Beginning on 9 October, several missiles were fired at the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87)in the Red Sea from Houthi-controlled territory in war-torn Yemen. Iran supports the Houthis with arms, training, and money. The United States responded by launching several land-attack missiles from the guided missile destroyer USS Nitze (DDG-94) against radar installations and other Houthi targets in Yemen. In response, Iran has deployed a pair of warships to Houthi waters, ostensibly to “protect trade vessels and oil tankers.”
Concurrently, Turkey continues its operations against Syria’s Kurds, using its rapprochement with Russia to give it political cover for more assertive military activity. As he continues tightening his grip on Turkey after the aborted coup attempt in July, President Erdogan’s venture could signal a major divergence between American and Turkish strategic goals.
Meanwhile, the Syrian ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia has all but evaporated. Moscow and Washington have ceased discussions, especially after Russian airstrikes destroyed a UN aid convoy in late September.
The Middle East, never an oasis of tranquility, has reverted to its traditional template of tension and violence. Both Syria and Iraq are now failed states—targets of opportunity—for terrorist groups that burn their victims alive, and dictators that massacre their own people. The region is also home to a major portion of the world’s energy resources, and a large portion of global maritime trade passes through the various chokepoints that surround and suffuse it.
Disengagement is always tempting for great powers. The “Weary Titans” of international politics have an ear for their politicians’ rhetoric of exhaustion and weariness. This encourages isolationism, the cutting of “entanglements,” and the desire to define “national interest” as purely homeland defense. But laying down our burdens rarely works. Enemies’ animosity and ambition is spurred, not deflected if states that benefit from the international order look the other way.
This is the first conclusion of the University of Haifa and Hudson Institute Commission report on the Eastern Mediterranean released last month. Commission members included American and Israeli political and military leaders from both sides of the partisan aisle. The report reflects their agreement that disengagement is not an option. The economic relevance of the Middle East as a whole, combined with its chronic instability, the pervasiveness of terrorism and radicalism, and the power plays of larger states, will make the region strategically relevant to the U.S. for decades to come.
The authors of this report all agree that American and Israeli interests remain in alignment and that increased engagement will advance the shared interests. Both the Jewish state and the world’s greatest democracy have a critical interest in keeping the seas free for navigation, preventing hegemony on land in the Middle East, and countering both regional and global jihadist movements. The present Middle Eastern strategic situation makes this relationship more important than at any point in the past 30 years, or, arguably, at any point in history.
Israeli seapower is a large and increasing strategic concern for the Jewish state. Ringed by hostile countries, Israel relies on maritime transport for 99% of its trade. Additionally, since the early 2000s, Israel has discovered massive oil and gas reserves in its offshore Exclusive Economic Zone. These reserves are large enough to make Israel a player in the global energy market. Finally, nearly all of Israel’s major population centers lie on its coast. Israel’s economy, resources, and very survival are aided immeasurably by the strength of whatever power controls the Eastern Mediterranean. From 1973 onward, Israel could rely on a robust U.S. Sixth Fleet, complete with at least one aircraft carrier, to secure the seas and preserve its lines of communication. In return, the U.S. could rely on Israel to counterbalance regional threats, and advance its general strategic interests.
Today’s Sixth Fleet is comprised of four guided missile destroyers and a command ship. This is supplemented on occasion by U.S. surface forces that are diverted from their passage through the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, or from the Gulf itself, to strike land targets in Syria. Only four American fighting ships are tasked with controlling one of the world’s most critical maritime hubs. This leaves the U.S. and its allies vulnerable.
The report recommends several solutions, including greater cooperation between U.S. and Israeli naval forces, and the involvement of potential regional partners. However, there is no substitute for American and Israeli seapower. Future administrations and governments in both countries should expand their naval forces, with an eye toward establishing sea control in a contested environment, deterring mischief, and fighting, if necessary.
