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:
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
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
staffers were obsessed with what they saw as a looming, long-term threat from
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. …
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
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 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
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.