Unprecedented GCC group visit may greatly enhance FTA negotiation progress: analysts
Published: Jan 09, 2022 11:26 PM
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends the ministerial meeting between China and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) via video link in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 9, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends the ministerial meeting between China and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) via video link in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 9, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

 The first-ever group visit of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries may make breakthroughs in the negotiations over a China-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA), analysts said, ahead of a scheduled visit to China by the foreign ministers of four Middle East countries, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, as well as GCC secretary general  from Monday to Friday.

Through discussions on an FTA and other bilateral cooperation, GCC members are seeking the most advantageous path for the group with major powers including China, the US and Russia. The traditional energy ties they have with the US are changing as Washington reduces dependency on Gulf energy imports, so boosting and strengthening ties with China is reasonable and urgent for GCC members, analysts said. 

According to China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Saturday, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah, Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Hamad al-Busaidi, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and Secretary-General of the GCC Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf will visit China at the invitation of Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Analysts described the joint visit as "historically unprecedented," saying that as the diplomatic event comes amid a domestic resurgence in COVID-19 cases in some cities and regions, as well as the approaching Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the visit is not run-of-the-mill and will have historic and strategic significance, or it would not be proceeding at this time. 

"The visit is vitally important, and it may result in positive results for a China-GCC FTA, after negotiations started in 2004, but with little success of note so far," Li Shaoxian, director of the China Institute for Arab Studies at Ningxia University, told the Global Times on Sunday.

Yin Gang, a researcher at the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed. "Far from the normal talks in a regular visit, this unprecedented and rare collective visit by GCC countries will likely bring practical bilateral cooperation statement or major progress in the negotiation of the FTA."

Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening global economy which is far from recovering, the need to reinforce free trade and add more certainties to the world market is a desire shared by many countries, and they especially want to strengthen trade ties with China, the country with the biggest and most energetic market with the greatest certainties, analysts said. 

Apart from the FTA negotiation, GCC members are realizing the urgent need to boost and consolidate ties with China as ties with the US are changing, experts said. 

A key reason why the Gulf countries established the GCC is the rise of Iran in the region, and as tension between the US and Iran has eased to some extent after US President Joe Biden took office, GCC members have realized the confrontation policy in the region is outdated and they need to reduce dependence upon the US as well, Yin noted.

Many countries worldwide, including those from the Middle East, are gradually realizing that an excessive dependence or reliance on the US is dangerous as it is a country with huge uncertainties, and its policies swing dramatically due to its internal power transitions. So it is relevant to boost ties with China, a major power with great certainty and credibility, analysts said. 

"Especially after China signed a 25-year agreement with Iran in 2021 to enhance comprehensive cooperation, GCC members feel it's much more urgent to solidify relations with China through signing key treaties and documents as well," Yin said. 

Cooperation between China and the GCC is win-win and mutually needed, as China also wants GCC members, who have huge foreign exchange reserves, to invest more in China and boost the industries that China really needs to develop, Yin said.

Other issues concerning regional security and stability will also be touched on, including the Iran nuclear issue and Afghanistan, since GCC members all share concerns and China is also playing a key role in these issues. 

"But the visit will primarily focus on China-GCC ties and cooperation under the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative," Li said.