In the first-half of 2023, some interesting developments in Pakistan’s western neighborhood again brought the world’s focus to this region. Ceasefire in Yemen, Saudi-Iran rapprochement, resumption of ties by the Arab countries with Syria and growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region — all are being observed as significant changing trends in the post-Cold War era. These developments are expected to bring further political fluxes which may resonate beyond the regional sphere of activities.
The world is again at the cusp of big powers tussle as China has become a potential contender to the United States due to its economic rise at an unexpected pace. Therefore, as a natural resort, the United States has been endeavoring to impede Chinese developments in political, economic and military domains. The world witnesses a tussle between the incumbent and rising powers to take the front seat. Washington, in its bid, came up with the Indo-Pacific strategy devising different action plans to impede China’s strides. The main concept behind this strategic framework is to form small groups of like-minded nations and put-up resistance to the Chinese advances. China responded to this strategy with its concept of collective security through Global Security Initiative (GSI). To equate China’s BRI, the United States offered the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). It has been essentially a game of quid-pro-quo between the two.
Above notwithstanding, China surprised the world lately with its diplomatic maneuver when it succeeded in Saudi-Iran rapprochement; a stroke that China played not only successfully but quite discreetly. The severed relations between the two countries since 2016 have now been repaired with the resumption of diplomatic ties.This rapprochement has opened a new vista for the regional countries to address inter-state political issues via mediation by China. It has added to China’s credibility as a dependable political actor. As expected, this move has been downplayed by China’s adversaries as a temporary reunion. When President Biden attended GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia in 2022, he was vociferous on not walking away and leaving a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran. However, during the last few months Riyadh has improved relations with China, Russia and subsequently with Iran.Soon after this rapprochement, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the oil-rich Arab kingdom in June 2023 to discuss matters of “mutual interest,” which could be easily discerned as it was Blinken who had earlier remarked that China had the intent and capability to challenge free, open, secure and prosperous international order.
China’s political ingress into the region is noteworthy. Last year, KSA hosted Chinese President Xi for not only bilateral talks but also China-GCC and China-Arab summits. It worked more penetratingly than expected. China amazed the world when the long-time rivals – Saudi Arabia and Iran — shook hands. It was significant also because at the same time the United States was tightening the noose around Iran on renewing the nuclear deal. But Saudi Arabia is not the only country, which exercised this liberty. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), another important country of the region, also maintained good ties with China and improved relations with France who is also upset with Washington on the nuclear submarine deal with Australia under the ambit of AUKUS. It also engaged Iran, Russia and India. China’s outreach to the region is continuing as it hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing in June 2023 where President Xi offered his services for peace talks between Palestine and Israel. He supported creation of an independent Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Given the Chinese diplomatic skills proven in the Saudi-Iran case, the world can hope for settlement of an age-old issue in the Middle East.
As soon as the Russia-Ukraine war commenced, the United States pressured certain Gulf countries to take sides clearly in the conflict. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and some other regional countries continued their good relations with Russia. In fact, Riyadh has been purchasing Russian oil at cheaper rates and declined the US pressure for increasing its own production. Unshackling off the US dominance is becoming a regional phenomenon. The trade between China and the Middle East between 2000-21 grew from $15.3bn to $284.3bn while with the United States, it saw a modest increase from $63.4bn to $98.4bn. The power of economics has thus emboldened the traditional US allies to reach out to the rising giant of the east.
In an interesting development on June 3, 2023, Iran announced a proposal for a regional maritime alliance that included Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan and India. The purpose for the alliance is to ensure regional security. Iran has always been averse to any foreign presence in the regional waters in the name of security. Post-1979 Revolution in Iran, the United States formed a Quick Reaction Force to patrol the Persian Gulf which ultimately acted against Iraqi forces in the 1990s. Iran has always objected to such presence. Now that its relations with the regional countries are normalizing and there are signs that the region is flouting the US impediments, Iran considers it the right time to manifest its intention. During his visit to Iran on June 17, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan endorsed the idea by highlighting the importance of cooperation between the two countries, especially maritime security. Fate of such an alliance is still not clear, yet the idea has been coined which can be worked upon by the regional states. Earlier, Mr. Alireza Enayati, the newly-appointed Iranian envoy to Saudi Arabia, projected the notion of regional stability based on cooperation and development rather than militarization. Iran cautions the region about the forces that tend to foster antagonism among the regional neighbors to sell their arms.
The United States on its part is continuing with its efforts to halt China’s progress. Two years back, it articulated Indo-Pacific strategy and formed new regional alliances. The Indo-Pacific region has more than 65% of GDP, while half of the global trade passes through this area. Considering its strategic importance in terms of economy and politics it was conceived that the “democracies” in the region had shared economic and political stakes, hence the Indian and Pacific Oceans should be treated as one large domain and freedom of navigation at sea should be secured by all. In fact, it’s a veiled hint towards declaring China as a common adversary. Alliances such as QUAD, AUKUS and I2U2 came into being as a result of this philosophy. Not much headway could be achieved via this path of military confrontation with China, yet another alliance of four countries including the USA, Japan, Australia and Philippines was formed in June 2023. Just to stir more credibility to the Indo-Pacific philosophy an economic prong with the name of Indo Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) was launched in 2022 by the United States. The countries included in this arrangement were Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The locus of US agitation against China rests in exploitation of the term democracy. The United States portrays China as an autocratic country that believes in extortion. According to Washington, China brings countries in need under debt and subjugates them economically, which is “immoral.” But the United States also doesn’t have a fair balance sheet when it comes to morality. It has spent $5-$7 trillion in wars in the Middle East whereby innumerable Arabs and Muslims died, while thousands of US soldiers were killed. The United States is often blamed for its apathy when it comes to human rights violations in Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Thus, the US efforts to label China as an autocratic regime are failing and the countries disregarding the type of government are actually eyeing their economic interests with China. Undoubtedly, economics has overridden politics.
It is but natural for Washington to experience frustration against China. Historically, the United States has been impulsive against its perceived power failures and has resorted to armed conflicts capitalizing on its military muscle. With regards to China, it’s not the same equation as was with Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, though it had to ultimately retreat in those cases too. China through adroit economic strategy is forging ahead and creating space for its acceptability and reliability in different regions of the world. The US is coining new strategies to impede China’s progress and luring likeminded nations to join it. However, both friends and foes of China are also entangled in economic strands that China has offered. It is therefore a prospective scenario wherein chances for another man-made calamity as a result of big power tussle may well loom, yet are not very vivid.