“Given Bahrain’s market size and its relatively modest level of engagement with China, this is puzzling to me,” he said.

When the CSP agreement was announced on May 31 during a visit to Beijing by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a joint statement highlighted plans to align his kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic development programme with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The CSP announcement was preceded by the launch of the first direct flights between Bahrain and China, and it was quickly followed by preliminary cooperation agreements between their respective sovereign wealth funds as well as their chambers of commerce and industry.

Bahrain’s king review an honour guard as he is received by China’s president during a welcome ceremony in Beijing on May 31. Photo: AFP

“What is important is to coordinate efforts in economic ties between our two nations [with] great emphasis on development and promoting bilateral trading,” said Sheikh Abdulla Bin Ali al-Khalifa, director general of bilateral relations at Bahrain’s foreign ministry, in a June 1 interview with Chinese state-run television channel CGTN.

“And we appreciate the importance that China gives to the region and to its ties to the Arab world, and we are looking forward to it continuing.”

Beijing’s six existing CSP agreements in the region have involved extensive economic engagement. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Algeria, Iran and Egypt have worked with Chinese construction firms and investors on over US$25 billion worth of projects since 2005.

Five of these six countries are also significant oil and gas exporters to China.

“Bahrain does not fit this model” because, unlike the others, it has not contracted Chinese companies for construction projects on a large scale, nor is it a major exporter of energy to China, said Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, US.

In the absence of any official explanation, analysts believe China chose to offer a CSP to Bahrain to undermine the United States’ strategic interests.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visits the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, in December. Photo: Reuters

The US and Bahrain have a long-standing security alliance, under which the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet has been headquartered in Manama for almost 30 years.

Bahrain was declared a major non-Nato ally of the US in 2002 and last September the two countries signed a comprehensive security integration and prosperity agreement that practically, if not legally, guaranteed American military intervention in the event of a foreign attack on the kingdom.
The move by Beijing to establish a stronger link to Bahrain “sends a message to Washington as part of the broader China-US great power competition”, Molavi said.
Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics and international relations at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said: “China is advancing an anti-hegemony strategy wherever possible, and Bahrain has long been a linchpin of US hegemony in the Middle East.”
Based on that criteria, however, analysts say China would have also sought a CSP with Bahrain’s neighbour Qatar, which has a similar security relationship with Washington as the host of America’s biggest overseas airbase and the headquarters of the US Central Military Command.
Chinese firms spearheaded Qatar’s multibillion-dollar construction drive in preparation for the 2022 Fifa World Cup, which was financed by the proceeds of the emirate’s exports of liquefied natural gas to economies around the world, including China.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Doha in February. Photo: EPA-EFE

China has signed a strategic partnership agreement – one step down the diplomatic ladder from a comprehensive strategic partnership – with Qatar, as well as nine other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Whether the new CSP would result in a substantial increase in Chinese trade and investment in Bahrain “is uncertain at this point”, said Guy Burton, author of the book China and Middle East Conflicts: Responding to War and Rivalry from the Cold War to the Present.

Burton said 2018 marked the high point of Chinese investments in the Arab world, which have since slowed down following the Covid-19 pandemic and increased American pressure on its Middle Eastern partners to limit their involvement with China.

With economics a relatively small consideration in the Bahrain-China relationship, East China Normal University’s Mahoney said their CSP should be viewed through the lens of US policy in Central Asia and the Middle East following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The US policy “aimed to create new challenges for China” by penetrating Central Asia with American airbases “capable of threatening space ports and military industries strategically located in China’s western regions”, he said.

A meeting between China’s Xi, Bahrain’s king and officials from both sides at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Likewise, it put a massive US military footprint in the Persian Gulf that was “capable of controlling the global flow of oil, including shutting down China’s access,” Mahoney said.

Consequently, the development of closer relations and cooperation between China and several key regions – Russia, Central Asia, and “especially Bahrain” in the Middle East – were the result of Beijing’s long-standing efforts to “mitigate the last vestiges of Washington’s previous anti-China containment strategy, particularly as a new, more direct contest has emerged in the Pacific”, he said.

John’s Hopkins’ Molavi said King Hamad’s recent visits to Beijing and Moscow should be seen as part of a “new trend of strategic multi-alignment” displayed by several Gulf Arab states.

“They do not view their relations with China, Russia, and the US as mutually exclusive,” he said.

The likes of the UAE have developed a better understanding of Washington’s ‘red lines’ when it comes to their ties with Beijing, including placing limits on substantive defence cooperation, military technology transfers to China, the extensive use of Huawei telecommunications networks, and deep involvement with China’s artificial intelligence initiatives.

As long as Bahrain steers clear of those red lines, it will have room to manoeuvre without much pushback from Washington

Afshin Molavi, senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

“As long as Bahrain steers clear of those red lines, it will have room to manoeuvre without much pushback from Washington,” Molavi said.

Burton emphasised that China “isn’t looking to challenge or replace” the US as the Gulf monarchies’ security guarantor against the threat posed by Iran and its “Axis of Resistance” allies like Yemen’s Houthi movement, which has targeted commercial ships in the Red Sea.

Instead, China and the Gulf monarchies had “looked to each other to hedge and diversify their relationships and options”, he said.

Mahoney described Bahrain as “one of many countries” seeking to maximise its international partnerships amid continuous great power competition.

“One goal here is to avoid picking a side, like Japan and South Korea, among others, and getting stuck in a security trap and losing any semblance of an independent foreign policy,” he said.

“Like Singapore”, another small country with a large US military presence and a very valuable but vulnerable strategic location, “Bahrain needs to balance its relations with the major powers to ensure its security”, Mahoney said.