One of the United States’ most pressing interests in the Middle East is maritime security, particularly in the Strait of Hormuz, in which oil tankers move approximately 17 million barrels of oil daily. To protect this vital interest, America has consistently maintained thousands of U.S. troops and military installations in the Persian Gulf. But an increasing Chinese naval presence in the Gulf has some in Washington speculating that Gulf states are shifting away from the U.S. sphere of influence and towards Beijing’s. According to this argument, China will attempt to assert its newfound dominance in the Gulf—similar to its attempts in the South China Sea—and threaten U.S. maritime energy access in the region, causing enormous damage to the U.S. economy.
Yet rather than viewing it as a threat, Washington should recognize there are benefits to Chinese involvement in the Middle East. These include regional stability, as already evidenced by China’s facilitating recognition agreements between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Middle East also has the potential to become a financial and military liability for Beijing, which could give the United States a leg up in its current Sino-American rivalry.
For one, if China were to become entangled in Middle Eastern conflicts, this would drain resources and reduce its ability to challenge American power on other fronts. For instance, China has invested close to $200 billion in Latin America, which extends its ability to influence regional politics. It has been pressuring South American nations—Argentina in particular—to permit the construction of military bases. But if China were to become preoccupied with problems in the Middle East, it may force them to deprioritize these other projects.
Beijing is already moving in this direction. For example, China’s domestic persecution of Muslims has spawned dozens of militant Chinese Muslim groups in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There have been bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan targeting Chinese nationals, and ISIS is putting China in its crosshairs. Moreover, China has also built a naval base in Djibouti—with other potential base sites in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives—and deployed thousands of special forces in Syria. For extremist groups like ISIS, these are rich potential targets.
Simultaneously, concerns about China wielding its newfound regional influence to harm American economic interests—especially when it comes to energy affairs—don’t carry much weight. Because of the United States’ firm integration into world trade, any harm to American regional maritime or energy security would damage other international actors that China is trying to strengthen relations with. Directly threatening America in this way is thus antithetical to China’s own goals. Barring the collateral damage, such moves would also invite retaliation. The United States has considerable influence over the South China Sea, its regional states, and other areas vital to Chinese influence and trade. If Beijing were to exercise its influence in the Middle East in such a way that directly harmed U.S. economic interests, Washington could easily counter back.
There are some proactive measures the United States can take if it wishes to maximize costly risks to China. To start, Washington could reduce the common interests between China and the region’s inhabitants while still leaving plenty of room for Chinese overreach. For example, acknowledging China’s peacekeeping efforts in a positive light would remove mutual animosity towards the United States as a shared interest. With America no longer decrying Chinese peacekeeping efforts, fewer actors will see cooperating with China as a way of “defying” America. The United States should also focus on scaling down its extensive military presence in the Middle East, leaving gaps that Beijing may try to fill. This way, Chinese interests and forces end up becoming salient targets for militant jihadists in the face of an increasingly distant America.
The United States should reconsider its current attitudes toward China’s expansion in the Middle East and take it for what it is: a chance to let China make costly mistakes. Washington needs to acknowledge that not everything China intends to do in the region will threaten U.S. interests. Not only that, but some of China’s initiatives may bring about stability in places that America has historically failed to stabilize. All the while, this approach can give Washington a leg up over its rival by keeping Beijing’s hands full. Only in well-defined instances where U.S. interests are directly threatened should Washington act decisively. Otherwise, all the United States needs to do is cautiously observe events unfold and avoid premature intervention.
Simeone Miller is a Middle East security analyst and a current graduate student in the Social Sciences and Globalization MA program at California State University, San Bernardino. He has previously worked as a researcher at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society.
Garrett Ehinger is a China analyst who holds a bachelor’s in Biomedical Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese from Brigham Young University in Idaho. He is currently a master’s student at the University of Utah studying public health. He has studied Chinese culture and language for over a decade.