American policymakers have long assumed that Chinese and American goals in the Middle East are largely complementary. Beijing, so the prevailing wisdom holds, is fixated on commerce, with a special emphasis on oil and gas. “China’s strategy in the Middle East is driven by its economic interests,” a former senior official in the Obama administration testified last year before Congress. “China … does not appear interested in substantially deepening its diplomatic or security activities there.” According to this reigning view, China adopts a position of neutrality toward political and military conflicts, because taking sides would make enemies who might then restrict China’s access to markets.
This oft-repeated shibboleth ignores clear signs that China is very actively engaged in a hard-power contest with the United States—a contest that the Chinese occasionally acknowledge and are capable of winning. In 2016, Xi Jinping toured the Middle East for the first time in his capacity as president of the People’s Republic of China, visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran. Chinese propaganda hailed the trip as a milestone. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a white paper on its Arab policy, the first of its kind. “We will deepen China-Arab military cooperation and exchange,” the paper read. “We will … deepen cooperation on weapons, equipment and various specialized technologies, and carry out joint military exercises.”
The following year, in 2017, the Chinese navy opened a naval base in Djibouti, the first overseas base it has ever established—a tacit renunciation of the traditional Chinese credo of noninterventionism. Djibouti sits on the southern end of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which guards the passage to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal from the Gulf of Aden. On the northern end, only 18 miles away, lies Yemen.
China is advancing on the Middle East with ruthless determination, because the region is of more vital interest to China than any other, aside from the Western Pacific. Indeed, China is actively working to oust the United States from the Middle East—a reality that the American strategic community would overwhelmingly prefer not to recognize, but one that is nonetheless becoming glaringly obvious.
Don’t believe us? Ask the Uighurs, the brutalized people of Xinjiang province, which the Chinese government is actively colonizing by moving in millions of ethnic Han Chinese. The lucky among the Uighurs, who number some 11 million in total, are trapped in an inescapable web of surveillance and oppression. The unlucky ones, numbering perhaps 1 million, are interned in ideological indoctrination camps where they are exploited as slave labor, tortured, and, according to recent reports, subjected to forced sterilizations.
What motive can China have for its ongoing torment of a small ethnic minority, which brings Beijing an ongoing avalanche of negative publicity in the West? Xi’s policy flows, the experts tell us, from Beijing’s fear of terrorist and separatist movements among the Uighurs, who are a Turkic Muslim people with ethnic and religious ties to their neighbors and to Turkey. Whatever the validity of this analysis, it misses the strategic vector, which again points directly to the Middle East.
Xi’s signature foreign policy achievement is the Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion program that invests in infrastructure projects across the world designed to funnel resources back to a hungry China, thereby creating a global Chinese sphere of interest. The jewel in the crown of the Belt and Road Initiative is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—a multibillion-dollar program to build highways, rail lines, and pipelines from the port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean to Xinjiang, the Uighur heartland. The northern terminus of the corridor is Kashgar—a Uighur city which, with cameras in every crevice, is likely the most surveilled metropolitan area in the world. China is crushing the Uighurs, in other words, because their territory sits athwart China’s critical overland supply routes.
How determined is China in its advance toward the Middle East? Determined enough to commit genocide.
The assumption of compatibility between Chinese and American interests in the Middle East is the residue of an otherwise defunct strategic belief system. Call it “harmonic convergence.” From Presidents Nixon to Obama, American leaders mistakenly assumed that globalism would transform China into a kinder, gentler communist power.
This theory began with the basic recognition that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faced extraordinary pressure to grow its economy to create jobs for an exploding population. By necessity, therefore, Beijing had no choice but to accept several core components of capitalism, chief among them the flexibility that only decentralized decision-making can provide. As China decentralized its economy, so the thinking went, a new middle class would rise and demand more say over government policies. Full-blown democracy might not ensue, but relations between rulers and ruled would become ever more consensual and transactional. The iron laws of market economics would transform the CCP from a tyrant into the largely benign technocratic manager of a giant outsourcing park for Apple and Nike.
What China’s heavily bureaucratized one-party state lacks in the capacity to innovate and solve real-world technical challenges quickly, Israel has in spades—along with a unique ability to see inside and understand the capacities of the American techno-military complex.
Harmonic convergence is a materialist theory of history, a capitalist analogue to Marxism. It assumes economics to be the main driver of human affairs, and it sees the “liberal international order” as the product of the immutable laws of political economy—universal laws that would shave the rough edges off communist China just as they had shaped Europe, America, Australia, Japan, and South Korea into modern liberal states. For decades, successive American presidents from both political parties worked to integrate the economies of China and America, turning them into conjoined twins.
The dynamics on which harmonic convergence focused were real enough. But the theory’s exclusive focus on economics blinded American leaders to countervailing factors—cultural, political, and demographic—of equal or greater weight. Culturally, China sees itself not as one country among many, but as a great civilization that is central to humankind. Politically, the CCP has proved more capable than anyone ever dreamed possible of adapting single-party rule to the demands of a modern economy. Thanks, in part, to the rise of new technologies, the CCP now manages to efficiently surveil 1.4 billion people, permitting them latitude in their economic affairs while ruthlessly policing their political life and social interactions.
CCP oppression of the Chinese people would be troubling but manageable if China were a middling actor on the world stage. But size matters. In 2010, Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, stormed out of an international conference in protest over U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of aggressive behavior by the Chinese military in the South China Sea. He subsequently justified his rage with this terse observation: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
China resents the efforts of the United States to defend and support “small” countries in order to sustain an international order China had no say in creating and whose values—liberalism, democracy, free speech, free and transparent markets—it sees as daggers aimed at the CCP’s continuing rule. Beijing is therefore determined to break the liberal capitalist mold that the West built for it, and its heft gives it the power to succeed.
