Events over the past week in Iraq, where the radical group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) took control of Mosul and its surrounding environs, have drawn renewed attention to the fragility of much of the Middle East. These events also reinvigorated the debate about the continued viability of a unified Iraq, the role of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation in today’s instability, and the overall strength of U.S. Mideast policy. Such debate is valuable, particularly in relation to U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East moving forward. Yet, the events in Iraq have global implications and little attention has been directed towards the impact of ISIS’s advances on another nation-state with major interests in the Middle East – China. Whereas a weak and unstable Iraq will constitute a loss-of-face for the U.S., the same scenario represents a strategic impediment for the People’s Republic.
Over the past five years, China has gradually transformed its foreign policy from a more passively diplomatic approach into a more confrontational and activist orientation. Its aggressive actions in the East and South China Seas over the course of the past two years are evidence of the change. The emergence of maritime tensions in the east has become a focal point for much of the world and has led many to question China’s intentions. China has pursued a more robust foreign policy partly to fuel its domestic economy and partly due to the rise of Chinese nationalism (stoked by the Chinese Communist Party to enhance its legitimacy and direct attention away from internal issues). Much like the United States before it, China’s economy has expanded beyond the capacity of its domestic reserves of natural gas and petroleum. As such, China has become reliant on energy imports and is today the single largest customer for the majority of the energy rich states of the Middle East and Africa. With much of its imported natural gas and petroleum arriving via the Indian Ocean, China’s supply is at risk by having to traverse the chokepoint that is the Strait of Malacca.
As China has become more dependent on imports from its west, it has pursued means by which to alleviate its dependence on the Strait (which could be closed off in the case of a conflict). It has developed pipelines in Myanmar, desires to do the same in Pakistan, and has developed deals with nearby states to send energy resources overland, including the recent deal for Russian natural gas. However, its most ambitious plan to secure its energy supplies comes in the form of an overland energy corridor connecting China to the Gulf States. China has already invested heavily in Central Asia (both as a conduit for energy and as a producer) as a part of this strategy. The People’s Republic, with the possible exception of Iran itself, is the most vocal advocate of an Iranian nuclear deal. Hoping that a deal will lead to Iran being able to freely export its energy deposits, China is investing its diplomatic energies in decreasing tensions between Iran and the West. A footing in Iran would also allow China access to Iraqi reserves and the energy supplies of the Gulf Kingdoms. This overland Asian energy and trade corridor is a major aspiration of President Xi Jinping and China’s current leadership and reflects a key strategic element of China’s more robust foreign policy.
China’s vision in this regard makes sense. Although it has made major investments in its navy, China has not reached the capacity to be called a blue-water force. Too many potential conflicts could emerge between it and the littoral states in South or East Asia that in turn could jeopardize access to energy. Fracking and alternative energy sources are only a potential long-term solution. Additionally, while its relations with many of its neighbors in East Asia have soured and tensions with India remain high, China enjoys strong ties with each Central Asian state, Iran, and Iraq. Unfortunately, as so many others have learned, events in the Middle East have a tendency to disrupt even the best-laid plans.
China’s footing throughout the Near East, even after decades of economic investment, remains shallow. Beijing’s lack of familiarity with the myriad disputes that dot the region has regularly threatened investments and complicated relations. In 2011, the Libyan civil war put millions of dollars’ worth of construction projects at risk and positioned thousands of Chinese nationals in the middle of a war. After a great deal of scrambling, China successfully got its citizens out of the conflict zone, but as of yet has not recouped the losses that resulted in abandoning their projects. In 2012, China failed to sufficiently recognize how the Syrian civil war was a reflection of regional tensions. As an international supporter of Iran and in keeping with its long-standing foreign policy position of non-interference and respect for sovereignty, China vetoed several UN resolutions that sought to decrease violence and punish the Assad regime. China’s vetoes were poorly received among the Gulf Kingdoms, most of which openly support the Syrian opposition, and necessitated some diplomatic maneuvering. Perhaps most surprising to students of the region, China, over the past several years, has indicated numerous times a desire to get more involved in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, believing that it, as a new player, will be successful in alleviating tensions.
The examples above reveal that China suffers from a comprehensive lack of experience dealing with the politics of the contemporary Middle East while overestimating its capacity to rise above regional disputes. This is precisely why China’s overland Asia corridor will prove to be a massive undertaking and why the current assault by ISIS in Iraq is an indicator of the types of conflicts China will have to navigate to make the overland route successful. ISIS’s attacks throughout Central Iraq have already threatened China’s oil investments. Imagine the increased risk if this overland route becomes a reality. Even if ISIS is no longer a threat in the future and China is able to surmount the hurdles in making this overland route a reality, the corridor’s components in Iraq will still remain threatened by continued sectarian tension and the possibility of Syrian problems spilling across the border. The overland route’s Middle Eastern anchor will be in Iran, which is involved in a regional competition for influence with the Saudi regime and several other Gulf Kingdoms. In short, China has insufficiently prepared for the amount of political risk that its strategic project will face.
Like so many other non-regional powers that come to the Middle East, China will soon realize that its presence in the region will cost more than planned and regularly ensnare it in conflict. China’s concern over energy security requires it to explore measures to alleviate risk and ensure that its plan takes it through regimes that are friends to China. However, its continental, rather than maritime, plan requires a reliance on stability in one of the most unstable regions on the globe. In that vein, it is the United States, with its domestic energy development on the upswing and its future Mideast policy focused on air and sea power, which will enjoy a stronger position. Some in the West fear China’s proposed overland route, viewing it as a move by Beijing to spread its sphere of influence. It should be noted that China remains fundamentally uncomfortable with foreign military operations (it also lacks the infrastructure to sustain a military presence so far from home) and that the Gulf States, even when partnered with others, always march to their own tune. In opposition to the popular notion that the United States is withdrawing from the region, events will prove that the United States is transitioning to a new methodology that moves away from seeking to change the region to one that focuses on alleviating regional threats as they emerge. Moving forward, China’s advance into the Gulf will dirty its reputation and strain its resources while the United States finds itself standing on firmer, less muddy ground.
Jeffrey Payne is Manager of Academic Affairs at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.