The United States has become accustomed to its hegemonic military presence in the greater Middle East. The U.S.-led international coalition against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990 led to a massive increase in America’s direct military presence in the Gulf. Its military presence accelerated after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, U.S. forces are deployed all the way from the Sinai desert through the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, as well as Afghanistan. While the U.S. has come to take its unchallenged military primacy in the Middle East for granted, key Asian countries — especially India, China, Japan and South Korea — have also increased their Middle East presence. The U.S. shouldn’t view this as a threat but rather an opportunity for greater cooperation on a wide spectrum of growing security concerns.
The signs of Asia’s push into the Gulf can be seen everywhere. All around the Arabian Gulf, hotels, banks, schools, and shopping centers are managed by Asian expatriate workers, who also provide most of the region’s manual labor. Without Asian labor, the oil-rich economies of the Gulf would collapse. Many of the vast construction projects in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other city-states are supervised by South Korean companies. Most of the automobiles and trucks on the street are Japanese or Korean. The endless procession of tankers that sail from the huge ports of the Gulf carrying oil and liquefied natural gas is destined increasingly for the Asian market. Infrastructure projects, including new roads, railways, seaports, airports, gas and oil pipelines, and undersea communication lines, are expanding in both the Middle East and Central Asia, making access between the two regions easier and cheaper. These trends suggest that, absent a protracted global recession, the Asian presence in the Middle East will continue to grow significantly over the coming decade.
Over the next 30 years, the economies of India and China are expected to surpass that of the United States in size (although as a result of population growth, their per capita GDP will remain relatively low), giving their governments increased regional and global clout. As India and China grow, Japan will be left behind. Nonetheless, Japan is likely to remain a key Asian power, given its close ties to the United States. Moreover, Japan’s energy needs will keep it tied to the Gulf. Similarly, South Korea, while smaller than Japan, is already deeply engaged in the Middle East, especially in the energy sphere. Lacking domestic oil reserves, South Korea is the world’s fifth-largest importer of oil and the eleventh-largest importer of liquefied natural gas. In addition, South Korean construction companies have been hired to build oil refineries, petrochemical plants, offices, and infrastructure across the Middle East.
India is an under-appreciated player in this new Asian Middle East. The Indian subcontinent has had close commercial ties with the Gulf for centuries, and India today has managed to cultivate good working relationships with all the countries in the Middle East, including Israel. While economic interests have provided the basis for many of those relationships, India has also taken on a modest military role. The Indian government has participated in Middle East peacekeeping operations since 1956. In addition, India has been increasing its bilateral military ties with all of the small countries in the Gulf. India is likely to establish a stronger, more assertive presence in the Gulf over the coming decades.
It is China, of course, which gets most of the attention. For a short period in the fifteenth century, China was the dominant power in the Indian Ocean, but over the centuries that followed, it had little to do with the Middle East. After the Communist Revolution in 1949, China tried to cultivate close relationships with revolutionary groups in the Arab world, but its efforts were violently opposed by Arab nationalists. In the wake of the Sino-Soviet split and China’s eventual rapprochement with the United States in 1972, China changed course and sought instead to establish cordial relations with Middle Eastern governments. In particular, it became more directly involved in the geopolitics of the region through arms sales, notably to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, during the 1980s. More recently China has followed India’s example by becoming engaged in Mideast peacekeeping. China’s participation in United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) began officially on April 9, 2006.
Considerable uncertainty remains regarding China’s future presence in the region, particularly in the military arena. China is a long way from the Gulf, but if its permanent maritime reach eventually expands into the Indian Ocean and its overland reach grows through Central Asia and Pakistan, it, too, could become a major strategic player in the Middle East. The attention paid to China’s voice in the debate over sanctions on Iran offers a stark contrast to its limited role in the debate over sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s.
It is easy to see the growing doubts about how long the United States can sustain its presence in the region and remain the policeman of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Two wars have drained American resources. The financial crisis also diminished U.S. prestige by calling into question the validity of its economic model, which had been eagerly pursued on the Arabian Peninsula, the richest part of the Middle East. If all these factors coalesced to bring about a slow U.S. retreat from the region, would any Asian powers fill the vacuum?
On this point, there is no consensus. Some acknowledge the importance of Asia’s economic and cultural expansion into the Middle East but argue that domestic factors in India and China will limit their ability to play the role now held by the United States. Others maintain that, to the contrary, China is likely to take a more aggressive approach to the Middle East and develop close relationships with countries like Syria and Iran. Still others focus on the growing relationship between India and the United States, arguing that it may serve to counterbalance Chinese ambitions. The new dynamics must take into account not only growing ideological challenges to the West, but also the reemergence of more traditional balance-of-power politics as the Asian nations become world players and the sense that Americans may eventually grow tired of protecting the assets of "free loaders."
In many ways an increased growing Asian presence in the Middle East will bring a breath of fresh air to a region left with the bitter historic legacies of European dominance and characterized by contemporary antagonism toward the hegemonic role of the United States. The major Asian players in the Middle East have not been colonizers or occupiers and they have far less of an emotional stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the one hand, that means that they approach political issues and unresolved conflicts with what some would argue is a cynical, laissez-faire attitude, perhaps exemplified by China’s initial indifference to human rights abuses in Sudan. However, the upside is that the Asians do not interfere directly in Middle East politics and therefore enjoy good relations with most states. How long they can sustain their hands-off approach is questionable if, by virtue of their economic dominance and their own strategic stakes in the region, they get drawn into the messiness of Middle East politics at a time when the United States becomes disillusioned by the burdens of hegemony.
In the meantime, it is very much in the interests of both the U.S. and the Asian countries to reach common agreements on the importance of preventing further conflict in the region and jointly assuring the security of the increased maritime traffic across the Indian Ocean. Cooperation on meeting the piracy challenge off the coast of Somalia is an early test of this new strategic reality.
Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center. This article summarizes some of the key themes in his latest book The East Moves West: India, China, and Asia’s Growing Presence in the Middle East (Brookings Institution Press 2010).