China’s Soft Power Strategy in the Middle East

Lieutenant Colonel Eduardo A. Abisellan
Lieutenant Colonel Eduardo A. Abisellan Federal Executive Fellow, Foreign Policy, 21st Century Defense Initiative

July 17, 2012

In the last year, America has sought to refocus its diplomatic and military attention to East, rather than Middle East. This reflects both the growing power of Asian economies, as well as the growth in military strength of China, especially through gains in what is known as anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Yet, there is an irony. While the U.S. is looking more towards the Pacific, China’s needs are driving it more towards the Middle East. To fuel and sustain its economic growth, China is heavily reliant on Middle Eastern oil. The resource rich and volatile Middle East is a critical center of gravity for the Asia-Pacific and the key for China’s continued economic prosperity.

Thus, while China builds military capability to project power closer to its shores, it is also leveraging its power into a new kind of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Middle East. It is operating through mostly asymmetric means, effectively using its growing soft power to circumvent America’s traditional military strengths and significant sway in region.

China appears to be pursuing a multidimensional strategy that incorporates soft power that complements its broad military modernization and force projection efforts to secure its energy needs and also to limit U.S. access and ability to disrupt Chinese energy supplies during a crisis. This approach is sufficiently indirect to afford China room to maneuver without openly confronting the U.S. While nascent, it may also improve China’s strategic position to counter U.S. regional hegemony and naval supremacy in both the Middle East and within the Asia-Pacific region, from the source of its energy supplies, through its long and vulnerable sea lines of communications (SLOCs), to home ports in China.

The strategy has three components. The first is deepening economic ties, which evolve into soft power relationships deeper than that of the U.S. into key states, especially those needed by the U.S. for basing. China is already the Middle East’s next best oil customer after the U.S. and has taken a generally status quo attitude towards regime change. Trade between China and Gulf Cooperation Council nations already exceeds $80 billion per year, and this trade could easily lead to greater bilateral exchange, including weapons sales. By contrast, the United States supported popular democratic transitions during the Arab Spring and has expressed the desire to wean itself off Middle Eastern oil. These trends could significantly influence, if not alter, the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East in the 21st century. They could further reinforce the perceived need within the Gulf states to distance themselves from the U.S. and to develop even stronger bonds with China.

Of importance, these shifting economic and political ties may persuade Gulf states not to support U.S. actions during a potential crisis between the U.S. and China. The disruption of Chinese oil supplies would likely be a prime U.S. objective during a crisis over Taiwan or some other military contingency. But without the assistance of regional partners and access to area bases, American military action would be difficult to initiate and sustain. Gulf states could also opt to continue supplying oil to China during such a crisis.

And finally is the use of proxy powers and rogue states, such as Iran and Pakistan, and expanded basing to extend the reach of its A2/AD network, through its so-called “String of Pearls” strategy. This could enable China to gain a positional advantage with direct hard power applications. Chinese ports along the Pacific and Indian Oceans could eventually assume military functions, allowing China to employ its state of the art A2/AD battle network (comprised of precision-guided and surface-to-air missiles, submarines, anti-satellite weapons, and computer-network-warfare weapons) and constrain the U.S. military’s ability to maneuver. This would geographically extend China’s military presence and alleviate Chinese concerns over a critical portion of its energy transit network.

The bottom line reality of any American grand strategy is that while the U.S. may want to pivot away from the Middle East and rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East remains the focal point for the continued economic prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. A continued presence in the region will serve to assure allies, safeguard the flow of oil, and thus promote global economic stability.

To read Lt. Col. Eduardo Abisellan’s full report,

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. For more on on military-to-military relationships with China, read Audry Oxley’s

latest report

on opportunities for the American and Chinese navies to collaborate.