China slowly grows its naval presence in the Middle East

In 2017, China established its first overseas base in Djibouti and is on track to become a dominant naval power by 2035.

China's maritime focus at present remains in its vicinity. Its presence in the Middle East is a slow build. It might never become a regional military superpower, but it can't be ruled out entirely.
Alexandra Espâna
China's maritime focus at present remains in its vicinity. Its presence in the Middle East is a slow build. It might never become a regional military superpower, but it can't be ruled out entirely.

China slowly grows its naval presence in the Middle East

China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in September 2013, spread its infrastructure development projects around the world. Investments in railways, ports, industrial parks, power stations, hi-tech hubs, and highways are dotted across the Middle East and the western Indian Ocean.

China’s economic relations now stretch far beyond Asia to Europe, Russia, and the Gulf. Since 2020, China has become the European Union’s top trading partner. Total bilateral trade reached $912bn in 2022.

Trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries now goes beyond oil and gas. Their bilateral trade hit $505bn in 2022. In Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, China is investing in infrastructure.

It includes dozens of auxiliary buildings at Khalifa Port in the UAE, a fuel storage station at the Port of Fujairah, and investments in the Port of Duqm in Oman.

Typically, Chinese companies are granted exclusive rights over design, construction, and management for around 35 years. To some, this raises concerns about China’s growing regional influence.

The timelines certainly suggest a long-term stay.

China's presence near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's major oil shipping lanes, could pave the way for the permanent positioning of Chinese naval vessels in the strait.

This could lead to a Chinese military presence there, which would risk future clashes with American interests stationed nearby.

Alexandra Espâna
Chinese power projection in the Middle East has grown increasingly sophisticated.

China's military doctrine

After more than a decade, the BRI has evolved beyond roads and railways. It has become a means by which Beijing can strengthen its diplomatic, military, media, and economic presence in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

China's maritime trade routes facilitate supply chains, oil tankers, and gas carriers. This means that Chinese interests face threats from non-state actors, piracy operations, and regional powers vying for economic and military advantage.

As a result, Beijing is enhancing its navy. It wants a force that can be deployed globally, capable of managing adjacent waterways, monitoring vital maritime routes, and safeguarding China's political and economic interests beyond East Asia.

China's concept of "active defence" was defined back in 2015 as "commitment to the principles of defence, self-defence, and counterattack". The strategy added: "We will not attack unless attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked."

According to this doctrine, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to prevent war and manage crises by balancing war preparedness and prevention, protecting rights, preserving stability, and deploying military forces in peacetime.

The doctrine also tasks the PLA with Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). It emphasises "international security cooperation" to safeguard China's external interests.

While China's top priority is still its preparedness for regional wars, the PLA's growing power projection may lead to the development of military doctrines for engagement beyond Southeast Asia.

China wants a naval force capable of safeguarding its political and economic interests beyond East Asia.

Strutting its subs

Since dispatching its first naval escort task force of three warships to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, China has sought to bolster its maritime presence in the Middle East. A further 42 missions have since been deployed.

The initial task force, which had been sent to combat piracy, marked China's first modern maritime mission abroad. Its involvement has helped, too, with pirate attacks on maritime shipping dramatically reduced since 2015.

It has been a steady rise. For instance, China's 2010 task force included a Yuzhao-class landing ship designed for amphibious assault rather than chasing pirates.

In 2014, the PLA's Navy sent an advanced attack submarine to patrol the eastern Indian Ocean. It was a major step up in terms of Beijing's power projection. Its navy has since conducted exercises with naval forces from Iran, Pakistan, and Russia.

Late last year, the 44th Chinese naval escort taskforce to the Middle East included the guided-missile destroyer Zibo, the guided-missile frigate Jingzhou, and the supply ship Changdaiho, which visited Shuwaikh Port in Kuwait on 18 October 2023.

Its 45th task force comprises the guided missile destroyer Ürümqi, the guided missile frigate Linyi, and the supply ship Dongpinghu. According to the original mission, these now amount to a show of force, far exceeding what is needed.

China's Navy is not homeless in the region. In 2017, it established its first overseas base in Djibouti. Initially described by Beijing as a logistical facility supporting anti-piracy missions, it later acknowledged this as a military support facility.

Eduardo Ramon

Read more: Why do so many foreign powers have military bases in Djibouti?

This is no normal dockyard. It houses intelligence-gathering equipment and has been expanded to accommodate China's giant aircraft carriers and its amphibious assault ships, capabilities wholly unnecessary for anti-piracy operations.

Strategic strongpoints

Djibouti may be just the beginning. The PLA's Navy has dispatched ships to Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to strengthen its ties with regional naval forces through exercises. Many of these are US allies.

China's Middle East forays generate regional interest in the BRI, trade deals, and maritime infrastructure development in the Gulf. Being visible helps. Since Israel first launched its war on Gaza, China has sent six warships.

China's military base in Djibouti marked a significant development that led Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim countries to ask if this will serve as a template for further bases. If so, they wondered, where might these bases be situated?

Chinese military strategists have embraced the "strategic strongpoints" concept, defined as locations that offer support for military operations abroad or serve as forward operating bases.

