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What Would a Larger Chinese Presence Mean for the Middle East?

A ChinaFile Conversation

While the United States continues to debate how to extricate itself from “forever wars” in the Middle East, one country has been steadily building its footprint in the region: China. Over the past decade, Chinese trade and investment has exploded across the Middle East; in 2016, it became the region’s largest foreign investor. China has also invested in some of the Middle East’s most strategic real estate, snapping up port agreements and building trade and logistics zones that now dot the Gulf. Beyond physical infrastructure, China’s also providing the region’s digital backbone. To date, Chinese companies have secured 5G deals with every country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And China’s influence goes beyond economics and trade. The Middle East is now China’s largest overseas defense market, and with its naval base in Djibouti and continuous presence in the Indian Ocean, the Chinese military is likely to become a more regular presence.

China’s steady expansion of its Middle East footprint and influence poses significant questions for U.S. policymakers. The Middle East has long been a battleground for strategic competition between both regional and global powers. Is it poised to again emerge as a zone of great-power competition, between the United States and China? Or as U.S. policymakers debate how to bring stability to the Middle East, should the United States encourage China’s more active engagement and presence in the region? What are the security implications of China taking a more direct role in Middle Eastern security, or conversely, free-riding on international stabilization efforts? —Lindsey Ford

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The Middle East has emerged as a new theater of U.S.-China great power competition. Today, America’s military presence in the region coupled with its strong diplomatic relationships provide Washington with potential leverage over Beijing. During a crisis or conflict originating in East Asia, Washington could use its military capabilities in the Middle East to hold at risk or even sever the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) linking China to some of its key markets and sources of energy imports.

However, China’s burgeoning presence in the Middle East is eroding this source of leverage. Under the umbrella of what it calls “One Belt, One Road,” Beijing is steadily expanding its political influence and investment footprint around regional maritime chokepoints, including the Suez Canal, the Bab el Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz. Commercial entanglement with Beijing could have strategic implications. Specifically, U.S. allies and partners in close proximity to these chokepoints could prove reluctant to allow American forces to operate against China-bound shipping from their territory or through their airspace.

Given this competitive backdrop, Washington should think twice before encouraging China to further its engagement in the Middle East. Beijing will deepen its involvement in the region on its own terms, building on a long-term approach that seeks to advance China’s diplomatic and economic influence across the Middle East while passing regional security burdens onto the United States. In the Gulf, where tensions between the United States and Iran have flared, China is likely to urge diplomacy while avoiding military commitments. Beijing is apt to calculate that undertaking the type of naval escort mission that the United States has called for would complicate its efforts to sustain cordial relations with Iran and its Arab rivals.

If the unlikely occurred, and China deployed naval assets to protect its shipping, the strategic downside for the United States would be considerable. Much as counter-piracy operations came to justify China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, escorting ships in the Gulf could serve as a pretext for Beijing to secure long-term military access in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz. Beyond the threat that Iran poses in the Gulf, the U.S. Navy would have to contend with new security risks associated with operating in close proximity to China’s navy.

The path toward a more stable Middle East does not run through Beijing. The United States should be clear-eyed that great power competition will permeate its interactions with China in this region, as elsewhere.

One of the few points of bipartisan consensus in a polarized Washington is the need to shift the focus of American foreign policy to great-power competition, especially with China. What remains unanswered, however, is what this means for U.S.-China relations in the Middle East. Is the Middle East an arena for competing with China, a quagmire into which it should be drawn, or simply a distraction?

China has grown more active in the Middle East, both in pursuit of interests specific to the region, like energy security and counterterrorism, and due to the region’s geographic centrality. China’s economic activities in the region have attracted the most notice, but where capital and laborers go, political and security interests follow. China established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, and has wielded its U.N. Security Council veto multiple times to block Western initiatives on Syria.

Those vetoes illustrate a dilemma for China. It now seeks to be friends with everyone in the Middle East. But maintaining neutrality will become increasingly difficult. If forced to choose, Beijing will likely align with Iran, which offers two advantages: It is not an ally of the United States, and it (and its abundant energy resources) are accessible by land, offering extra energy security. Iran also has close geographic and historic links to China and key partners like Pakistan.

