Will China Build A Military Presence In The Middle East?

(MENAFN- Asia Times) Ever since March when China brokered a saudi-iran peace deal , Beijing's Political and military ambitions in the Middle East have been the subjects of intense speculation.

While most observers agree that China's strategic goals in the region are moving beyond traditional energy transactions, there's debate about it is seeking to replace the United States in the Middle East, and whether it may deploy troops to project its power.

Those two questions are rational and logically linked. With China's growing involvement in regional economic, political, and diplomatic affairs, Beijing's ability to shape domestic and intra-regional dynamics is growing.

In the context of the great-power competition between the US and China, strategists cannot help but wonder what this means for America's role in the region and the security architecture its presence has enabled.

China clearly has national-security interests to protect in the oil-rich region. More than 53% of its crude-oil imports come from the Middle East, a flow of hydrocarbons that Beijing cannot afford to lose. Given this dependency, and the vulnerability it poses in the event of a military conflict, it's logical to assume that China would want to have troops in the region.

Logical, but is the assumption correct? Maybe not.

Two areas that influence Beijing's energy supplies are production and transportation. The biggest threats to the former lie in domestic instability or inter-state conflicts. The challenges to safeguarding energy transportation are more diverse, and include regional instability, disruption to sea-lane communications, piracy, or, in the worst-case scenario, a naval blockade.

As long as China's dependence on Middle Eastern energy sources remains high, the risk of disruption to production and transport will remain real.

However, China's leaders are pragmatists and distinguish between susceptibility and vulnerability. Despite its high dependence on Middle East energy, Beijing believes it is susceptible but not necessarily vulnerable. This is because China needs the Middle East for its oil as much as the region needs China as a customer. Aversion to disruption is mutual.

Additionally, in the event of a regional crisis that disrupts production or transport, China wouldn't be the only victim. The repercussions would affect oil-importing countries from Asia to Europe, a scenario that neither China nor the US wants.

The biggest potential flashpoint now between the US and China is Taiwan. In the event of hostilities there, Washington could use its military to block or choke China's energy transport lanes in a bid to subdue Chinese operations in the Taiwan Strait. Presumably, China will want to prepare for that eventuality by hardening its energy transports from the Middle East.

But the Chinese view this vulnerability from two very different perspectives. On the one hand, a US naval blockade of energy imports would be less of a concern for China than the possibility of an all-out war with its superpower rival. Disruption to global energy markets would be significant, but unlikely to be the determining factor in any US-China fight.

On the other hand, even if Beijing fears a potential US blockade of energy imports from the Middle East, the cost-benefit doesn't support a Chinese military presence in the region. For China to develop effective and sufficient capabilities to counter the US would require at a minimum near-peer military deployment by Beijing. Anything short of that would not address China's vulnerabilities anyway.

The US currently spends more than $70 billion on its regional military budget . China's entire defense budget in 2023 is $224 billion . For Beijing to match Washington's current level of military spending in the region would require at least one-third of China's total defense expenditures.

This is clearly not cost-effective, considering that China's primary theater and most significant strategic threat lies in the West Pacific, which absorbs most of China's military attention.

Given this, China has developed other, less costly ways to mitigate its energy-security risks. Beijing has sought to end regional conflicts by brokering peace deals between long-standing enemies.

It is embedding and enmeshing itself in the future economic architecture of key regional players. And it's working to create interdependence between energy-producing states and China's 1.4 billion people.

Taken together, these tools may be far more effective than military hardware ever could be.

American strategists have mixed feelings about China's growing presence in the Middle East – whatever form it takes. While Washington is convinced that Beijing seeks to replace the US as the region's security guarantor, many seasoned American diplomats are also quietly eager to see China become bogged down in a region that's plagued by irreconcilable conflicts.

And yet China will be involved in the region in its own way, regardless of whether the US finds it appealing or acceptable. Even if Chinese troops never deploy to the Middle East in large numbers, the country's political, economic, and diplomatic presence will be a force to be reckoned with.

This article was provided by syndication bureau , which holds copyright.

Yun Sun is director of the
program and co-director of the
Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.

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