China has become the latest country to voice interest in becoming involved in the proposed U.S. naval security plan for the Persian Gulf. On Aug. 6, Chinese Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Ni Jian said China is considering having its navy escort its commercial ships in the region, and that Beijing is also looking at the U.S. proposal for Gulf escorts. Ni hedged that China would only move in this direction in the event of a "very unsafe situation" in the Persian Gulf. If the Chinese decide to proceed, this would mark a significant step forward in China's military and naval presence in the region.
China has long cautiously expanded its overseas military presence and naval assets. Most prominently, a decade ago it joined multilateral naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden, and more recently established its first overseas military base, in Djibouti. Now, China is considering options for the escort of commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf — something that would expand its military's reach into a new theater crucial to its energy interests.
Extending Its Maritime Reach
China has long wanted to extend its maritime reach. And its substantial naval forces would mesh well with the effort proposed by the United States dubbed Operation Sentinel that aims to ensure safe passage for commercial vessels through the Persian Gulf. In addition to having a large fleet, China has gained substantial experience in the past decade in escorting commercial maritime traffic, having dispatched more than 30 fleets since 2008 to the Gulf of Aden to guard against Somali pirates. Chinese involvement would significantly broaden the U.S.-led mission, which thus far counts only the United Kingdom as an official partner. It would also satisfy the oft-stated U.S. policy priority of getting other countries to do more to shoulder the global security burden.
But whether the United States has actually asked, or would ever consider asking, Beijing to join Sentinel remains unclear. China is neither an ally nor a U.S. partner. Instead, Washington sees China, and in particular its navy, as its strongest potential adversary in the great power competition.
First the Gulf of Aden, Now the Persian Gulf?
Initial U.S. enthusiasm for China's Gulf of Aden escort missions has transitioned into wariness of the substantial experience the Chinese navy has gained through carrying out missions so far from China. The United States has also been alarmed at the way Beijing has used its Aden operations to justify securing its first overseas base in Djibouti in the strategic Horn of Africa, saying it needed it for logistics support. Washington might similarly fear that China could use participation in Operation Sentinel to justify an expansion of its presence in the Persian Gulf region that could include securing basing rights there.
From the Chinese perspective, possible participation in the U.S-led coalition mission would represent a low-cost way to expand its overseas naval operations and make initial inroads into a region dominated by the U.S. security architecture. It is also an ideal means by which to deflect longtime accusations by Washington that Beijing enjoys the benefit of the U.S. security umbrella without bearing any of the burdens. Moreover, China has critical economic interests that participation in the multilateral maritime coalition would help safeguard. About 43 percent of China's total crude oil imports pass through the Persian Gulf, making it imperative for China that the vital sea lanes remain open — something Beijing has tried to accomplish via diplomacy, remaining a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (better known as the Iran nuclear deal).
China has critical economic interests that participation in the multilateral maritime coalition would help safeguard.
Even so, other considerations mean Beijing might well hold off from getting involved in Operation Sentinel. The first is the significant mistrust that currently exists between the United States and China given their trade war and escalating strategic rivalries; Ni's suggestion represents a rare glimmer of potential Chinese-U.S. cooperation that China could highlight during trade talks. The second is Chinese fears of involvement in a military operation that could result in clashes with Iran, one of its major suppliers of oil. For even if participation in Sentinel gave China some sway over the operation's trajectory, it would still have only a limited power to stop an open conflict between Iran and the United States.
For these reasons, China would much prefer involvement in a regional escort operation not led by the United States. To this end, Beijing recently backed a Russian-proposed collective security arrangement for the Persian Gulf, though the lack of significant European backing for the Russian proposal means it is unlikely to gain much traction. So if tensions continue to escalate in the Persian Gulf, Beijing may find it has no choice but to join Operation Sentinel if the United States agrees, or perhaps launch its own escort effort in coordination with other outside players and perhaps even with Tehran. China's growing economic interests and its desire to enhance its capability to secure these interests mean the benefits of greater security involvement in the volatile Middle East outweigh the risks.