Wednesday, August 28, 2013

China, Syria, Reuters, and the Security Politics of Middle East Energy

Reuters has a good article by Ben Blanchard on China’s frustrations in the Middle East.

Since it is unable to project power in the Middle East, the PRC has been forced to stand by as the U.S. makes a royal cockup of the region.

Unfortunately, I feel the article delivered a clanger in its conclusion—that the PRC relies on U.S. good offices to “guarantee stability” and keep the oil flowing:

China effectively relies on a strong U.S. military presence in the region to guarantee stability and the smooth flow of oil, especially through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened in the past to close in the event of war.

One thing the US has not delivered to the Middle East in the last fifteen years is “stability”.  

And I don’t think the PRC’s strategic thinkers necessarily believe that Middle East instability is a bigger threat to China’s oil supply than the US presence.

After all, if there’s one thing that everybody in the Middle East, including mortal enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, is they all want to export to China.  

As to whether or not the United States is simply and altruistically interested in making sure that China’s energy purchases make it safely through the Straits of Hormuz…

…as the stabilizer and oil flow assurer-in-chief, the United States, the U.S. is distinctly aware of the strategic leverage it holds over China by maintaining its presence in the Middle East, as I pointed out in a recent rummage through the historical record:

In 2006, in the American Prospect, Robert Dreyfuss described the Cheney outlook on the People’s Republic of China, based on the account of Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson.  Dreyfuss wrote:

Two of the people most often encountered by Wilkerson were Cheney's Asia hands, Stephen Yates and Samantha Ravich. Through them, the fulcrum of Cheney's foreign policy--which linked energy, China, Iraq, Israel, and oil in the Middle East--can be traced. The nexus of those interrelated issues drives the OVP's broad outlook.

Many Cheney staffers were obsessed with what they saw as a looming, long-term threat from China.


For the Cheneyites, Middle East policy is tied to China, and in their view China's appetite for oil makes it a strategic competitor in the Persian Gulf region. Thus, they regard the control of the Gulf as a zero-sum game. They believe that the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military buildup in Central Asia, the invasion of Iraq, and the expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf states have combined to check China's role in the region. …

One may speculate that Mr. Cheney’s determination to keep a threatening thumb over China’s Middle East oil artery lives on in the Obama administration’s continuing involvement in the bottomless pit of money, munitions, and misery that is US Middle East policy, despite the President’s avowed interest in pivoting away from the Middle East to the peaceful and profitable precincts of Asia.

As the U.S. dependence on Middle East oil has shrunk, thanks to the twin miracles of fracking and Canadian gunk, Chinese dependence on Middle East oil has become well-nigh absolute, a state of affairs that is, as Blanchard points out, imperfectly reflected in the state of affairs in the Middle East.

This shift in U.S. foreign dependency from Middle East energy to Pacific trade supposedly underlies the “pivot to Asia” a.k.a. “the rebalancing”.  But the U.S. still seems militarily stuck in the Middle East for a variety of reasons, and maybe because continued leverage in the matter of key global energy flows is simply too irresistible to abandon.

The Chinese have tried to pivot into the Middle East—diplomatically.  Since PLA power projection is about a decade away from aspirational, as the Reuters piece points out, the PRC has tried to midwife a Middle Eastern order based on stability through the principle of non-interference i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran are welcome to deploy their resources in their pursuit of stability (suppression of domestic democratic sentiments) without Obama-style rabble-rousing in support of democracy, human rights, and freedom to connect.  And as Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, depose their authoritarian regimes and send new governments through the revolving door of populist/factionalist/military governance, China is always there with a welcoming handshake and offer of aid.  And the PRC has been reasonably surefooted in walking the Palestinian/Israeli tightrope, maintaining good relations with both sides.

If anything, events in Syria tend to confirm the wisdom of the Chinese approach.  So I found Blanchard’s observation that “The worsening Syria conflict has exposed an uncomfortable truth behind China's cherished policy of non-interference: Beijing cannot do much to influence events even if it wanted to,” a little off the mark.   

The PRC doesn’t want to influence events inside Syria.  It doesn’t want the U.S. to influence events inside Syria.  It wants Assad to influence events inside Syria.

The PRC has received precious little support from the Obama administration in its effort to quiet down the ruckus in the Middle East.  Perhaps the United States, driven its irresistible imperative to impose human rights, democratic, and non-proliferation norms in the region, is unwilling or unable to address China’s amoral and opportunistic desire for stability.  

Or maybe the U.S. security establishment remembers China’s free-riding on expensive U.S. initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and resents Chinese footdragging and backfilling on Iran sanctions.
Do Chinese establishment liberals debate whether the PRC should have thrown a few lives and a few million dollars into the bloody maw of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and shown a greater eagerness to cripple the Iranian economy on America’s behalf on order to ingratiate itself to Washington?   

Maybe.  However, a look at recent history implies that U.S. hostility to the PRC is systemic and institutionalized, and there is no G2 nirvana in the offing.  So any U.S. gratitude to China—and willingness to consider Chinese energy anxieties when the next opportunity for a bloody Middle Eastern debacle, such as attacking China’s key energy partner Iran over its alleged nuclear transgressions, presents itself-- would be conditional, temporary, and unreliable.

It certainly is not a slamdunk cinch that China considers that its energy security is best served by a U.S. naval force lurking in the Straits of Hormuz, or even that the PRC’s interests would be better served by inserting a substitute PLA presence in the region.

I am sure that China security hawks are arguing that the PRC should attempt to replicate the U.S. precedent, and try to project PRC military power into the Gulf, thereby abandoning the principle of non-interference (and, inadvertently, providing a measure of vindication-by-imitation of a US policy of intervention that has yielded catastrophic costs but precious few benefits, which is why, I believe, any perceived Chinese drift from the principle of non-interference receives excited attention from the Western security press).

I also expect that there are voices within the PRC establishment who regard the U.S. formula for global relevance (whenever the dark cloud of instability appears, look for the silver lining of an opportunity for U.S. intervention) as a luxury that only the United States can afford.  And, even if the PRC decides to embark on the quixotic and expensive quest of Middle East military power (and somehow avoid tripping over India, which might have a few things to say about Chinese carrier groups sailing off its doorstep), as long as the US worries about China, the United States will not surrender its role as Middle East pot-stirrer in chief to the PRC.

Maybe there are better and more cost-effective ways to hedge against an interruption of shipments from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Iran.  Things like spending billions to buy friendships with those in power, instead of spending hundreds of billions on force projection (and getting forced into countless bad decisions about how to use that power, as is happening to the US in Syria).

As the center of gravity of the oil markets shift to China and Asia—and the attention and interest of the Middle East oil barons follow—perhaps China’s best hope is that the United States will tire of the Middle Eastern game, Saudi Arabia and Iran will decide that a prolonged shutdown of the Straits of Hormuz in a war of annihilation is an option not worth pursuing, and the region will refocus on its core business of pouring non-renewable energy down the thirsty throat of the Asian economic miracle.

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