The Hudson-Haifa report offers future administrations a template for discussing security issues that are critical to two of the world’s most important democracies. Based on sound strategic thinking, rather than ideological biases, it avoids typical Washington political bickering, and analyzes what is in American and Israeli interests. Disengaging from the region, a frequent refrain used by both Democrats and Republicans over the last decade, only makes America weaker at the same time disregarding policy options to the point where no reasonable ones are left. Only through careful analysis and planning can the U.S. and Israel develop proper joint policies to safeguard their joint security and interest.
Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He is a member of the Commission on the Eastern Mediterranean Report sponsored by the University of Haifa and Hudson Institute. Dr. Cropsey served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.
Featured Image: HAIFA, Israel (Feb. 22, 2016) Sailors render honors to Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon during a tour of USS Carney (DDG 64) while in port Haifa, Israel. Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting a routine patrol in the U. S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe. (U.S. Navy photo by Ensign David Nelson/Released)
Israel is a majority Jewish state located between the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean, separating the Arabic speaking world in two geographic regions. Approximately the size of New Jersey, its maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is larger than the state itself. According to an assessment from the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), maritime trade accounts for 99 percent of Israeli foreign trade. Furthermore, 70 percent of Israel’s population lives on the narrow coastal plain between the West Bank and the Mediterranean. This piece aims to provide an overview of the Israeli Navy and the maritime dimension of Israel’s national security.
The Israeli Navy and Geography
Israel’s southern coast is approximately 10 miles in width, leaving the Israeli Navy (IN) a limited region of operations, comparable to Iraq’s maritime border. The southern Red Sea port of Eilat is Israel’s direct maritime access route to the Indian Ocean and the markets of southern and southeast Asia. In the Red Sea, the IN protects sea lines of communication in the narrow waters between Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and onward. Israel’s western coastline on the Mediterranean is approximately 110 miles in length. The primary facilities of Israel’s Mediterranean fleet are in the ports of Ashdod (north of the Gaza Strip), Haifa (south of Lebanon), a small presence of patrol ships in Herzliya, and a center for Israel’s Navy Seals equivalent, Shayetet 13, in Atalit.
The IN is primarily a coastal defense force tasked with protecting Israeli shores from seaborne threats originating in the Gaza strip, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Israel maintains local maritime superiority against conventional threats and has developed capabilities to combat a variety of asymmetrical threats. Despite this, the IN is capable of performing outside of the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean. IN corvettes and submarines are known to venture into the Indian ocean to counter threats from Iran and the western Mediterranean to address issues related to North Africa.
The IN maintains a robust modernization program. While the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) generally receives the bulk of its military hardware from the U.S., its naval procurements are diverse, including acquisitions from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) (Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft), Aérospatiale, Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie, as well as domestic suppliers such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael, and DSIT. Active procurement programs include four Sa’ar 6 corvettes (set to begin arriving mid-2019), six Dolphin–class submarines, the Barak 8 missile system, the C-dome, unmanned sea vehicles (USV), eight SH-60F Seahawk helicopters, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
To assist with territorial water (TTW) defense, Israeli companies have developed innovative technological solutions. Such solutions include the implementation of the sonar-based AquaShield Defense System. Designed to prevent sea infiltration, the IN has deployed the AquaShield sonar system near Gaza and the Lebanese maritime borders. This underwater sensor detects potentially hostile underwater movement. The system can reportedly detect an Open Circuit Diver (SCUBA) at a distance of up to 1000 meters and a Closed Circuit Diver (re-breather) at a distance of 700 meters.
The IN is a leader in sea-based missile defense with programs designed to combat short range rocket projectiles and shorter range ballistic missiles. Strategic planning concerns Hezbollah in Lebanon and Gaza based organizations including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, as well as other regional terrorist entities.
The IN ballistic missile defense apparatus is evolving to combine a Very Short Range Air Defense (VSHORADs) systems, the such as the Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) C-Dome and Barak 1, as well as a Long-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM) platform, the Barak 8. Israel is incorporating multilayer maritime anti-ballistic systems in a similar fashion to its three well-known land based systems Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and the Arrow system.
