Like every other way we underestimate China, it would be remiss to underestimate Beijing’s changing oil strategy and supreme adaptability of its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) lending fund, which is a phenomenal geopolitical tool. Now, Beijing has honed in rather tightly on the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and most notably on Saudi Arabia. Russia is of far less consequence in the bigger picture. The Chinese already know this, of course, which is exactly why the first half of the year saw them cut all new deals in line with its BRI fund objectives and shifted spending to the Middle East to the tune of nearly $6 billion, primarily believed to be energy-related deals, but no one knows the full nature. The Saudis don’t need China’s debt-trap money like the other BRI-targeted countries China has been luring in with cash. Instead–this is about usurping U.S. leadership in this region. It’s about ending the dominance of the petrodollar. It’s about taking advantage of a brand of U.S. foreign policy that is dumping the ‘white man’s burden/proxy empire building” and showing less interest in the Middle East. And when Russia invades Ukraine and creates complications for BRI, the Chinese don’t miss a beat. They reroute and march forward. It’s a frightening level of adaptability; of course, it’s far easier to adapt when you have no one to answer to.
Just this week, Saudi Aramco signed an MOU with Sinopec covering refining, upstream ops, and downstream ops, along with oilfield services and a lineup of other energy cooperation deals. The Chinese failed to get their hands on a stake in Aramco, and the Saudi Crown Prince certainly understands (today, more than he did at the time of the Aramco IPO) that at some point these deals will render the Kingdom a client state of China. MBS thinks he can play this long game with Beijing without crossing the line, but that is the million-dollar question.
China’s plans are not shrouded in mystery. Instead, they are ignored by the media for lacking any sexy military element such as a ‘special operation’ on the territory of another country. China’s aggressive gestures toward Taiwan get a few weeks of air time but fail to roil markets to any significant extent. The media doesn’t follow the BRI spending patterns, which spells out the full geopolitical game in black and white, because the stories don’t make for high-traffic headlines. That is the art of soft power, and no one does it better than the Chinese. They control the narrative.