China won’t judge you: Why Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is betting billions on Asia
Rather, Beijing’s eye is on economic expansion. “They want to be an energy purchaser, and maybe an energy investor,” Gause said. “But they don’t want to pick sides between Iran and Saudi Arabia.” China was one of eight countries granted a waiver last fall for U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil.
China began building the Middle East’s first armed drone factory in Saudi Arabia last year, and weapons experts now suspect Chinese support for a ballistic missile facility that was spotted by satellite imagery in the Saudi desert, which Riyadh has yet to acknowledge.
But in terms of encroaching on America’s security relationship with the kingdom, “They can’t yet,” said Gause. “They just don’t have the capabilities to project power into the Gulf the way the U.S. does.”
The U.S. military has bases in every single Gulf Cooperation Council country; China has none. China accounted for 1.5 percent of all Saudi arms imports over the last five years; the U.S. accounted for more than half.
“It is too early to describe this as a dash for independence from the U.S.,” Malik said. “However, there is little doubt that Saudi is building alternative sources of support in the event that the U.S. becomes a less reliable ally.”