AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
To say U.S. policy in the Middle East has been a failure under the Biden administration would be an understatement of mammoth proportions. From a failed effort in 2021 to isolate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to the now aborted “pivot” to Iran represented by efforts to revive the dead nuclear deal, Biden rejected the approach which had allowed his predecessor to clinch the Abraham Accords and oversee numerous other successes in the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s long-awaited visit to Saudi Arabia, which finally took place over three days from December 7-9, only further highlighted the scope of Biden’s mishandling of Middle East relations.
As the second year of his presidency nears its conclusion, it is clear that Biden has not only failed to create any alternative Middle Eastern power structure to the Abraham Accords, but has also demonstrated that the Accords were strong enough to prosper without him or the United States. Biden’s actions have opened the door to Chinese influence, which was on full display last week.
The communiqué released by the two governments following meetings between Xi and MBS stated they would “continue to firmly support each other’s core interests, support each other in maintaining their sovereignty and territorial integrity, and exert joint efforts to defend the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states, rules of international law and basic principles of international relations.” These communiqués are products of diplomatic spin, and it is necessary to read between the lines. Both sides wish to create an impression that they have agreed on as much as possible while limiting their commitments.
However, the wording of this document, when combined with the contrast between Xi Jinping’s reception and that of Joe Biden just a few months ago during his visit to Saudi Arabia, should be of concern to the U.S. and the West. As the communiqué makes clear, the Saudi-Chinese relationship is warmer than the Saudi-American one. As Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi told CNN, “There is very much an alignment on key issues” between the China and the Saudis.
This alignment includes key issues like “non-interference in the internal affairs of states,” “the rules of international law,” and “the basic principles of international relations.” Both Saudi Arabia and China have been subject to what they perceive as not only U.S. efforts to police their internal affairs, but also efforts to force the international community to join in those efforts. In the case of China, the West has sanctioned Chinese officials and companies over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, including blocking the export of goods produced by forced labor in the region. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration has continued to lob criticisms at the regime for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, holding the Saudi Crown Prince directly responsible. Biden officials have even bragged to the press that the Biden administration intended to use the issue to force the Saudi King to change the succession. These policies have driven Beijing and Riyadh together.
U.S. treatment of China and Saudi Arabia also sets a wider precedent that draws other countries closer to China. The Biden administration has not restricted its interventions into domestic politics to authoritarian states. The administration has also tried to dictate the makeup of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new cabinet and condemned the dress codes of schools in an Indian state. The only global consensus the Biden team seems to be establishing is one where the rest of the world wants the United States to mind its own business.
At the same time, while U.S. military support of Ukraine has done much to strengthen the American position in Europe, and the credibility of the U.S. military globally, the aggressive efforts to isolate Russia through sanctions have been a different matter. Not only is there evidence they have inflicted crushing damage on the European economy while possibly aiding the Russian government’s balance of payments, but the diplomatic campaign to isolate Russia has also alienated states like India and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has treated the refusal of India to cease purchasing spare parts for its Russian-made weapons (purchased because the U.S. refused to sell its own to New Delhi) as a hostile act, while Democrats outright called Saudi Arabia an enemy after the Saudis declined to produce more oil out of charity to aid U.S. policy in Ukraine. “If you are not with us, you are against us,” was the foolish encapsulation of a foolish policy the Bush administration took against critics of its invasion of Iraq. Biden now appears to be pursuing the same strategy, and it is an act of madness.
The combination of these poorly conceived policies has left the United States ill-placed to counter the final dangerous common interest outlined in the China-Saudi Arabia communiqué: “support[ing] each in other in maintaining their sovereignty and territorial integrity.” This line has been taken to refer to the status of Taiwan, the question that increasingly occupies the days and nights of U.S. national security professionals. According to a joint statement from the Saudi-led Arab League and China, “We have agreed on … the firm commitment of the Arab countries to the principle of one China, their support for the People’s Republic of China’s efforts to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity, reaffirming that Taiwan is an integral part of Chinese territory.” The statement is unambiguous when it comes to where the Arab League and the Saudis come down on the legal status of Taiwan: It is part of China.
But a closer read reveals more ambiguity, which can only be deliberate, especially as this will be the “best Beijing could get.” It agrees on “the firm commitment of the Arab countries to the principle of one China” and reaffirms “that Taiwan is an integral part of Chinese territory,” but only pledges “their support for the People’s Republic of China’s efforts to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity” not to its efforts to preserve or assert its sovereignty over all of China. The statement is an unambiguous rejection of the suggestion that Taiwan, currently the Republic of China, is not part of “China”, but it is also a defense of the status quo, with no expression of support for China changing it. The only sop to Beijing regarding territorial integrity is a reference to Hong Kong, which Beijing already controls.
This announcement, which has garnered the most attention in Washington from the Saudi-Chinese summit, is ironically the one where China achieved the least. Nonetheless, it is a warning for American and Chinese policymakers. The Taiwan issue is of vital importance to almost every major power on earth. It is too important to be treated as a geopolitical game. The consequences of a Sino-American war would be catastrophic to almost everyone, and the Saudis were making clear that they felt an effort by China to take control of Taiwan, or an effort by the U.S. to abandon the “One China” policy, both made a war more likely.
There is also a secondary consideration at play. As the Clinton administration failed to realize when it backed armed intervention to support the secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999, there is nothing states fear more than a precedent that regions can secede unilaterally. If Taiwan alone can determine whether it is “China” or not, then why not Kashmir? Kurdistan? Scotland? South Carolina? The status quo is not merely about appeasing Beijing with the ambiguous “One China” policy. By insisting that Taiwan is the Republic of China, everyone can “grandfather” in Taiwanese sovereignty independent of Beijing without pretending they are creating any sort of new nation.
A U.S. administration less prone to flights of delusion and panic could seize upon this to realize there is a broad-based coalition available to defend the status quo of Taiwanese de facto sovereignty, one strong enough that even the angry and resentful Saudis, with so many other reasons to back Xi Jinping over Joe Biden, could not bring themselves to repudiate. But it will involve listening and working to promote genuine common interests, instead of threatening the common interests of countries we need as allies.
The Middle East is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for the United States in foreign policy over the past two years. It is also a reminder that even when things are at their worst, there is still room for the United States to rebuild. If only the Biden administration could bring itself to listen.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.