China’s increasing political, economic, and security profile in the Middle East is occurring at a time when there is concern in regional capitals that the United States may be preparing to withdraw from the region. Perceptions of an American withdrawal have led observers to ask whether Russia or China have the ability to step in for the United States as security providers. While Moscow may be grabbing headlines with its interventions in Syria, the reality is that it lacks the capacity to engage in any prolonged region-wide operations. Simply put, with an economy that is $400 billion less than the GDP of the state of Texas, Russia lacks the ability to conduct significant operations in multiple countries. While China’s military has rapidly modernized, and its economy continues to grow, it is currently unlikely to engage in long-term freedom of navigation operations in the Arabian Gulf because of Beijing’s political concerns.
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria is the latest example of Washington’s flirtation with the proposal to pull out of the Middle East. For nearly 15 years American presidents have discussed leaving the region, but the Trump administration has increased concern among leaders in the Middle East that the security America provides may not last.
The rhetoric emanating from the White House may appear to signal America’s impending withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula, but with the exception of Kuwait, the American force structure in the region is higher than it has been since 2006. This is before taking into account the sending of 1,800 additional American troops to Saudi Arabia to bolster its defenses in light of the recent attack on Saudi oil infrastructure.
With hostilities in the Gulf between Iran, its neighbors, and Washington threatening to escalate to a direct military conflict, a key question on the minds of decision makers in the region is: if the Americans were to withdraw from the Middle East, could China replace the United States and provide security guarantees? American strategic interests in the Gulf have traditionally revolved around securing the steady and uninterrupted flow of petroleum. These interests are being called into question as America briefly became a net oil exporter for the first time in 75 years in December 2018. Even though this independence was short lived, the trend is clear: America is no longer heavily reliant on overseas sources of oil. In 2018, the United States imported only 11 percent of its oil, the lowest amount since 1957. Contrary to this, 43 percent of Chinese oil imports came from the Gulf region and because of the rapidly expanding size of the Chinese middle class, China’s oil imports will continue to grow to an estimated 80 percent of total oil consumption by 2030.
Given China’s increasing dependence on oil imports, which currently constitute nearly 70 percent of its overall oil consumption, can China replace the Americans in the region? This question revolves around two key issues. First, does China have the military capacity to fulfill such a role, and second, does China have the political will to carry out such a task?
On military capacity, China does have the ability to provide a sizeable force in the region. With 33 destroyers, 54 frigates, and 42 corvettes in its arsenal, of which over 80 percent are considered modern, China has the requisite surface combatants to maintain a sizable force structure in the Gulf. While China does not yet have a fully functioning aircraft carrier (their current carrier is primarily for training purposes, and only in 2018 did it manage to conduct its first night time landings), the surface fleet, if hosted by a friendly state, would be able to maintain a regular presence in the region. In fact, according to the Indian military, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) maintains a constant force of six to eight major warships in the northern Indian Ocean. In addition, during the summer of 2017, 14 PLAN warships were spotted in the Indian Ocean, where they conducted live-fire exercise. During the political unrest in the Maldives in February 2018, a flotilla of 11 PLAN warships approached the island nation in what Indian analysts believe was an attempt to dissuade New Delhi from getting involved in the crisis.
The PLAN has over a decade of experience in conducting anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf region and by April of 2019 it had carried out 32 escort missions that successfully accompanied over 6,600 Chinese and foreign flagged ships. Beijing has also significantly increased its military diplomacy around the world and, in particular, in the Indian Ocean Region, where its joint military exercises increased from three in 2013 to 47 in 2016.
Based on the PLAN’s power projection capability and its participation in anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean over the past decade, it is clear that Beijing does have the military capacity to carry out some form of power projection or freedom of navigation operations in the Gulf. While it lacks the air bases of the Americans, China would be able to develop these if invited to do so by regional governments.
The recent attacks on oil tankers off the Arabian Peninsula are a cause of concern for China. Addressing this situation, Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated that the “overseas situation is highly complicated and sensitive, and China hopes that all parties involved keep calm and restrained and work together to maintain peace and stability in the Gulf region.” An important emerging component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the ability to protect overseas Chinese interests. The Chinese concept of “frontier defense” requires the PLAN to be able to fight in the global commons, and thus to have the ability to carry out combat missions in distant parts of the world. In fact, in 2015 the Chinese government stated that China needs to be able to “safeguard its maritime rights and interests.”
While PLA is not nearly as powerful as the American military, a more important question is whether China has the political will to become more involved in the region. In recent years Beijing has signaled that maritime security is essential to China’s security. The 2015 White Paper on China’s Military Strategy argued that China needs to protect its sea lines of communication and maritime interests and called for the PLAN to engage in “open seas protection.” At present, China benefits enormously from the American military presence in the Middle East. Beijing frequently refers to the American military as a prime example of American hegemony, but this very hegemony is what keeps the sea lines of communication safe and open. China depends on these open seas for 95-100 percent of its trade with the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. If Beijing were to become heavily engaged in the region, thus protecting its oil supplies and challenging the perception that it “free-rides” on the Americans, it would require establishing military bases. In addition, the most likely adversarial state that China would confront would be Iran. The possibility of China having to engage in some form of military action against Iran, a state in which it has invested over $27 billion from 2005-2018, and with which it maintains strong political and military ties, is unlikely.
The American attempt to assemble a coalition for the defense of shipping in the Gulf, named “Operation Sentinel,” has caught Beijing’s attention. Ni Jian, the Chinese ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, mentioned that China was “studying the U.S. proposal on Gulf escort arrangements.” He further stated, “If there happens to be a very unsafe situation we will consider having our navy escort our commercial vessels.” However, it is unlikely, given the current state of Sino-American relations, that the United States would seriously support a PLAN task force.
Overall, the foreign policy decisions of the Trump administration are frequently contradictory or self-defeating, and are often reversed or significantly revised. While the American withdrawal from Syria is causing consternation with Washington’s Middle East allies and partners, the prospects of the United States pulling out of the Arabian Peninsula are low. The increase in America’s force structure in the region over the past decade needs to be properly analyzed and compared to the rhetoric coming out of the White House.
Even in the event of an American withdrawal from the region, China’s navy is unlikely to fill this possible void. While the PLAN is quickly increasing its blue water capability, it still lacks dependable air cover and does not want to be seen as replacing what it perceives as America’s hegemonic footprint in the region. Politically, Beijing’s prefers to sit back and allow the Americans to provide secure sea-lanes for Chinese oil imports and manufactured exports. Until forced to do otherwise, Chinese leaders, while criticizing the United States, are actually quite content with the status quo.
Dr. Christopher K. Colley is an Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the National Defense College of the United Arab Emirates. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the National Defense College, or the United Arab Emirates government.