For more than a decade, the Middle East and North Africa region has experienced a level of violence and instability that is unprecedented in its modern history — a turbulence that shows no sign of abating. During this period, the long-term sustainability of the U.S. role as security guarantor has increasingly been called into question, both in the United States and within the region. Meanwhile, China’s investments in the Middle East have grown, as has its economic, diplomatic, and security footprint.
Within this context, are there any indications that the United States and China already are, or inevitably will become, strategic rivals in the Middle East?
Beijing has a broad range of interests in the Middle East. Foremost among them is continued access to the region’s energy resources. China’s commercial interests in the region also include generating new investment opportunities and contracts for infrastructure projects for Chinese firms, as well as gaining market share for their products. China’s second key interest in the Middle East is cultivating relationships and building influence with regional powers beyond the confines of its immediate Asia-Pacific neighborhood. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt figure prominently in Beijing’s calculations. The region as a whole is important because of its abundant energy resources, its position as a geostrategic crossroads, and its potential role in the westward rebalancing of the Chinese economy within the framework of the One Belt, One Road initiative. A third interest is preserving domestic security by preventing radical ideologies and jihadi networks with roots in the region from seeping into China. Fourth, China has a general interest in the Middle East, as in other regions, as a theater for earning recognition as a legitimate great power.
A Growing Equity Stake
China imports more than half of its oil from the Gulf, as well as a third of its natural gas. Chinese major energy companies have established supply footholds in the Middle East, including in Iraq and most recently in Abu Dhabi. Sino-Middle Eastern energy partnerships extend to petrochemical and natural gas projects in the region and refinery projects in China itself.
Beijing’s commercial activities and ambitions in the region extend far beyond the energy sector, however. The Middle East is a growth market for affordable consumer products, and China is now the largest source of the region’s imports. Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia import more from China than from any other country. Chinese firms are winning contracts for engineering, construction, and infrastructure development projects. In recent years, Chinese investment in the region — in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia — has also picked up. And China is seeking cooperation in new sectors, including nuclear and renewable energy and aerospace technology.
Until relatively recently, Beijing had not perceived conflicts in the region as having a direct impact on its interests. However, China’s heavy dependence on Middle East energy, and on the Gulf in particular, has made it acutely vulnerable to possible supply disruptions and price spikes resulting from unrest and conflict in the region. In spite of progress in diversifying its supply sources and its fuel mix, the Chinese economy remains heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and thus highly exposed to its volatile politics.
As a result of its expanding footprint in the region, China has incurred additional risks. Turmoil in the Middle East has raised Chinese policymakers’ concerns about the spread of Islamist ideology, the prospect of Chinese foreign fighters returning to commit acts of terrorism, as well as the possible suspension or abandonment of lucrative contracts, damage to or destruction of investment assets, and endangerment of Chinese workers and expatriates. Heightened exposure to these diverse threats has made it urgently necessary for Beijing to develop and skillfully employ the diplomatic and military tools with which to respond to them.
More Capable and More Active, But Still Cautious
China’s deepening involvement in the Middle East and its attendant risks has generated a great deal of speculation about whether Beijing has a long-term strategy. If indeed such a strategy exists, the Chinese leadership has yet to articulate it explicitly and publicly. Nevertheless, one can distill from Chinese official statements and conduct three interrelated precepts that guide its approach to the region: 1) buy what you need and sell what you can; 2) do not interfere either in domestic or inter-state political affairs; and 3) emphasize dialogue and development, as opposed to the use of force, as the solution to the Middle East’s problems, and thereby distinguish China from other external powers in the region.
Beijing’s adherence to non-interference in the Middle East is designed to avoid direct involvement in conflicts or crises, and to evade clear-cut positions on controversial issues. It’s obvious that China is not keen to play a central role as peacemaker. China’s first “Arab Policy Paper,” issued in January 2016, was vague. Tentative forays such as Beijing’s Four-Point Plan for Syria gained little traction. This has led many observers to characterize China’s policy as “cautious,” “wary,” and “risk averse.”
