It’s when not if China’s Middle Eastern tightrope snaps

Xi Jinping and Hassan Rouhani

By James Dorsey

China is manoeuvring to avoid being sucked into the Middle East’s numerous disputes amid mounting debate in Beijing on whether the People’s Republic will be able to remain aloof yet ensure the safety and security of its mushrooming interests and sizeable Diaspora community.

China’s challenge is starkest in the Gulf. It was compounded when US President Donald J. Trump effectively put China on the spot by implicitly opening the door to China sharing the burden of guaranteeing the security of the free flow of energy from the region.

It’s a challenge that has sparked debate in Beijing amid fears that US efforts to isolate Iran internationally and cripple it economically could lead to the collapse of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, accelerate Iran’s gradual breaching of the agreement in way that would significantly increase its ability to build a nuclear weapon, and potentially spark an unwanted military confrontation.

All of which are nightmare scenarios for China. However, Chinese efforts so far to reduce its exposure to risk are at best temporary band aid solutions. They do little to address the underlying dilemma: it is only a matter of time before China will have no choice but to engage politically and militarily at the risk of surrendering its ability to remain neutral in regional conflicts.

Israeli intelligence reportedly predicted last year that Iran’s gradual withdrawal from an agreement that Mr. Trump abandoned in May 2018 would ultimately take Iran to a point where it could create a nuclear military facility within a matter of months. That in turn could provoke a regional nuclear arms race and/or a pre-emptive military strike.

That is precisely the assessment that Iran hopes will persuade China alongside Russia and the European Union to put their money where their mouth is in countering US sanctions and make it worth Iran’s while to remain committed to the nuclear accord.

The problem is that controversy over the agreement is only one of multiple regional problems. Those problems require a far more comprehensive approach for which China is currently ill-equipped even if it is gradually abandoning its belief that economics alone offers solutions as well as its principle of no foreign military bases.

China’s effort to reduce its exposure to the Gulf’s energy supply risks by increasing imports from Russia and Central Asia doesn’t eliminate the risk. The Gulf will for the foreseeable future remain a major energy supplier to China, the region’s foremost trading partner and foreign investor.

Even so, China is expected to next month take its first delivery of Russian gas delivered through a new pipeline, part of a US$50 billion gas field development and pipeline construction project dubbed Power of Siberia.

Initially delivering approximately 500 million cubic feet of gas per day or about 1.6 percent of China’s total estimated gas requirement in 2019, the project is expected to account with an increased daily flow of 3.6 billion cubic feet for 9.5 percent of China’s supply needs by 2022.

The Russian pipeline kicks in as China drastically cuts back on its import of Iranian liquified petroleum gas (LPG) because of the US sanctions and is seeking to diversify its supply as a result of Chinese tariffs on US LPG imports imposed as part of the two countries’ trade war.

China is likely hoping that United Arab Emirates efforts to stimulate regional talks with Iran and signs that Saudi Arabia is softening its hard-line rejection of an unconditional negotiation with the Islamic republic will either help it significantly delay engagement or create an environment in which the risk of being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is substantially reduced.

Following months of quietly reaching out to Iran, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash told a recent security dialogue in Abu Dhabi that there was “room for collective diplomacy to succeed.”

Mr. Gargash went on to say that “for such a process to work, it is essential that the international community is on the same page, especially the US and the EU, as well as the Arab Gulf states.” Pointedly, Mr. Gargash did not put Russia and China on par with Western powers in that process.

The UAE official said the UAE envisions a regional order undergirded by “strong regional multilateralism” that would provide security for all.

Mr. Gargash made his remarks against the backdrop of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a multilateral security arrangement in the Gulf that would incorporate the US defense umbrella as well as an Iranian proposal for a regional security pact that would exclude external players.

Presumably aware that Gulf states were unlikely to engage with Iran without involvement of external powers, Iran appeared to keep its options open by also endorsing the Russian proposal.

The various manoeuvres to reduce tension and break the stalemate in the Gulf put Mr. Trump’s little noticed assertion in June that energy buyers should protect their own ships rather than rely on US protection in a perspective that goes beyond the president’s repeated rant that US allies were taking advantage of the United States and failing to shoulder their share of  the burden.

Potentially, Mr. Trump opened the door to an arrangement in which the United States would share with others the responsibility for ensuring the region’s free flow of energy even if he has given no indication of what that would mean in practice beyond demanding that the United States be paid for its services.

 “China gets 91 percent of its oil from the Straight, Japan 62 percent, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships…,” Mr. Trump tweeted.

China has not rejected Mr. Trump’s position out of hand. Beyond hinting that China could escort Chinese-flagged commercial vessels in the Gulf, Chinese officials have said that they would consider joining a US-backed maritime security framework in the region that would create a security umbrella for national navy vessels to accompany ships flying their flag.

Chinese participation would lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive regional security arrangement in the longer term.

China’s maritime strategy, involving the development of a blue water navy, suggests that China already de facto envisions a greater role at some point in the future.

