Breaking Analysis | August 18th, 2023
Evidence shows Americans increasing forward presence, while China is rising but not ready for or seeking hegemony, Christopher K. Colley argues in journal article.
After decades of hegemony in the Middle East, the United States is seeing its power erode, allies and experts contend. Increasing arms sales by China have reportedly sparked American warnings to regional players like Saudi Arabia; the United Arab Emirates is planning a joint military exercise with the East Asian power; and Iran on Thursday discussed with Russia not only bilateral trade but the possibility of joining the BRICS group of developing nations. So is the United States undertaking a strategic pullout from the Middle East?
This narrative of withdrawal is a myth, Christopher K. Colley argues in Middle East Policy. He counters with an array of evidence on troop postures and arms sales, as well as a deep analysis of Chinese-language sources, showing that the United States has actually been increasing its forward presence. In addition, China is not only incapable of assuming hegemony, but its officials and scholars do not agree on whether Beijing should even attempt to do so. Russia is not close to matching the United States, he adds.
“I challenge these narratives and demonstrate through the publicly available data that America's forward military presence is not declining, nor even remaining stable, but in fact has increased over the past decade,” Colley writes in the journal’s spring issue.
Indeed, recent events suggest the United States, despite its drawdown from Afghanistan and tense relationships with partners like Saudi Arabia, is playing a major role in Gulf security. This spring, it took control of a tanker suspected of busting sanctions to ferry Iranian oil, a move that prompted Iran to harass and even seize tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf.
After tit-for-tat actions, Washington just deployed 3,000 additional troops to the Gulf and an affiliated maritime group is warning shippers that their cargo could be at risk of seizure if they get too close to Iranian waters while transiting the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important waterways. The United States has already sent two warships and dozens of US F-35, F-16, and A-10 aircraft. It may also offer commercial vessels the option of using sailors and Marines as deterrents against hijacking in the strait.
Colley, an assistant professor of security studies at the National Defence College of the United Arab Emirates, argues that the last three presidential administrations have contributed to “a widely believed narrative that the United States is abandoning the region.”
However, he demonstrates, the Pentagon maintains tens of thousands of troops across the region, more than at any time since 2008, and Washington spends at least $80 billion a year to protect the flow of oil. Colley contends that this is squarely in the US interest, despite the fact that the vast majority of the product goes to Asia.
In addition to troop numbers, Washington is the largest supplier of arms to the region. In 2022, it sold about $200 billion worth of weapons to Gulf states.
“Such security commitments from the American government are deeply embedded into the national-security structure of partner states,” Colley explains, emphasizing that countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE rely on the United States for defense capabilities.
In addition to demonstrating the US military capacity, Colley explores whether either of the key rivals, China or Russia, is capable of filling any real or perceived gaps. Moscow has an interest in maintaining a foothold, and Beijing’s recent diplomatic initiatives have elevated its status. However, Colley argues, neither can replace the American role.
China’s influence in the region has grown through its investments in Belt and Road infrastructure projects. More important, while China has resisted creating overseas military installations as antithetical to its revolutionary ideology, Colley shows that it has developed some power-projection capabilities and “does have the requisite hardware for fielding a base in the Gulf.”
However, he closely examines Chinese-language sources and finds that officials and experts do not agree on the most prudent strategic course. Some would like to directly challenge the United States, while others see the potential for competition and even cooperation, given mutual economic interests.
Still, if China were to move more aggressively toward challenging US military supremacy in the region, Washington would likely consider this a red line, Colley says.
As for Russia, “Moscow is simply capitalizing on areas that have been neglected by the West and, in particular, Washington,” he writes, citing a lack of capacity to project force “outside regions that do not share its border.” Both its economy and navy, key components of long-term force projection, are limited in comparison to the United States and China.
If the US seeks to preserve its influence, Colley asserts in conclusion, it should maintain its force structure and reassure allied leaders of its commitment. It should also understand their rationale for seeking other partners, especially China. The East Asian giant represents economic opportunity and, for some, will be a “reliable energy customer long after the West has converted to a greener economy.”
Among the major takeaways readers can find in Colley’s Middle East Policy article, “A Post-American Middle East? US Realities vs. Chinese and Russian Alternatives”:
- There is a growing perception that the United States is reducing its commitment to the Middle East, creating a void to be filled by China and Russia.
- However, the article shows:
- The United States has been increasing its commitment to the Gulf region, and it is by far the leader in arms sales.
- China has built up a military capability that can project power and “at least partially replace the Americans” through military bases and arms transfers, though Chinese officials and experts do not all agree that this is necessary or desirable.
- Russia does not have the economic or military capacity to replace the United States; it has taken advantage of “areas that have been neglected by the West.”
- Contributing to US allies’ concerns about its retrenchment:
- the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”
- the Trump administration’s “America First” policies
- the withdrawal from Afghanistan under President Biden.
- The US economic interest in the region is arguably less than the Chinese.
- The US briefly became a net oil exporter in 2018 for the first time in 75 years.
- Asia receives about 75 percent of Gulf oil.
- China has made substantial investments in the region, especially through its Belt and Road Initiative BRI): in 2020, 8 percent of overall BRI spending went to the region; this increased to 38 percent the following year.
- The American forward presence in the region is not declining, but expanding.
- Washington spends more than $80 billion a year protecting the flow of oil.
- From 2008–22, US troop levels in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain (home of the US Fifth Fleet), Qatar, Kuwait, and Djibouti increased.
- Allied states in the Middle East are also reliant on American military equipment:
- Almost $200 billion in government-government sales has taken place in the Gulf alone as of 2022.
- Major allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, have bought a majority of their fighter aircraft from the United States.
- The US supplies approximately 75 percent of Saudi Arabia’s weapons systems.
- China has increased its power projection, but it does not match US capacity:
- It opened a base in Djibouti in 2017.
- The People’s Liberation Army Navy has about 100 warships capable of operating in the Indian Ocean.
- Despite its increase in military power, Beijing may not choose to protect its partners, such as Iran, from US actions.
- Two statistics illustrate Moscow’s limited capacity:
- In 2020, Russia had a GDP of $1.48 trillion, smaller than several US states and Chinese provinces.
- Russia suffers from capital flight. In 2019, more than $53 billion escaped the country, and hundreds of thousands of highly educated Russians have reportedly left since the start of the Ukraine war.
- Moscow’s military budget in 2020 was $43.2 billion, about half of what the United States dedicates just to protecting the flow of petroleum in the Middle East.
- The United States is the overwhelming supplier of arms to the region.
- From 2016–20, Russia’s exports amounted to 23 percent of US sales, while China’s hit barely 2 percent.
You can read Christopher K. Colley’s article, “A Post-American Middle East? US Realities vs. Chinese and Russian Alternatives,” in the Spring 2023 issue of Middle East Policy.