Of late, some analysts have taken to identifying the source of China’s hostility to the West as “communism.” Though anachronistic, the term is not entirely inaccurate. To be sure, no one in China still believes in the hidebound tenets of Marxist economics. Still, the CCP continues to rely on the one-party state structure and the traditional communist party tools of repression, subversion, and ideological warfare—including, to name just three, the secret police, a global system of front organizations and espionage networks, and a colossal propaganda machine—to advance nationalist ends.
In foreign policy, the CCP remains dedicated to international revolution. The new world they envision, however, is not a Marxist paradise but one in which China will replace the United States as the dominant power in a Sinocentric world order.
In achieving this goal, China’s leaders see business and scientific research as subordinate branches of the national security apparatus. The “Made in China 2025” initiative, which the CCP unveiled in 2015, envisions near-complete Chinese independence from foreign suppliers, especially in next-generation high-tech industries, with the goal of transforming China into the undisputed leader in the fields that will drive global economic growth in the coming decades.
The idea of supplanting the United States as the motor of high-tech innovation is integrally connected to the second track along which the CCP is moving: military modernization and expansion. Although reliable numbers are difficult to come by, between 2000 and 2019, China’s defense budget is estimated to have increased more than fivefold, from $43 billion to $266 billion—a sum that exceeds the combined defense budgets of Russia, Israel, Great Britain, and France. While Beijing’s immediate goal is to gain superiority over the United States in the Western Pacific, its long-term aim is to develop, within three decades, a fully expeditionary military, one capable of projecting power to the four corners of the globe with state-of-the-art weaponry matching or surpassing the firepower of the United States, and one trained in tactics designed to neutralize existing American advantages.
The third track of China’s strategy is political: to make the world more hospitable to the CCP’s single-party state. The new security law for Hong Kong, issued in late June, reminds us that as China grows in stature, it is becoming more aggressive and expansionist and hostile to democracy, not less. The CCP routinely uses front groups to organize expatriate Chinese communities and mobilize them in support of Beijing’s goals. It forces foreign companies operating in China to toe its ideological line in their own homes, and exploits Chinese businesses, universities, and research institutes to infiltrate Western institutions and companies.
In this context, the Middle East presents Beijing with a unique mix of threats and opportunities. On the threat side of the ledger is the fact that around half of China’s oil imports either originate in the Persian Gulf or flow through the Suez Canal. In addition to oil and gas, many of the other resources that feed China’s economy wind their way to ports such as Shanghai or Guangzhou only after passing through Middle Eastern choke points, where they are vulnerable to interdiction by the United States.
On the opportunity side for China, the Middle East is not only the source of much-needed oil, it is also home to the Jewish state. In terms of population, Israel is miniscule, but it is a cyber superpower, a global leader in artificial intelligence, and a spectacular innovator of next-generation weaponry. What China’s heavily bureaucratized one-party state lacks in the capacity to innovate and solve real-world technical challenges quickly, Israel has in spades—along with a unique ability to see inside and understand the capacities of the American techno-military complex. Jerusalem could play an indispensable role in helping Beijing achieve both its “China 2025” goals and its military modernization efforts—if it were not sheltering under the protective umbrella of the United States military.
“The World Island” is the name that Halford Mackinder, the father of modern geostrategy, gave to the single landmass created by the three interlocking continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, whose point of intersection we call “the Middle East.” The power that dominates the World Island commands the globe. The economic lifelines of not just China but also much of the world crisscross the region. Today, the United States military guarantees those lifelines, ensuring American global preeminence. If the era of American primacy in the Middle East were to end, the global balance of power would shift dramatically toward Beijing.
Last June, Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, director of intelligence at the U.S. Africa Command, drew public attention to the problem of the harassment of American forces at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti—the only permanent American base on the continent—by their new Chinese neighbors. The Chinese, she explained to reporters, were working to “constrain international airspace” by barring American aircraft from flying over the Chinese military base, deploying drones that were designed to interfere with U.S. flight operations, and flashing military-grade lasers at American pilots, causing minor injury to their eyes. On more than one occasion, Chinese soldiers have also attempted to infiltrate the American base.
From Beijing’s point of view, hard-power competition with the United States in the Middle East is a direct extension of the military contest in the Western Pacific. In the event of war between China and its Asian adversaries, Beijing intends to deny the United States the ability to operate militarily within “the first island chain”—the string of archipelagos stretching from the Kuril and Japanese Islands in the north, southward through Taiwan and the Philippines, and terminating in Borneo. These islands—America’s unsinkable aircraft carriers—hem in China from the east, turning the Asian behemoth into a peculiarly landlocked country.
To date, Beijing has had no means of breaking out to the sea. But China’s new route through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean changes all that. Beijing calls it the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC), because Americans, whose thinking is steeped in harmonic convergence, drop their guard when they hear the word “economic.” In reality, the Pakistan-China relationship is a military alliance in all but name, directed at India. The corridor will terminate on the Indian Ocean at Gwadar, where a port is currently under construction with generous help from the Belt and Road Initiative.
While Beijing is now presenting Gwadar as an entirely commercial venture, upon completion it will certainly become a military base, which will assist Beijing in flanking India. CPEC will also shorten and harden China’s supply lines. Gwadar will serve as a transshipment hub for oil and natural gas and other raw materials that will flow overland through pipelines to Xinjiang, then on to points farther east in China.
