By Suman Sharma*
The Middle East Region has always figured high in China’s Grand Strategy not only in terms of lucrative markets for China’s economy and energy security but far more importantly in geopolitical terms. Hemmed-in by the vast Pacific Ocean under United States military control and supremacy, in China’s Grand Strategy a “Look West” Strategy as opposed to the “Look East” Strategy of her peer Asian rival has received concerted strategic focus. This is the driving factor in Chinese policy formulations towards the Middle East and Central Asia.
China views the Middle East Region as a strategically lucrative region where China can exploit the disequilibrium generated by the United States strategic acts of commission and omission in the last decade or so. The Region was therefore ripe for China’s strategic undercutting of the United States.
Undoubtedly, the United States has been the predominant strategic and military power in the Middle East historically during the Cold War era and would continue to do so throughout this century notwithstanding the turbulence generated by the Middle East Region lying at the “crossroads of radicalism and technology”
China is fully aware that it cannot dislodge the United States from the Middle East even with its burgeoning military capabilities, but that does not mean that China will ease up her strategic blueprint to unsettle the United States’ regional hegemonic control of the vital energy resources critically important for China’s strategic and political rise.
China unlike East Asia, views the Middle East Region as a springboard which can facilitate China’s grasping the superpower status by an intrusive strategic and military presence facilitated by Middle East nations resentment of United States unbridled control of the Region. China perceives that Arab nations and others in the Middle East look upon a ‘rising China’ as a strategic insurance against United States as a countervailing Power, or failing that as an important ‘political leverage’ that can be used by them to withstand United States pressures.
This predominant feeling is best captured by the observations of a noted Egyptian analyst who states that: “The Arab World is still weeping for the golden dawn of the Cold War”. Contemporarily, it seems that this Region is expecting that China would provide an opposing pole against the United States in the Middle East and that the Middle East is ripe for a United States-China Cold War.
In the coming years in the global power games, one can expect China to increase her footholds and her strategic footprints in the Middle East Region far more expansively to strategically undercut United States strategic control of the Middle East Region. It needs to be emphasized that China has carved out a sizeable line-up of major powers in her favor by use of her ‘soft power’ and supplies of missiles arsenals to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran and others.
Lately China introduced a new element of use of ‘hard power’ ( symbolic demonstration) by drawing in Turkey into joint air force exercises conducted in Turkish air- space with these Chinese Air Force fighter planes refueling stop-overs at Pakistani and Iranian air-bases.
This Paper intends to examine the following related issues to China’s strategic undercutting of the United States in the Middle East:
- China’s Upsurge in Forging a Substantial Strategic Presence in the Middle East: China’s Strategic Ambitions and the Geopolitical Facilitators
- Pakistan as a Force-Multiplier in China’s Growing Enlargement of Strategic Presence in the Gulf Region of the Middle East: Perspectives
- China: Will it Strategically and Militarily Confront the United States in the Event of a Middle East Showdown?
- United States Options in the Middle East
China’s Upsurge in Forging a Substantial Strategic Presence in the Middle East: China’s Strategic Ambitions and the Geopolitical Facilitators
China’s upsurge in forging a substantial strategic presence in the Middle East is a follow-up of the gains it has made in incrementally expanding its strategic presence over the last 20-25 years. China’s pattern established so far has focused on weaning away strong US-allies in the Region like Saudi Arabia and reinforcing the military capabilities of nations and entities opposed to the United States like Iran, Libya, the Lebanon armed militias and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The sinister overtones of China establishing its strategic footprints in the Middle East were manifested in China supplying long range ballistic missile ( IRBMs ) directly and by proxy through North Korea to Saudi Arabia and Iran and giving access to nuclear weapons technology of Chinese-origin through Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran.
Interwoven into these strategic moves by China has been a wide array of economic and trade linkages which China has crafted over the years which strengthen the political and economic dependency of Middle East nations on China.