However, China’s policy in the Middle East, as elsewhere, has been more flexible, pragmatic, and experimental than is often portrayed. Beijing has become increasingly active on the diplomatic front, chiefly through multilateral institutions such as the Arab League, the China-Gulf Forum, and in the recruitment of nine MENA countries as members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
China has also played a more visible security role in the region in recent years, most notably in its deployment of combat troops for peacekeeping in South Sudan, in addition to the construction of its first overseas naval base, in Djibouti. Moreover, the evacuation of noncombatants by PLA naval vessels in Libya and Yemen, in addition to legislation authorizing more expansive counterterrorism operations beyond China’s borders, demonstrates that China is willing to secure its interests around the world, and by force if necessary.
Yet China’s “new activism” in the Middle East gives the appearance of being a behavioral adjustment to unfolding events — an outgrowth of its burgeoning commercial presence in a region with demonstrably high political risks and chronic instability — rather than a carefully crafted great-power grand strategy. On the whole, strategic caution remains the hallmark of the Chinese approach to the Middle East.
Toward a Cooperative Post-U.S. Hegemonic Order in the Middle East
China’s role in the Mideast has grown diplomatically, economically, and militarily, however this increased involvement is not necessarily indicative of an incipient strategic competition between China and the United States.
First, it is essential to point out that American and Chinese interests in the Middle East are not directly in conflict with each other. On the contrary, the United States and China have a common interest in the uninterrupted flow of oil from the Middle East and in countering violent extremism in the region.
Second, China has exhibited few signs that it wishes to challenge U.S. military predominance in the region — and for good reason. China benefits from the U.S. role as security guarantor, and without having to bear the fiscal or potential political costs itself. Furthermore, maintaining a large military presence in the Gulf and surrounding region to some degree diverts U.S. attention and resources away from East Asia, the area of highest geostrategic priority to China.
Third, the calls from Beijing’s Mideast friends and allies for a greater Chinese role in the region do not represent a desire on their part to substitute Chinese for American hegemony. America’s traditional Arab allies — however much they object to Washington’s policies or have grown uncertain about the resoluteness and sustainability of its commitments — nonetheless continue to regard the United States as a necessary security partner. Their outreach to China represents an effort to diversify their security cooperation, and not to downgrade or sever security ties with the United States.
As for Iran, the United States’ chief regional adversary, its project to consolidate its regional position and ultimately repel the United States from the Middle East is a vision not necessarily shared by the Chinese. Indeed, U.S. partners and adversaries alike have sought in recent years to utilize their ties with Beijing in order to gain the upper hand in internecine conflicts or political disputes. In this respect, the objectives and priorities of the various Mideast states and those of China — which are geared toward balancing regional relationships and avoiding a confrontation with the United States — are misaligned.
Thus, the prospects for intensifying strategic competition in the Middle East between China and the United States are rather more remote than they appear to be, particularly in the short term. Over the longer term, however, increased Chinese military capabilities, coupled with rising U.S.-China tension in the western Pacific, could feed back into the Middle East, igniting such a competition. In anticipation of such an eventuality, it would be more prudent for the United States to explore win-win scenarios than to assume zero-sum outcomes.
Chinese and U.S. capabilities to contribute to regional stability are complementary. What the two countries can do together is greater than each can realistically be expected to accomplish separately. Moreover, increased U.S. energy independence, thanks in large part to the recent shale gas boom, provides an incentive and an opportunity to share the financial and military burdens with China of enhancing stability in the Middle East. U.S.-China policy coordination in this regard could help pave the way for other extra-regional actors with interests and investments in the region — countries such as India, Japan, and South Korea — to play constructive roles. Seizing this opportunity could help facilitate the transition not from a U.S.-led to a Chinese-led hegemonic order in the region and beyond, but to one that is more complex though mutually advantageous and peaceful.
Dr. John Calabrese teaches U.S. foreign policy at American University and is director of the Middle East Institute’s Middle East-Asia Project (MAP). This piece is part of a special RCW series on the U.S.-China geopolitical relationship. The views expressed here are the author’s own.