To put the strategic import of the China-Pakistan link in quantifiable terms, the total distance from China to the Persian Gulf is over 5,000 nautical miles, through waters that, in time of war, will likely be impassable. By contrast, the distance from the Persian Gulf to Gwadar is less than 600 nautical miles.
The strategic advantages of this base-to-be will transform it into the most lustrous pearl in China’s growing “string of pearls”—the network of entrepôts along the sea lanes of communication that stretch from Hong Kong to Djibouti and Port Sudan on the Red Sea. With the exception of Djibouti, China presents these positions as commercial hubs—but at least some are clearly dual-use facilities that will be openly militarized whenever Beijing is ready to unsheathe its sword.
These martial intentions are not lost on China’s Asian rivals. If viewed from Delhi, Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, Manila, or Canberra, the hostile purpose of the string of pearls is obvious. In the event of war, China is positioning itself not simply to defend its own energy supply lines but also to threaten the lines of its adversaries, all of whom are highly dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Among the most dependent are Japan and Taiwan, both of which have virtually no domestic oil and gas and rely overwhelmingly on Middle Eastern imports.
Among the pearls, the offensive strategic potential of Djibouti and Gwadar are particularly notable. Djibouti guards the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a chokepoint in the route between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, through which oil flows to Europe. Gwadar, for its part, is located just off the Gulf of Oman, situated within easy striking distance of the Strait of Hormuz, through which oil destined for India, Japan, and Taiwan must pass.
If Beijing were in a position to interdict the cargo passing through these two key Middle Eastern chokepoints from its new bases in Djibouti and Gwadar, it would have its thumb on the world’s windpipe. Which appears to be exactly the vision that shapes the ambitions of Chinese war planners. A 2016 U.S. Naval War College study warns that within a decade China will have as many as 530 warships and submarines, up from the estimated 400 currently in its fleet. Under current budgets, the United States has little prospect of keeping pace.
Some analysts argue that the counting of vessels is a meaningless exercise: American ships are larger, more sophisticated, and more lethal than their Chinese counterparts—and may remain that way for decades to come. The American navy, moreover, is supposedly better trained in combined arms conflict and in coordination with allied militaries. Whatever the truth of such assertions, Beijing is not planning to assert its domination over the United States in an epic big-screen set piece event like the Battle of Midway. Instead, it’s chipping away at American power, slowly and methodically, with the aim of persuading America’s allies (and potential allies such as India) that the global balance of power is shifting against Washington, and that they are foolish to rely on the Americans for their security.
China’s Middle East strategy is not hard to parse. It is not trying to defeat the Americans in armed combat; it is waging a campaign of political warfare. To borrow a phrase from the Cold War, Beijing is trying to Finlandize America’s allies. That job does not require a military that can match America’s weaponry gun for gun. It just requires that the Americans appear unreliable.
Even now, before its buildup is complete, the Chinese navy is successfully pinning down and thinning out American forces. In 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis changed the name of the combatant command for Asia from United States Pacific Command to United States Indo-Pacific Command. In doing so, he tacitly acknowledged that if war were to break out in Asia tomorrow, the United States navy would have no choice but to increase patrols in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to deter the Chinese from attacking the supply lines of its enemies. The more thinly spread the forces of the United States become, the easier it is to make smaller powers afraid that America won’t be able or willing to protect them.
China’s message to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea (to say nothing of Saudi Arabia and Israel) is clear: America is in decline; China is ascendant, its rise to glory inevitable.
In recent years, Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, has treated Xi Jinping to lessons on how to erode American prestige on the cheap. In the Syrian civil war, Putin deployed a force that was not large enough to constitute a significant threat to American preeminence, but it was still strong enough to turn the tide of the war. By establishing Russia as the leading actor on the ground in Syria, Putin turned himself into an indispensable interlocutor for America’s allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Turkey, both of whose leaders began visiting Moscow more often than they flew to Washington.
China’s involvement with Russia’s Syria campaign extended well beyond watching Putin meet with Erdogan and Netanyahu in Moscow on television. Chinese warships were a regular part of Russian naval deployments in the Mediterranean, and the canisters of gas that Bashar Assad’s forces dropped on civilians in the early parts of the war were made in China.
One observable effect of China’s military engagement in the Middle East, through its active military alliance with Russia and elsewhere, over the past decade, is that many of America’s closest Middle Eastern allies have become customers for Chinese arms. In 2017, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) signed a partnership deal with Riyadh to construct a drone manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia. Previously, CASC had entered into only two such deals: with Pakistan, China’s closest ally, and in Myanmar, which it hopes to turn into an ally and thereby flank India in the East.
China is also gaining experience in force projection through its participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions, to which Beijing sends significantly more personnel than any other permanent member of the Security Council. While Beijing receives plaudits from internationalists for this contribution, the Chinese military gains logistics experience, collects valuable intelligence, and forms enduring relationships. Best of all, it dips into the United Nations peacekeeping budget, to which Washington contributes significantly more than Beijing, to help protect China’s growing overseas assets. Of the 13 countries that accepted Chinese peacekeepers between 2012 and 2018, nine were home to significant Chinese investments. In time, at least some of those contingents will swap out their blue U.N. flag for the red flag of the People’s Republic, transforming themselves into official Chinese military missions.
