The resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China, is as strong an indicator as we have seen that there is a shift underway for the next generation of leaders and citizens across the Middle East. If China’s role finds sustainable traction therein lies the possibility of a new paradigm with Beijing as a key player. How this impacts the United States and allies will be a central challenge for policymakers in the years ahead.
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As with any good healthcare provider, positive outcomes require apt diagnosis before prescription. Thorough understanding is essential before determining ‘what to do.’ In Washington the question is straightforward: how do the converging interests of competitors and longtime allies’ impact American policy?
For many across the beltway this moment came as a surprise, and one might be forgiven considering the historical animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A closer examination suggests Beijing’s judicious appreciation of regional dynamics is informing the development of long-term, sustainable objectives. In partnership with leaders in both capitals, Beijing is seeking to influence what have become intractable problems with an aim for relative stability in the Middle East. What is driving these actions?
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s combined weight shape the geopolitics of energy more than perhaps any geographic tandem in the world. Shared influence works in their individual favor and creates opportunities to leverage China and other major consumers. By most accounts the two-year decline in energy demand has come full circle. Those figures are set to rebound and potentially explode as China will be the single largest consumer in global energy markets. One of the biggest threats? Open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Whatever the spark, from the Iran nuclear program to an Israeli strike or an unexpected catastrophe, such a conflict poses a significant disruption to stability. Diametric interests aside, Riyadh and Tehran hold an outsized influence on supply and access that represents an increasingly vital interest for Beijing.
True, China’s energy mix has become highly diversified. However, increasing reliance on coal and other forms suggest it is not a matter of changing over to renewable sources but instead a question of higher volume required for supporting national policy objectives. Absent steady Middle Eastern energy as a core component, Xi Jinping’s ambitious economic agenda will fail to achieve growth targets. Expanding foreign policy goals, from the Belt & Road Initiative to developing a blue water navy, will also fall by the wayside. Failure avoidance requires relative stability in the Middle East and the cooperation of two powers who may not be able to agree with each other but can likely find ways to agree with China on areas of mutual interest. This is well understood in Beijing who in turn will continue to seek every opportunity adjacent to energy: infrastructure, technology, arms sales, and more.
Nothing is certain in the days ahead. As quickly as China took credit for the resumption of relations, this thaw could freeze overnight. In the meantime, the United States might seek ways to find common ground with old friends: Beijing is unable to support you in times of crisis in all the ways that matter, and they will never value mutual benefit over personal gain in ways that we have done in the past and can do again in the future. Wise leaders across the Gulf should consider not what might be achieved in partnership with China over the next decade, but what this relationship will cost the next generation in totality by 2049.
Meanwhile Washington should consider long-term policy in the Middle East based around a more durable, bipartisan approach. Expanding the Abraham Accords offers tangible progress within a realistic framework for the twenty-first century. Although friends must be honest with each other, and at times more candid in private, there remains the prospect of renewed optimism if leaders can look beyond the horizon and channel the lessons of history.
Michael Miner is a Lecturer at Harvard University where he teaches courses on national security policy. He is also a project manager in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
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