The development of anti-missile systems is a high priority for the IN, which has recent memory of missile attacks on its ships. In 2006 Hezbollah successfully attacked the INS Hanit with a Yakhnot (S-800) anti-ship missile, nearly capsizing the ship. In 1967 the Egyptian Navy sunk the INS Eilat using a P-15 Termit anti-ship missile in the first incident of a vessel being sunk by an anti-ship missile fired in anger.
In May 2016 the IN announced a successful launch of the C-Dome system. Designed by Rafael, the C-Dome is a maritime variant of the acclaimed Iron Dome anti-rocket and projectile system operated by Israel’s Air Force. In addition to C-Dome, the IN maintains the Barak 1 and Barak 8 systems. The Barak 1, which is to be phased out, has a reported range of 5-12 km while the joint Israeli-Indian developed Barak 8 has a reported range of approximately 70-100 km. Facilitating these platforms is the incorporation of the domestically produced iMulti-Function Surveillance, Track and Guidance Radar (MF-STAR) radar system, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Elta.
Protecting Offshore Oil Platforms
A major component of the IN’s developing maritime strategy is offshore Oil platform (OPLAT) protection. Since the discovery of natural gas in the Tamar and Leviathan fields off of Israel’s west coast, Israel has dedicated naval resources to OPLAT development and protection. To protect Israel’s Mediterranean shores, the IN has a fleet of patrol boats including the Shaldag class and Dvora Mark III. Additionally, Israel is using USVs, particularly the Rafael system’s Protector. USVs play a role in providing surveillance as well as dealing with asymmetric contingencies. Such scenarios include the use of a suicide-explosive rigged boat attack or waterborne improvised explosive devices (WBIED), rocket salvos, and the takeover of an oil platform by a terrorist entity.
Sea Interception, Infiltration, and Blockade
The IN is experienced in implementing sea denial strategies in times of conflict. The IN conducted a naval blockade on Lebanon during the 1982 war, Operation Peace for Galilee, where its submarines provided early warning information for blockading vessels. Israel’s navy enforced a blockade on Lebanese ports again during the 2006 Lebanon War. From 2007 until today the IN has enforced a blockade of the Gaza strip. The Gaza strip blockade is an effort to prevent the transfer of arms and building materials to the Hamas terrorist organization that is currently in control of Gaza. Patrols intermittently come into contact with fishermen from Gaza who have claimed that Israel enforces the maritime policy inconsistently. After a policy change in March 2016, the IN now permits Gaza fishermen to travel up to nine nautical miles from Gaza’s coastline.
Most recently, Hamas attempted to form a naval commando unit. During the 2014 war with Hamas, Operation Cast Lead, Hamas commandos briefly stormed the Zikim beach north of the Gaza strip. In May 2015 Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, intercepted 40 dive suits hidden inside sport suits en route to the Gaza Strip.
The IN has demonstrated its ability to operate successfully outside of its immediate coastal area including visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) missions. In 2014 IN commandos of Shayetet 13, a unit frequently compared to the U.S. Navy Seals, conducted Operation Full Disclosure, a VBSS mission targeting the Iranian “Klos C” sailing under a Panamanian flag en route from Iran to Port Sudan, 930 miles from Israeli waters. The ship’s cargo included several dozen M-302 missiles, reportedly of Syrian origin. The IDF Spokesman unit claimed the weapons were en route to Hamas.
Sea to Surface Targeting and Special Operations
In the past decade the IN targeted shore-based threats in both Gaza and Lebanon and directly supported ground forces inside of enemy territory while conducting isolated attacks on enemy positions. The most recent display of sea-to-surface targeting was the targeting of Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip amidst Operation Cast Lead. During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli corvettes reportedly targeted militants in the Gaza strip with Gil or Spike-MR guided missiles. In 2006 the IN is said to have fired 2,500 rounds at Lebanese targets in the 2006 July-August Lebanese war.