The U.S. and China have certain overlapping interests in the Middle East, like ensuring the free flow of energy and combating terrorism. Yet they differ on others, like nonproliferation, and have followed starkly different strategies to pursue their interests. Both sides have stressed a desire for stability in Syria, for example, but China sees the Assad regime as a partner in that effort, whereas the U.S. sees it as an obstacle. Especially in the context of a deteriorating relationship overall, that is not a recipe for cooperation.

Rivalry with China, along with frustration at Chinese free-riding on America’s provision of security in the region, has led to suggestions that Washington shift costs or burdens regionally to Beijing. Yet China is unlikely to comply. Were the U.S. to withdraw from its role in Syria or Iraq, Beijing would have little incentive to replace Washington; instead, China might reduce its own presence in the region for fear of the adverse security consequences of U.S. disengagement. Even if China undertook certain missions, such as ensuring the security of maritime chokepoints, Beijing would be honing the very power projection capabilities that so concern Washington.

Rather than hoping for partnership with China or seeking to ensnare it, the U.S. should keep a wary eye on China while remaining open to limited cooperation. Washington should push allies to screen Chinese investments for adverse security implications, especially in the infrastructure, technology, and military sectors. If Beijing abides by international norms, the U.S. should avoid a zero-sum approach and view the Middle East as a possible refuge from the overall tensions in the relationship.

The U.S. should encourage a more active role in the Middle East for China for a simple reason: The risks are small, and the potential gains are more substantial. The risks basically boil down to the idea that China could eventually dominate the region, leaving the U.S. vulnerable to energy shutoffs and transit issues. However, at the risk of oversimplifying, oil markets, new technologies, and transit routes all contribute to the fact that the United States is simply not that dependent on Middle Eastern oil anymore. Its other regional interests are limited. And China is so far from being able to militarily dominate the region that it is an unrealistic concern, at least in the near-to-medium term.

The potential benefits of greater Chinese involvement in the region, on the other hand, are substantial. For starters, in his “stopped clock twice a day” way, President Trump is right that the Chinese are free-riding on the American military for their energy security. The military still secures the Gulf sea lanes that primarily transport Asia-bound energy supplies. Some burden-sharing there would not go amiss. Second, greater Chinese involvement in regional diplomacy and trade could constrain some of America’s worst impulses, minimizing the risk of further substantial U.S. military interventions, and multilateralizing regional security concerns, reducing the impulse in Washington to answer every regional concern with a military solution. A situation more like the mid-to-late Cold War period, where the U.S. pursued offshore balancing in the region and maintained its interests against the Soviet Union primarily through non-military means, is likely to be more stable than today’s chaotic military-first strategy.

Finally, there’s a broader strategic context: While most analysis of the U.S.-China military balance focuses on hotspots like the South China Sea or Taiwan, U.S. control of the sea lanes between China and the Gulf is actually a serious security concern for China. By free-riding on America’s protection of sea lanes, China has placed itself in a position of energy and trade insecurity in the event of future conflict. The political and strategic ramifications of this suggest that it cannot and will not likely sustain its non-interventionist, hands-off approach to the region. If the U.S. remains heavily involved and refuses to allow China access, these security concerns could engender direct U.S.-China military tensions. Inviting China to share the burden in the Middle East may be the best way of defusing future tensions and preventing a future potential flashpoint.

Often described by Western experts as a reluctant growing power in the Middle East, due to the wariness with which Chinese leaders view political turmoil and conflicts in the region, China’s free-riding on American efforts to improve regional security has frustrated Washington.

Beijing was unsettled by the Arab Spring and the possibility of “color revolution” contagion and dissent within China, and blamed the U.S. as the instigator of political upheaval in the Middle East. Chinese government academics even describe an American fantasy of the “great Middle East democratic transformation project” (大中东民主改造计划, da Zhongdong minzhu gaizao jihua). Chinese official commentators and state media juxtapose the ease with which Beijing courts Middle Eastern countries on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide against the checkered policies of the United States and its regional allies.

