In a US-China confrontation, West Asia will bow out
F.M. Shakil, The Cradle, February 24 2023 — A significant increase in geopolitical and economic ties with China has offered West Asian states an alternative to the US, which has traditionally been the region’s security guarantor.
The prospect of a US-China war has entered the realm of reality. Increased provocations from US military and political officials regarding the status of Taiwan – which China considers to be part of its historic territory – have heightened the possibility of confrontation in recent years.
With only 13 out of 193 UN member states recognizing the government in Taipei as a separate entity, the global community’s reaction to a Washington-led assault over Taiwan’s status remains highly uncertain.
Today, the reaction of strategic West Asia to a hypothetical conflict between the two superpowers is up for grabs. However, given the region’s reluctance to take sides in the Russian-US stand off, it is likely to be equally hesitant to do so in the event of a US-China conflict.
In a memo released on 27 January, US General Mike Minihan, chief of the Air Mobility Command, wrote: “My instinct tells me we will fight in 2025.” General Minihan’s views align with Taiwanese Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng’s statement in 2021 that China will be capable of launching a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by the same year.
In response to General Minihan’s remarks, Mike McCaul, chairman of the US House Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, told Fox News: “I hope he is mistaken but I believe he is correct.” Adding fuel to the fire, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on 29 January, “The chances of conflict in the relationship with China over Taiwan are very high.”
A lot of hot air
Days after the US general issued a warning that Washington may engage in combat with Beijing in the next two years, tensions between the two countries were further exacerbated by the spoof-worthy Chinese spy balloon incident.
According to some senior Republicans and US military leaders, there is a growing concern that a full-scale conflict between the two superpowers is imminent, with the Asia-Pacific (AP) and South Asia (SA) regions likely to be the primary theaters of the conflict.
Jan Achakzai, a geopolitical analyst and former adviser to Pakistan’s Balochistan government, tells The Cradle that:
“The possibility of a war between the United States and China puts everyone on edge, especially the regions that are intricately linked with the US or China. Some nations will be compelled to choose between allying with the US in the case of war or keeping the status quo to lessen the possibility of hostilities.”
Russian involvement in West Asia
Despite nominal trade and geopolitical relations with Moscow, West Asian countries did not support Washington’s position in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. However, Russia’s veto power at the UN Security Council does have a positive impact on its relationship with regional states, particularly for its ability to prevent expansionist and anti-Arab policies by other permanent council members.
Security and trade remain the two primary pillars of the relationship between Moscow and West Asia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image has played a significant role in shaping these ties.
The UAE serves as a major financial hub for Russia, and Moscow may attempt to leverage its influence in the region to urge the UAE to reconsider US-imposed banking restrictions, if it feels that its interests are being compromised.
In addition, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt are among the countries that purchase wheat from Russia, which further solidifies economic ties between Russia and the Arab world.
Moreover, since joining the expanded Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) in 2016, Russia and Saudi Arabia have worked closely to regulate oil output and price adjustments as part of OPEC+ agreements.
Putin’s public image has, in part, contributed to a surge in support for Russia in the kingdom. In 2018, when Riyadh faced international criticism over the Saudi-orchestrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Russian president made headlines by high-fiving and grinning at the then-isolated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) during the G20 summit in Argentina.
Likewise, his prominent role in thwarting the NATO proxy war in Syria – a geopolitical game changer that, arguably, ushered in global multipolarity – has gained Putin fans across a region that has long suffered from western imperialist designs.
Where will West Asia stand?
Although still a hypothetical scenario, it is worth considering how West Asia would respond to a direct US-China conflict. Many prominent geopolitical analysts have speculated that if West Asia, and particularly the traditionally pro-US Arab states of the Persian Gulf, did not toe the US line against Russia – a significantly smaller regional trading partner than China – its loyalties to Washington in a potential US-China confrontation could be further strained.
Compared to Russia, China has significantly larger investments throughout West Asia. In 2021, bilateral trade between Beijing and the region amounted to $330 billion, with approximately 50 percent of China’s energy supply coming from the energy-abundant Persian Gulf.
