Features | Security | Central Asia

If Bahrain Erupts

A flare-up in Bahrain could spark a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shias. If it did, the US would be left with the question of how to handle China.

A flare-up in Bahrain could spark a broader regional conflict between Sunnis and Shias. If it did, the US would be left with the awkward question of how to handle China.

To the extent that the media have linked events in the Arab world with China, they’ve tended to focus on Beijing’s fear of the Jasmine revolutions. But there’s another connection between developments in Southwest Asia and China that has been overlooked.

It’s impossible to forecast how the string of Arab uprisings that started with the Tunisian revolt will unfold. But the continuing tensions in Bahrain, which went relatively unnoticed compared with the upheavals in Egypt and Libya until the cancellation of the F-1 Grand Prix hit the headlines, have the potential to start a cataclysmic chain reaction. 

The Sunni royal family’s brutal repression of the Shia demonstrators, with the help of Saudi troops and Pakistani mercenaries, could potentially unleash a regional Sunni-Shia conflict across the Persian Gulf region. In the worst-case scenario, conflict could cause an interruption of oil exports from a large section of the Arab side of the Persian Gulf.

At this point, the world economy couldn’t sustain the loss of these resources, meaning that despite the Iraqi fiasco and the failures in Afghanistan, the United States, as the only country with the military resources to take control of the oil fields, would have no choice but to intervene to keep the petroleum flowing.

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In 1990, when the United States chose to fight to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush, built a broad coalition that included regional actors (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria among others) as well as all the major oil-consuming nations at the time, namely the NATO allies, Japan and a few other states. And, although the United States contributed the bulk of the military might, the allies provided either additional forces or paid part of the bills for the war. Aside from the operational and economic advantages to the United States, this large Gulf War ‘consortium’ diluted the risks to the US by making most other nations assume their share of responsibility for the restoration of the Kuwaiti monarchy.

Should the United States feel it has to intervene again in the region, the nature of the problem – i.e. how to build a global syndicate to open the oil valves – would be similar. But this time, the number of players would be greater. Other nations, and in particular China, have become enormous oil consumers and global economic actors. They therefore have as much of a stake as North America, Europe, and Japan in keeping the oil flowing (not only for themselves, but also to sustain the international economy that fuels their growth).

The question, therefore, would be how best to handle China. The United States would have two basic options, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.

One would be to simply ignore Beijing and run a Washington-led NATO (plus Japan, South Korea, Australia) intervention. The upside is that management of the intervention would be easier, but the downside would be that China would be spared any of the risks. However, as an oil-consumer (and exporter to countries that need oil) China would be able to free ride on the operation by enjoying the benefits of the US action to restore order in the oil region. Essentially, US and allied blood would be spilled for an operation whose benefits would accrue in a significant proportion to the Chinese Communist Party.

The alternative would be for Washington to inform Beijing that with wealth comes responsibility. Essentially, China would be told that it had to participate in the effort or else be last in the queue for the distribution of oil after the intervention. 

Participation could range from financing a share of the operation to sending large numbers of soldiers. The United States would thus entangle China in the war, preventing it from simultaneously trying to undermine US goals while benefiting from the outcome of US actions. It would also prevent China from fishing in troubled waters – perhaps with Iran – while taking advantage of the US landings in the Persian Gulf to undermine American interests in Asia. However, in exchange, the United States would have to give up some control in return for Chinese participation.

Obviously, there are a multitude of options within these two scenarios. But even if the likelihood of a US-led effort to seize oil fields in the Persian Gulf at present seems low, it’s still worth starting to think about the kind of coalition that would be needed in the event that the situation in Bahrain turns it into the Sarajevo of the region.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan Campus in Tokyo.