China and India: Rival Middle East strategies

The Asian giants are making calculated geopolitical decisions when it comes to their strategy in the Middle East.

Nearly six million Indians are employed in the GCC states [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – Claiming that a great deal of uncertainty hangs over the contemporary security/strategic environment in the Middle East is neither a novel statement nor an exaggeration. Although it is commonly acknowledged that the regional politics will have a stronger Islamic flavour in the years ahead, it is not at all clear how various Islamic parties will conduct themselves once in government, and how their political activism will affect extremist groups in the region and beyond. Similarly, while there is a general consensus that US power in the region is waning, the trajectory of this expected demise is yet to be determined; will it be a sudden fall or will it be a gradual one?

At the same time, certain projections can be made confidently – two of which make the whole picture more complicated. The Middle East is home to 65 per cent of proven global oil reserves and 45 per cent of its natural gas. Concentration of so much of the world’s hydrocarbons in this geographical location implies that global dependency on the region is only going to grow, leading to intense geopolitical competition over access to the region’s vast resources.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that China and India – (“Chindia”) – will witness the highest rate of growth in their energy consumption between now and 2030. Hence, one can predict with confidence that Chindia will go head to head with the US and its European allies, and perhaps with one another, within the context of the evolving geopolitical contest over Middle Eastern oil and gas.

After decades of diplomatic passiveness between Chindia and the Middle East, Chindia’s ties with the region entered a new phase in the 1980s. As the direct consequence of a generational change in their leaderships and their market liberalisation efforts, both China and India embarked upon a path toward astonishing economic development, forcing the two Asian giants to develop near identical interests in the subregion of the Gulf.

Today, India is interested in the Gulf as a source of oil and an oil services market; so is China. Indian elites and businesses are keen on pursuing opportunities in investment, sale of consumer goods and tourism; so are their Chinese counterparts. New Delhi is eager to enhance its ties with Saudi Arabia so to improve its standing amongst its Muslim population and the Muslim world; so is Beijing. Finally, India has sought to utilise Iran and the GCC states support in order to boost its power base on the international stage; so has China. 

Similar policy

In addition, both Beijing and New Delhi seem to have adopted a similar policy towards the subregion, based on the principles of neutrality and non-intervention. As such, they both have used soft power/trade diplomacy to expand ties with all the states – regardless of their domestic politics and/or their historical/sectarian rivalries with one another.

Their disinterest in the domestic affairs of regional states, the complementarity of Chindia and regional actors’ interests in each other’s markets, Chindia’s economic and industrial achievements, their increasing global power at the time of the US decline, and Washington’s unconditional support for Israel, in turn, have substantially boosted Chindia’s standing in the region – to the extent that many regional actors are now receptive to their increasing presence and involvement in regional affairs.

Washington’s … efforts to bring India into its geopolitical orbit seem to be partly responsible for an emerging alternation in Chindia’s Middle East diplomacy.

Yet, Washington’s recent foreign policy initiatives and its efforts to bring India into its geopolitical orbit seem to be partly responsible for an emerging alternation in Chindia’s Middle East diplomacy, as the two have begun to undertake more partial stances in their regional endeavours, and that a new set of regional blockings might be in the making – with Iran, China and probably Russia on one side, and the US, India and the GCC, on the other.  

Currently, Indo-American ties are at their best in history. Washington is now co-operating with New Delhi in the fields of nuclear energy and cyber security, economic ties are growing fast and Indian firms are finding it much easier to obtain US technology, while military relations, including arm sales and joint military exercises, have reached new heights with the US keen to turn India into a buffer zone against China.

As a consequence, India is now closely aligned with US policy in the Gulf subregion – evident in its termination of military contacts and energy deals with Tehran, while seeking closer military and economic ties with the GCC states. The recent decision by the Indian government to extend its military co-operation agreement with Oman, alongside the Indian prime minister’s reassurance to the Gulf States of India’s “steadfast support” for the GCC leaders during the Manama uprising, are cases in point.

Ties with the Middle East

To be sure, India has its own reasons for forging closer ties with the Gulf monarchies vis-à-vis Iran. The bulk of India’s trade is with the GCC states, especially with Saudi Arabia. A major portion of India’s energy supplies have traditionally come from the Arab countries. Around six million Indians are employed in the GCC, whose presence not only eases the unemployment problem in India, but also results in substantial remittances.

Finally, India, as an IT superpower, sees a profitable market for itself in the GCC – where internet security is a pressing issue for both governments and businesses. Nonetheless, India’s recent decision to distance itself from Tehran is a direct consequence of US pressure and New Delhi’s desire to expand and strengthen its emerging friendship with the US.