Warning: Graphic Content. Israeli Navy fires on Hamas seaborne infiltrators during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. (Israeli Navy)
During the Second Lebanon War, Shayetet 13 raided an apartment block in Tyre, Lebanon believed to be a staging site for rockets being launched into Israel. During the summer 2006 war, the Israeli Navy bombarded Hezbollah positions, infrastructure, and access routes to the Lebanese coastline. In the 1982 conflict Operation Peace for Galilee the IN inserted IDF units behind enemy lines north of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – Syrian positions. It was during the 1982 war that the IN demonstrated its ability to conduct an amphibious assault that included troops, tanks, and other vehicles.
The IN maintains a cyber defense unit known as MAMTAM (Information Systems, Processes, and Computerization unit). MAMTAM maintains three separate branches: cyber, technology, and operations and industry. According to an officer from MAMTAM, the unit deals with IT and IP networks. The Israeli Navy experienced attempts to breach its cyber networks during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 against the Gaza based Hamas terrorist group. Additionally, the IN plans to incorporate modernized C4i (Command and Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence) systems into its fleet, particularly with the expected arrival of Sa’ar 6 corvettes.
Second Strike Capability and Nuclear Deterrence
The IN is suspected of possessing nuclear weapons, an accusation that has traditionally neither been confirmed nor denied by the Israeli government. The Israeli submarine program is believed to incorporate second strike nuclear capabilities for strategic deterrence. In December 2015 Israel’s fifth Dolphin class submarine was delivered by Germany’ ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). Dolphin class submarines have reportedly been armed with submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs).
Security Cooperation with the U.S. Navy
In the eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy port call in Israel is among the most secure and productive for U.S. operations in the region. Haifa offers a friendly port south of Greece and Turkey and north of Djibouti. U.S. security assistance and coordination with Israel has only increased in the past decade. However, the IN is not able to publicly participate in U.S.-led operations such as Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). Due to ongoing tensions with Arab and Muslim majority countries, the IN cannot conceivably participate in multinational regional operations, whether against ISIS in Iraq and Syria or the Saudi war with factions in Yemen. For similar political considerations, Israel was also not able to publicly participate in U.S. efforts during the Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. Israel and the Palestinian Territories also fall under under the AOR of U.S. EUCOM rather than the seemingly more logical CENTCOM, where the majority of the Middle East falls.
In addition to India, the U.S. plays a critical role in Israeli missile defense scenarios. EUCOM engages with Israel through its Strategic Cooperative Initiative. The USN participates in maritime Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) patrols in cooperation with Israel and can deploy when requested to assist Israel with ballistic missile threats. Furthermore, U.S. Aegis platforms have supported bi-annual U.S.-Israel wargames dubbed “Juniper Cobra.” Finally, EUCOM supports Missile Defense Agency test events in coordination with Israel.
In September 2016, a joint U.S-Israel Commission on the Eastern Mediterranean made up of policymakers and former flag officers from both countries noted the potential benefits of U.S. ships hypothetically homeported in Haifa. Benefits included “increased (and stabilizing) presence, deterrence of Benghazi-style attacks, assistance with non-combatant evacuations, and security for drilling rigs, liquefaction plants, and pipeline terminals.”
Israel is a small country, with a total land area approximately the size of New Jersey. The active duty navy is estimated at 10,000 mostly conscripted personnel, a force significantly smaller than that of many U.S. Navy bases. Few existing Navies are tasked with similar challenges to those of the IN in a comparable amount of surface space. While its landmass is limited, the maritime sphere allows Israel to gain some form of strategic depth. This is particularly important when the country is less than 11 miles wide at specific locations and has fought conventional and asymmetric wars throughout its existence.
Guido Weiss is an Operations Specialist (OS) in the Navy Reserve and works as a researcher on security and military issues in Iraq. He holds an M.A. in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The views expressed here are of Guido’s alone and do not represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.