The rise of the naval base in Djibouti provides the model for this kind of transition. Chinese vessels first arrived in the Horn of Africa in late 2008, to cooperate with (but not to join formally) a multinational anti-piracy task force. The move marked a dramatic change: Never before had China sent warships beyond its territorial waters to cooperate with foreign militaries on an issue of mutual interest. Nor had the Chinese navy ever maintained daily communication with the United States military at the tactical and operational levels. Before then, military-to-military engagements between the Chinese and American navies had been limited to formal meetings between senior officers.
At the time, some in the Pentagon did suggest that this change represented the beginning of serious competition with China in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. The proponents of harmonic convergence, however, drowned those voices out, arguing that the shift in Chinese policy signaled the eagerness of Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder”: Cooperation against pirates today would open the door to other forms of cooperation tomorrow.
They were wrong. By encouraging such happy thoughts, the Chinese navy made the Americans comfortable with the presence of Chinese warships in the Horn of Africa. Before long, their temporary mission became a permanent base from which lasers are now directed into the eyes of American pilots.
China does have a deep, obvious, and abiding interest in guarding the free flow of oil—that much the proponents of harmonic convergence got right. Nor was the theory wrong in perceiving that China consciously benefits from the regional stability that the United States military provides. There is indeed a genuine overlap between Chinese and American interests. But that is the least interesting half of the story. China is also dedicated to transforming the liberal international order by undermining the United States and supplanting it as the dominant power in the Middle East. The goal of China’s formal neutrality is to manage the contradiction deftly, not least by diverting Western attention from its hostile long-term intentions.
The coordination between Moscow and Beijing in the Middle East is part of a much larger story. “In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times,” Xi Jinping said about Vladimir Putin last year upon his arrival in Moscow for a state visit. “Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague,” Xi said. For his part, Putin replied that Chinese-Russian ties had “reached an unprecedented level” and described the relationship between the two countries as “a global partnership and strategic cooperation.”
These were more than just diplomatic pleasantries. While significant areas of friction remain, China and Russia are now working hand-in-glove in many key areas, including in defense. The U.S. intelligence community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” last year led with the statement: “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” The assessment did not identify the Middle East as an area of major alignment between China and its Russian partner, but it should have. Together, they are searching for ways to loosen the bonds between Washington and its allies and to strengthen anti-American forces in the region, which are led by Iran.
Harmonic convergence, however, has obscured the nature, extent and even the existence of a Chinese-Russian condominium in the Middle East by overemphasizing the shared Chinese-American interest in regional stability against Russia’s interest in instability—which boosts Russian oil revenue and arms and security exports. Alas, the presumed clash between Russian and Chinese interests is more theoretical than real. As a practical matter, China’s mercantilist approach to energy mitigates friction with Russia over questions pertaining to oil pricing.
Wherever possible, China purchases long-term concessions at favorable rates, thus insulating itself from the vicissitudes of energy markets. Similarly, Putin’s military interventions in Libya and Syria have not threatened China’s interest in stability, which focuses on the oil exporting countries of the Persian Gulf. On the contrary, they have created many opportunities for Chinese diplomacy and commerce. Consequently, little stands in the way of Russia and China forming an active or tacit alliance aimed at weakening the American order in the Middle East, which is an interest that both countries share in common.
Another fact that Americans tend to miss is that China’s economic size and strategic advantages position it as the senior partner in the relationship—meaning that Xi Jinping, not Putin, calls the shots. It is Russia’s job to intervene militarily in the Middle East and, thereby, to take the heat from the Americans. Meanwhile, China benefits from Russia’s “destabilizing” activities.
The behavior of Chinese diplomats at the U.N. is instructive. For at least two decades, they have mostly deferred to their Russian counterparts on the weightiest Middle Eastern issues, such as the Iranian nuclear deal and the Syrian conflict. If approached by American or European diplomats regarding Beijing’s position on an issue under debate, Chinese diplomats indicate that there is no point in discussing matters with them, because they will vote however the Russians decide to vote. By behaving as if Beijing has no independent policy, Chinese diplomats succeed in providing Russia with staunch support while appearing passive almost to the point of indifference. This ploy reinforces the American presumption that trade is all that China really cares about in the Middle East—and that Russia, not China, is the most serious challenger to American primacy in the region.
Russia’s ability to perform as China’s stalking horse in the Middle East depends significantly on its military alliance in Syria with Iran, which has produced the bulk of the ground troops buttressing Bashar Assad’s regime. But Russia cannot afford to pay for the Iranian effort. For that, China’s resources are essential.
While China does not directly subsidize the Syrian war, it is Iran’s biggest trading partner and its biggest source of foreign investment—just as it is Russia’s. While Beijing’s cooperation with Tehran centers on China’s energy needs and nonenergy economic investments, the relationship has also included, for many years, defense cooperation. As the Trump administration’s sanctions have ravaged the Iranian economy, China’s importance to Tehran has only grown.
And Beijing has grown increasingly willing to demonstrate that fact. Last December, China held joint naval exercises with Russia and Iran in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. The event was notable for being the first of its kind among the three countries, but also for the timing. It came in the midst of significant conflict between Washington and Tehran in which Iranian forces were conducting attacks on tankers hauling oil from the Persian Gulf.
If China were truly neutral in Middle Eastern conflicts, and if it were truly concerned exclusively about trade, then wouldn’t it have refrained from holding joint exercises at that moment—and encouraged its closest friend in the Middle East to settle down, compromise, and get on with the exciting business of building the Chinese and Iranian economies?
Instead, China advertised itself as the silent partner of the Russian and Iranian axis and, by extension, of the so-called “Resistance Alliance,” the string of Iranian allies, including the Assad regime, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis of Yemen.