Perceiving US led sanctions on Iran as a purported attempt at regime change and installation of a US friendly government in Iran as well as a threat to Beijing’s economic interests, and angered by the recent Indo-American rapprochement and the US Pacific Century strategy, China too seems to be abandoning its neutrality and getting closer to Tehran.

To this end, Green Experts of Iran reports that Tehran and Beijing have signed an agreement whereby China, “in exchange for relinquishing parcels of Iran’s land and natural resources, promises to provide military protection for those areas”. The geographical zones include a “380 kilometre stretch of the Persian Gulf peninsula as well as eight kilometres into the sea”, “[a] large parcel of land from Ilam province through Marivan, which engulfs a newly-discovered reservoir of natural gas” and “a vast north-western area adjacent to the Caspian Sea”.

Cautious approach

As with India however, China’s decision to cuddle Iran has more to do with Beijing’s own geopolitical calculations than a simple concern with Washington’s new foreign policy initiatives; the conduct of the US has only accelerated the whole process.

Given the anti-Americanism of the Iranian government, Tehran’s isolation on the world stage, and its desperate need for economic and political allies, not only can China use its influence over Tehran as a valuable bargaining chip in its dealings with the West and the GCC states, but it can also secure favourable deals for its businesses, particularly the state-owned energy companies, repel US hegemonistic efforts in the subregion, and gradually increase its control over the Strait of Hormuz.

Whether Beijing or New Delhi is pursuing a smarter strategy in the Middle East is too early to tell, but India appears to be taking a more cautious approach. Given the GCC states’ small geographical and population size, their lack of strategic depth, their weak armed forces and near-total dependence on outside forces for their security, Gulf states are more of a strategic liability than asset.

Its alliance with the US, however, means that New Delhi needs not to concern itself with the GCC states’ defence, since the US is likely to remain committed to their security in the foreseeable future. Nor does an embrace of the Gulf monarchies have any adverse effect on Indo-Israeli ties.

… embracing Tehran could distort China’s image as a responsible actor on the world stage.

Chinese strategy, on the other hand, suffers from two main shortcomings. First of all, China appears to be committing itself to the defence of Iran, and such commitment could have unintended consequences for Sino-GCC, Sino-American, and Sino-Israeli relations. The latter one is of paramount importance given that Beijing’s interest in Israeli, and by proxy, in US, weapons, is at a record high.

Secondly, given the unpopularity of the Iranian regime, China seems to be investing much political capital on shaky ground, with the fate of its strategy entirely dependent on the Iranian administration’s ability to maintain its hold on power. Anti-Chinese sentiments are already high in Iran.

Backing Iran

The Iranian public today have an aversion to China and Russia as perceived backers of their leaders, while many Iranian merchants and workers complain that imports of cheap Chinese goods are costing them their jobs and businesses. Should there be regime change in Iran, therefore, China’s whole Gulf strategy would collapse. This is not to mention that embracing Tehran could distort China’s image as a responsible actor on the world stage.    

However, if, and this is a big if, the Iranian regime manages to remain in power, it could be argued that Beijing is acting more cunningly by taking into account the overall schemes of Chindia’s geostrategic interests. China, India, and the US are all pursuing a grand policy commonly referred to as the “New Silk Road” strategy, seeking to establish their dominance over the vast natural resources of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Given Iran’s geography, Tehran should naturally be the cornerstone of this strategy if it is to be realised. Yet, Washington, and by extension India, appear determined to bypass and replace Iran with a stable Afghanistan – in their imagining of a 21st Century version of the Silk Road.

The trouble here is that for Afghanistan to be stable, Iran and Pakistan’s co-operation is a must. Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan is well documented. As for Iran’s influence, suffice to say that a large number of Afghans speak Farsi and there are strong cultural and communal ties between the two states.

Aware of this, and in line with China’s strategic tradition of carefully calibrated patience and long-term thinking, Chinese officials seem to have decided to lend their backing to the Iranian government so to be able to utilise Iran’s geography, influence over, and cultural proximity with its neighbours to advance China’s own Silk Road strategy.

Furthermore, India’s top national security concerns are likely to remain threats emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan over the medium term, and thus India will inevitably seek closer co-operation with any state that can address those concerns more constructively. As such, if Beijing – with the help of Tehran and Islamabad – proves more capable of stabilising Afghanistan, it will then be in a strong position to render US efforts in embracing India ineffective, especially that it has the institutional means for doing so – though BRICS organisations and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. 

Nima Khorrami Assl is a security analyst at the Transnational Crisis Project in London.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.