The Middle East is a fundamentally unstable area of the world. Threats to regional stability have regularly emerged both from disputes between governments and from internal forces within countries. This is likely to continue for decades to come. Looking ahead, however, the region’s stability will be increasingly threatened by relatively new, largely external dynamics. The most important of these will be the interplay of three ongoing and unfinished transitions: the rise of Chinese regional influence, the prospect of US regional retrenchment, and the changing global strategic approach of the US to China.
China’s relations with the nations of the Middle East and North Africa have been relatively modest throughout most of the modern era. As China has emerged as a global economic power, however, its commercial relationships across the region have naturally expanded in kind. In 2015, China officially became the biggest global importer of crude oil, with almost half of its supply coming from the Middle East. And across the entire region, China became the largest source of foreign investment overall, with over $123 billion worth of investments and construction contracts just since 2013. As trade and investment have grown, the Chinese government has significantly increased its strategic attention to the region, both through its highly-touted “belt and road” infrastructure investments, and through its less well-known increase in diplomatic and military engagements.
Virtually all of the strategic agreements China has with countries in region have be signed over just the past decade – the 1999 one with Egypt being the sole exception. Over that period China has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as strategic partnerships with Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Turkey. Chinese diplomats have been able to navigate the region’s divisions relatively adeptly thus far: Saudi Arabia has become China’s top oil supplier while at the same time China has become Iran’s top oil buyer.
Chinese military relations throughout the region, though still small in comparison with traditional external powers, are likewise increasing. The Chinese Navy began visiting ports on the Arabian Peninsula as part of the international anti-piracy mission and in 2017, opened its first overseas military base in the region in Djibouti. Just last December, China, Russia and Iran began a four-day joint military exercise, which itself followed three-week naval exercises between China and Saudi Arabia held just the month before.
It is now not uncommon to find Chinese private security contractors working in the Middle East, Chinese peacekeeping forces have been in the region for over a decade, and more recent years have seen significant increases in Chinese arms sales to the region, particularly armed drones and ballistic missile systems. Of course, China can make such sales without the governance or human rights conditions that are typically imposed by the West. China is also actively selling commercial technologies in the region with obvious dual military uses, in such sectors as cyber security, unarmed drones, next generation wireless infrastructure, satellite navigation, and nuclear power. Perhaps even more significantly, in the years ahead China will also likely begin to export the technology-based systems it is honing to help control its own population.
Chinese strategic objectives for the region follow its 2016 “Arab Policy Paper” that was released to coincide with Xi Jinping’s first presidential trip to the Middle East. The dominant Chinese strategic objective is to encourage stability so that the region’s energy resources continue to power Chinese economic growth, and thus the legitimacy of the Chinese leadership. Its preferred tool is economic development. Ideally, from a Chinese perspective, it would continue to be a free-rider on the security that the US has provided since the announcement of the Carter Doctrine in 1980. Beijing therefore is careful to insist publicly that it does not seek to supplant the US role in the region, and in the short term this is undoubtedly true. However, given the geostrategic reality that access to energy will continue to be a vital interest for China and the intrinsic vulnerabilities of long transit lines through several volatile maritime chokepoints, we should expect that over the longer term China will increasingly build a blue water navy and regional military presence that can protect its interests in the Middle East.
At the same time US policy toward the Middle East is undergoing its own transition. Until relatively recently, the US regional role was one of the most consistent components of American foreign policy, supported on a bipartisan basis across administrations. The US generally limited its role to one of a classic status quo power, largely seeking to preserve an inherently fragile balance of power.
But over the first two decades of the twenty-first century, consecutive presidents decided to upend this tradition. President George W. Bush launched an unnecessary war intended to overturn the regional status quo rather than reinforce it, sharply breaking from his predecessors, and destabilized the region as a result. President Obama reacted by distancing the US from its usual regional partners, withdrew American forces from Iraq, and left office with Syria, Libya and Yemen in tatters, and a war against the Islamic State’s proclaimed caliphate. This instability allowed for the return of Russian power to the region, something the US had previously worked for decades to prevent. President Trump, while calling for further US withdrawal from the region, broke with his predecessor’s nuclear accord with Iran and began a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign without an accompanying military plan to maintain deterrence, which has further undermined stability.
