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Joe Biden is Done with the Middle East

CJ Werleman explains why the new US President is pivoting his foreign policy toward the challenge of China

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the virtual Munich Security Conference . Photo: Official White House by Chandler West

Joe Biden is Done With the Middle East

CJ Werleman explains why the new US President is pivoting his foreign policy toward the challenge of China

If you’re wondering why United States President Joe Biden didn’t hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) directly responsible for the grisly murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi or why he broke his promise to end “blank check” arms deals to the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or why he has shown no interest in halting illegal Israeli settlement construction, then here’s your answer:

The new President wants the United States out of the Middle East, both militarily and diplomatically, bringing an end to seven decades of heavily committed direct, overt and covert engagement, and thus views any change in the status quo as a potential roadblock to that objective.

“If you are going to list the regions Biden sees as a priority, the Middle East is not in the top three,” a former senior national security official and close Biden advisor told Politico. “It’s Asia-Pacific, then Europe, and then the Western Hemisphere,” with another saying, “They are just being extremely purposeful to not get dragged into the Middle East”.

Biden wants to redeploy the country’s energy and assets to the Asia Pacific region, a region that will account for 50% of global gross domestic product by the end of the decade, and one that will mark a period of “great competition” between the US and China for the remainder of the current century and beyond.

In short, Biden didn’t sanction MbS, transferred $200 million worth of missiles to Trump’s “favourite dictator” – Sisi – without tying the deal to his regime’s atrocious human rights record, and has turned a blind eye to Israeli war crimes, while shielding the Netanyahu Government from the International Criminal Court, because as it stands the US remains the hegemon in the Middle East and Israel’s security is assured now that Arab monarchies and dictatorships stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Tel Aviv against Tehran.

From the Biden administration’s viewpoint, pressuring MbS, Sisi, Netanyahu or any other tyrant in the Middle East could unravel the status quo and invite an ever-assertive China or Russia to capitalise on US missteps and thus stymie its “pivot to Asia”.

Both the Pentagon and State Department are now stacking their headcounts with China and Asian expertise and winding down a significant number of diplomatic posts in the Middle East.

Next week promises to be the first instance in which the rubber meets the road, so to speak, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan scheduled to meet with their Chinese Government counterparts in Alaska, marking the Biden administration’s first face-to-face diplomatic encounter with the Asian superpower, and taking place following similar meetings with allies Japan and South Korea.

Turning to China, and Russia

Earlier this month, the administration unveiled its “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” in which it identified China as the country’s top national security threat.

“We must contend with the reality that the distribution of power across the world is changing, creating new threats,” reads an excerpt. “China, in particular, has rapidly become more assertive. It is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”.

The document also identifies Russia as a primary adversary, accusing it and China of playing a “disruptive role on the world stage,” having “invested heavily in efforts meant to check US strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world”.

Biden is smart to dial down anti-China rhetoric and use terms such as “strategic competition,” rather than “conflict,” especially given the US holds a huge lead in military power.

Stopping short of echoing bellicose Cold War era rhetoric, Biden has urged European and Asian allies to “prepare for long-term strategic competition” with China, arguing: “How the United States, Europe and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake”.

On Friday, Australian, Japanese, Indian and US leaders will meet for the first time in a virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), an informal coalition largely concerned with growing Chinese influence and military aggression in Asia Pacific region.

While QUAD does not constitute a formal security agreement, like NATO, the four countries have conducted joint military exercises as a display of strength and cooperation against China’s unlawful claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, while not forgetting Biden deployed an US aircraft carrier strike group to the waterway on his fifth day in office as a sign of support for Taiwan’s air defences. 

China has made no secret of its aim to deny US military access into the South China Sea, and thus has invested heavily in missile and electronic defence systems designed to raise the costs of US military intervention in the region, which is why the US and its Asia Pacific allies are investing in weapons platforms that allow them the capability to project force far from their respective shores, including submarines, medium to long range missile systems and surveillance and targeting technologies.

None of this suggests a shooting war in the region is inevitable, however, and Biden is smart to dial down anti-China rhetoric and use terms such as “strategic competition,” rather than “conflict,” especially given the US holds a huge lead in military power, spending four times as much annually in defence than China. Biden has reaffirmed US commitments to multilateral institutions as a cornerstone of his strategy to deter military confrontation.

Biden must also speak out strongly and consistent on human rights, democracy and international law, however. He can do this by pressuring Beijing into ending its persecution of ethnic Uyghur, which his administration has now affirmed as genocide, and crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, while also condemning its theft of intellectual property and subversion of Western and Asian democracies.

Ultimately, we can only hope that the concentration of US energy and resources in Asia Pacific turns out more successful than its real politicking in the Middle East, where it left only tears, bloodshed and emboldened dictators.

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