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Why China is tip-toeing into Middle East security

For the U.S., cooperating with Beijing and not forcing its Gulf trading partners to take sides would be good strategy in the long run.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The Persian Gulf region and the rest of Asia have typically been treated as separate geographic and analytic entities despite the fact they belong to the same continent and share historical ties. Discussions about regional cooperation have mainly revolved around oil and remittances sent by migrant workers. 

This conventional thinking has predictably fallen short in appreciating the greater number of overlapping strategic interests between the Gulf and Asia. Bucking the tradition, a new edited volume, “The Arab Gulf’s Pivot to Asia: From Transactional to Strategic Partnerships,” addresses this. The argument is simple but far-reaching: The Gulf-Asia nexus can alter the regional architecture underwritten by the United States, and therefore merits greater engagement from policymakers.

Last week the Arab Gulf States Institute hosted a panel comprising the volume’s editor Narayanappa Janardhan alongside three contributing authors. They discussed their book in the context of recent developments in world politics. Of the themes addressed, two are particularly timely, as the Biden administration inches toward forming a defense bloc with Australia, Japan, and India — otherwise known as "the Quad" — to counter China’s influence in the so-called “Indo-Pacific” region. 

One such theme is the strategic independence of the littoral countries. The other is what Steve Tsang, the director of China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), termed the “selective decoupling” of the United States and China.

As to the former, Washington may have overestimated the support it hopes to get if the Gulf countries are forced to take sides in an all-encompassing strategic competition between the United States and China. Decades of entanglement in the conflict-prone region may have helped the U.S. defense industry, but it barely improved U.S. credibility among the key actors, who are perhaps trying to break away from the vicious cycle of the past and forge a new path toward prosperity. They are also grappling with the fact that oil reserves are not replenishable. Nor are the demands, as the major economies are flocking towards renewable energy. 

Hence, these countries need reliable buyers of their principal export as well as trading partners. China fits the bill for both, as the country is now the largest crude oil importer. It procures 44 to 56 percent of its annual supply from the Middle East, according to Christopher Colley, a professor at the National Defense College in the United Arab Emirates, who also wrote a chapter in the book. Estimates suggest that China will continue to have a robust appetite for oil, making it too lucrative a customer for the Gulf countries to lose.

Meanwhile, China has also significantly expanded its investment in the Persian Gulf. It is also a big four Asian country, along with Japan, India, and South Korea, with whom the Gulf Cooperation Council’s trade is greater than its trade with the United States or Europe. For them, the semblance of a win-win partnership with China is real. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine that the Gulf countries want to maintain strategic independence when it comes to trade and investment, and the United States should accept that development.  

It is not only the Gulf countries that hold dearly to the idea of strategic independence. China, too, wants to maintain it, which, in turn, gives rise to its strategic decoupling from the United States. 

This is exemplified by China’s self-reliance in selected sectors, as shown with Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” campaign

Selective decoupling has the potential to undermine the status quo system’s logic and create tension between its principal architect and its chief beneficiary, assuming that China will want to do business in its way. Therefore, it is likely to create a world divided between two loosely defined blocs. However, Tsang reiterates that “it is not the reversal of globalization,” meaning that there will still be avenues where the United States and China can cooperate. But that is easier said than done, given the escalating rhetoric against China that the Biden administration inherited from its predecessor. If this trend continues, the chance is that the U.S.-China rivalry will shape up to be a zero-sum competition akin to the Cold War, which is not good news for the world. 

Instead of taking a confrontational route, the United States should reorient its diplomatic assets in updating the old system. Given that the mistrust between the two countries traces its roots to the unknowability of their military intention, it would be prudent for them to undertake confidence-building projects. One obvious area of cooperation is sharing the responsibility to protect mutual interests. Secure sea lines of communication are of interest to both the United States and China, and there is no reason for the United States to unconditionally expend its resources on it when China is capable of shouldering some of the burdens. 

According to Xinhua, since 2008, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), operating off the Gulf of Aden, has escorted 51 percent foreign merchant ships. Citing various estimates, Colley points out that China is capable of expanding its presence by fielding some 18 warships to patrol the Indian Ocean region. Only by combining careful planning and coordination can the United States and China achieve their common goals while enhancing mutual trust.

In the end, cooperating with China and not forcing its Gulf trading partners to take sides in U.S.-China rivalry would be the best strategic bet for the United States in the long run. After all, the closer the Gulf and Asia come, the better for the people of the two regions and the lesser the costs for the United States to bear. 

Policy prescriptions like this are not typically put out by the U.S. foreign policy establishment — all the more reason why they should not be put aside, especially when U.S. strategic anxiety about China is frequently on display. Washington should pay heed to the panelists who stress that the Gulf allies want greater cooperation with both the United States and China, not to get stuck in the middle of an epochal competition between the two.

The Republic of China Navy
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