Countering China in the Middle East
China is on an energy-driven venture into the Middle East, and America should be wary.
Given the Middle East’s strategic location, natural resources, and security challenges, the U.S. should guard against a hostile power dominating the region. Yet, while potentially disruptive, China’s entrance into the Middle East gives America an opportunity to update its strategy in the region.
China receives over a quarter of its oil from the Middle East, giving it a reason to establish its presence in several countries throughout the region. For instance, China formed a 25-year strategic trade, security, and infrastructure partnership with Iran, which will provide China with discounted Iranian oil and increase China’s leverage in the Persian Gulf. Further, China has an oil-for-infrastructure deal with Iraq that will send a third of Iraq’s oil to China in return for Chinese-operated critical infrastructure projects. These are but two countries in China’s approach to increase its influence in the Middle East.
China’s rising leverage through its use of economic ties and debt as tools to mute political opposition can be seen in Arab countries’ silence—and occasional support—for China’s internment of over a million Muslims.
America’s primary foreign policy goal should be to prevent a hostile power from dominating regions of crucial political, geographical, or economic importance. Bridging three continents, the Middle East is one of the most strategically significant locations in the world. Global shipping lines—the bloodstream of the international economy—run through it, and its main resource—oil—powers the world and affects America’s economy. Keeping oil flowing from the Persian Gulf also keeps America’s European allies from depending on Russia for energy.
We don’t want a hostile power controlling the flows of critical shipping lanes and trade routes of a third of the world’s oil. How then should America counter China’s rising influence in such an important region?
America’s past attempts to remake the region in its own image through violent, meddlesome methods and constant engagement have brought decades of wars, a sullying of America’s global standing, and igniting terrorist attacks against the homeland.
It’s time to change course.
Preventing China from gaining too much influence in the Middle East will involve a reorientation of America’s strategy. Rather than promoting its own domestic values and institutions, America should form a network of alliances to guard against any country’s attempt to dominate the region. America’s recent brokering of trilateral relations between Israel and several Arab states is already diplomatically and economically countering Chinese influence. Strengthening this alliance to counter the China-Iran dyad would be prudent.
America’s Middle East interests can also be accomplished with a smaller military presence. As in the Cold War, America should rely on local powers to balance each other, rather than engage in direct management or attempting to change regional politics. For instance, America could help create a Suadi, Jordanian, Israeli, and other Gulf state coalition to counter Chinese and Iranian influence. America can provide intelligence sharing and training to regional allies, but fighting should be left to them whenever possible.
When a military presence is needed it can be smaller than in the past. A few U.S. naval ships and accompanying fighter jets stationed on an aircraft carrier or bases can keep vital regional shipping lanes open. An emergency response force can be kept nearby—like America’s Rapid Deployment Force in the Cold War—but held over the horizon until absolutely needed.
America should use alliances and prudent military decisions to prevent a hostile power from dominating the Middle East. This strategy would avoid previous mistakes of nation-building and trying to remake the region in our own image, and instead use the tools America used to win the Cold War.
Jakob Puckett is an energy policy analyst and an associate contributor for Young Voices.