When two tankers, one from Japan and the other from Norway, were sabotaged in the Gulf of Oman in June, President Trump tweeted, “China gets 91 percent of its Oil from the [Strait], Japan 62 percent, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation.” The commander-in-chief has a point.
The attacks, along with four others in less than two months, should serve as a notice to European, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries that rely on Persian Gulf choke points to conduct their international commerce. Those who benefit from global shipping lanes ought to help protect them. The current tensions in the Persian Gulf are a result of faulty U.S. policies, but nonetheless, an opportunity exists for the Trump administration to promote one of its most consistent foreign policy goals: preventing our allies (and our adversaries) from free-riding on the United States.
Incentivizing other countries to take more responsibility on their shoulders is as applicable in the Strait of Hormuz as it is for the NATO alliance. In a world with limited resources and finite bandwidth, the United States should prioritize America’s vital interests over global benefits and share the larger security burden with other wealthy, capable nations.
Predictable outcries from the establishment aside, the president has a case when he points out that China, Japan, and Europe are more directly affected by short-term disturbances in the Persian Gulf than the United States. Any disruptions to supply in the Persian Gulf will no doubt have an effect on the price Americans pay at the pump. But with a growing supply of its own, the United States is less tied to Persian Gulf commerce than European and Asian states rich enough to pitch on its protection.
The United States is far less dependent on Middle East crude oil for its energy supplies than it was at the turn of the century. The numbers don’t lie: In April 2008, the United States imported 2.3 million barrels of crude per day from the region; in April 2018, the figure was around 938,000 barrels per day, a decline of about 60 percent. With the shale-oil boom, the United States is producing more of its own oil every year, which decreases our dependence on foreign suppliers in the Gulf—and which in turn reduces the economic and security imperatives for the U.S. military to serve as the coast guard of the Persian Gulf.
Other countries aren’t as fortunate. Between January and April of this year, China imported 44 percent of its crude oil supplies from the Middle East. India relied on the Middle East for two-thirds of its imported crude during the last financial year. Japan is in even worse shape in terms of dependency, with 80 percent of its imports sourced from the region. While the United States is now an energy supplier, many Asian nations, including South Korea, remain dependent on foreign sources for their energy needs. South Korea, one of the biggest energy consumers, tapped the Middle East for 82 percent of its crude imports in 2017. In short, the black stuff from the region is incredibly important for these economies—far more important than it is for the U.S. economy, which in addition to producing crude is also blessed with two energy-wealthy and benevolent neighbors to its north and south.
Despite this important strategic difference, Washington remains a security guarantor of the maritime coastlines in the region, not just the commons. The permanent presence of the U.S. Navy in the waters of the Gulf provides energy consumers like China and India with a degree of comfort that their supplies will be protected. The United States in effect, is de-facto protecting Chinese oil shipments, a curious arrangement given the heightened competition between the two economic giants. U.S. command of the global commons—the skies and open seas—is key to its military power and worth preserving. But accepting the assistance of other countries to help police against sabotage and mines near coastlines would not sacrifice that advantage.
The Trump administration’s ongoing effort to create an international coalition to monitor—and if necessary—protect tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz is therefore a reasonable request. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Mike Esper have already had conversations with Arab, Asian, and European leaders about creating such a mechanism—one that will reportedly include escorts for vessels transiting the waters and surveillance in the air to ensure any additional breaches are documented. This is sensible burden sharing, enlisting the assistance of nations that have an even larger incentive to prevent the types of attacks the world witnessed in the Gulf of Oman and off the UAE coastline.
As it continues to seek support for this program, the Trump administration can credibly claim this effort is in no way meant to be an offensive action against Iran or a prelude to an armed conflict, but rather a prudent step designed to protect commerce in the area. Other nations being involved will in fact make the protection less threatening to Iran than the presence of more capable U.S. ships would. And with more countries involved in the effort, the deterrent to future sabotage would be enhanced. Once the situation improves and ships are able to sail without the recent increased risk, the initiative will no longer be required.
Trump would also be wise to supplement the maritime program with a formal offer to establish a senior-level communications channel with Tehran to explore ways to deescalate the current crisis. While a comprehensive negotiation with Tehran is highly unlikely in the present atmosphere, responsible moves to reduce tensions before they grow into something permanently malignant is in the U.S. national security interest.
The tit-for-tat between the United States and Iran need not result in war. If the administration plays its cards correctly, it can actually use it to further its noble objective of pushing our partners to contribute their fair share to the defense of shipping lanes rather than expecting U.S. taxpayers and service members to be their permanent guardian angel.