We Must Stop China in the Persian Gulf
In July, President Trump boasted about Iranian harassment of United States warships in the Persian Gulf having come to a halt. Although no major flare-ups between Iranian and US forces ever occurred, there had been legitimate concern about a potential confrontation. But for now, a more robust level of deterrence appears to have been restored in the Persian Gulf.
Just west of the Gulf, however, where the People’s Republic of China has a military base in the small African country of Djibouti, Beijing appears to be more willing to test the Trump administration. Instead of harassing US ships, there have been reports of Chinese military personnel targeting American aircraft in the skies over the Red Sea, using high-powered lasers.
In an incident in May, two American service members piloting a transport aircraft experienced eye injuries after being exposed to a laser beam. Having established its military base in Djibouti as recently as 2017, Beijing obviously didn’t waste any time in using it to cause trouble.
Along with its base in Djibouti, China has also been gradually building up its presence in other strategic locations in the northern seas of the Indian Ocean. One of the most significant of these locations is the Gwadar Port of Pakistan, where China is investing in manufacturing facilities and a liquified natural gas terminal. China’s investment in Gwadar is particularly compelling, because it sits less than 400 nautical miles from the Straits of Hormuz, the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
In order to gain access to the confined and constrained waters of the Gulf, however, Beijing will need assistance from a local player. For now, the oil rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) appears eager to get involved. China has a deal with the UAE’s master developer of ports and industrial zones, Abu Dhabi Ports, to create 23 million square feet of a free trade zone for Chinese companies to do business. What’s more, China’s state-owned COSCO Shipping Holdings, the world’s third-largest container operator, made a $738 million investment in one of the UAE’s largest existing commercial ports.
To be sure, these deals are part of a familiar pattern from Beijing: investing in commercial ports in friendly states in order to create de facto overseas military bases for Chinese forces. A 2015 article in a journal connected to China’s intelligence agencies drove this point home when the author wrote “first civilian, later military.” That is, build commercial ports with the goal of slowly developing them into “strategic support points.”
This strategy is what Randall Shriver, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, recently referred to as “predatory economics.” According to Shriver, “Where China is using economic tools, they’re often doing so in order to create access and potential bases.” This will allow Chinese troops, aircraft, and ships to use Beijing’s growing inventory of ports to facilitate long-range naval operations in the northern Indian Ocean.
As for the UAE, despite its significant economic and security ties with the US, the Trump administration does have reason to be concerned about the Emiratis’ involvement with Beijing.
In June 2017, the UAE helped lead an effort in essentially suspending Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political body comprised of the Sunni Gulf states. The GCC’s tensions with Qatar were largely predicated on Doha’s support for Islamist groups in the Middle East, along with its cozying up to the Sunni Gulf states’ biggest adversary: the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Gulf states then removed their diplomats from Doha, closed airspace and ports to Qatari vessels, and prohibited travel between their countries and Qatar.
To be sure, the Qataris are highly problematic actors and do indeed have a penchant for playing both sides. But the Emiratis have plenty of their own baggage, as well.
When the Gulf squabble began 16 months ago, there was reasonable speculation from Lee Smith that the Emiratis had a motive beyond intra-Arab politics for picking a fight with Doha. The Qataris host Al Udeid, the biggest American military base in the Middle East and CENTCOM’s headquarters in the region. The Qataris are often accused of taking advantage of the American military presence on their soil as cover for when they choose to cause trouble for their neighbors in the Gulf.
Based on Smith’s reporting, the Emiratis appeared to be isolating the Qataris in an effort to push the US to move its military base from Qatar to the UAE. Perhaps the Emiratis felt it was their turn to operate from under an umbrella of American power. As Smith pointed out, however, the Emiratis have plenty of their own problems — from also doing business with Iran and Hezbollah, to sheltering figures from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose sister lives in Dubai.
Clearly, the Emiratis, too, have a knack for playing both sides. In 2017, when the Trump administration was working to shore up America’s traditional Mideast allies in order to stop Iran and tackle Sunni extremism, the Emiratis were content to disrupt US efforts for the sake of their own cynical agenda.
And so with respect to China, whether the Emiratis view Beijing as an alternative, or even complement, to American power is beside the point.
What’s critical here is that the United States cannot afford to allow its greatest global competitor, China, to gain a foothold in the Persian Gulf. For one thing, Beijing has not been shy about its desire to scuttle the Trump administration’s number one regional priority of isolating Iran. While the US is looking to push back against the mullahs’ regional aggression and halt their nuclear ambitions, China has repeatedly stated its intention to continue importing Iranian oil in the face of US sanctions.
And all of this is taking place as relations between China and Iran are tightening. The Iranian Defense Minister was in Beijing on September 7 to meet with his Chinese counterparts, one of whom noted that “the Chinese military [is] willing to strengthen strategic communication with the Iranian military, expand areas of cooperation, [and] promote pragmatic cooperation in various fields to continuously achieve new results.”
These comments came in the wake of multiple threats from the mullahs to blockade the Straits of Hormuz, a passageway through which more than one-third of the world’s sea-traded oil passes. The Iranians cause plenty of mischief in the Gulf as it is. The possibility of the mullahs — with their threats of a blockade, or even their harassment of US ships — operating in the Gulf with the backing of Chinese power should be of major concern to the White House.
Preventing a Chinese military presence in the Persian Gulf needs to be a top priority for the Trump administration, and it is from this basic tenet that a comprehensive US policy needs to flow. Direct measures against Beijing will need to be implemented eventually. But a simple first step is to make sure the Emiratis know their place in the American-led regional order, and to pressure them to stay in line.
Joel Sonkin lives in New York City and writes about US foreign policy in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @JoelSonkin.