Middle East reassurance on state of US-China rivalry

Middle East reassurance on state of US-China rivalry

Which has been the most important geopolitical event over the past month:

  • the war between Hamas and Israel, which has killed thousands of people, devastated Gaza and brought fears of the war widening to include Iran; or
  • the meeting in San Francisco on November 15th between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping, at which the two leaders signaled a thaw in US-China relations and agreed to resume military-to-military communications?

The answer, of course, is that both are extremely important. But the reason for asking the question is that there is a connection between the two. The Biden-Xi meeting could be dismissed as consisting of just a photo opportunity and some minor agreements – but that would be to miss the point. It was actually quite significant for what it indicated about the state of great-power rivalry.

The war in the Middle East is terrifying and tragic. Fears that it might become even more so have arisen first from the danger of neighboring countries becoming drawn in, but more crucially from a belief that, at a time of intense great-power rivalry, it could become in the interests of one of the rivals – in this case, China or its strategic partner, Russia – to spray more fuel on to the flames of war in order to weaken and discredit America and thereby gain an advantage.

The idea is plausible, on the surface. Iran, Israel’s greatest and most determined foe, has recently become closer to Russia by supplying it with weapons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rather as North Korea has also done.

China has cultivated warm ties with Iran too, using them earlier this year to help broker a resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia would like the West to become so distracted by the Middle Eastern war that it reduces its military and financial support for Ukraine.

It has therefore not been unreasonable to wonder whether this China-Russia-Iran grouping might see a way to benefit from the war in Gaza, especially as Iran is the main provider of weapons and finance to Hamas, the militant group that since 2005 has acted as the de facto government of Gaza and that, on October 7, committed a deadly attack on Israeli citizens.

The good news, however, is that for the time being there is no evidence at all that this is happening. Even Iran is so far seeking to keep its distance from the Israel-Hamas conflict, shouting condemnations from the sidelines but avoiding any direct intervention. Its other main proxy-militia in the region, the Hezbollah militant army in Lebanon, across Israel’s northern border, has also held back from fighting the Israelis.

This could change. But a reason to be optimistic that it will not is where the Biden-Xi meeting comes in. Despite China’s links with Iran, Beijing shows signs of wanting to be seen as a peacemaker in the Middle East rather than as a warmonger.

Peace not war: Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, stands between Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Saudi Arabia’s minister of state and national security adviser, Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, on March 3, 2023, in Beijing. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

This is partly because it has cultivated good relations with Israel, too, in recent years. So, in fact, has Russia, with the effect that Israel has been reluctant to criticize Russia directly for its invasion of Ukraine despite Western pressure to do so.

This preference for being seen as a peacemaker also, however, is related to China’s own overall situation and to its position in the world. Contrary to how it often it behaves in its own neighborhood, China does not feel confident when it comes to global affairs.

Its economy is slowing and, in some ways, struggling. Its ability to send floods of capital abroad through the Belt and Road infrastructure and sovereign lending initiative is declining. Plenty of countries feel warmth towards China for its loans and other support, but it has few real friends or allies.

The Joint Statement that Xi Jinping signed with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Beijing, three weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was confrontational with the West in its words – but since then China has mostly avoided being confrontational with its actions.

It has provided oral support for Russia since the invasion and its trade with Russia has boomed but it has not provided weapons or any other substantial support. It has chosen to stand well back, and leave the war to Russia, Ukraine and the West.

That is why Biden was willing to shake Xi’s hand in San Francisco, for the first time in a year. During those 12 months, the US and China have had their ups and downs, most notably when a Chinese spy balloon flew across US airspace and was eventually shot down by an American fighter jet.

Communication between the two has been patchy and often scratchy. Still, it has taken place – at lower political levels than the presidents and in informal contacts between the two militaries at occasions such as the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June.

Therefore the first important thing that the Biden-Xi meeting indicated was simply the fact that relations between the two superpowers were on a sufficiently calm basis that the two leaders were willing to meet at all.

But the second thing that that calm basis and the meeting both indicate is that the war between Israel and Hamas is not currently developing into a bone of contention between the superpowers.

Some long-term verities still evidently prevail. One is that in any conflict involving Israel, the United States is the indispensable and pre-eminent outside power, combining the role of Israel’s supporter with that of trying to moderate its behavior and mediate between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israeli troops on the hunt in Gaza. Photo: Twitter Screengrab

The second is that those Arab neighbors also still see the United States as indispensable, not just for its role with Israel but for its role in the security of the Gulf region too. China is a huge market for their oil, is a useful investor and is a useful balancer against American power, but in a crisis it is no substitute. Nor, as we are seeing, does it want to be.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we need tragic events such as the Israel-Hamas war to cast light on the broader geopolitical picture. Yet while we are rightly worrying about how that war will proceed from now on, after the hostage release and ceasefire have occurred, we should nevertheless also pay attention to what the light-casting is telling us.

For the time being, at least, it is reassuring.

Formerly editor-in-chief of The Economist, Bill Emmott is currently chairman of the Japan Society of the UK, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the International Trade Institute.

This is the English original of an article published in Japanese and English earlier this week in the Mainichi Shimbun in Japan and in English on the substack Bill Emmott’s Global View. It is republished here with kind permission.