Djibouti is the first, yet the idea is neither new nor exclusive to China. America has several such bases, acting as a forward operating line.

The most famous American strategic strongpoint is Pearl Harbour. Without it, the United States' first line of defence would be its own borders. The Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and the Pacific island of Guam are two others.

China's military base in Djibouti was a significant development that led Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim countries to ask: 'Where next'?

Expanding its presence

The role of these strategic strongpoints is to augment the Chinese military's ability to operate abroad by safeguarding Chinese maritime communication lines and protecting China's external interests.

To achieve these objectives, China needs an enhanced presence in strategically significant areas within the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This means new strongpoints near crisis zones with "various forms of limited force presence".  

Beijing's strategic focus is the Indian Ocean, which is a core part of what is often referred to as China's "lifeline", stretching from the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, ending in Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden.

This 'Maritime Silk Road' links ports of numerous countries along its course, including Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. These may emerge as potential future strategic strongpoints.

Gwadar has a strategic location, not far from the crucial Strait of Hormuz, a vital passage for China's energy imports, while Hambantota serves as an ideal midway point in the Indian Ocean for maintenance, repair, and refuelling.

Expanding interests

Meanwhile, China's aspirations are growing, not shrinking.

Beijing actively seeks to strengthen its relations with other countries and establish new bases in Africa, Pakistan, and the Arabian Gulf. Large, modern Chinese ships will, therefore, remain on the horizon.

In recent years, the Djibouti base has been used for periodic evacuation operations in the rescue of Chinese and foreign civilians from conflict zones, which has helped to convince Beijing of its necessity.

As China's naval power and global economic interests expand, its leaders are increasingly aware of the strategic value of positioning forces in friendly and strategically significant nations.

People watch a video featuring China's Liaoning aircraft carrier at the Military Museum in Beijing.

The PLA's Navy is likely to continue its three-ship deployments in the Middle East, now ongoing since 2008, but priority will be given to maritime deployment operations in South East Asia and the South Pacific.

China now has interests worth defending in places like Pakistan and Africa, whether it be citizens or infrastructure, while deepening trade ties to the Gulf may lead the PLA to expand its current deployment further.

In the Gulf states, China certainly has willing trade partners beyond the finite oil and gas resources. Many are keen to leverage Chinese support for their domestic economic transformations in areas like telecoms, where China is a world leader.

Constraints on deployment

The acquisition of rights by state-owned Chinese companies in six commercial ports across Pakistan, Egypt, Sri Lanka, the UAE, and Djibouti raises fears over unfriendly interactions between Chinese-run facilities and US naval customers.

Fears of a US-China conflict are a major constraining factor in China's military naval expansion at present, yet the balance of power in the Arabian Gulf is shifting. Most observers think that China could be the dominant naval power by 2035.

US naval forces are already struggling to make an impact, for instance, in their unsuccessful retaliation against Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, the Chinese navy is quietly expanding far from home. In recent weeks, US officials have been urging Gabon and Equatorial Guinea leaders to reject Beijing's overtures for a military presence on their Atlantic coastline.

It is a sign of the times that traditional economic and security partners of the United States are seeking to enhance their relations with China, such as by buying Chinese defence equipment.

Tackling Beijing's increasing influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans will require some skilful diplomacy from Washington, while the US Navy must adapt to a more assertive PLA Navy presence in waters that, until now, the US policed alone.

China's maritime aspirations are growing. Beijing actively seeks to establish new bases in Africa, Pakistan, and the Arabian Gulf.

Arab states adjust

Most Middle Eastern countries will refrain from taking sides in this deepening rivalry. Instead, they will seek to maximise the benefits from their relationships with both superpowers without incurring the wrath of either.

The US is playing the long game. It knows that the PLA is here to stay, so American diplomats are currently reshaping relations with traditional regional partners without forcing anyone to 'choose a side'.

For Beijing, which maintains friendly relations with Iran (unlike the US), the challenge is keeping both Tehran and its Arab partners on its side.

But it is not a straightforward choice. Chinese-Iranian defence ties are deep, and Iran supplies a lot of oil to Beijing. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also supply a lot of carbon, and their economic partnership is worth much more to China overall.

Chinese diplomats will therefore have to tread carefully, given the huge distrust between Tehran and the Gulf states, and enormous potential for mishandling or misinterpretation on a range of regional issues.

In 2017, China established its first overseas base in Djibouti and is on track to become a dominant naval power by 2035.

Riyadh, in particular, is in no superpower's pocket. It voted against Russia at the United Nations over Ukraine and refused a US request to pump more oil to tame energy prices. One suspects that it would not hesitate to spurn China, too.

In summary, China is currently enhancing its capabilities to expand its military deployments abroad. It is also fostering strategic relationships and partnerships and improving the quality of its naval weapons systems.

Nevertheless, China's focus at present remains in its vicinity. Its presence in the Middle East is a slow build rather than a lightning construction.

China's ascendency may never translate into naval and military superiority in the Middle East. But it is probably wise to assume that — at some point — it could.

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