China’s Middle East strategy comes at a cost to the US

Critics of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq have always believed the real motivation was taking control of the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves.

Even the architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom were convinced Iraqi oil revenues would quickly fund reconstruction of a US client state that would help redraw the contours of the Middle East in America’s favour. But if oil and influence were the prizes, then it seems China, not America, has ultimately won the Iraq war and its aftermath — without ever firing a shot.

Today China, the world’s largest importer of crude oil, is Iraq’s biggest trading partner. Only Russia sells more oil to Beijing. In the first half of this year, Iraqi oil shipments to China increased almost 30 per cent from a year earlier and accounted for more than a third of Iraq’s total exports. During a visit to Beijing last year, Adel Abdul Mahdi, then Iraq’s prime minister, described Sino-Iraqi relations as poised for a “quantum leap” and his electricity minister wrote “China is our primary option as a strategic partner in the long run.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi oil exports to the US nearly halved in the first half of the year and the Pentagon plans to reduce its remaining troops in Iraq by a third in the coming months.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Afghanistan, as America’s longest war finally draws to a close. Afghan and Pakistani officials tell the Financial Times that Beijing is effectively in control of the peace process and is promising the Taliban lavish energy and infrastructure investment once the US has left for good.

China’s influence is rapidly growing across the Middle East at a time when American commitment is being questioned by regional allies and US politicians alike. Beijing is the biggest foreign investor in the region and has sealed strategic partnerships with all Gulf states apart from Bahrain. Most investment has gone to traditional US allies, many of them also eager customers of Chinese military technology.

China’s first ever overseas military base was established in Djibouti three years ago. But Beijing is also investing heavily in commercial ports that could easily be converted to naval use in other strategic locations, including Pakistan’s Gwadar and Oman’s Duqm port on either side of the Gulf of Oman.

Along with the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia’s island of Sumatra, China considers the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab Strait as critical to its economic and military survival since the bulk of its energy imports are shipped through these strategic chokepoints.

As Sino-US relations deteriorate, Beijing’s goal of increasing control of these waterways and reducing America’s ability to cut them off in a conflict has taken on greater urgency. It is the main reason why China has built a navy that is now bigger, if not more advanced, than that of the US.

Until recently, Beijing had followed a hands-off policy in the Middle East of being a friend to everyone but allies with none. The success of this has been on display as it negotiates a $400bn investment and security pact with Iran while assisting Iran’s enemy Saudi Arabia with its nuclear programme. And it fully supports the Palestinian cause while charming Israel into sharing state of the art technology and leasing key strategic ports to Chinese state enterprises.

But perhaps the most powerful sign of China’s rising influence in the region is the fact that almost every Muslim-majority country has supported the incarceration of as many as 2m Muslims in re-education camps in western China. In public statements and joint letters to the UN, countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq and the UAE have all praised the camps and suppression of Islam in the region of Xinjiang as necessary “counterterror and deradicalisation” efforts that have brought “happiness, fulfilment and security”.

In the US, two successive presidents have been elected on promises to extricate the country from Middle Eastern entanglements. In the wake of the shale oil revolution, with America now virtually self-sufficient in energy, the rationale for pouring more blood and treasure into the sand looks thin.

Washington’s resistance to playing regional policeman while other countries, particularly China, reap all the benefits has been evident for a while. It was Barack Obama’s administration that first proposed the “pivot to Asia” to refocus American diplomatic and military might on the Asia-Pacific and counter China’s rise as a regional hegemon. President Donald Trump has accelerated that strategy.

But what seems like a compelling case for American retreat from the Middle East is now complicated by China’s rapid advances there. If the US goal is to contain China’s ambitions in Asia and shore up close allies Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, pulling out of the Middle East is the last thing it should do.

Most Asian countries are even more dependent on ship-borne oil than China. Ceding control of the key waterways around the Arabian Peninsula to Beijing would force all countries in Asia to rethink their strategic alliances and make them far more susceptible to the kind of coercive diplomacy China is using all over the world.

Whoever wins the US presidential election in November will face the uncomfortable reality that competition with and containment of China now runs through the Middle East.

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