Of course, Beijing does not explicitly support the malign activities of the Resistance Alliance. On the other hand, neither does it mount opposition to those activities. Iran, too, is China’s stalking horse.
The benefits to China of the destabilizing activities of Russia and Iran in the Middle East are many and substantial. The strategy, first, exhausts America. The last two American presidents have been elected on platforms dedicated to reducing commitments to the Middle East. Sizable segments of both political parties do not understand why the United States is playing a major role in the region, and some significant portion of them advocate leaving it altogether.
Second, the Iranian-Russian axis and the Resistance Alliance damage American prestige. The continuing failures of the United States to prevail over the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, and to outmaneuver Russia in Syria, allow the propaganda machines of Russia, China, and Iran to foster the impression, both inside the Middle East and beyond, that America is past its prime.
Third, keeping the Iranian regime alive and maintaining its military capacity helps the Chinese forces in the region to pin down the American navy, because Iran’s threatening behavior in the Persian Gulf diverts American resources from the Western Pacific.
Neither the Israelis nor the Saudis would choose to manage their Iran problem through Beijing; they would prefer instead to solve it through a strong alliance with the United States. But America’s staying power is uncertain.
Fourth, China is sowing division between America and its allies. Few issues have caused a deeper rift between the United States and its European allies than the disagreements over how to handle the Iran challenge in all of its dimensions—not just the nuclear file. The Syria conflict has similarly divided the Americans from their regional allies, especially Turkey, and it has sent very large refugee flows into Europe that have vexed the European Union and roiled its politics.
Finally, support for Iran and Russia, especially in an era of doubts about America’s long-term commitment to the Middle East, forces major allies of the United States such as Saudi Arabia and Israel to hedge their bets by cultivating their ties with Beijing. For American allies, the best way to gain entree to Beijing without annoying the Americans is by accepting its open invitation to engage economically. Indeed, China is now the number one trading partner of Saudi Arabia, from which it imports more oil than from any other country. Israel, for its part, receives significant capital investment from China along with high-level visits from Chinese military brass, and is employing a Chinese company to develop the port of Haifa—despite repeated American requests to cancel the contract.
In a perfect world, neither the Israelis nor the Saudis would choose to manage their Iran problem through Beijing; they would prefer instead to solve it through a strong alliance with the United States. But both are realistic, and they can see clearly that America’s staying power is uncertain.
The very best lies are grounded in truth, and Beijing’s declaration of neutrality is a very good lie. It broadcasts half of the thoughts that are actually in Xi Jinping’s head, openly acknowledging China’s hunger for energy and need to prevent disruption of its supply. But by emphasizing these truths, Beijing’s neutrality deflects attention from its darker objectives.
Tacit support for the military interventions of Russia and for the terrorism and subversion of the Islamic Republic does not threaten China’s economic interests. On the contrary, brutish violence, if kept within limits, is good for business. What is more, a modicum of mayhem also keeps America on its back foot. In short, China is neutral against the United States.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, China’s annual crude oil imports, the highest in the world, averaged 10.1 million barrels per day in 2019. Expert forecasts predict that those imports will rise significantly in volume over the next decade. To mitigate the risk of disruption, China has diversified its portfolio of suppliers. In 2019, the top 10 sources of Chinese oil imports included, in addition to Middle Eastern suppliers, Russia, Angola, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. Spreading a dependency of this magnitude across many different suppliers is also a campaign of influence, part of Beijing’s political warfare against the United States.
The purchase of British oil is a case in point. Between 2018 and 2019, China’s imports from Britain increased more than its demand from any other supplier—by 44%. Is it an accident that China invested so dramatically in the British economy at a moment when London was in heated negotiations with Washington about whether Britain would allow the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to build and operate its 5G network infrastructure? If it is indeed an accident, the Chinese ambassador in London would like to hide that fact from us. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently reversed course and decided to phase out Huawei, the ambassador warned him that Chinese companies investing in Britain were “all watching.”
Such threats to punish governments with loss of “private” investment have become a normal part of China’s interaction with close U.S. allies like Britain, Canada, and Australia. In America, however, the prevailing wisdom, based on harmonic convergence, depicts China’s Middle East policy as nothing but a single-minded exercise in resource extraction, as if the Chinese private sector makes decisions on the basis of profit-and-loss calculations, and the bureaucrats in Beijing then run along behind it.
The propensity of Americans to see economics as an autonomous sphere blinds them to a simple fact: China is consciously deploying its economic influence to undermine the American order in the Middle East. Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, Beijing has invested more than $123 billion in the Middle East and North Africa. If these numbers suggest that the region is a top strategic priority, the relative trend lines are even more expressive. China is now the Middle East’s largest source of foreign investment. While China’s global investments decreased by $100 billion in 2018, its investments in the Middle East and North Africa actually grew that year by over $28 billion. Almost three-quarters of that sum went to American allies: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—all countries which China designates as “strategic comprehensive partners,” a major honor in the Chinese diplomatic system. By 2018, annual bilateral trade between China and Persian Gulf allies had nearly doubled from a decade before to $163 billion; in 2000, it was only $10 billion. China is now the largest trading partner of Oman, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, and is among the largest partners of Israel.
