Iran's Revolutionary Guard boats attack a navy vessel during a drill in the Gulf in April 2010. Their go-fast boats are capable of doing serious damage to tankers or ships in this key oil route. Photo: AFP/Fars News/ Mehdi Marizad

It is rare that two events in a short period of time coincide to demonstrate clearly the slowly shifting sands of the global strategic balance. This month, just such a thing happened.

On January 17, a former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, published an essay in The Washington Post. In it, he argued that the US need not be as committed to the Middle East as in the past because it no longer needed to rely on oil supplies from the region and Israel’s security was now more assured. One sentence in particular stood out: “China and India need to be protecting the sea lanes between the Gulf and their ports, not the US Navy.”

Four days later, on January 21, South Korea announced that it would expand the mission of its overseas counter-piracy unit to the Strait of Hormuz. The 300-strong Cheonghae Unit, aboard a 4,400-ton destroyer, was formed in 2009 and is mandated to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden. It will now operate in the Persian Gulf to ensure the security of oil tankers heading for South Korea.

The two events were clear indicators of two separate but intertwined trends: first, that Asian states are increasingly reliant on Middle East energy supplies to fuel their economies; and second, that the US is, at least rhetorically, decreasingly interested in protecting those supplies.

These two factors reflect the fact that a significant change is under way for the regional, and perhaps global, order. Indyk’s article is a remarkable plea for the US to abdicate a responsibility it has willingly assumed since World War II: to ensure freedom of navigation and the security of a world order based on law and led by the US. It is also a realistic admission that while Washington may perceive declining strategic interests in the Middle East, Asian states – particularly the largest economies of China, Japan, India and South Korea – are increasingly reliant on and involved in the region.

Energy is a key part of this shift in strategic calculation for major Asian states, not least China. Given its rapid economic growth and limited internal energy resources, China became a net importer of oil products in 1993; by 2017 it was the world’s largest importer, overtaking the US. Even China’s slowing economy has failed to dent the rapid increase in its oil imports; 2019 was the 17th successive record year, with 10.12 million barrels imported every day, a 9.5% increase on the previous year.

China looks to the Middle East to satisfy this inexorable thirst for oil, importing nearly 50% of its needs from the region. Shipments from Saudi Arabia, China’s top supplier, increased by more than 50% in a single year to November 2019. Other Middle East states such as Iran, Iraq, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates all regularly appear in the top 10 list of China’s oil suppliers.

China is not the Gulf’s only customer. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, imports more than 90% of its energy needs. Nearly 40% of this comes from oil, of which more than 75% is imported from five Middle East states: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran.

The same is true for South Korea, which in 2018 imported nearly 75% of its oil, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and the UAE. India, another significant but energy-poor economy in the Indo-Pacific region, relies almost entirely on the Gulf for its imported oil. India’s dependence on imports rose to 84% in 2018-19. The country’s top four suppliers were Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE, which together provided more than 60% of the country’s oil imports, demonstrating the vital role Middle Eastern oil plays in India’s economy.

It’s not just about oil, either. China, Japan, South Korea and India are the four largest importers of liquefied natural gas in the world. Qatar is the main supplier to both South Korea and India and a top-three supplier to both China and Japan.

All this makes the Gulf perhaps the most strategically vital region for Asia’s biggest economies. More than two-thirds of South Korea’s and 60% of Japan’s energy imports, as well as 80% of crude oil bound for China, currently come through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway beset by tension and regular threats by Iran to close it down. Any significant and prolonged disruption to the flow of oil exports through the strait would have devastating consequences for their economies.

Meanwhile, Middle Eastern countries are having to pay more attention to the needs and demands of the Asian states, which are fast becoming their top customers. Just as the Middle East is now a more significant concern for governments in Asian capitals, so Asia is now a greater consideration in the strategic calculations made in Gulf states.

China is hardly likely to cede security of the Middle East to the US indefinitely, without getting a greater say on how events unfold or a guarantee of security for its own interests

However, the strategic commitment of those Asian states to the Middle East does not yet reflect how important the region is to their economic well-being. The presence of the US and the guarantee it brings of freedom of navigation has meant there was no great imperative to take on more strategic responsibility. Asia’s relationship with the Gulf was able to remain largely commercial.

This will inevitably change. China is hardly likely to cede security of the Middle East to the US indefinitely, without getting a greater say on how events unfold or a guarantee of security for its own interests. Given the ongoing rivalry between the US and China, Beijing will not leave something as important as secure energy supplies in the hands of a potential opponent.

The problem is that the pace of increased Asian commitment and US drawdown is unclear. Even with voices on both sides of the political aisle calling for a withdrawal from the Middle East, the political reality of reducing America’s commitment is much more complex. After all, the US still has about 1,000 military personnel in Syria, despite President Donald Trump’s announcement of a complete American withdrawal. He has also said the US should not fight on behalf of the Gulf states, yet a further 4,500 American troops have been deployed in the region over the past year.

All of which means that while China, India, Japan and South Korea will probably be compelled to get more involved in the Middle East, as the deployment of the Cheonghae Unit demonstrates, the US is not yet in a position to follow Indyk’s suggestion and reduce its engagement. The result is likely to be a more complex strategic environment, with powers in Asia, as well as Russia and Europe, competing for space.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London. Previously he was a senior adviser to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Follow him on Twitter @c_lemiere.

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