Is US-China conflict in West Asia inevitable?

The short answer is no. But the emerging contest could create divisions in an already divided region

FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags flutter near the Bund in Shanghai, China July 30, 2019.  REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo
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The idea that the Middle East and West Asia could become the stage for a potential US-China Cold War is gaining significant media attention these days. It is, however, not new by any means.

Rising competition is only likely to add impetus to China's desire to cement its footprint in the region. This will have long-term and significant implications for many countries in the region that might be caught in the proverbial crossfire. Previous analysis has long cited the strategic importance China attaches to the Middle East as its primary source for its energy needs, but also as an overland and maritime route to international markets.

A key feature of this analysis is that American influence over these routes is a major source of leverage in the current global contest for power – even outside the very remote possibility of a direct military confrontation. The control of access routes has largely explained the motivation behind a number of Chinese investments, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and String of Pearls theory, a massive series of infrastructure projects to build multiple overland and maritime access routes throughout the region.

One of these investments is the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which terminates in the Pakistani port of Gwadar where China is building large facilities. This investment reduces China's distance to the Arabian Gulf from more than 9,000 kilometres to just over a 1,000km (Gwadar is only 400km to Oman, where China is also heavily invested in building port facilities estimated at $10bn in value).

A print showing Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who travelled to China via the Silk Road. A new and modern Silk Route is currently being built. Getty Images
A print showing Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who travelled to China via the Silk Road. A new and modern Silk Route is currently being built. Getty Images

The motivations behind these Chinese investments have been long recognised. As is the case with other powers, Beijing's investment policy has also been acknowledged as one of the important tools in its strategic arsenal. However, the rationale behind the other primary areas of Chinese investment – namely mining, energy and telecommunications – gains significantly less attention and could potentially be more significant for both the US and the region.

These can broadly be summarised as follows: ensuring security of supply for China’s economy, gaining leverage over the US, and creating greater regional dependence on China.

Regarding Chinese investments in the region’s mining sector, the motivations appear two-fold: to ensure security of supply, and to gain leverage over the US. In the case of uranium ore, for instance, it is clearly the former: China needs to ensure security of supply to power its nuclear reactors, the numbers for which are growing at a rate that will make the country surpass France as the second-largest generator of nuclear energy by 2022, with projections that it would claim the top spot from the US by 2026.

The reasons for investing in rare earth minerals, such as lithium, are a little more complex: while China is interested in developing an economic advantage in key sectors, such as batteries and advanced electronics, it also appears intent on gaining leverage over the US by controlling rare earth minerals that are necessary components for advanced US weapons systems. China has little-to-no concern with security of supply in this case. It already has a near monopoly on their production – controlling around 90 per cent of the global market – which in turn seems to have prompted the US military to fund rare earth plants last December, marking its first financial investment into commercial-scale rare earths production since the Manhattan Project during the Second World War.

China’s investment in the region’s energy infrastructure is also determined by the need for security of supply. Considering that it has become the region’s primary energy importer, this motivation is a given. But in some countries hard-pressed to meet domestic demand, Beijing's pursuit of less economically viable energy infrastructure investments might raise questions over its motivations.

Also intriguing is its investment strategy in the region’s telecommunications sector – integral its so-called Digital Silk Road initiative. 5G technology may, for instance, have the potential to embed the region in a “China-led digital domain", to borrow a phrase by Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

FILE - In this April 28, 2017, file photo, an attendee at a conference looks up near a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping with the words "Xi Jinping and One Belt One Road" and "One Belt One Road strategy," in Beijing. Seventy-five years after Japan's surrender in World War II, and 30 years after its economic bubble popped, the emergence of a 21st century Asian power is shaking up the status quo. As Japan did, China is butting heads with the established Western powers, which increasingly see its growing economic and military prowess as a threat. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
In this 2017 file photo, an attendee at a conference looks up near a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping with the words 'Xi Jinping and One Belt One Road' and 'One Belt One Road strategy' in Beijing. China's BRI project runs through West Asia. AP Photo

The US worries about investments it believes could generate greater dependence on China, with its concern being that, in the future they could act as a reason for the region’s leaders to either take more favourable positions towards China in their disputes with the US, or at least dissuade them from taking positions that are more aligned with American interests. Numerous US administrations have sought to prevent allies from allowing Chinese investments in some industries.

The US has been more successful in limiting Chinese investment in mining but that also may be changing soon, especially as countries in the region enter the civilian nuclear energy market.

For their part, countries in the region appear largely indifferent that the motivations behind Chinese investments are part of a grand strategy in its global contest of power and competition with the US. Even for those countries that are more strategically aligned with the US and its interests, there may still desire to cultivate the relationship with China and reap the potentially transformative benefits being promised while at times underestimating or overlooking the consequences.

However, this rivalry may still not be significant enough to shape and dictate politics in the region – as with other periods of superpower rivalry – even though it could lead to further divisions in an already divided region, and undermine what little regional co-operation already exists. The argument for the inevitability of direct or indirect conflict between the US and China is not as strong as some suggest. Neither is the argument that China is interested in dislodging the US from its traditional role in the region, or could if it wanted to.

The region may not have to choose sides but it will nonetheless become further embroiled in this brewing contest.

Nasser bin Nasser is the managing director of the Middle East Scientific Institute for Security and the founder of the strategic consultancy firm, InfoSynth