As rising tensions in the South China Sea worry policymakers from Washington to Brussels, the US and the EU should seize the opportunity to cooperate with China in another part of the world. China’s growing role in the Mideast and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative could be a starting point for non-traditional maritime security cooperation.

While the US rebalances east to Asia, China marches west. Beijing’s project to build a “new silk road” connecting Asia and Europe is the most visible statement of its geostrategic interests. The success of the project, officially known as “One belt, one road” (OBOR), depends in large part on developments in the volatile Mideast.

The Mideast plays a bigger role in Beijing’s foreign policy and trade calculations than ever before. China is now the world’s top global importer of crude oil, with half of its imported oil coming from the region. The Mideast also serves as an important trading hub for China, as well as a market entry point into Europe and Africa. The EU is China’s largest export market, while Africa is an important destination for Chinese investments in energy, strategic resources and infrastructure projects.

Terrorism threatens China’s energy supply

But the Mideast is also the region that presents the biggest challenges for China’s OBOR initiative. The presence of ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups threatens China’s energy supply as well as its trade and market access, especially via the Suez Canal.  With over 95 percent of global trade being seaborne, Beijing is heavily dependent on the Canal to reach its export markets in Europe. And in 2013, China surpassed the US to become the world’s largest trading nation.

 

But 2013 was also the year when Al Furqun Brigade, an Al Qaeda affiliate, attacked China’s COSCO Asia in the Suez Canal by firing RPGs at the large container ship en route to northern Europe. In January 2016, NATO commander Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone warned of ISIS attempts to build a navy to disrupt Mediterranean maritime trade and access, with cruise ships as a possible next target for attacks.

Faced with increased military activity and ship inspections in the Suez Canal, maritime insurance company Lloyd’s List recommended that ships take the 6,000-mile (almost 9,700 kilometres) longer route around the Cape of Good Hope instead. 

These shipping delays and increased risk premiums would thus be costly for China’s maritime trade and economic growth. Although China is building overland networks of railroads and highways as part of the planned economic belt across Eurasia, including the Med-Red Railway through Israel to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and bypass the Suez, these routes cannot replace the important maritime transport corridors.

In face of converging interests in countering terrorism and piracy, safeguarding trade and energy corridors, and maintaining regional stability, China’s interests in the region provide an opportunity for the US and the EU to engage Beijing on non-traditional security cooperation in the Mideast segment of China’s new silk road.

As Bruce Jones observed in his book The Risk Pivot, there is a fundamental asymmetry between China’s reliance on Mideast oil supply and its military capability to mitigate risks in the region. To protect its interests, China would need to rely on and cooperate with more advanced navies from NATO and EU countries for maritime and energy security.

Anti-piracy efforts are a model for cooperation

The platform SHADE (Shared Awareness and De-Confliction), which coordinates navies from China, the EU Naval Force, the US-led Combined Maritime Force, NATO, and other countries to combat piracy and human trafficking in the Gulf of Aden is a good example for a successful joint project between the US, the EU and China. And the same template could perhaps be applied to protect the Suez Canal region and the Eastern Mediterranean.

China is also increasing its capabilities as a security provider by establishing a new naval base in Djibouti. It could use its new military presence on the continent to augment its UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, as well as anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance and non-combatant evacuation operations similar to the ones conducted in Libya and Yemen.

In return, the US and the EU could use the Middle East platform as a good first step towards confidence building. Unlike in the Western Pacific, where Sino-US relations are tense due to historic rivalry, territorial disputes and security alliances, the Middle East is a neutral slate. China is a newcomer to the region and has no territorial claims there. China’s leaders are therefore seeking cooperation and advice from experienced players such as Europe, the US, as well as Israel, on how to navigate the unknown terrain, especially when it comes to counter-terrorism.

The US and the EU should view China’s forays into the region as a welcome opportunity for future burden-sharing. In an era of heightened threats to global security and diminishing US and EU resources, China’s contribution can supplement US and transatlantic efforts to address global challenges. 

China may not share all of the West’s values, but it shares an interest for regional stability. So rather than only cooperating with like-minded allies in a “partnership of choice”, the US and the EU can engage China in a “partnership of necessity”.

And who knows? If the experiment for confidence building with China in the Mideast turns out to be successful, the US and the EU might eventually be in a better position to work with China on reducing bilateral tensions in the Asia-Pacific.