As U.S. steps back from Middle East, China steps in


Welcome to the post-American Middle East.

That’s the pointed message Iran, Saudi Arabia, and their eager mediator, China, wanted to send Washington with last Friday’s announcement of a rapprochement between the region’s rival Muslim powers.

But America’s retreat from its decades-long role as the preeminent outside actor in Mideast affairs has been a deliberate choice – spurred by a range of factors, not least the disastrous aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which began two decades ago next week.

And one irony of China’s Mideast diplomatic breakthrough is that it could dissuade the U.S. from further ceding the significant diplomatic and military weight it still has in the region.

That’s because the main importance of the deal isn’t what it will mean for Iranian-Saudi relations. It’s what the agreement says about the interests and motivations of each of the deal-makers, and the implications for longer-term U.S. interests, in the Middle East and beyond.

First, Iran. Closer than ever to being able to make a nuclear bomb, Tehran seems definitively to have abandoned any notion of a revived agreement with Washington to ease sanctions in return for reimposed nuclear limits. Iran’s leaders are throwing in their lot with China.

Next, Saudi Arabia. Though still dependent on the U.S. for security, the Saudis are positioning themselves as a major regional power increasingly independent of Washington. The trend has accelerated under the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, amid U.S. criticism of Saudi human-rights violations. Riyadh has been cultivating closer ties with Moscow and now, far more broadly, with Beijing.

The linchpin, however, is China.

For President Xi Jinping, the Iran-Saudi deal is part of a grander political vision, and a nuts-and-bolts example of how he hopes to achieve it.

The vision is that China will ultimately displace the United States as the world’s leading power. The means to achieve it? Leveraging China’s economic clout to expand its financial, diplomatic, and military footprints worldwide.

The Mideast deal also underscores a key pillar of that approach. In explicit contrast to the United States, China is assuring its partners that “internal” issues – such as human rights – are irrelevant to its outreach and alliances.

And while it’s still premature to speak of a “post-American” Middle East, Washington’s reduced sway, and Beijing’s increasing prominence, are evident.

Until earlier this century, America was indisputably the region’s key international power.

It retains strong political, diplomatic, and military ties: with Israel, above all, but also Egypt and Jordan. And, yes, Saudi Arabia and the other states across the Gulf from Iran.

But the U.S. role as mediator in the Arab-Israeli dispute has receded in importance, along with prospects for a two-state compromise to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

The Iraq War dented America’s appetite for direct military involvement. That was made inescapably clear during Syria’s civil war a decade later. President Barack Obama retreated from his “red line” insistence that the U.S. would intervene if President Bashar al-Assad deployed chemical weapons, paving the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to get involved.

Shale oil, meanwhile, helped free America from dependence on imports from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. And while still committed to safeguarding Gulf Arab security against Iran, the U.S. sought a diplomatic response to Tehran’s nuclear threat. The result was the nuclear deal, sealed despite deep reservations among U.S. partners in the region.

The overall message they took from the agreement was that Washington was not the engaged, reliable, ally it had long been. Instead, in line with what was being called a “tilt to Asia,” the U.S. was focused on China.

The problem Washington now faces is that China has been focusing on the Middle East.

As China extends its Belt and Road initiative to build infrastructure projects across the developing world, it has made countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia key partners. Where the Saudis once shipped their oil westward, their biggest customer today is China. The same goes for Iran, barred by sanctions from selling its crude elsewhere.

China clearly hopes these economic ties will pave the way for an eventual military presence: a Chinese-built port in Djibouti, at the gateway to Red Sea, became the site of a naval facility in 2017. Beijing has also been investing in port facilities in the Gulf Arab states of Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

The Chinese-brokered Mideast deal raises a policy question for Washington: How should it respond?

Early signs are that, while the U.S. won’t want to reduce its regional presence any further, it will focus more broadly on China’s challenge to the interests of America and its allies worldwide.

While officials publicly shrugged off any suggestion of concern over the Saudi-Iran deal, President Joe Biden joined the leaders of Britain and Australia Monday in publicly sealing the so-called AUKUS partnership to provide Australia with new nuclear-powered submarines as a counterweight to China’s increasingly assertive naval presence.

Where the Middle East is concerned, Mr. Biden will be keen to put some flesh on the bones of his unrealized mantra – that Washington and Beijing have to bring stability, even cooperation, to an unavoidably competitive relationship.

Washington’s hope will be that, with China now reliant on the Gulf for nearly half its oil imports, it, too, will want to avoid the instability and conflict likely if Iran goes fully nuclear.

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