But Beijing has singled out one Middle Eastern country for special attention. Between 2008 and 2018, bilateral trade with Iraq increased by over 1,000%, from $2.6 billion to more than $30 billion. In 2013, China became Iraq’s leading source of foreign investment and top trading partner, not to mention the recipient of over half of its oil. Iraq is now the third-largest supplier to China, just behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, his detractors, including China, accused him of launching a war to seize control of Iraq’s oil reserves. Ironically, no country has benefited more than China from the postwar oil dispensation. Last year, China Construction Third Engineering Bureau Company agreed to a $1.39 billion deal to build a wide variety of projects in southern Iraq, including low-cost housing, education and medical facilities, and tourist centers.
During a five-day visit to Beijing in September 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi elevated formal cooperation even further, announcing that Iraq would join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. For his part, Xi Jinping committed to an “oil for reconstruction program,” where China would construct a wide array of projects in Iraq, ranging from roads and airports, to hospitals, sewage systems, and schools, in return for 100,000 Iraqi barrels of oil per day. The United States military defeated the Islamic State for the Iraqi government, but it was Chinese companies, not American, that have reaped the rewards. Thanks to harmonic convergence, the Americans harbored no resentment toward the Chinese for their apparent good fortune. On the contrary, Washington welcomed the growing Chinese economic role, even giving Beijing credit for joining the “American” project of building the Iraqi economy and stabilizing the country.
As sad as this story is, it gets even worse. While Iraq is a wonderland for Chinese business, it is a hostile environment for Americans, due to the widespread influence of Iranian-backed militias. Last December, Iran launched a campaign, spearheaded by those militias under the guidance of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to expel the United States from the region as a whole, starting with Iraq. Once again, Iran’s “destabilizing” activities did not receive any visible rebuke from China.
Given the vital importance of China to Iran as its economic lifeline in the era of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, one cannot but wonder if Qassem Soleimani received a wink and a nod from Beijing before he launched the violent anti-American campaign that ended in his death. Even if there was no such consultation, the growing influence of China in Iraq still represents yet another example of how Beijing’s use of Iran as a stalking horse pays economic and strategic dividends simultaneously. The IRGC exhausted and confounded American forces in Iraq, thereby creating a vacuum that Iran’s patron, China, is filling.
The realization that China poses a serious threat to the United States in the Middle East comes at an inopportune moment. Public trust in American leaders is at historic lows, and trust in their judgment about the Middle East is especially jaundiced. On both the left and the right, influential voices in the United States demand a reduction of American military commitments. President Obama first planted the idea of retreat in the public mind, with the announcement from his administration of a “pivot to Asia.” This line of thinking is alive and well among supporters of President Donald Trump. “We’re getting out. Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand … The job of our military is not to police the world,” Trump said last October. Though he was referring directly to his decision to pull American troops from northeast Syria, his rhetoric signaled agreement with those who favor a broad retreat from the Middle East.
The transformation of the United States into a net energy exporter, thanks to the fracking revolution, has strengthened the bipartisan claim that an American retreat from the Middle East would be both sane and safe. Shouldn’t those who are actually dependent on Middle Eastern oil police the region? While we sympathize with the sentiment behind the question, the simple answer is that no power other than the United States has the wherewithal to contain China. Far from strengthening the United States, a retreat from the Middle East would do severe harm to American interests and deliver a strategic victory of very large proportions to Beijing.
Consider this entirely plausible scenario of the immediate consequences of an American withdrawal. As a first step, Xi Jinping would back Tehran politically and militarily in the development of so-called “anti-access/area denial capabilities.” These are the mix of tactics and weapons that the Chinese military is now deploying inside the first island chain in the Western Pacific with the goal of turning the region into a no-go zone for American forces. With Iran so equipped, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman would become Chinese lakes.
As a second step, Xi Jinping would follow a similar strategy along the coast of the Red Sea. Dramatically expanding the base in Djibouti, he would then transform the Chinese commercial hub in Port Sudan, across the Red Sea from Jedda, into a sister military base. With both of these installations equipped with anti-access/area denial capabilities, the Red Sea, too, would become a Chinese lake.
From Djibouti, Beijing would assist Iran to realize its objective of turning the Houthis into a Yemeni clone of Lebanese Hezbollah—an Iranian-directed militia equipped with a large arsenal of precision guided ballistic missiles capable of destroying Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf sheikhdoms would find themselves surrounded by Chinese and Iranian firepower. Their ability to export oil, the lifeblood of their economies, would become entirely dependent on the goodwill of China, which would be the only power capable of restraining Iran. The leaders of the oil producing Arab states would then race each other to Beijing to see who could kowtow first to the Chinese Communist Party.
Israel, too, would have no choice but to kowtow, as its shipping lanes from the Port of Eilat to Asia would be at the mercy of the Chinese in the Red Sea. No sooner would the Sino-Russo-Iranian axis rise in the Persian Gulf than a revivified Russo-Iranian alliance would appear in Syria, with direct or indirect assistance from the Chinese military. The Israeli prime minister would make his own mad dash for Beijing to negotiate the place of Israel in the new, Sinocentric Middle Eastern order.
As the representative of a country with nuclear weapons, a state-of-the-art military, and a diversified economy, the Israeli leader would likely receive better terms than his Arab counterparts. Xi Jinping would be more than delighted to treat Israel as close friend of China—provided Israel agreed to downgrade its ties with the United States and Europe, establish a Sino-Israeli cyber research and development center in Beijing, participate in a joint missile defense development project, and allow the Chinese navy to conduct port visits in the Haifa harbor that China built and runs.
The swift hegemony of China over the oil transport chokepoints of the Middle East would lead to panic among America’s East Asian allies and India. Was China readying itself to strangle them economically? Should they search for sources of oil from the Western Hemisphere? Should they work with one another to build emergency oil reserve systems?