The deductions that need to be recorded from the above pattern are as follows:
- China’s IRBMs supplies, access to Chinese-origin nuclear weapons technology. and sizeable supplies of conventional weapons supplies to a highly volatile region like the Middle East indicate that China is not a responsible stakeholder in Middle East security and stability. The Middle East is a strategic pawn of China in its global tussle with the United States.
- The charge against China gets further aggravated that China had no compunction in arming known regional military rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iran and thereby further aggravating regional flashpoints and tensions.
- China had no compunction in strong military linkages with Israel which was hated in the Middle East by both Arab and non-Arab Muslim states.
China’s current upsurge in forging a substantial presence in the Middle East Region needs to be understood in the context of China’s strategic ambitions which are:
- Constrained in East Asia by United States supremacy, China perceives that despite United States hegemonic (Chinese perceptions) hold in the Middle East, the Middle East offers China prospects of establishing a substantial strategic presence in the Region.
- China’s strategic ambitions to emerge as a global superpower can be facilitated by the Middle East nations as the Middle East today looms large as the centre of strategic gravity in the global strategic calculus.
- China perceives that as opposed to Russia with limited economic resources, China is better placed to emerge as the alternative power in the United States and fill the strategic vacuum that may ensue if it exits Afghanistan. With a cascading deleterious effect on the Gulf Region.
- China’s strategic calculations would conclude that in terms of China’s power projection for a greater global role the Middle East Region provides a fertile springboard for the same.
The geopolitical factors facilitating China’s strategic upsurge in the Middle East can be attributed to the following:
- The Middle East nations are strategically inclined to welcome a Chinese strategic embrace impelled by the desire to find in China a countervailing power to the United States.
- The Middle East nations feel that even if China cannot provide countervailing power against the United States directly, China can still provide strong leverages to Middle East nations to withstand United States pressures on conflictual issues.
- Geopolitically China and the Middle East have convergent perspectives that United States global power and sustainability is on the wane after the events in Afghanistan and that opens avenues for both of them to move closer.
China today stands backed strongly by three Muslim nations in this part of the world namely Saudi Arabia. Iran and Pakistan, two of whom are located on either side of the Gulf and the third Pakistan, on the Eastern flank of the strategic Straits of Hormuz All three can be said to be instrumental in paving the way for China’s greater strategic foothold in the Middle East.
Pakistan as a Force Multiplier in China’s Growing Enlargement of Strategic Presence in the Gulf Region of the Middle East: Perspectives
Pakistan’s insidious role in furthering China’s strategic presence in the Gulf Region more specifically has been little noticed or commented upon by the global community. Pakistan has been a strategic ally and a loyal foot-soldier of furthering China’s strategic designs in Greater South West Asia which includes the Gulf Region.
One can list four strategic entanglements of Pakistan with China which greatly facilitate China’s designs to strategically undercut the United States in the Middle East. These are:
- Gwadar Naval Base access to China for naval presence in the Indian Ocean, North Arabian Sea and The Gulf.
- The Karakoram Corridor being provided to China by Pakistan integrating the existing Karakoram Highway linking Pakistan and China with planned road links and railway lines linking China with Gwadar
- Pakistan aiming for restoration of a Pak-friendly and China-friendly Taliban regime in Afghanistan so that the vulnerabilities of the above two to US military actions is liquidated.
- Pakistan has a Chinese-origin nuclear weapons technology and thereby generating grave risks for United States overall security.
The significant point to note is that Pakistan is providing land-access and air-access to China to touch base in the Middle East and Gwadar in Pakistan is a strategic-enabler for a Chinese naval presence in the Gulf Region. It is also significant that even Iran unlike Pakistan has yet to provide use of its naval bases to China.
All of the above would emerge as force-multipliers for China, courtesy the Pakistan Army, to strategically undercut the United States embedment in the Gulf and the Middle East.
China: Will it Strategically Confront the United States in the Event of a Middle East Military Showdown?
Noted American strategic analysts have rightly opined that China’s strategy against the United States in the Middle East would revolve around the principles of “neither peace nor war” and further that “China will avoid both partnership and direct confrontation with the United States”.
