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Neither Russia nor China Could Fill a U.S. Void in the Middle East

Nor would they desire to.

By , a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sit slightly slumped in red chairs next to one another.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) attend the Tsinghua University’s ceremony at Friendship Palace in Beijing, China, on April 26, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool/Getty Images

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 and America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan have renewed debate over whether the United States should remain so deeply engaged militarily in the broader Middle East. These debates typically center on whether such a presence is needed to ensure the safe transit of oil out of the Persian Gulf, prevent terrorist attacks, or prevent a single power from dominating the region.

More recently, however, the topic of great-power competition among the United States, Russia, and China in the Middle East has increasingly moved to the forefront of such debates, and U.S. officials and policy analysts have begun raising the alarm over the possibility of Moscow or Beijing filling the void if Washington were to withdraw militarily from the region.

But such concerns are misguided. Neither Russia nor China is capable of filling a supposed U.S. void in the Middle East, nor do they desire to.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 and America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan have renewed debate over whether the United States should remain so deeply engaged militarily in the broader Middle East. These debates typically center on whether such a presence is needed to ensure the safe transit of oil out of the Persian Gulf, prevent terrorist attacks, or prevent a single power from dominating the region.

More recently, however, the topic of great-power competition among the United States, Russia, and China in the Middle East has increasingly moved to the forefront of such debates, and U.S. officials and policy analysts have begun raising the alarm over the possibility of Moscow or Beijing filling the void if Washington were to withdraw militarily from the region.

But such concerns are misguided. Neither Russia nor China is capable of filling a supposed U.S. void in the Middle East, nor do they desire to.

Moscow and Beijing have not outright challenged the U.S.-led security order in the region, because they benefit from it: It has provided the security umbrella for them to become more involved in the region without having to assume the costs of physically protecting their interests. Indeed, their ability to continue their low-cost maneuvering in the region would be undermined by a U.S. absence. In the Middle East, Russia and China are opportunists, not revisionists.

Russia and China have certainly sought to exploit U.S. exhaustion in the region, as well as the heightened regional tensions following the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Russia intervened militarily in Syria to save Bashar al-Assad in 2015, and that country is now home to Moscow’s only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea. Moscow involved itself in Libya’s ongoing civil war, supporting the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar with airstrikes, weapons, private military contractors, and Russian special forces. It has deployed private military contractors to Sudan to support the Transitional Military Council that assumed power following the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, and it has inked a deal with the council to build a Russian naval base off the coast of Sudan in the Red Sea.

It has also considerably increased its arms sales throughout the Middle East.

China, meanwhile, has become the region’s largest oil consumer, largest trade partner, and largest investor, with Beijing seeking to merge its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative with the national economic reform and development programs being pursued by numerous states in the region. China’s arms sales to the region have also increased significantly.

Some see these developments as evidence that the only thing standing in the way of Russia or China further expanding their influence and strategic position within the Middle East is the commanding military presence of the United States.

Of particular concern would be Moscow or Beijing coming to dominate the critical trade and oil routes in the region, such as the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Eastern Mediterranean. This is particularly the case with China; the fear is that Beijing would be able to complete the midsection of its Belt and Road Initiative, due to no longer having to circumvent U.S. military dominance of these critical trade routes, thereby dominating the most critical trade and oil routes in greater Eurasia.

Another fear is that regional powers—including not only U.S. adversaries such as Iran but also U.S. partners such as Israel and Saudi Arabia—would turn toward Moscow and Beijing as their new great-power benefactor if the United States were to abdicate, tilting the global balance of power further east.

But these doomsday predictions fail to account for the serious limitations both Russia and China would face in the Middle East should the United States withdraw. Russia and China would have to assume a far more direct presence to secure their respective interests in the region. Yet both countries would be highly averse to creating and upholding such a security order.

First, the Middle East does not represent an existential interest to either Beijing or Moscow. Not only are both far more concerned with competition with Washington in their own immediate neighborhoods, but also both Russia and China are facing serious economic troubles in addition to highly contentious domestic environments, making power projection into the Middle East without a U.S. security guarantee very unlikely and highly risky.

Moreover, pulling back from the Middle East would provide Washington with more resources that can be directed toward strategic competition with Moscow and Beijing, an outcome that neither Russia nor China would welcome.

Both countries would also have to set about creating and upholding a new political order in the region. Russia and China have been able to make inroads in the region primarily by compartmentalizing their foreign policies in the Middle East.

They have largely refrained from taking sides in the region’s greatest geopolitical competitions—the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the rift among the Gulf Arab countries, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and thereby avoided being dragged into these disputes. They have been able to do so because the United States, as the region’s predominant power, has built a political order in the region that relies on specific client states to reinforce the U.S. power and sideline adversaries.

If Washington were to withdraw, this delicate balancing act pursued by Russia and China would collapse, forcing Moscow and Beijing to become more intimately involved in the region’s political affairs if they sought to fill this void.

Nevertheless, the “void” argument has become politically useful for some. Regional actors, specifically those that are dependent upon the United States to uphold the security status quo from which they benefit, have increasingly turned to the “void” narrative to pressure Washington into remaining deeply engaged in the region.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have each used outreach to Moscow and Beijing to gain leverage and concessions from the United States. This is particularly evident when examining arms sales to states in the region, as well as the notion often proffered by U.S. officials that their partners will simply turn elsewhere if not given what they ask for.

In the Middle East, Russia and China are opportunists, not revisionists.

These actors often pursue deals with Russia or China to pressure the United States into providing them with what they really desire: U.S.-made equipment. This is primarily due to the fact that the ability of U.S. allies in the region to shift wholesale to alternative weapons systems is nearly impossible due to the incompatibility of Russian or Chinese arms with the American defense systems in these countries.

In 2014, following the temporary withholding of U.S. arms sales to Egypt due to the 2013 military coup, Moscow signed a $3.5 billion deal with Cairo that included not only arms and ammunition but air defense systems and aviation as well.

Likewise, to pressure the United States after it refused to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE in 2017, the Emiratis signed a deal to co-develop a fifth-generation fighter jet with Moscow. Later, when apprehension was growing in Washington over providing the UAE with $23 billion worth of arms and F-35 fighter jets as part of the normalization deals with Israel, UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba warned his country would have to turn elsewhere if the deal were to fall through.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE also turned frequently to China for armed drone sales amid U.S. reluctance to provide them with such technology. In response, the Trump administration said it would bypass Congress to push through the sale of advanced armed drones to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Moving forward, U.S. policymakers should dispel the myth that Russia or China are capable—or willing—to fill a void in the Middle East if the United States were to withdraw militarily. This narrative has primarily been used by those who have their own special interests in keeping the United States deeply engaged in the region, namely regional partners who have for too long exploited this fear of losing ground to either Russia or China in order to extort concessions from Washington.

Instead of providing Moscow or Beijing with an opportunity for advancing their interests, a U.S. military withdrawal from the region would undermine those countries’ ability to maneuver without assuming the direct costs of such deeper engagement.

Jon Hoffman is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam. Twitter: @Hoffman8Jon

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