In a deployment not seen in seven years, three Chinese warships including a guided-missile destroyer warship embarked on a tour of Gulf Arab states for the first time since 2010 in what al Arabiya has called Beijing's "desire to play a bigger role on the global stage."
The three Chinese vessels arrived in Qatar’s capital Doha on Saturday following a visit to the Saudi port city of Jeddah, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
While China’s navy regularly tours the world and its ships patrol off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia as part of international anti-piracy operations, such visits to Gulf Arab states, where both the U.S. and Britain have naval bases, are less common. In 2014, China's navy visited Iran for the first time to take part in joint naval exercises with Saudi Arabia’s regional arch-rival.
Beijing, which relies on the Middle East for oil, has tended to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Britain, France and Russia. As reported yesterday, for the first time in history, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as China's primary source of oil imports.
Perhaps this fallback option explains why China has been trying to get more involved in gulf diplomacy recently, especially in Syria peace efforts, and has taken tentative steps over the Yemen crisis too.
A senior Chinese diplomat said on Monday that Beijing could be forced to assume a role of world leadership if others step back from that position after U.S. President Donald Trump pledged in his first speech to put “America first." Naturally such an expansion in China's global role would include taking tenative steps to declaring who its friends in the gulf region are and, by implication, its enemies.