China and the CENTCOM AOR

China and the CENTCOM AOR

Remarks prepared for the Horizon Scan 14-1 Strategic Outlook Annual Conference

Thursday, 13 April 2014
Amb. Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

China is about to resume its historic position as the world’s largest economy.  Its insatiable appetite for energy and natural resources is the main factor drawing West Asia into its orbit.  But China’s policies are also shaped by its perception that we Americans are repositioning ourselves to counter it and to be able to disrupt its supply lines. (Slide 2.)

In response, the Chinese place even greater emphasis than before on developing relationships with inner Asia – Russia and the Central Asian republics.  (Slide 3.)  Doing so serves to secure China’s northern and western flanks, while keeping militant Islam at bay.  Trade and investment in inner Asia also offset dependence on seaborne supplies of energy and raw materials.  Between 2000 and 2012, China’s trade with Central Asia (excluding Afghanistan) grew 46-fold, from about $1 billion to $46 billion.  Trade with Russia is projected to double to $200 billion or so by 2020.

Islam came to China in 600 A.D.  Since then it has been an important element in Chinese society.  The great Ming admiral, Zheng He, whose fleet of 317 ships roamed the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea six hundred years ago, was Muslim.  (Slide 4.)  His voyages were less about exploration than showing the flag and expanding commerce in a region China presciently thought was important.  The subsequent conquest and occupation of the region by Western powers severed most ties between it and China for a couple of centuries.  These ties are now reviving.  So is Islam among the 140 million or so Chinese citizens of Muslim heritage — not  just minorities like Xinjiang’s Uyghur’s.

Concerns about Islamist extremism strongly reinforce China’s interest in keeping Central Asia stable and free from both great power and petty rivalries.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded by Beijing in 2001, serves these Chinese objectives well.  (Slide 5.)  It is an organization to watch.

With observer states included, the SCO accounts for half of the world’s population.  It is a Chinese and Russian effort to co-opt each other’s influence in Central Asia rather than contest it.  Working through the SCO as well as bilaterally, Beijing precludes external support for domestic Islamist separatism and terrorism, while insisting that Central Asian governments police their own societies.

Chinese and Russian interests, as well as those of the Central Asian republics, will likely push the SCO into an active role in Afghanistan after the U.S. drawdown.  Acting together through the SCO, Russia and China might be able to temper India and Pakistan’s ongoing strategic rivalry there and mitigate its destabilizing effects.

Farther west and south, China is practicing the cautious diplomacy typical of powers still well short of their potential.  Much like the United States in our first 160 years, China seeks “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, [but] entangling alliances with none.”  (Slide 6.)  China avoids taking sides in regional disputes and focuses on selling goods and services – so far not including much in the defense sector, though that will change as the quality of Chinese weaponry improves.  As in Central Asia, China is now the biggest trading partner of almost every country in the region.  Thousands of Chinese companies are present in the GCC, Egypt, and Iran.  Perhaps 200,000 Chinese now work in the region.

China acts militarily beyond its borders only under U.N. auspices.  For reasons of self-interest, Beijing espouses strict international respect for sovereignty, rejects both overt and covert intervention in other countries, and opposes U.S. unilateralism.  This, plus China’s desire not to break ranks with Russia on a matter of major interest to Moscow, explains Beijing’s stance on Syria.  Observers and peacekeepers from the People’s Liberation Army are present today in Lebanon, Darfur, and South Sudan, among other places.  A PLA Navy squadron is engaged in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.  A PLAN frigate has been helping to escort chemical weapons out of Syria.

China is the world’s largest power producer and its second largest consumer of oil.  (Slide 7.)  Although only 20 percent of China’s energy needs are met by oil, 60 percent of this is imported, making the country the world’s biggest net importer of oil.  52 percent of China’s oil imports come from the Middle East – about 20 percent from Saudi Arabia alone.  Chinese imports from Iraq rose by about 50 percent last year, ranking Iraq just behind Russia as China’s fifth-largest source of foreign crude.

China is nonetheless engaged in a concerted effort to diversify its sources of energy.  Shale is a wild card for China as it is for the United States.  Estimates are that China has about four times as much tight oil and shale gas as we do.  (Slide 8.)  China also has the world’s largest renewable energy programs.  But, for the foreseeable future,  its dependence on the Persian Gulf for oil can only increase.  The Chinese see this as a strategic weakness but, for now, they seem content to depend for their energy security on diplomacy, the inscrutable shell games of cargo ownership in the age of globalization, and the insistence of the United States Navy on freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.  When and if we decide to share that burden, we will want to talk to the Chinese — among others in Asia – about doing their part.