Taking off from the above summations, one can safely assert that in the churning dynamics of the Middle East, China would ever be alert to ambush and undercut the United States strategically in this vital region, crucial for United States strategic interests.
The foremost recent example of this is China’s strategic cozying-up to Turkey at a moment when Turkey stands disillusioned with the West and the United States. Take the case of the Iranian nuclear program which is a bugbear to the United States where Russia has veered around to side with the United States, but China is holding out in favor of Iran.
The Middle East in the coming years is likely to witness an intensified “Cold War” by China to strategically undercut the United States in the Middle East. China is cashing in on the Middle East nations led by Saudi Arabia loosening their linkages with the United States.
Finally, one would like to assert that even in the event of any remote eventuality of a showdown; China would be reluctant to enter into any military conflict with the United States over the Middle East.
Contrarily, China would not hesitate to enter into an armed conflict with the United States over any US military intervention in Pakistan. Without Pakistan as a loyal foot-soldier of China’s Grand Strategy in the Middle East and the Islamic World, the entire Chinese blueprint for undercutting the United States in the Middle East would unravel and China gets reduced to strategic confinement in East Asia.
United States Options in the Middle East
In brief outline, United States must attempt to incorporate the following major ingredients in its Middle East policy formulations to checkmate China’s strategic designs:
- Israel should not be pressured to forego its vital national security interests impacting on its survival in the cause of a Greater Middle East Peace. Peace in the Middle East is not possible until leading Arab countries recognize Israel as a sovereign State within its present boundaries.
- Turkey must be wooed and won over again by the West and the United States from its present strategy more prompted by its disillusionment with European opposition to its membership of the European Union. Turkey is the natural regional power of the Middle East and the United States should attempt to give allowances for its yearnings.
- Iran was once a staunch ally of the United States. Attempts should be made to win it over once again despite any Saudi Arabian pressures on the United States to the contrary.
- Russia needs to be co-opted by the United States into a workable partnership for strategic management of the Middle East.
- Pakistan which is not only a regional spoiler state in South Asia has now emerged as “The Chinese Pitch-Fork” to assist China’s undercutting the United States strategically in this region. The United States urgently needs to “reset” its policy buttons on Pakistan..
- The United States at no cost should strategically exit from Afghanistan. An effective and strong United States embedment in Afghanistan would foil and pre-empt China’s strategy to undercut United States strategically in the Middle East.
Finally, its is my feeling that the United States out of deference to Pakistan Army’s sensitivities has in the past decade or so, in a very subtle manner motivated India to “Look East”. The time has now come for the United States to encourage India to “Look West’ towards a greater role in the Middle East.
China’s ‘soft power’ strategy in the Middle East can be matched more effectively by India’s matching ‘soft power’ approaches in the Middle East. India has a longer historical, economic and cultural links with the Middle East than China. Ironically, India gave China an access to the Middle East at the Bandung Non-Aligned Nati- heartedness.
In China’s Grand Strategy to grab superpower status, the Middle East Region figures as the “master-key” where China could reasonably expect to displace the United States predominance as compared to East Asia.
China so far has relied on making strategic headway in the Middle East by an imaginative use of ‘soft power’ and by cashing –in on grudges of Middle East nations towards the United States However, what is now unfolding in China’s strategy to undercut the United States in the Middle East strategically, is a muted use of ‘hard power’ ingredients too.
The United States would be well advised to divert its focus from a Middle East Peace Settlement to that of exploring urgently policy options that would enable the United States to pre-empt China from strategically under-cutting the United States in the Middle East.
The United States needs to recognize that a Middle East Peace Settlement is not on the horizon as the Middle East nations perceive the United States as a waning power in the face of China’s rising power. The United States need s to reset this misperception right.
The United States ‘master-key’ to foil China’s strategic undercutting of the United States in the Middle East lies in a sustained and effective political and military embedment in Afghanistan.
*Suman Sharma is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group