Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and that bastion of communism just over thirty years ago, the United States and the western world have still not lost their fascination with that old rival superpower. Throughout the three decades as a proudly interventionist force with near-total supremacy on the world stage, Washington – along with its allies – just could not bring itself to look away from Moscow.
Western press and analysts, too – and, subsequently, policymakers – continued to perceive Russia with the same awe and caution as they had over the decades, whether from habit or actual astuteness. The Russian Bear, they thought, is always at risk of rising again and retaking its former Soviet territories if it is not sufficiently checked.
It is undeniable that Russia has recovered much of its geopolitical clout: it has, once again, gained assured access to warm water ports and a network of military and naval bases where its troops and mercenaries can safely operate from, and it has managed to hold its sway as a protector of autocrats – first in Syria where it has assisted Assad throughout the war and, more recently, in Kazakhstan where it helped the government quell an uprising by “terrorists”.
Putin and his government have evidently fought long and smart to make that climb back to regional and international influence.
But, while the US and Western capitals have busied themselves with all that alarmism over the decades suffered from past trauma, especially with all the panic surrounding the current Russian annexation of parts of Ukraine and the presence of western forces to deter and counter it, they seem to have forgotten that Moscow is not a superpower yet, or again. Its GDP is even smaller than Italy’s, despite its military prowess.
Until recent years, the US largely failed to see that another and far more powerful threat was rising in the form of China. Through grand global projects such as its Belt and Road Initiative or the ‘new Silk Road’, Beijing has successfully been expanding its power while biding its time, playing the long game in out-competing the US in almost every field and industry.
While domestic American industries have fallen by the wayside and, sometimes, completely collapsed, China has happily made itself an intricate part of the global market and supply chains, all the while using “slave labour” to do so, and keeping every industry and company on its soil under tight state control. It does not take a genius to see that Beijing is seriously rivalling Washington as the global superpower.
Geopolitically, this has been seen most in terms of the Middle East. The region that has traditionally been the playground of American foreign policy over the past half a century is now slipping out of the US’s hands through a series of recent Chinese acquisitions.
At the beginning of this year, both Morocco and Syria joined the Belt and Road Initiative, adding themselves to the long list of over 140 countries already part of that project. Around the same time, Iran began its 25-year-long strategic pact with China, and down in the Gulf region, it is actively pursuing a strategic partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and getting the Arab monarchies on its side.
That is especially the case with Saudi Arabia, which has agreed to boost military cooperation with China, and is also developing its nuclear capabilities with direct Chinese assistance. Even Israel – the ally which the US is most committed to – has replaced America with China as its leading source of imports.
When looking at such developments, it becomes clear that Beijing is aiming to cement diplomatic, military and economic ties and assistance to states in the region, regardless of their divisions and ongoing rivalries. It is not picking Iran over the Gulf or vice versa, or ‘Axis of Resistance’ nations over long-time American allies, but rather it is transcending the internal politics of the Middle East that has so perplexed other powers and mired them down over the decades and centuries.
Unlike the US, China is not making its assistance dependent or conditional on a nation’s domestic policies or even foreign policy – not yet, at least. It does not demand that human rights be upheld, nor does it harass governments to issue certain reforms or to abide by a set of values –a process that has so annoyed authoritarian regimes in the region. To them, the Chinese Communist Party has proven to be an ideal business partner and patron.
That is, of course, the essence of Beijing’s appeal, and has allowed it to do what Washington claimed to set out to do during the ‘war on terror’: win hearts and minds. Such efforts have been seen in certain charitable acts, such as China’s forgiving of $25.3 million in debt owed by Mauritania, and even further by its statement that there is no power vacuum in the Middle East upon the American decline and that the region needs no foreign patriarch. The hearts and minds being won, though, are for now the client governments and not the peoples.
Despite some meagre resistance from countries such as Somaliland, which has rejected Chinese attempts to force it to end its relations with Taiwan, the ‘People’s Republic’ is still emerging as the key successor to Washington in the region.
While that is taking place, though, the US is strangely unresponsive to the fact that the rug is being pulled out from under its feet in the Middle East. Aside from continued intelligence-gathering and observations, nothing concrete – at least, overtly – is being done to counter the hegemonic takeover.
The most action it has taken, so far, has been regarding Israel’s ties with China, having warned Tel Aviv two years ago that those ties may impact Washington’s partnership with Israel. While that has predictably resulted in Israel pulling back from some of its proposed deals with China and prioritising the US, most of that American pressure was applied by the administration of former president Donald Trump, who took a firm anti-China stance in domestic and foreign policy.
Current President Joe Biden, on the other hand, has been accused by his critics of taking a stance of appeasement towards the Chinese threat. Even though he has publicly cited the need to counter China’s influence and his administration has imposed restrictions on trade with Beijing due to its use of the persecuted Uyghurs for ‘slave labour’, he has largely outsourced the nation’s China policy to Congress.
In his administration’s recently-published Indo-Pacific Strategy, too, it stated that while recognising Asia and the Pacific region “as the world’s centre of gravity” and pointing out China’s “harmful behaviour”, it is still “seeking to work with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in areas like climate change and non-proliferation.” Some may interpret that mix of caution and diplomacy as a sensible and pragmatic approach, but it increasingly seems that it is, instead, a muddled and incoherent one.
To put it simply, the issue is not that the Biden administration is implementing the wrong strategy or policies, but that it is implementing no clear strategy at all. And nowhere is that lack of vigour to defend its hegemony seen more than in the Middle East, one of the key regions which China has set its sights on.
While it should be noted that the US government since the Obama administration has drawn attention to the strategic shift to Asia and away from the Middle East, which Trump especially tried to focus on, Beijing is successfully presenting itself as a more easy-going and reliable partner than Washington towards the states in the region.
Amid the American decline, China’s “big steal” of US allies in the Middle East is advancing at a rate faster than previously expected.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.