In response to the panic, Beijing would launch a charm offensive to reassure panicked U.S. allies that China remained fully committed, as always, to freedom of navigation and to the free flow of oil at stable prices. Beijing would then begin the slow, deliberate and systematic work of exploiting its favorable strategic position in the Middle East to transform itself into the undisputed king of the global energy trade, building up positions of unrivaled power at every stage of the oil production process, from extraction, to transport, to refining, and marketing.
Oil and gas are unique commodities. Their price and availability affect every individual in the world, yet they are controlled by a relatively small group of powerful companies. Merely through the choice of contracting partners and terms of sale, producers and distributors have the power to redirect billions of dollars from one set of pockets to another. Energy companies are thus inherently attractive to Chinese communist leaders, for whom it is second nature to seek out and acquire instruments of mass influence that can be kept under the tight control of a privileged few.
Under the new, Sinocentric Middle Eastern order, companies and individuals critical of America would see their stars rise. This web would include Europe and, indeed, all other regions where Middle Eastern oil and gas are consumed. Nor will the energy self-sufficiency of the United States protect us from Chinese pressure. The recent Saudi-Russian price war serves as a reminder that oil is produced locally but priced globally. When the Saudi-Russian dispute collapsed the price, it threatened to destroy the American fracking industry, on which much of the growth of the American economy is now predicated.
If China succeeds the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East, a major shift in the global balance of power will result, significantly diminishing the clout of the United States, even to the point of eroding the control that Americans exercise, as a free people, over their own destiny.
Retreating from the Middle East would go down as one of the greatest strategic blunders in American history. Nevertheless, the political climate in the United States constrains the options of America’s leaders. The last two presidents gained office by promising to end wars in the Middle East, not start new ones. Neither President Trump nor Democratic candidate Joe Biden will display anything but a reluctance to introduce new forces into the region.
How then, can the United States strike a balance between containment of China and the electorate’s demand for a light touch in the Middle East? The key is finding partners on the ground who will do the work that the American military cannot do.
In American politics today, there are only two available methods for identifying partners and assigning them roles and missions. The first, co-optation, was the method Obama used. Attempting to create a concert system in the Middle East, Obama started from the assumptions that Moscow and Tehran were open, under the right conditions, to being co-opted; and that America and its major allies shared more in common with them than they had heretofore been inclined to acknowledge. Obama saw himself not as the head of a coalition dedicated to undermining Russia and Iran, but as a leader intent on bringing together all of the various regional “stakeholders” and helping them find mutually beneficial solutions to the challenges of the region. America, its allies, and Iran and Russia all shared, Obama believed, a vital interest in containing Sunni radicals such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and in stabilizing the Middle East more broadly.
By the lights of this theory, Iran is a status-quo power, merely struggling to hold on to what it has, not attempting to overturn the existing order. The worst policies of Iran—pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for terrorism, and building of subversive militias in surrounding states, to name just three—were indeed ugly, but they were essentially defensive acts. Iran has a weak regular army, which poses no threat of invading its neighbors. Its deep sense of insecurity, historically, has derived largely from the fact that its regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, had persuaded the United States to take an aggressive position toward it, thus convincing Tehran that America’s real goal was regime change. As long as America sought the destruction of the Islamic Republic, a more productive relationship was impossible.
Obama approached Russia with an analogous set of assumptions—which, intellectually, fit hand-in-glove with the harmonic convergence approach to China. If the United States were to treat Moscow and Tehran as partners, not as adversaries who needed to be contained, then it could change the calculus in Moscow and Tehran. Thus, on one hand, the president repeatedly scolded Saudi Arabia and Israel, lecturing them on the need, in his words, to “share” the region with Iran. Meanwhile, on the other hand, he engaged in an ambitious attempt to arrive at a strategic accommodation with Moscow and Tehran. The main focus of that effort was the Iran nuclear deal, but it included diplomatic engagement over the future of Syria and Iraq as well.
The foundational assumptions supporting this approach, however, were false. Russia and Iran are not simply playing defense against American imperialism. They are anti-status quo powers seeking to oust the United States from the region—and they were backed in turn by a more powerful anti-status quo power, China. Obama’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq; his repeated announcements that America was war weary and eager to rebuild at home; his refusal to take the lead, whether diplomatically or militarily, in stabilizing Syria; his explanations that East Asia was the new foreign policy priority—all of these and more convinced Moscow and Tehran that the United States was racing for the exits in the Middle East. Once America left, they had good reason to believe that the Chinese would work with them.
Thus, the spirit of partnership that the United States hoped to spark by adopting a more accommodating position on the Iranian nuclear program did not generate a reciprocal response.
On the contrary, the Iranians recognized that Obama’s ambition to complete the nuclear deal gave them a free hand elsewhere in the region. Tehran’s shared interest with Moscow in the survival of the Assad regime generated unprecedented cooperation between the two countries in Syria. The moment the nuclear deal was completed, this cooperation flowered into a full-blown military alliance.
Iran and Russia were not alone in deepening their involvement in the Middle East on the heels of the nuclear deal. In January 2016, Xi Jinping toured the region for the first time, visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, the highlight of his trip, Iran. Chinese propaganda framed the visit as the arrival not just of a leader, but of China as a great power. The co-optation method of stabilizing the Middle East opened the door to a Sino-Russo-Iranian coalition dedicated to overturning the American order.
