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March 20, 2017

China as a Middle East Power

The Pros and Cons of a More Assertive and Capable China in the Gulf and Beyond

By Kuni Miyake

In this working paper, Kuni Miyake, President of the Foreign Policy Institute think-tank in Tokyo, examines the strategic implications for Japan of China’s increasing influence over sea lines of communication between the Persian Gulf and East Asia. A political or military shift in favor of Chinese over American control of these sea lines would result in a “strategic nightmare” for Japan, Miyake argues. Presenting four strategic options for Japanese response to this scenario, Miyake contends that ultimately Beijing will decide whether it repeats mistakes made by Imperial Japan in pursuit of air and water control over the Western Pacific, or peacefully buys into the international status quo.

Executive Summary

By 2030, the strategic implications of China’s rise as a maritime power in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and even the Mediterranean Sea will depend on:

  • the overall geo-political landscape in the Middle East,
  • the level of U.S. military presence in the Gulf,
  • Gulf nations’ comfort with such a continued U.S. presence,
  • The level of U.S. will and commitment to secure relevant sea lines of communication (SLOCs),
  • The level of tactical cooperation between Russia and China, and
  • The nature of strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China in East Asia.

Control of SLOCs between the Gulf and East Asia (hereafter referred to as SLOCs-GEA) requires any sea power to possess not only operationally robust blue-water naval units, but also permanent and stable support facilities on the ground in the Middle East to assist such naval operations. China may have the former but not necessarily the latter. For this and other reasons, China is unlikely to completely replace American naval dominance on the waters of SLOCs-GEA before 2030, if ever.

Yet Washington may still find it increasingly difficult to fully secure the SLOCs-GEA, including those in the South China Sea, if the political landscape shifts in a more hostile direction and the Chinese navy continues to be more assertive and capable on those waters. Should China find itself in these more advantageous circumstances vis-à-vis the Americans, it may seek to challenge U.S. dominance in part of the SLOCs-GEA beyond the South China Sea, pursue U.S.-China bilateral maritime cooperative operations to jointly secure SLOCs-GEA, or some combination of both. Given the current circumstances in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, China will most likely prefer the latter “major powers’ maritime cooperation” type of scenario, since China is unlikely willing nor able to directly confront the U.S. navy far from its home shores.

For Japan, such political shifts could lead to a strategic nightmare. If the opinions of the Arab nations of the region turn against U.S. presence there, a total or partial withdrawal of American forces from the Gulf region could follow. Partial or total Chinese involvement in securing the SLOCs-GEA could easily aid her continuous efforts to become more politically influential on the waters. Even joint U.S.-China operations to secure the SLOCs-GEA could end up excluding Japan, India or Australia, and more quickly hasten Chinese dominance and American withdrawal from all of the SLOCs-GEA.

Japan consequently faces four strategic options or alternatives:

  • If U.S. forces withdraw (voluntarily or not) from the Gulf region, Japan may feel obliged to build up her navy to extend her maritime presence into the Indian Ocean or even to the Gulf to substitute for the diminished U.S. naval presence there. The financial and political costs of such an undertaking, however, would make it very unlikely.
  • Japan could with the United States and other like-minded nations (excluding China) jointly protect and secure SLOCs-GEA. Such an arrangement would be less costly than the first option, but still enough so as to be daunting.
  • In an optimistic variant of the above, Japan could pursue forming or joining a multilateral maritime arrangement that would include China to secure SLOCs-GEA. If found to be plausible, this option could have positive spillover effects on international cooperation maritime stability across the region. Unfortunately, such an arrangement could quickly fail if China continues to be more assertive and aims to maximize the maritime national interests of her own.
  • Finally, if the United States continues to turn inward and her military presence loses support among Gulf nations, China may pursue a more stable naval presence in the region, including through the Pakistani port of Gwadar. If this happens, Japanese energy supplies from the Middle East could be at risk, and Tokyo may feel obliged to reconsider her national and military strategies and the credibility of existing security alliance and cooperation networks.

The full working paper is available online.

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