Such observations have revived the debate about whether China is attempting to challenge U.S. regional influence in West Asia. China’s construction of its first foreign military base in Djibouti, outpourings of FDI into the Middle East, and gargantuan construction projects under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) might suggest this is so.

Much recent strategic discourse has focused on China’s need for energy from the Middle East, and has underplayed the country’s interest in exporting to the region, as well as the enthusiasm for Chinese investment there. While circumventing the deep divisions blighting the region, in July 2018 Beijing pledged more than U.S.$23 billion in loans and aid to Arab states, and announced it is exploring free-trade deals with each of the 22 states in the Arab League.

However, many in China question whether their country is prepared to challenge U.S. interests in both the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. China’s reluctance to act as a security guarantor in the latter contrasts with its policy in the former, which Xi envisions as controlled by Asians alone. The Middle East has enticing yet complicated prospects for China. Unlike China’s burgeoning influence in the Asia-Pacific, where its rivalry with Washington’s “hub and spokes” network of alliances has shaped its rise, Chinese comprehensive power in the Middle East is less well defined.

Beijing is unlikely to proclaim any new initiatives for Middle East security beyond broad calls for peace in the region. Behind the scenes, however, Xi may attempt to make subtle inroads in terms of China’s military ties with Middle Eastern countries. Xi will probably maintain China’s enduring policy of nonalignment, while arguing that Beijing’s contribution to Middle Eastern economic development through the BRI is the best bet for regional stability. However, as Beijing’s leverage increases across the region, and in light of immediate security concerns like Uighur Islamic militancy in Syria, China may no longer be able to distance itself from the region’s security woes.

The recent developments around the Strait of Hormuz have once again highlighted the importance of maritime chokepoints and their connection to regional geopolitics. While Iran’s ability to unilaterally block the strait of Hormuz might be questionable, the possibility of its disruption of the movement of vessels has elicited concern across the region. As the threat persists, Washington has called on its allies, partners, and other stakeholders to take responsibility for the safety of their own vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz. However, while Washington expects its traditional allies to respond to its call for joint efforts to secure the region, it must also consider China’s interests and ability to do so. Encouraging Chinese presence at this key chokepoint would have three serious consequences.

One, it would engender further speculation on Washington’s uncertain commitment to the region, thereby creating a vacuum in which new actors could emerge, throwing into question the current security architecture of the Indian Ocean region. It would effectively undermine India’s potential role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean, eroding its geographic advantage. Such a presence in the strategic waterway, along with its presence in Djibouti, will significantly increase China’s ability to play an increased and active role in the Indian Ocean. Should China manage to sustain a presence along these key straits, it would effectively have credible presence across two key chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, Bab-el-Mandeb (through Djibouti) and the Strait of Hormuz, thereby providing a vantage point for Africa and the Middle East.

Two, welcoming and encouraging Chinese presence along the Strait of Hormuz would legitimize Beijing’s overseas bases. China has indicated the need to maintain a sustainable presence (perhaps through military bases) to protect its maritime interests, and its case would be strengthened if it increased its presence in strategically important maritime chokepoints in the Middle East.

Three, inviting China to provide security in the Strait of Hormuz to maintain peace and stability would lend credence to Beijing’s claims of being a responsible global actor. This would signal the international community’s acceptance of Chinese disregard for international laws and norms, especially in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Moreover, China’s presence in the region would directly affect countries with whom Beijing has border disputes, especially India and Japan. Both countries rely on the Middle East for its oil and natural gas.

One of China’s challenges in the Indian Ocean has been its geographical distance from the region, making Beijing rely on traditional actors that already have a presence in the region, such as the U.S. and India, for sea lines of communication (SLOC) protection of its energy routes. Chinese presence across these straits would not only allow China to secure and protect its own energy lines, but would also threaten to disrupt the energy routes of its adversaries.

While it is important for China to contribute toward regional security, that shouldn’t happen until China demonstrates its commitment to conducting its activities under established international rules and norms.