The United States cannot leave the Middle East. But neither can it stabilize the region with large numbers of its own ground troops. Nor can it create a concert system with Iran and Russia. Only one option, then, remains: to contain the anti-American powers—China, first among them—by building up a regional coalition made up of America’s traditional allies, which will shoulder much of the work on the ground.
Alas, containment has been getting bad press these days. On July 11, The New York Times reported that China and Iran were on the verge of signing a 25-year trade and military agreement. The article would have us believe that this is a stunning new and dangerous development—the direct consequence of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. But it is not. As even the article concedes, without digesting the implications, Beijing and Tehran first announced a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” when Xi Jinping visited Tehran in 2016—a year before Trump took office, and only one week after the JCPOA brought sanctions relief to Iran.
The New York Times encourages us to conclude that the only remedy to the Sino-Iranian alliance is a return to Obama’s policy of co-optation. But the great flaw of Obama’s policy was that it forced no hard choices on Iran, which was free to pocket concessions from the West while cooperating even more closely with China and Russia in ways that eroded American power. Tehran could enjoy sanctions relief while building a web of rapacious militias explicitly dedicated to attacking and subverting America’s allies and to driving the United States from the Middle East.
Similarly, Obama’s model of co-optation failed to take advantage of the glaring contradiction at the heart of China’s grand strategy, which seeks to enjoy all the benefits of American hegemony while working, indirectly, to destroy it. Indeed, the contradiction strikes at the core of the Sino-Iranian relationship, which now consists of a delicate balancing act: While China tacitly supports Iran in order to undermine the American position in the Middle East, it cannot afford to take that support too far, lest the blowback harm its economy or provoke a damaging counterreaction from the United States.
The modern Sino-Iranian relationship was forged shortly after the Iranian Revolution, when both Iran and China were still international pariahs united by overt hostility to the American-dominated global order. Since then, China has adopted a more restrained posture—at least in appearance—especially since its accession to the World Trade Organization and its integration into the global economy. China’s economic ties with the United States put limits on China’s support for Iran: In 2018, China’s annual trade relationship with Iran was $42 billion, while its trade relationship with the United States ran at about $737 billion.
At present, China is too dependent on exports to the United States, too weak militarily, and its energy supply lines are too vulnerable to risk direct confrontation with the United States; instead, China mounts indirect challenges through Iran and Russia. A return to the cooptation approach will assist Beijing in its strategy of having it both ways. More specifically, it will strengthen the Russian-Iranian alliance, turning it into a more effective sword for China to swing at the American regional security structure.
If the Russian-Iranian alliance should die, or become weak and ineffectual, China will not step in directly to build it back up—because Beijing fears a direct confrontation with the United States. The first priority of American policy, therefore, is to remove the sword from China’s hand by crushing the Russian-Iranian alliance. The domestic American political climate will not permit the use of large numbers of American troops in this project, but four other tools do exist:
1) Economic sanctions. The Trump administration has been imposing these effectively. The Iranian economy is in perilous condition, and the economic situation of Iran’s allies, the Assad regime and Lebanese Hezbollah, are equally dire.
2) Clandestine operations. In recent months, Iran has experienced a wave of mysterious fires and explosions at industrial complexes and military installations. One of these events, at the nuclear fuel enrichment site at Natanz, reportedly set back the country’s nuclear program significantly. A foreign hand is suspected in at least some of these episodes, and the finger of suspicion points most often at Israel. But the sabotage could just as easily be the result of a joint American-Israeli operation.
3) Direct military action by allies. The Turks and the Israelis have both carried out very effective operations in Syria that have significantly degraded not just Iranian but also, in the case of the Turks, Russian capabilities.
4) Selective and judicious use of American military capabilities. The killing of Qassem Soleimani in December did more to shake the Iranian regime than any step the United States has taken in the last 30 years, with the possible exception of the invasion of Iraq. It not only removed from the game an indispensable player, but it boosted the morale of America’s allies and demoralized its enemies.
These tools, taken together, can effectively remove the Russo-Iranian sword from the hand of China. They are already being used. Are they the result of a conscious Trump administration strategy, or have they simply materialized as a set of ad hoc responses to the president’s insistence that his national security team contain Iran aggressively, yet with an economy of force? Whatever the answer, they point the way forward. The goal of American policy should be to use them separately and in coordination so as to increase their lethality.
The greatest advantage that the United States has in its competition with China and, indeed, with any of its adversaries, is hard power. In the realm of trade and investment, Washington simply cannot compete with China and hope to win. If it is to contain China successfully, then it will win with its sledgehammers: military power and economic sanctions. In the Middle East, what America’s allies crave most is the security that comes from the might of the American military. Nothing does more to encourage allies to hedge their bets and cozy up to Beijing than the fear that the United States has decided to abandon military competition as a tool of statecraft.
As China works to make the Middle East a factor in the Western Pacific balance of power, the United States should respond by bringing the Pacific to the Middle East. China’s energy supply lines and its aspiration to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf should become a regular and significant part of America’s discussions with its Pacific partners and India. The goal of this dialogue should be to arrive not just at a shared picture of the threat but also at strategies for assuring that China’s supply lines remain highly vulnerable. China’s partners and potential partners in its plan to become a Middle Eastern military power—Iran, Djibouti, Pakistan, Iraq, and others—should be put on notice that the days of harmonic convergence are over. Support for Chinese hard-power aspirations must come at a steep price. The U.S. must bury harmonic convergence as an organizing principle, or risk ceding control of the international system to a hostile, anti-democratic power.
Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
Peter Rough, the former director of research in the office of George W. Bush, is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.