Scholars Julia Gurol and Parisa Shahmohammadi noted in a recent study that China has already “decided to take security concerns in the (Indian Ocean) into its own hands, instead of relying on the USA and its allies, who have long served as the main security providers in this maritime region… If tensions continue to escalate in the Persian Gulf, Beijing may find it has no other choice but to provide a security presence in the Middle East.”

Republished, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

James Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.



  1. Great piece except for the final conclusion. The problem is not who provides regional security and in what form. The problem is that the players in the region are committed to undercutting/challenging their neighbors/competitors rather than finding ways to reduce tensions and cooperate on common interests.
    As was clearly demonstrated by the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq, no number of Chinese ships or tanks can prevent such from taking place, especially when untraceable proxies are engaged as triggers.

    In the end, it is the Obama not Trump policy that reduces the threats of Iran.

  2. @ “Israeli intelligence reportedly predicted last year that Iran’s gradual withdrawal from an agreement that Mr. Trump abandoned in May 2018 would ultimately take Iran to a point where it could create a nuclear military facility within a matter of months. That in turn could provoke a regional nuclear arms race and/or a pre-emptive military strike.”

    That, with no caveats!

    For some three decades, the Israeli government has warned that Iran was on the cusp of creating nuclear weapons. That was its battle cry in trying to persuade the U.S. to bomb Iran back into the Stone Age. Obama’s administration finessed the issue by negotiating the JCPOA. But egged on by Israel, Trump backed us out of the JCPOA and back into the Israeli cry for the U.S. to bomb Iran.

    In my estimation, ‘twould have been far better for Obama to simply call B.S. on the entire Israeli propaganda campaign,[1] pointing to the consensus opinion, repeatedly renewed, of all U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran has neither project nor plan to develop nuclear weapons, a conclusion joined by Israel’s Mossad and various European intelligence agencies. Instead, the propaganda campaign has proceeded without hindrance, creating the political stew that encourages Trump to sanction and bomb Iran.

    It also bears notice that the absence of an Iranian nuclear weapons project or plan is reportedly due to moral — rather than political — considerations. Gareth Porter has published an in-depth account of two fatwahs issued against Iranian production of nuclear weapons in 1984 (by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) and by his successor (Ali Khamenei) in 2003, based on an interview with Mohsen Rafighdoost, who served as minister of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) throughout the eight-year Iranian war with Iraq and had personally received the fatwahs. Gareth Porter, When the Ayatollah Said No to Nukes, Foreign Policy (16 October 2014).

    There is also a “so what?” aspect to the Israeli claims of an Iranian nuclear weapon goal. The various Israeli projections of the “break-out” time to produce an Iranian nuclear warhead are based on projections to produce a single warhead, not a nuclear arsenal capable of taking down Israel, which has by various estimates between 80 and 300 nuclear weapons in its own arsenal. A single Iranian warhead unleashed on Israel would invite annihilation of Iran by Israel. At best, development of an Iranian nuclear weapons arsenal would create a disincentive for Israel to use its own nukes against Iran.

    What is going on behind the scenes in all of this is Israel’s long-time strategy of destroying and balkanizing its powerful Muslim neighboring countries, thus far dutifully performed by an obedient U.S. government. Rather than learning to live in peace, Israeli leaders dream of a day when Israel dominates its region both militarily and economically.

    Claims of an Iranian nuclear weapons program should never be repeated without the caveat that there is no such program.

    [1] That false propaganda campaign was so effective that a poll was reported in 2012 demonstrating that four out of five Americans believe that Iran already has nuclear weapons and that it is a threat to the U.S. and its NATO allies. Anon., 80% of Americans Think Iran’s Nuclear Program Threatens the US, Times of Israel (31 July 2012).

  3. It is nice to see that you folks are finally writing about China. 6% of their energy comes from barter deals with the Ayatollah regime. Almost all of Iran’s economic activity is dependant on China. China is to the Ayatollahs what US was to the Shahanshah. Cut that umbilical chord and the Ayatollah regime will collapse.

    But you need to look at which industries benefit from that energy. Ironically it is the huge US industrial manufacturing giants like Intel and Apple that benefit. So what Trump is doing with tariffs is going to force the US giants to relocate to other East Asian countries such as Vietnam. That is what China is worried about, because these countries are closer to US and will not do business with the Ayatollahs.

  4. Ali Mostfi

    China will not get politically involved in the Near East.

    The Han consider Muslims to be wild-eyed lunatics that are thirsting for blood, Muslim or non-Muslim.

    They look at USA and Europe inciting instability in the Near East and consider that area to be a quagmire, a trap that they shall avoid.

    They look at US, having sunk $ 8 trillion fighting Muslims, and are thankful for that: “Thank Heaven for the US wars with Muslims, she is too tied up to do anything about our rise.”

    Significantly, they have the correct estimation of the geopolitical situation: there is only one single functioning state in Western Asia and that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

  5. No matter what the President says, it is only fair that the USA should carry a disproportionate share of the cost of defending shipping in the Gulf: the USA carries a disproportionate share of the responsibility for creating the circumstances that place that shipping at risk.

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