T K Arun
Rarely is a handshake the same as a slap in the face. But when the national security advisers of Saudi Arabia and Iran shook hands in Beijing last Friday, it delivered a stinging blow in Washington DC that echoed in the world’s capitals.
As the United States stays bogged down in its efforts to degrade Russia as a world power, at the expense of Western treasure and Ukrainian lives, not to speak of global growth and deprivation in swathes of Africa, China, identified by the Americans as their systemic rival, has won a decisive round in West Asia in its ongoing contestation of US hegemony of the global order.
The Enabler of Peace
Seven years ago, Riyadh executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric and vocal critic of the Saudi regime within the kingdom. This led to searing passions in Iran, the foremost Shia nation, and protesters ran amok in the Saudi embassy. That broke diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the most influential powers of West Asia and leading lights, respectively, of Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, thrilling Israel and distressing Palestinians.
A proxy war followed in Yemen, Iran backing Houthi invaders, who succeeded in ousting the Saudi-sponsored government, and plummeted the poor nation into a bloody civil war, in which the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened on the side of the ousted regime.
Houthi drones and missiles attacked Saudi and Emirati oil installations. The region’s traditional patron and peacekeeper, the US, was, at that point of time, caught up in a Make-America-Great-Again sulk from the external world under President Donald Trump.
Instead of a swift victory over the Iran-backed Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw a military quagmire staring at them in Yemen. They have been trying to end hostilities and make peace with Iran for the past couple of years. What is significant is that the enabler of this peace has been Beijing and not Washington DC.
The Damage Done
It is generally assumed that the green transition from hydrocarbons to renewable and nuclear energy would reduce the geopolitical importance of the Middle East. And, till the Ukraine war demonstrated how key hydrocarbons from the region of North Africa and West Asia were to the world, if disruptions were to occur to supplies from Russia, many people were content to lull themselves with this bit of make-believe.
Never mind that Afghanistan mattered not because of any natural resource it contained but because of its ability to serve as a staging ground for terrorist attacks around the world.
Among those who bought into the make-believe that maintaining a global order can leave parts of the world to their own devices was Joe Biden, who went so far as to let his indignation at the murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to override all prudence and diplomatic nicety and declare that he would treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah.
He, of course, enhanced his credibility further by later doing a fist-bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman when he toured the Middle East to persuade the region’s petro-states to increase their output of oil, so as to ease the inflation pain eating into the Democrats’ support during the midterm elections of November 2022. The oil cartel OPEC, led by the same petro-states Biden had courted for an increase in their oil output, promptly cut its production quotas further.
Two years into his administration, Biden has not been able to undo the damage done by his predecessor by pulling out from the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has quietly enriched uranium to sub-weapons-grade levels that can be enriched further at short notice. The US-led sanctions against Russia have crippled European growth and spread distress and political disquiet across the developing world but not pushed Russia into recession.
The US is trying to block any Chinese supply of arms and ammunition to Russia. While it is unclear if the Chinese are actually making deliveries of war materiel to Russia, even as Iran and North Korea definitely have been, there is little confusion as to whether Beijing would take kindly to any external power telling it what it can and cannot do.
Hitting the Tech Chain
Where Washington has had success is in enforcing bans on the export of high technology to China. The Dutch recently banned the export of high-end chip-making machines to China — Dutch firm ASML is a virtual monopoly when it comes to machines that make nanometre-thin grooves on silicon chips, into which vaporized copper is deposited to make the ultra-fine circuits of the most advanced microprocessors.
The Biden administration has banned the export of goods using advanced American technology to China to rein in China’s advance in areas of strategic significance such as artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, and quantum communications.
This is likely to delay, rather than abort, China’s quest to acquire the technological capability it needs to close the strategic gap between itself and the US. The delay is welcome from an Indian point of view, giving Indian efforts to develop indigenous capability in these vital areas of technology any nation needs, if it wants to be truly autonomous in a world of great powers and their alliances.
The US has regained the Philippines’ readiness to host military bases in that country, after the previous Duterte regime had sought to wind down US military presence there. The US is about to open four new military bases, in addition to the five it already has in that country.
However, the US can only watch as a mute spectator as North Korea continues with its tests of nuclear weapons, missiles, and missile-launching systems. Granted, new bases would help the US watch North Korean antics a shade better. But these threatening moves on North Korea’s part goad South Korea and Japan to acquire better defence capability of their own, reducing their dependence on the US. This, too, erodes American unipolar dominance.
Simply Great-Power Rivalry
The collapse of the Soviet Union rid the world of the illusion that there exists, in the contemporary world, a way of organizing production superior to that of capitalism. It destroyed the material basis for systemic rivalry of the West with any other country. Russia and China are capitalist economies, where labour is bought and sold, just as in any western economy.
Neither democracy nor state ownership makes for any systemic difference. Military dictatorships, whether in the Philippines under Markos, in Indonesia under Suharto, in Korea under Park Chung-hee, or in Chile under Pinochet, nurtured capitalist growth without taking them out of the Western alliance of “the free world”. State ownership of healthcare in Britain or petroleum assets in Saudi Arabia does not make these nations socialist.
US rivalry with Russia and China is presented to the rest of the world as systemic but is simply great-power rivalry, with no party in a position to claim any moral superiority over any other. In Ukraine, the US imagines it has its foot on Russia’s throat and its absorption in calibrating the pressure it can apply without inviting a nuclear backlash has made it take the eye off the ball in its rivalry with China, letting it upstage the US in another geopolitical theatre.
Will the US now show Christian virtue and turn the other cheek? Or will it revert to the pre-Christ Biblical norm of an eye for an eye?
The article was first published in the Federal as Advantage China in West Asia as US obsesses over bleeding Russia on March 14, 2023.
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