On December 18, the Qatari military stunned strategic analysts by displaying their purchase of Chinese short-range ballistic missiles at a military parade. The SY-400 missile has a 150-200 kilometer range which puts neighbors like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in range.
According to Theodore Karasik, who is also an adviser at Gulf State Analytic, Qatar approached China in 2014 once relations with their neighbors began to sour due to Qatar’s support for Islamic extremist groups and Iran.
Qatar is the second-largest supplier of liquefied natural gas to China, and China is one of Qatar’s top five (some say number one) trading partner.
Although receiving less attention, Qatar also showed off other acquisitions such as German-made Leopard tanks, German self-propelled guns and Turkish armored vehicles. This illustrates the results of Qatar’s new hard power spending spree. Even less attention has been paid to China’s news service reporting that it was People’s Liberation Army trainers that enabled the Qatari military to produce the fancy formations presented in the parade.
The real issue is not the missiles themselves, as China is a major exporter of missile technology around the world. The real question is why. Is China simply amassing as much currency as it can through trade? Is it attempting to bolster Chinese arms prestige? Most importantly, is China attempting to gain a strategic advantage or strategic foothold?
Further, what message is Qatar sending? Most analysts believe it is an aggressive posture to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE who all pulled back their ambassadors and engaged in an economic and transportation boycott. One of the results of the souring relationship with these moderate Arab states is China’s upgrade in relations with Qatar from (primarily) an economic partner to a “strategic partner,” signaling closer military ties.
Although China often attempts to balance its relationships, the continuing relationship with Syria and Iran may signal a shift and Qatar could be one of those further signals. Qatar is a major proponent and part of China’s One Belt One Road strategy, which is the umbrella for every major Chinese strategic goal worldwide under the guise of an economic development plan that can coerce or cajole many of their third-world clients. A twist in the story may be Turkey’s increasing military presence in Qatar, which may also not be good for American interests depending on Erdogan’s actions. Turkey plans on a deployment of 3,000 troops possibly accompanied by aircraft and warships. Similar to Erdogan’s Turkey, Qatar embraces radical Sunni Islam when it suits their interests.
The two great questions for American national security are: Will Qatar become a lynchpin in China’s imperialist agenda in the Middle East? And will Qatar be the canary in the mineshaft illustrating the divide between a vision of the Middle East that is opposed to American interests led by Turkey and Iran against the other axis of Saudi Arabia and Egypt?
The various hard power sales and deployments by China and Turkey are only important if one assesses the strategic intent and trajectory of the nations involved.