As tensions between the U.S. and China continue to escalate, the importance of the Middle East for these two superpowers is only growing.
China is heavily dependent on energy imports from the Middle East and has struggled in recent years to keep up with its rising energy demand.
While much has been made of the U.S.’ waning influence in the region, it retains a significant footprint throughout the Middle East and multiple key allies.
If the United States and China ever enter into conflict, one of the key battlegrounds could be the Middle East. China has been busily trying to shore up its energy security and diversify its energy portfolio around the world, but the country remains heavily dependent on the Middle East for oil. Unfortunately for Beijing, the United States retains a significant amount of leverage and military might in the region which could be used as a powerful weapon in a war of wills between the two global superpowers.
Maintaining a reliable and increasing energy supply is crucial to the well-being and continued growth of the Chinese economy. But as the country continues to develop, Beijing is having a hard time keeping up with demand. For several years in a row, China has suffered major rolling blackouts, with entire cities sometimes going dark for extended periods. And last year, China’s energy industry underwent an extreme stress test as drought crippled the domestic hydropower sector at the same time that the global energy market was in crisis due to a myriad of factors stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Beijing has been hard at work increasing the size and breadth of its own energy empire, paying special attention to increasing its energy footprint in developing countries with large and mostly untapped energy production potential. Back in 2020, Barron’s proclaimed that China had already become “the center of gravity for global energy markets“, and its sphere of influence has only continued to grow since then. On top of Beijing’s heavy investing in other nation’s burgeoning energy markets, China has also blown everyone else away in terms of clean energy spending in recent years. But it’s still not enough to fill the country’s nearly insatiable hunger for additional energy supply.
It’s clear that Beijing is extremely worried about the precariousness of China’s energy security as the country’s economy continues its upward trajectory and demand continues to skyrocket. The country remains hugely dependent on imports to meet its energy needs. It is the second biggest consumer of oil in the world, after the United States, and an incredible 72% of this is imported. The Middle East alone is responsible for about half of those imports. This renders the country extremely vulnerable to energy sanctions or other kinds of strategic energy blockading. Indeed, the Suez Canal, the Bab al-Mandab, and the Strait of Hormuz are all critical shipping routes that could be blocked with relative ease by Middle Eastern leaders.
The United States is well aware of this Achilles heel, and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has openly discussed the possibility of wielding its influence in the Middle East to ensure leverage over China if one of the many sources of tension between the oft-altercating superpowers were ever to come to a head.
“God forbid there’s ever a conflict with China, but we could end up holding a lot of their economy at risk in the CENTCOM region,” General Erik Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a congressional hearing in March of this year.
The United States has built up a considerable and enduring military presence in the Middle East after decades of involvement in and waging wars in the region, including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against the Islamic State. Instability from these conflicts and power vacuums left by ousted regimes has led to considerable instability in the region, resulting in heavy reliance on U.S. aid and military presence in many countries. As such, many of these countries are tightly aligned with the U.S. and host tens of thousands of troops – a number that could increase many-fold at the drop of a hat thanks to established bases, relationships, and infrastructure on the ground.
“U.S. posture in the Middle East remains significant,” Defense Department official Celeste Wallander wrote in a statement to Congress.
“DoD is ready to rapidly flow significant forces into the region and to integrate those forces with partners based on decades of military cooperation to enhance interoperability and address any contingency,” Wallander noted.
While we all hope that conflict with China can be avoided, there’s no denying that there is no shortage of flashpoints where tensions between the very different ideologies of East and West could escalate to a conflict that would have widespread repercussions for economies and energy markets around the world.