Pivoting to Asia Doesn’t Get You Out of the Middle East

Of all of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy ideas, the one that may enjoy the broadest public consensus is that the United States has been overcommitted to the Middle East. Seemingly endless U.S. military engagements, intractable problems, and rising energy self-sufficiency all push a growing number of Americans to argue for a far lighter footprint there, in favor of a shift in focus to the Pacific. There, the United States can partner with dynamic economies, engage with fast-growing populations, and confront Chinese aggression. Much of the same argument was behind the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia,” announced almost a decade ago.

The problem with that argument comes when you talk with U.S. partners in Asia about that plan. Almost completely reliant on the Middle East for energy, they fear a U.S. rebalance away from the region will leave them both vulnerable to upheavals and even more susceptible to Chinese pressure. Put simply, they worry that a greater U.S. focus on China at the expense of the Middle East will prove self-defeating, because a U.S. abandonment of the Middle East actually will make China more dominant in Asia.

Energy is at the core of this, and it a huge issue for both the United States and China. The United States is the largest energy consumer in the world, and China ranks second. In the last few decades, unconventional oil and gas has transformed U.S. energy markets. Shale deposits accounted for almost two-thirds of U.S. oil production and three-quarters of gas in 2019, and they helped transform the United States from being the world’s largest oil importer in 2013 to a net energy exporter by 2019. While lower prices have cut U.S. production in the last year, the knowledge that the United States has adequate low-cost hydrocarbons to fuel its economy for decades has had a profound psychological effect.

Asia is in a very different place. South Korea imports more than 98 percent of its fossil fuels. Typically, between 70 and 80 percent of South Korea’s crude oil comes from the Middle East, while for Japan it’s close to 90 percent. Substantial imports of natural gas from the region deepen Asia’s ties to the Middle East even more.

China also pays close attention to the Middle East, since about 50 percent of its crude oil comes from there. Feeling that the Middle East was a source of insecurity because of U.S. preponderance there, China has tried for decades to boost its domestic energy production—and shift away from its smog-producing domestic coal—with only modest effect. China has neither the geological formations nor the water necessary for large-scale unconventional oil and gas production. China also has tried to diversify its import sources since it became a net oil importer in about 1993, but that hasn’t worked as well as they hoped, either. Even as China develops new supply relationships—including with the United States—the Middle East remains its largest source of oil.

The Middle East has also grown dependent on China. China is not only a huge market in absolute terms (now accounting for 14 percent of all global oil demand), but it also has been the biggest contributor to global oil demand growth for two decades. As U.S. and European imports decline, exporters seeking to expand sales look to China. To pursue those relationships, China has established what it calls “comprehensive strategic partnerships” with three major oil producers—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—and along the way became the largest bilateral trading partner of all three.

Until now, China has been content to develop its Middle Eastern relationships beneath the penumbra of the U.S. military presence. By advertising the modest scope of its ambitions, Beijing has sought to be a friend to all. The approach has been a wise one. Combined with a consensus in the region that China’s role can only grow, it set off something of a bidding war for Chinese affection. Saudi Arabia boosted its exports to China in the 2000s partly to split China away from Iran; Iran has grown even more dependent on China because it is otherwise so isolated in the world.

But China has done more than merely advance its commercial ties. It has been sending an increasing number of its navy ships to the Middle East; it chose Djibouti for its very first overseas military base; and it is working its way into regional arms markets—especially through selling drone aircraft. China is also seeking to embed itself into regional infrastructure projects, building factories, ports, and telecommunications systems. China does much of this through its state-owned enterprises, which enjoy government-backed financing. China has built relationships aggressively with government officials in the Middle East, casting itself not only as a willing partner, but also as one that is able to move quickly and without the regulatory and legal encumbrances that often accompany international business activities.

U.S. allies in Asia look at China’s growing role in the Middle East, and what seems to be the United States’ receding one, and they worry they will be squeezed. China’s approach to its immediate neighborhood in East Asia, including but not limited to asserting ownership over islands in the South China Sea, has been a pattern of patient, deliberate, and coordinated moves over years that often seem relatively innocuous in isolation. By the time their impact is fully recognized, there is little to do about it.

Asian allies of the United States worry China similarly will seek to become dominant in the Middle East before anyone understands what has happened, and then use its dominance of Middle Eastern energy in order to advance its control over them.

U.S. allies in Asia have placed a huge bet on the United States over the last 75 years. China’s increasingly assertive actions in Asia have pushed them to seek more U.S. engagement in their neighborhood, and the increased U.S. focus on Asia is a part of that. Yet, these same allies worry that if the United States’ focus on Asia comes at the expense of the Middle East, the whole enterprise will backfire.

One option worth considering is to work more closely with U.S. allies in Asia to advance shared security interests in the Middle East, perhaps under the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy or some successor concept. Implementation will be a challenge, but it provides an important model to align the United States with the strategic interests of its allies and partners. Another is to be more selective in identifying U.S. priorities in the region, acknowledging that China’s rise in some aspects of regional life is probably unstoppable.

The United States might want to pull out of the Middle East, but as long as Asia sees vital stakes there, a U.S. future in Asia will require a future in the Middle East, too. It is up to Americans, working with governments in the Middle East and Asia alike, to shape it in ways that serve U.S. interests.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program