Featured Image: Israeli naval cadets (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.)
From a historical perspective, the term Silk Road was not commonly used until it was coined by German Geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. The ancient Silk Road continues to captivate various fields of study including history, sociology, archeology, politics, and international relations. In a general sense, the Silk Road is known as a series of routes that connected Asia, Europe and Africa, both through land and the sea. The 20th Century brought about various debates for the Silk Road and its revival. In 2013, Chinese Presient Xi Jinping advocated for the revival of the New Silk Road under objectives of regional cooperation and harmony. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is a revitalized phenomenon under the ancient concept that promotes globalization under the principles of peace, mutual economic benefits, and sustainable development in the maritime sphere. This article aims to offer a comparative view between the ancient and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
Ancient Maritime Silk Road
In the book “The Silk Road: Travel, Trade, War and Faith” Whitefield and Williams (2004) argue that some discrepancy exists with regard to names and places associated to the Silk Road. Any form of text relating to the Silk Road is on account of human narratives, where myths play an equally important role. Exchange between civilizations (religion art, trade, etc.) has contributed to this variety of viewpoints. One of the most integral elements of the Silk Road was the maritime domain. The ancient maritime Silk Road emerged as a new economic architecture that was beyond trade, embryonic to social interaction, political dependence, and a shift in power relations. However, counterintuitive arguments have been introduced in the 20th century from scholars that reflect upon dimensions of imperialism.
Geographically, the ancient maritime Silk Road had two routes, one from China to the East China Sea linking to the Korean peninsula, and the second from China to South China Sea, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Archeological evidence suggests maritime transportation dates back to thousands of years before inception of the Silk Road. However, the seaborne trade routes for the Silk Road strengthened during the time of Han Dynasty in China. In an article by Koh (2015) “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” it is suggested that one important aspect of the ancient maritime Silk Road was freedom and autonomy of navigation, which remains the prime reason for exploration of the seas and close contact of civilizations leading to cooperation and trade.
Until the 7th Century, land routes were preferred and profitable. It was an era where Chinese, Romans and Parthians flourished. But later, new powers emerged, and Arabs played a central role in the rise of the maritime Silk Road. The maritime route gained favor over land due to the capacity for greater volume of shipments and relative safety compared to the looting and thefts on land routes. Historical notes on the ancient maritime Silk Road define constituents of peace beyond commerce. Hence art, culture, and religion were the key factors for co-existence and tolerance amongst various civilizations. But there were noticeable drawbacks to the ancient maritime Silk Road, including unpredictable weather and harsh storms that vanished wreckage of ships. Further, there were dangerous straits which were crucial in relation to navigational expertise and control for power, and later the rise in piracy emerged as a result of Mongol dominance of the Silk Road.
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road
The 21st Century Maritime Silk “Road” (MSR) will begin from China, moving on to the South China Sea and then Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa, and Europe. The southern extension of the route offers access to the South Pacific. According to the National Development and Reform Commission of China (2015), the New Silk Road is based on five principles of the United Nations charter: mutual respect, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. The MSR would play a vital role for development in the seas through regional cooperation based on infrastructure development, financial integration, free trade, and scientific and human exchanges. The same is supported by academic literature and government reports that how the MSR may evolve newer patterns of regional trade and diplomacy.
China’s ambitions support a multilateral approach under international relations where cooperation is promoted on common interests. On similar lines, many experts have raised speculations towards ownership, governance, geo-politics, and prevailing conflicts in the South China Sea. Can initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) indicate practical steps from China that defy perceptions limiting political constructs towards hegemony? What is important to understand in today’s context is that development and harmony would fail through a bilateral or a unilateral approach. Collaboration between states through the MSR not only produces economic gains, but results in greater exchange between societies that will promote culture rooted in harmony and cooperation.