China has conducted over $200 billion in trade alone with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. From 2005 to 2021, Beijing invested $43.47 billion in Saudi Arabia, $36.16 billion in the UAE, $30.05 billion in Iraq, $11.75 billion in Kuwait, $7.8 billion in Qatar, $6.62 billion in Oman, and $1.4 billion in Bahrain.
In addition to its investments in trade and energy, China has also invested enormous sums of money in West Asian and North African infrastructure and high-tech development projects via its multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Beijing has entered into strategic cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, and Iran, and has enlisted a total of 21 Arab nations in its ambitious, decade-long effort to revive the historic Silk Road and export its goods to markets throughout Europe and Africa. Currently, infrastructure developed by Persian Gulf nations serves as a transit point for two-thirds of Chinese exports to these continents.
Egypt is a crucial hub for the BRI, with the Economic-Technological Development Area in Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone, near Ain Sokhna, representing one of the major projects for which the two nations signed contracts totaling $18 billion in 2018.
Iraq, the third-largest oil supplier to China after Saudi Arabia and Russia, has also received $10.5 billion from Beijing for BRI-related energy projects, and just this week, agreed to replace its dollar trade with Beijing for the Chinese yuan.
In West Asia, the US plays second fiddle to Beijing
Chinese collaboration with West Asia and North Africa is not confined to trade and economy; Beijing also provides defense equipment to several Arab nations. Since 2019, China and Saudi Arabia have reportedly collaborated on the production of ballistic missiles, and China also sells Saudi Arabia its HQ-17AE air defense system.
Chinese Wing Loong drones have been purchased by the UAE, and Iraq has placed an order for CH-4B drones. Jordan purchased CH-4Bs in 2016, while Algeria acquired CH-5s – the next generation of the CH-4B type – to expand its aviation capabilities in 2022. In addition, Saudi Advanced Communications and Electronics Systems Co. and China Electronics Technology Group are partnering to build a drone factory for local UAV production.
While US President Joe Biden’s administration’s relationship with Riyadh has been strained due to disagreements over human rights and energy policy, China is making significant strides in strengthening its ties with the country.
As Beijing draws closer to Saudi Arabia, the message to Washington from Riyadh is unambiguous: “The people in the Middle East [West Asia] are tired of other countries’ interference because they always come with troubles.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping received a royal welcome in Riyadh last December, marking a seismic shift in Sino-Arab relations and boosting China’s image throughout the Arab world. In contrast, US President Joe Biden’s visit to Jeddah in the summer of 2022 received a lukewarm reception. This may suggest that a recalibration of West Asian geopolitical alliances may be on the horizon.
Despite these trends, analyst Achakzai tells The Cradle that West Asia will behave similarly to the way it did during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict – even given China’s increasing business and military presence in the region. and the US’s declining control over the oil-rich Arab monarchies.
“Depending on the current situation, the motives of the various states in the region may change and divide into two distinct groups: those who would support the US and those who would support a neutral position.”
China values economy over war
In the Asia-Pacific region, the US and its allies are engaged in a contentious relationship with China regarding maritime boundaries, international trade, human rights, and strategic security issues. Despite signing numerous security pacts with regional players, China appears to prioritize building and strengthening economic ties over military cooperation with Asian-Pacific states.
Due to a history of hostile confrontations and divergent geopolitical objectives, both the US and China seek to increase their military presence in the region. In response to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the US has expanded its military footprint by signing commercial and defense agreements with the Asia-Pacific region.
The two nations have also been at odds over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which many viewed as an effort to contain China’s economic and strategic influence in its own backyard. Additionally, tensions have escalated between Beijing and its neighbors, particularly over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
These efforts have been emboldened by the 5-member Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which is an informal strategic dialogue between the US, India, Japan, and Australia that seeks “to promote a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” According to Achakzai:
“Countries that have extensive defense agreements with the US, such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia, are most likely to help America. These nations, which have long benefited from their close connections to the US, must now contend with Chinese territorial ambitions in the region and the South China Sea. The nations having an informal security partnership with the US, such as the Philippines, are likely to back the United States in a confrontation.”
The analyst explained that Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia are expected to remain neutral during the conflict due to their strong business and investment ties with China.
“Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region may feel obligated to support the US if China initiates the conflict. This may apply to countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, which have recently been under Chinese pressure and may need to choose a side to protect their own security,” he noted.