It took many decades to build a Pax Americana in the Middle East. It has taken far less time to put its foundations at risk. Despite the relatively stable American military presence in the region, local leaders are understandably beginning to question whether the US may withdraw from the region altogether, as the British, French and Ottomans did previously. Traditional US partners are not seeking this outcome, but they are actively hedging against it. Part of that hedging is to expand their relationships with China.
And finally, the third major transition that has ramifications for the Middle East is the changing US consensus about China. The previous US consensus, which lasted decades and was adopted by US presidents across the political spectrum, was that by working to welcome and integrate a rising China into the rules-based, liberal international order, China would benefit economically and become a “responsible stakeholder” in that system. But, given American inability to successfully address longstanding concerns about Chinese protectionism and mercantilism, as well as more recent aggressive Chinese military and diplomatic actions, this previous policy is now generally viewed to be outdated at best, and at worst an abject failure.
As Fareed Zakaria recently explained in Foreign Affairs, “A new consensus, encompassing both parties, the military establishment, and key elements of the media, holds that China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it. This consensus has shifted the public’s stance toward an almost instinctive hostility: according to polling, 60 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the People’s Republic, a record high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 2005.” President Trump’s trade war with China is thus one of his few policies to garner bipartisan support.
Given these three ongoing transitions, as we look to the future we can imagine four different scenarios for the Middle East.
The first scenario is that the US remains the sole major power to operate in the Middle East, as it has been in the past. It is still possible that the next US president will reverse the course laid by his immediate predecessors and reaffirm the American commitment to the region. But it is deeply implausible that China and Russia will take a step back from the region after securing a foothold. This is therefore the least likely outcome.
The second scenario is that Middle East becomes a regional geographical theatre in a global great power confrontation between the US and China. Such a confrontation would mirror the US-Soviet competition for influence in many parts of the world during the Cold War. It would take place across the diplomatic, intelligence, economic and potentially military domains. Countries in the region would be required to choose sides, and the effects of such a scenario would threaten to overwhelm all other challenges currently confronting the region. This is the worst-possible outcome, and should be avoided at all costs, if at all possible.
The third scenario is that the US withdraws entirely from the region. This also is a distinctly negative outcome for all the players involved, even China, due to the role played by the US as a security provider for the region. It’s not hard to imagine the implications of such a future. The region’s energy resources would be even more insecure. Iran would be even more aggressive and Turkey would be more revanchist. The largely malevolent influence of Russia would grow. China would undoubtedly accelerate plans for their blue water naval presence. Other regional state and nonstate actors would feel unconstrained to advance their own objectives and come into increasing conflict with one another. Salafi jihadist terrorist groups would likely grow, and the potential for nuclear proliferation would similarly increase. U.S. national security interests would be threatened, and the global economy would be more vulnerable to energy-related shocks.
The fourth scenario is that the Middle East largely becomes an area for cooperation for China and the US, which coordinate their activities based on their mutual interest in energy, stability and economic prosperity. The US and China would still have sharp differences, both globally and regionally, but they would consciously work together to develop specific mechanisms to manage those differences in the context of the Middle East. To achieve this last, most positive outcome, China and the US should now begin to discuss openly their areas of commonalities and divergences and seek to improve their mutual understanding, both officially between governments and informally between American and Chinese regional experts.
Unfortunately, today most American experts in the Middle East know little about China, and similarly the relatively few Chinese scholars in the region are too often not well-versed in US regional interests and policies. Since the natural trend is unfortunately toward the more negative scenarios, it is critical that such dialogues begin in earnest, as soon as possible.