A comparative view of the Ancient and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road includes varying perspectives. However, common grounds are based on principles of economic exchanges through peace in a humanistic approach that strengthens regional integration through cooperation and cultural avenues. The significant difference for MSR today falls under freedom of navigation. International laws and regulations have defined boundaries, which was not the case in ancient times. Another prominent facet of ancient times was the draw of exploration of the seas. Civilizations wanted to get in contact for trade, prosperity, and learning. What remains a question with regard to today’s geo-political dynamics is the following: can great powers co-exist, especially with today’s complex political dynamics? The rhetorical debate over the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road has ambiguities, but participating nations from Europe, Africa and Asia must realize the need for an integrated network. Like ancient times, states need their economic expertise to be promoted, which not only manifests itself in monetary value, but also in mutually cooperative societies that may initiate a sustainable track towards global peace.
Mohid Iftikhar has a Masters of Philosophy in Peace & Conflict Studies from National Defence University, Pakistan and a Bachelors in Business Administration from University of Southern Queensland, Australia. He has completed a short course on Defence & Security Management in collaboration with Defence Academy, UK, Cranfield University and NDU, PK. He is a member of Center for International Maritime Security and Associate member, the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, King’s College London. At present he is a Deputy Director at Center of Innovation, Research, Creativity, Learning & Entrepreneurship (CIRCLE) at Dawood University of Engineering & Technology Pakistan. His views are his own.
Dr. Faizullah Abbasi has a Masters in Production Management and Manufacturing Technology from Strathclyde, UK, and PhD from University of Sheffield, UK. He is a distinguished Professor and expert on Industrial Growth and Oil and Gas Development. Currently, he is the Vice Chancellor Dawood University of Engineering & Technology Pakistan. His views are his own.
CDA Institute Security & Defence Blogger Adam MacDonald, an independent scholar on Canadian foreign policy and Asia-Pacific security, examines China’s role in the Middle East.
Turmoil in the Middle East has motivated most of the world’s major powers to become increasingly involved in stabilizing the region while progressing their own geopolitical agendas. Both the United States, trying to foster local solutions that would allow them to reduce their involvement and refocus energies elsewhere, and a Russia that senses an opportunity for increased influencein a theatre long outside its reach, have a number of strategic and security interests in the region. But it is China which has the most to lose (and gain) from a stable Middle East. Despite the strategic importance of the Middle East, Beijing has been cautious in engaging the region – an approach informed by higher level considerations underpinning their global engagement strategy as a whole.
China’s increasing reliance on Middle Eastern oil imports is becoming the Achilles Heel of Beijing’s energy security interests, owing to the disruption risks associated with ongoing regional volatility and the fact oil shipments travel on lengthy Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs). Despite diversification efforts (including closer energy partnerships with Russia and Central Asia), China receives 51 percent of its imported oil from the Middle East, with estimates projecting this value to increase to 60 percent by 2030. China is currently taking advantage of current low oil prices to build up its National Strategic Reserve, resulting in major shortages in storage capacity. Of course, Beijing also assesses supply disruptions as a realistic concern, and is cautiously beginning to become more diplomatically involved in strengthening relations with major oil suppliers as well as supporting conditions maintaining the general stability of the region writ large.
China’s Middle East engagements have stressed the importance of peaceful resolutions to conflicts and political tensions, fearing that a region-wide conflict would paralyze desperately needed oil supplies and justify foreign interventions to remove regimes friendly to Beijing. China’s foreign policy privileges incumbent governments (regardless of the ways in which they access, wield, or maintain power) and pledges ‘non-interference’ in their internal affairs, offering a counter-balance (along with Russia) to regional players wary of Western calls for democratic development and political pluralism. Western powers have been frustrated by Russian and Chinese vetoing of numerous United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) to end the Syrian civil war, but these obstructions largely stem from their experiences in supporting UNSCR1973 in 2011 that imposed a No-Fly Zone over Libya but quickly morphed into a military régime change campaign.
