China’s growing interest in the Persian Gulf – together with all the talking of U.S. retrenchment from the very same region – gives rise to a question: will China’s increasing economic interest in the Persian Gulf lead to a more activist security policy there? And, to put it bluntly, will China and the U.S. switch roles in the long term? To answer these questions, we need to consider a few aspects. First, what is the strategic relevance of the Gulf to China? Second, how do U.S. and Chinese interests in the region overlap, and how do they separate?
Ever since Beijing started stretching its muscles into the Upper Western Indian Ocean (UWIO), New Delhi has refused to be a passive spectator. Some Indian policymakers interpreted Chinese actions in the area through the lenses of the “String of Pearls” theory, according to which China aims to gain access to a series of strategic locations (i.e., “Pearls”) in the Indian Ocean in order to project power.
The Southern Red Sea region has a key role in global energy security. The Strait of Bab el-Mandeb is one of the world’s most important chokepoints for trade flows, and occupies a central role in the Indian Ocean’s routes. Currently, China relies on oil imports from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden, whose chokepoints are under the military protection of the US Navy.
The implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the increasing Chinese presence in Pakistan is a matter of domestic and regional concern.
Only several countries were able to boast the possession of “unmanned” aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or armed drones between 2000 and 2004, but that number has risen steadily since. Today, approximately 30 countries are known to have operational armed drones, the proliferation of which has been decidedly facilitated by China’s eagerness to sell to essentially any state that is willing to buy them.
The extent of China’s ability to project power worldwide became apparent with the construction of a People’s Liberation Army support and logistics base in Djibouti in July 2017, the first out-of-state military installation for China since 1958. Located less than ten kilometres from Camp Lemmonier (the only US military base in Africa), the Djibouti base broadens the scope of China’s armed forces well-beyond the natural extent of the country’s state borders.
The Upper Western Indian Ocean (UWIO) has been under China’s radar for the past two decades. The Belt and Road Initiative has strengthened the country’s image as a responsible stakeholder and a successful economic partner. Moreover, the United Nations have legitimized China’s military and security operations in the area. To what extent is China’s role of securitizing power dependent on its economic investments? How is Beijing’s deeper engagement modifying China’s relations with the main actors in the area?
“The failure of the government to address the concerns of Hong Kong’s youth, as well as the relative sclerosis of its economic and political systems, may very well lead to further and more radical movements. Unless major changes occur in Hong Kong’s economy, superficial and piecemeal policies such as distributing ‘sweeteners’ to the poor and middle class or increasing land supply will not be enough to alleviate their grievances.
China’s future role on the global stage hinges upon a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Beijing’s meteoric rise in economic terms has been coupled by increasing military expenditures and a more assertive foreign policy stance. But the country is also facing a potential backlash, exemplified by protests in Hong Kong, while it remains to be seen whether (and how) the governance of the coronavirus outbreak will affect China's image abroad.