China may be on the way to taking over America’s role as the key regional player in the Middle East.
The US missile strike on the Syrian regime’s airbase in Khan Shayrat, followed by an exchange of extreme rhetoric, led to a surge in commentary on US-Russia relations and the potential for cooperation between Washington and Moscow in tackling the Syrian crisis together. However, the civil war raging in Syria is only one of the many problems facing the Middle East, and one other major factor must be added into the analysis.
It has been a common trend among foreign policy experts, analysts and practitioners to approach geopolitics of the Middle East by taking into account only few major non-regional players. Since the 1950s, the two most important of them have been the United States and Russia (or the USSR). However, today, another non-regional actor should be added to the Middle Eastern equation: an actor of subtle yet global reach, with vital national interest in the region — the People’s Republic of China.
There is a simple economic logic to uphold this statement, and this logic is as pragmatic as Chinese foreign policy. For decades, there was concurrence between US energy dependence on Middle Eastern resources and American military deployment in the region. Now, with the US demand for oil from the Persian Gulf diminishing, China is to replace it as a key non-regional player in the near future.
Beijing’s demand for oil is growing every year and home production is not enough to cover it. In 2014, over 50% of oil consumed by China was imported and more than a half of imports came from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone accounted for 16% of China’s oil imports in 2014. Moreover, the region is an integral part of China’s One Belt, One Road strategy unveiled in 2013. Therefore, there hardly is another country in the modern world that is more interested in the destiny of the Middle East than China.
A brief overview of Beijing’s military deployments abroad can support this logic. For decades, China was skeptical of peacekeeping operations under the United Nations. The country changed its stance on the subject in the 1980s, and in 1990, the first Chinese observers took part in the UN Truce Supervision Organization in the Middle East. Since then, the People’s Liberation Army has taken part in 24 peacekeeping operations abroad, including substantial deployments in Lebanon and Sudan.
Since 2008, China has kept a fleet in support of the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. In 2016, construction of a support facility for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) needs began in Djibouti, which was considered globally as a first Chinese naval base abroad. Chinese officials hinted that “support facilities” in other countries are being planned as well.
Given these assumptions, one may suppose that Beijing will follow Washington’s steps in establishing its geopolitical hold on the Middle East. However, Chinese foreign policy lacks American rigor for promoting democracy abroad and is far more pragmatic. Energy exports and sea trade security are number one priorities. The peculiarities of local politics and legitimacy of ruling presidents and parties are not. Therefore, China will behave as a thalassocratic state and will concentrate its efforts on protection of sea routes through establishing naval and military bases in strategic parts of the region.
In order to obtain bases, China will have to woo local players with economic incentives. The pioneer of geopolitical naval strategy, Alfred T. Mahan, wrote in his famous article “The Persian Gulf and International Relations”: “Further, purely naval control is for this purpose a very imperfect instrument, unless supported and reinforced by the shores on which it acts. It is necessary therefore to attach the inhabitants to the same interests by the extension and consolidation of commercial relations, the promotion of which consequently should be the aim of the government.” It’s true that most inhabitants will be upset by foreign intrusion, even one with the noble purpose of nation-building, and this will be harmful for business.
What will be the consequences of greater Chinese involvement in the Middle East? China’s naval deployment will be beneficial in terms of deterring the possible military escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran through economic means as a full-scale war in the region will be disastrous for the Chinese economy. However, the numerous civil conflicts in the failed states will continue. Beijing will not pacify Libya, Syria or Yemen much the same as it has not pacified Somalia. China prefers to secure its interests through negotiations with local authorities on the spot, be it a president, tribal chief or warlord.
The threat of terrorism has not moved China to participate in any counterterrorism operations abroad, though Beijing’s stance on the subject may change. Counterterrorism campaigns, as the recent history of the region has shown, can be used as a very effective power-projection tool. Nevertheless, nowadays the responsibility of creating a more stable and secure Middle East falls on local actors. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have enough power and financial resources to introduce change to the region if they would choose to do so.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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