Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Friday, May 17, 2019.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Friday, May 17, 2019. Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP

We Need a Better China Policy in the Middle East

With allies and direct lines to Beijing, Washington must do more to keep China’s presence in the region from becoming a threat.

Of all the dilemmas the United States faces in the Middle East, none is more vexing and consequential for U.S. strategic interests than China’s increasing presence and influence in that part of the world. 

Of course, the dual challenges of Iran and terrorism obligate us to engage in hard and delicate balancing acts, too. The first calls on us to stop the Islamic regime from threatening, assaulting, and destabilizing our regional partners, and in a way that doesn’t bring about another open-ended war in the region. The second requires us to further push our Arab friends to reform and commit to addressing the root causes of violent extremism, though without alienating them or leading them to reduce their security cooperation with us, which we cannot afford. 

Even harder for Washington will be figuring out how to deal with China in the Middle East, now and for years to come. But our leaders must, because China will affect our future plans and position in the region more profoundly and persistently than any other adversary. 

Our predicament with Beijing has less to do with any security threat it might pose to U.S. interests in the region. Indeed, there is little reason for us to be overly concerned about China’s military footprint, which is modest and no match to the sizeable and powerful forces and assets the United States has deployed in the region. Although the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has had a nearly continuous naval presence mostly in the Gulf of Aden for over a decade to conduct routine naval and counterpiracy operations in the region, it is relatively small. China also has a single naval base in the Horn of Africa in Djibouti, compared to our dozens of military bases and facilities across the region. Sure, Beijing’s posture might grow in the future given its aspirations to gain a firm, strategic foothold near the critical chokepoints between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East – aspirations it will continue to support through its aggressive modernization of its armed forces. However, it is hard to envision the Chinese committing a much larger amount of military capabilities and resources to a region that is so far away from home and their core East Asian sphere of influence.

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As reassuring as this might sound for us, it also poses problems. On the one hand, we want to stop China from free-riding on U.S. regional security, which it conveniently has done for decades. And we want to encourage the Chinese to do more to ensure the freedom of global commerce and navigation. China has a huge stake in the stability of the region since it depends on these open seas for the majority of its trade with the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. China is now the world’s largest importer of crude oil, much of which comes from the Middle East. But on the other hand, our top foreign policy priority is to compete with China on the international stage. The Indo-Pacific region, as President Donald Trump’s National Defense Strategy suggests, is the main theater of that so-called great power competition, but the Middle East is a crucial, contested space, as well.

It’s all interconnected, especially for great powers with interests in all four corners of the globe. The more successful China is in protecting its major economic interests in the Middle East and Africa, the more effective and efficient it will be in pursuing its strategic plans in the Indo-Pacific, and vice versa. Therefore, we simply cannot let the Chinese challenge our objectives and presence in the broader region and gradually squeeze us out of Africa, where we have one permanent base in Djibouti.

Trump’s policy of reducing American troops in Africa, where our footprint is already small, risks undermining the pursuit of the very goals his administration has identified: advancing U.S. economic interests. The central and northern part of the continent still faces the considerable threat of Islamic militancy and our security partnerships with local militaries, like those in the Gulf and the Levant, require us to be there physically to continue to advise and assist.

There is no obvious catch-all policy solution to the China problem we’re facing. As we improve our understanding of China’s ultimate intentions, capabilities, and red lines in the Middle East and Africa through an organic process of strategic interaction, we’ll be able to better manage this strategic quandary. More regular channels of direct communication with the PLA — a perennial desire of U.S. military leaders — might help reduce the chances of accidents and misunderstandings, too. Beijing’s latest partnership with Tehran, which is primarily designed to enable major Chinese investments in Iran and boost military cooperation between the two sides, is certainly not reassuring.

Our response should center on developing even stronger and more integrated security ties with our Arab partners, particularly in the Gulf. The more effective we are at promoting burden-sharing with them, the less they and the region will need Chinese contributions, and our regional China challenge becomes less acute.

The United States also should further encourage European allies, a couple of whom — the British and the French — have naval bases in the Gulf, to do more. Enabling our international friends to step up in the region and put more skin in the game has always been a wise and necessary objective. But great power competition has made it more urgent.

No matter what China communicates and does, our best and safest bet is to strengthen and ideally expand our network of regional partners and international allies to help us reprioritize and right-size our posture in the region.  

Under the Trump administration, leveraging and amplifying this network has been hard to do, given the president’s antipathy toward multilateralism and policies that have raised questions about our security commitments to our allies and partners. But to effectively deal with China in the Middle East and elsewhere, which is our biggest concern, this is precisely what we must do. 

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He previously served as a senior advisor for security cooperation with oversight responsibilities for the U.S. CENTCOM Area of Responsibility in the Pentagon’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Gen. (ret.) Joseph Votel, U.S. Army, is president and chief executive officer of Business Executives for National Security, and a nonresident distinguished senior fellow on national security at the Middle East Institute. He served as the commander of U.S. Central Command until 2019, overseeing all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central and South Asia. Before that, he commanded U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command.