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Will China project hard military power in the Middle East?

Although China is likely to use the MENA region as a battleground in the war of values and principles that will shape the future of the world order, it will not resort to military means to realize its objectives.

Under Xi Jinping, China has successfully increased its influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through energy imports, infrastructure investment, technological cooperation, trade and extensive cultural exchanges through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But will China also establish a military presence in the region?

Answering this question requires an understanding of China’s security approach in the MENA region, which is guided by its Global Security Initiative (GSI). This focuses on two main principles : a conceptual framework to achieve regional security, based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, and the establishment of a Middle East Security Forum to lay the groundwork for a ‘new security framework’.

This allows for three key observations to be made.

First, the GSI is shaping China’s security engagement in the Middle East in a way that could complicate US regional posture. The China-brokered agreement to re-establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Beijing’s growing influence generally, are central factors in the US’s recent push for normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This shows preliminary signs of the US’s hasty, reactive response to China’s initiatives and desire to become a primary provider of security public goods and a trusted mediator.

However, China’s regional security principles do not mention military power and they are still theoretical without a clear military vision for the region. In addition, China does not have the intention or requirements to operationalize its security principles in a military sense. While China may need a regional military presence to protect its sprawling economic footprint and citizens, its focus is on energy imports, investment and trade, rather than challenging US geopolitical dominance in the region.

Second, China’s current level of military engagement in the Middle East is transactional, driven by self-interest and directly related to its long-term objectives in the great-power competition with the US over global governance. It is not part of a plan to install an alternative regional security structure underpinned by a significant Chinese military presence.

China’s foremost military concern is maritime security. In 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) opened its first overseas military logistical support base in Djibouti to protect shipping and major sea lanes, and Chinese citizens in conflict-stricken areas. China has a civilian-military dual-use of commercial ports near maritime chokepoints all over the MENA region as part of its strategic strongpoints policy to protect trade routes and position itself close to them in times of conflict. The PLA holds military exercises in the Gulf with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and, more recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and engages in peacekeeping operations to bolster China’s global image as a responsible power.

There is also a commercial aspect to China’s military engagement. Its arms sales approach has long focused on selling light low-cost combat weapons systems, especially armed drones, to MENA countries that the US are reluctant to sell to, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. The increase in China’s arms exports to the region has been dramatic. Exports to Saudi Arabia grew by 290 per cent and to the UAE by 77 per cent from the 2012–16 period to the 2017–21 period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also expressed interest in buying advanced air defence systems and J-10C fighter jets. This is all part of China’s strategy to become a major arms producer and controlling a more significant global share of weapons sales vis-a-vis the US, Russia and Europe.

Third, military power projection in the MENA region could eventually be self-destructive to China’s interests and plunge it into a direct confrontation with the US. And it may not be necessary to devise a complex military strategy as China’s economic and commercial-focused diplomacy has proved effective at achieving and protecting Beijing’s regional priorities.

There are several reasons for this, the most important being that China continues to free-ride on the US-sponsored regional security system, which protects China’s oil imports and investments and allows them to thrive. Although Washington’s strategic objective is to consolidate its military ties with allies and partners in East Asia to ‘shape the strategic environment around Beijing’ and advance its vision of the world order, it will not withdraw its military forces deployed in the Middle East anytime soon.

This means the current regional security system could remain in place for a while, perhaps for decades. This could work in China’s favour. Beijing does not have a policy of building alliances but instead attempts to maintain an equal distance from regional rivals, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, show an appreciation of all parties’ security concerns and chip away at the US security posture without directly challenging it.

China’s relations with MENA countries are underpinned by their policy of strategic hedging between China and the US. Although regional states see China as a major economic partner, not an alternative security provider, they have focused on maximising their gains from both sides by adopting a transactional approach that prioritizes their national interests.

Deploying major military capabilities in the MENA region would also go against the PLA’s key strategic priority of dominating East Asia’s first island chain and preparing for a Taiwan contingency, which has long guided its planning, procurement and funding policies. It is inconceivable that China would choose to divert significant military resources elsewhere during heightened tensions with the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific, which are only expected to further escalate in the future.

This is not to suggest China is entirely passive in the Middle East. China wants to continue importing oil and expanding its economic and technological footprint, use its growing political influence to curb US power and regional clout, and use the MENA region as a battleground in the war of values and principles that will shape the future of the global order. However, China takes pride in not having a history of imperialism in the region and will not resort to hard military means to realize its objectives.