World Biden's Mideast Policy Could Become A Victim Of Beijing's Success | Opinion
Beijing's 2008 Olympics were a soft power victory for China, but 2022 may be another story
As the sound of fireworks rang out over Beijing to mark the close of the 2008 Summer Olympics, China's leaders could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief. © Ezra Shaw/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images A welcome message is displayed during the Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Remembered today as an event in which record-breaking sporting achievements were matched only by the spectacular pageantry and organization of the Games, the success of the Beijing Olympics was no sure thing.
Just weeks into its tenure, the Biden administration is already executing a profound pivot in the Middle East. Its new approach—diplomatic overtures toward Iran, a harsher line toward the Gulf Arab monarchies and a more distant relationship with Israel—represents a marked shift away from the priorities of the Trump era, which emphasized cooperation with Jerusalem and Riyadh, and the containment of Tehran.
As policy scholar Michael Doran has noted, this is deeply abnormal. For one thing, it elevates the region's Shi'a minority over its Sunni majority—precisely the same dynamic that contributed to a sidelining of the U.S. in regional affairs during the Obama years. But it is worrisome for another reason as well: it unwittingly confers a major strategic advantage to the People's Republic of China (PRC).
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Amed Khan writes that China's treatment of the Uyghurs is a genocide that poses an urgent test for President Joe Biden's new administration and for the international community. "Either the United States and the world will finally go beyond tepid criticism and respond with real action, or we can forget about values, universal rights, and international law."China has since banned BBC World News from airing in the country and denied the abuse, telling CNN that "it is strictly forbidden to insult and abuse trainees in any way.
Over the last half decade, China has become the single largest investor in the Middle East, sinking upward of $120 billion into infrastructure-related projects there. China's interest, moreover, is surging. As of last year, the Chinese government had signed strategic partnerships with a wide range of Middle Eastern and North African states, ranging from Algeria to Qatar, with pronounced effect. Total trade between China and the countries of those regions is currently estimated at some $290 billion.
This deepening involvement reflects a growing focus in Chinese foreign policy on engagement with the "developing world." It is also amplified by the PRC's signature initiative, the Belt & Road, which is designed to position China as a key global trading partner via a sprawling network of infrastructure and development projects. These same priorities, however, have made Beijing a potential spoiler for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
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An "awakening" to the challenges posed by Beijing has caused a shift in attitude in the United Kingdom, says Tom Tugendhat, chair of China Research Group.Echoing recent sentiments expressed on Capitol Hill, Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said there had been an "awakening" in the U.K. to the many irreconcilable practices of the Chinese government.
For instance, Beijing has hammered out more than $100 billion in trade and economic cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia since 2017, making the kingdom a key node along the Belt & Road. China has likewise become Iraq's biggest trading partner, and is now considered by officials in Baghdad to be their country's primary long-term strategic partner. The same situation prevails, or soon will, in Oman, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. And, against the backdrop of the pandemic, China has begun leveraging "health diplomacy" to engage regional states (like Syria, Egypt and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council) more deeply.
Then there is Iran. This past summer, Iran and China came to terms on a massive strategic deal worth some $400 billion. If its components are fully realized, that agreement would make the PRC a major stakeholder in Iran's telecommunications sector, establish port and naval facilities for the Chinese navy in southern Iran, and cement greater cooperation between the militaries of the two countries.
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"The world has moved on beyond Biden's core views, the U.S. is no longer the 'indispensable nation,'" former U.S. ambassador James Jeffrey told Newsweek, "intervention by the U.S. in countries' inner politics to promote American values is problematic and typically a failure."In perhaps no country is this more clear than in Iraq, where U.S. troops remain, albeit in smaller numbers, despite Obama's announcement of a full withdrawal nearly a decade ago amid a collapse in discussions with the Iraqi government at the time.
All of this has gone largely unnoticed, at least in Washington. The scope of China's ambitions in the Middle East has been overlooked by all but a handful of astute observers. So, too, has the degree to which China is supplanting the United States as the strategic partner of choice for regional states—a dynamic that's liable to accelerate as a result of the policy priorities of the new administration.
Thus, Saudi Arabia—which until recently was on a trajectory to become the latest entrant into the Abraham Accords—is likely to respond to the Biden administration's stern new stance toward its government by tilting further toward Beijing. In much the same way, the administration's rollback of Trump-era regional initiatives (like the sale of advanced fighter aircraft to the UAE) could accrue to the benefit of alternative allies, China chief among them. And if the Biden administration does manage to reengage meaningfully with the Iranian regime, it's liable to find itself playing second fiddle to a China that is already firmly entrenched within the Islamic Republic.
To date, the Biden administration has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to confronting China on the world stage. The president told the Munich Security Conference in late February that the West must prepare for "long-term term strategic competition with China." What administration principals still don't seem to realize, however, is that the Middle East represents an essential part of that contest, and a place where China's inroads are liable to come at America's expense. The White House would be wise to calibrate its approach to the Middle East accordingly.
Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.
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