China and Russia, thus, only agreed to the latest UNSCR pertaining to Syria when explicit assurances were made that the Assad régime could remain in power until elections are scheduled. Within such negotiations China has played a supportive role, allowing Russia (which whom they share many broad strategic and regional interests), to be the face of opposition to the West. Beijing, however, has taken the initiative on some fronts, such as offering to host cease-fire talks. As it pertains to the Iranian nuclear deal, Beijing has also played a low-key diplomatic role but emphasized the need to reach a peaceful resolution to reduce the likelihood of conflict between Tehran, a major oil partner, and the West.
China is slowly beginning to augment bilateral diplomatic relations with regional partners, moving beyond collective action as part of their role as a permanent member on the UNSC. President Xi’s recent trip to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese president since 2009, included visits to its three largest trading partners in the region (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran), signing dozens of new economic deals, particularly with Tehran. Sino-Iranian relations in particular have been strengthened, with Tehran now named a ‘great neighbour’ in Chinese foreign policy – a term denoting a state which shares similar economic, political, and strategic interests with Beijing. China, however, must balance its interests in Iran with those in Saudi Arabia, their largest oil partner, particularly as tensions have been rising dramatically with both powers supporting opposing sides in various regional conflicts. One can also add the cessation of diplomatic relations between the two, when Saudi Arabia’s Iranian embassy was sacked following Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shia Cleric.
Beijing remains reluctant to fully engage in the region, especially on the military front. Much of this apprehension stems from the United States’ expected reaction of more comprehensive Chinese involvement in an area historically defined by heavy American influence. Despite protests for Beijing to become more of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in providing public security goods in support of the international system, China believes the deployment of military forces, regardless of their composition or purpose, would create anxiety in Washington, thereby drawing their strategic focus towards them vice their current fixation with Russia and its recent activities in Ukraine and Syria.
Chinese concerns regarding the lack of influence over their SLOCs including oil supply routes from the Middle East has motived the military, particularly the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to focus towards expeditionary operations under the new mandate of ‘Open Seas Protection’ as opposed to their traditional role of coastal defence. The PLAN will continue to remain mostly active and focused in their immediate environment but have begun operating abroad in new theatres, most recently in the Bering Sea which drew much interest (and concern) in the US media. Beijing, wanting to avoid the strategic gaze of the West, has been surgical in employing them abroad, especially the Middle East. To date, Chinese military deployments have focused on protection of commercial traffic from piracy in the Gulf of Aden; assisting in the evacuation of citizens (and other foreign nationals) from conflict zones such as Yemen; and non-combat units participating in UN peacekeeping missions. China, therefore, despite their fury following the execution of a Chinese journalist by ISIS, will most likely not deploy military assets in any large measure to the region anytime soon, especially in a combat role.
Beijing has pursued a low-profile role in the region’s complicated political environment to avoid comprising other aspects of their foreign policy, not least relations with other major powers, most importantly the United States. Chinese leaders have and will avoid calls from some within the region, such as Egypt (which admires and wants to emulate Beijing’s successful development model of economic modernization without political pluralism), for a greater Chinese presence and leadership role to counterbalance the West. China does not necessarily lack the capacity to assume such a role (even if it lacks experience in global leadership) but will continue to play more a supporting role and rely on the other major powers to do the heavy lifting in maintaining regional stability.
Throughout this process, Beijing will continue to position itself in a supportive and non-threatening role, allowing Russia to assume the mantle of the geopolitical ‘destabilizing other’ displacing American leadership and influence in the region. China will continue to expand its diplomatic engagements throughout the region, specifically on a bilateral level with Iran and Saudi Arabia, but these shall not result in any comprehensive change in Beijing’s current regional strategy. Assisting (but not leading) in regional stability efforts; building strong and reliable economic partnerships; and avoiding the entanglements of great power competition over influence and leadership between Russia and the United States will remain Beijing’s main objectives in the Middle East.
Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments, and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. He can be reached at email@example.com. (Image courtesy of Reuters.)