity to host a contingent 1,500 soldiers. Given the combined Turkish presence in Qatar and Mogadishu, as well as Turkey’s establishment of security cooperation mechanisms with Riyadh, Ankara can offer assets to Beijing along the Arabian Sea and Horn of Africa approaches to the Gulf of Aden. Given the Sino-Saudi alignment in the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea corridor, Turkey has the opportunity to engage China in maritime cooperation to promote stability in the region.