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Middle East Crisis: Prospects for a U.S.-China Détente in the Indo-Pacific

Feb 26, 2024

“I would argue that we’ve not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we’re facing now across the region since at least 1973 [Arab-Israeli War], and arguably even before that,” lamented the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken amid escalating tensions in the Middle East in recent months. With the real prospect of afull-scale conflict between the West and Iran lurking in the background, the U.S. diplomat warned of “an incredibly volatile time” in the region.

There is no way to understate the sheer depth of America’s strategic dilemma in the Middle East. The Biden administration is hopelessly trying to contain the fallout of the ongoing war in Gaza, convince the right-wing government in Israel to support a two-state solution, nudging Arab partners to normalize ties with Tel Aviv, and avoid military confrontation with Iran’s so-called “Axis of Resistance” allies across the region – to no avail.

To make matters more complicated, U.S. President Joe Biden, who has greenlighted a new multi-billion-dollar military aid package to Israel, is confronting dissensions within the administration as well as among fellow Democrats and Muslim-American communities, who have been demanding an unconditional ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. By some estimates, this could cost him dearly in crucial swing states come Election Day later this year.

Meanwhile, China has made major inroads into the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape. Today, it’s arguably the only superpower to have optimal relations with all key regional powers, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as a consistent supporter of the Palestinian cause, which has won the Asian nation huge support across the Muslim world.

The implications of the abovementioned developments for the U.S. are stark. With the Middle East conflicts raging on, and no immediate end in sight for the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration is in no position to prioritize a  “New Cold War” with China. Fortunately, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has also signaled his commitment to a less conflictual, if not collaborative, relationship between the two superpowers during his U.S. trip last November. If anything, there is a growing need for Sino-American cooperation to more effectively prevent devastating conflicts in multiple regions of the world.

Impossible Choices

Barely a week before the latest outbreak of conflict in the Middle East, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated that, “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades…” In retrospect, this statement seems extraordinarily naïve, if not delusional, though there have been reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the region’s outlook.   

Since 2021, the Biden administration has engineered a ‘cold peace’ with Iran, revived frayed ties with Saudi Arabia, facilitated diplomatic normalization between Tel Aviv and key Arab capitals such as Abu Dhabi, and ended America’s decades-old occupation of Afghanistan, albeit under ignominious circumstances.

This was also about pivoting away from the Middle East in favor of more pressing challenges in the 21st century, namely a brewing New Cold War in Asia. As Fareed Zakaria correctly argues, “The United States imports only a tiny amount of oil from the region. Its efforts at regime change and reform in Iraq backfired spectacularly. The most important challenges to the U.S.-led international order come from Russia in Europe and China in Asia. The Middle East is a side show.”

The Biden administration, however, overlooked two major problems. First, it effectively ignored the Palestinian issue, thus inadvertently encouraging hardline elements in the region to push the envelope in a dangerous direction. Moreover, it progressively lost any effective deterrence against regional adversaries, most notably Iran, which doubled down on its relations with Russia and went on its own diplomatic charm offensive across the Arab world and beyond.

As The Economist’s Middle East correspondent Gregg Calstrom succinctly put it, “America can't deter Iran because…it has been unable to decide whether it is leaving or staying [in the region], nor what to do with the forces it still has in the region.” The U.S. is suffering from a reverse-Goldilocks situation, he argues, where its “military presence is big enough to offer Iran and its proxies a menu of targets but too small to actually constrain them.” 

Strategic Sobriety 

The ongoing conflict in Gaza has exposed the paucity of the Biden administration’s strategy in the region: it can’t force either its Israeli or Arab allies to come to an understanding on the future of Palestine, nor can it effectively deter or diplomatically engage Iran. And this only increases the chance of protracted conflict in the region, thus further draining America’s resources and strategic bandwidth. 

Not to mention, this also enhances the position of rival powers like China, which has presented itself as a neutral broker in the Greater Middle East. As the ‘Godfather’ movie’s main protagonist famously put it: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” 

More broadly, the geopolitical quagmire in traditional theatres such as the Middle East and Europe also means that the U.S. can’t concentrate its finite, albeit considerable, strategic resources on the Indo-Pacific region. It’s quite telling that Sullivan, who prematurely hailed a new era of relative stability in the Middle East, also happens to be the chief architect of the West’s ‘decoupling’ and ‘de-risking’ strategy against China. 

Fortunately, there is enough statesmanship and strategic sensibility between Washington and Beijing to rethink the parameters of their competition. This was clearly on display during last year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in California, where Biden vowed to “continue to preserve and pursue high-level diplomacy with [China] — in both directions — to keep the lines of communication open.”

The reality is that the U.S. could soon find itself militarily overstretched, while it has struggled to present any concrete economic counterpoint to China’s mega initiatives in Asia. In turn, Xi Jinping, who has embraced a more pragmatic outlook amid a steep economic slowdown and demographic winter at home, reiterated his commitment to “stable, healthy and sustainable” ties with Washington.

Upon closer examination, the U.S. and China have common interests in the Middle East. As a major trading nation, China also shares the West’s concerns about threats to freedom of navigation in places such as the Red Sea. As a major importer of oil from Iran and the broader Middle East, China also has interest in preventing a major conflict that could disrupt its energy supply-lines. If anything, China also shares America’s interests in preventing nuclear proliferation and empowerment of religious extremist groups in the region.

Overall, China and the U.S. can theoretically engage in a healthy competition in vital regions, including the Middle East, where each superpower has its own network of key partners. At the very least, the real threat of conflagration in the region should inspire an element of strategic sobriety and tactical cooperation between the two superpowers. A full-blown Cold War is not in the interest of either the U.S. or China. 

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