China Free-Rides on US-Built Security System in Middle East, Experts Say

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 30, 2020

As China continues to challenge the United States for global dominance, in the Middle East, oil-hungry China gets a “free ride” on the security system established by the United States there, according to experts interviewed by The Epoch Times.

They are of the opinion that while the United States has strategically started to look away from the Middle East, the Chinese regime will continue to project its own interests into the region and avoid directly getting involved in conflicts.

Howard Stoffer, an associate professor at the National Security Department at the University of New Haven, said China’s focus on its economic interests is the main reason behind its unwillingness to openly engage in confrontational actions, a behavior that the State Department report calls “playing both sides.”

Stoffer, who served as senior foreign service officer in the State Department for 25 years, says that oil will not fundamentally change the dynamics between the United States and China in the Middle East, despite the fact that the United States is the largest oil producer in the world, while China continues to be the largest oil importer.

Stoffer said that even in escalated situations like the one after the death of Qassem Soleimani, China’s foreign policy of non-interference “would not fundamentally change if we saw the United States and Iran in a confrontation or even a war—then China would stay out.”

“They don’t want to get caught in that, and they would find alternative sources [to meet their oil needs],” he said.

Bernard Haykel, director of The Institute for the Transregional Study at Princeton University, corroborates Stoffer’s analysis.

“China will never challenge the U.S. in the Gulf, at least not until it can establish its own capacities at force projection over long distances, and it is very far from doing this,” said Haykel.

Erbil Gunasti, a Turkish Middle East expert and author of the book “GameChanger,” believes that neither the Chinese regime nor any other country will go to “war on energy supply in the foreseeable future” because the balance of power is not between the United States and China but rather “dispersed among many countries and regions, that no one country can start or try to dominate any other country with resources exclusively.”

He said Washington doesn’t need the Middle East anymore, and there’s no geopolitical paradigm arising between Washington and Beijing in the Middle East based on their energy needs alone.

“The U.S. eventually has to walk away from the Middle East because the U.S. is now an energy-positive country,” he said.

“The Middle East is someone else’s problem. It does not affect much if China is buying all the oil from the Middle East.”

Epoch Times Photo
A man walks beside a PetroChina oil delivery vehicle. China’s ambition to quadruple its gross domestic product within two decades will see oil consumption exceed 400 million tons a year by 2020, with imports accounting for half its needs. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Like Stoffer and Haykel, Gunasti also believes that China benefits from the United States’ presence in the region and has its own strategic agenda when it comes to Iran or any other country in the region.

The State Department report supports Gunasti’s opinion, saying that while the United States has contributed “$2.5 billion in humanitarian aid to conflict-affected and displaced Iraqis in the region, and $363 million to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS,” China has provided less than $1 million to Iraq since 2013.

The State Department said that, instead of helping, China has played “both sides in a range of regional disputes” and has intended to exploit openings to increase its own influence at the expense of its partners.

Benefiting From the US-Provided Order

Experts said that China is aware that if the United States doesn’t provide a security system in the Middle East, the Iranians will likely take over and have an adverse impact on global security and economic stability.

“The U.S. provides security of supply and order,” Haykel said. “Without the U.S. military there, the Iranians would be greatly tempted to take over, indirectly through proxies, the Arab countries of the Gulf (Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar). If this happens, Iran would control over 50 percent of global conventional oil and gas supply. This could then be used as a political/economic tool to put pressure on the West and the global economy.”

He gave an example of the oil embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia against the United States four decades ago as an act of “weaponizing oil” and the devastating impact it had on the United States and global economy.

According to the State Department, the oil embargo of 1973–74 was imposed by “Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries against the United States in retaliation for the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military and to gain leverage in the post-war peace negotiations.”

“The Chinese are aware of all this and want the U.S. to remain in the region to secure supply. They are free-riders of the U.S. security/military effort and cannot replace the U.S. militarily in this region anytime soon,” Haykel said.

The State Department wrote in its report that after the Saudi Aramco oil facilities were attacked by Iran on Sept. 14, the United States took care of the emerging security situation as China played both sides.

“A sizable percentage of this oil is destined for China. China is Saudi Arabia’s number one customer, and Saudi Arabia is China’s leading oil supplier. Yet where was China, when its primary energy source was threatened?” the State Department said, adding that China instead helped Iran to circumvent sanctions.

“These violations of our sanctions give the Iranian regime crucial cash it needs to further its regional efforts to sow discord and terrorism.”

Smoke from a fire at an Aramco factory in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 14, 2019. (Reuters)

US–Iran Tensions and US Sanctions

Experts say that while the U.S. sanctions are designed to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, the China–Iran oil trade has found ways to circumvent them.

The Chinese are purchasing Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions and have decided to invest $400 billion into Iranian oil and gas under a 25-year deal signed last year, according to Petroleum Economist (PE).

“This will include up to 5,000 Chinese security personnel on the ground in Iran to protect Chinese projects, and there will be additional personnel and material available to protect the eventual transit of oil, gas, and petchems supply from Iran to China, where necessary, including through the Persian Gulf,” an Iranian source told PE.

Stoffer said that the Chinese relationship with Iran is a strategic one. “I can’t believe that China feels that Iran is a country that they want to have warm and friendly relations [with]. It’s a strategic country that can stand up to the United States. It’s a country that is supported by Russia to some degree,” he said.

Gunasti said there’s nothing extraordinary about China finding gaps in the U.S. sanction laws to trade with Iran.

“U.S. sanctions will create tensions, of course, but that is the attrition of the trade war between the U.S. and China. That game will be there but also elsewhere between the U.S. and China throughout the 21st century. So it must not be treated as something extraordinary,” he said.

Follow Venus on Twitter: @venusupadhayaya