Illustration: Craig Stephens
Richard Heydarian
Richard Heydarian

Why Middle East quagmire could be key to easing US-China tensions

  • The Biden administration faces an increasingly impossible task in the Middle East as it comes under pressure to pursue contradictory goals over the Israeli-Gaza war
  • This bodes ill for progress in the region but could herald a period of stability between Washington and Beijing

“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said shortly before the latest outbreak of conflict there. In fairness to Sullivan, he had reason to be optimistic.

After all, the United States had gradually restored frayed ties with Saudi Arabia, engineered peace deals between Israel and several Arab nations, and had largely maintained a cold peace with Iran, its chief regional adversary. The implicit argument was that the Biden administration was deftly disengaging from the Middle East to focus on strategic competition with other major powers, most notably China.
On closer examination, however, this was arguably the most short-sighted geopolitical claim in recent memory – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since warned of an “incredibly volatile time” in the Middle East, the worst in at least half a century.
“I would argue that we’ve not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we’re facing now across the region since at least 1973, and arguably even before that,” Blinken said, referring to the Yom Kippur War between Israel and several Arab nations in the twilight decades of the Cold War. By all indications, the US strategy in the Middle East is now in tatters.
The Biden administration has found itself between a rock and hard place, desperately seeking to avoid a greater conflict in the region while projecting strength amid perceptions of US decline ahead of a contentious election in November. Paradoxically, a bogged-down US could be in a better position to negotiate a detente with China, which is in no mood for great power conflict amid its own domestic troubles.
On assuming office, US President Joe Biden promised a new era of American foreign policy in tune with the demands of the 21st century. His administration promised to embrace multilateralism in favour of allies, strengthen domestic industrial capacity and economic security and directly take on China.
Notwithstanding the seemingly impeccable credentials of its foreign policy team, the fundamental problem with the Biden administration’s strategy was that it underestimated challenges posed by other non-Western powers. First came Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which effectively tied down Europe and absorbed significant armaments and capital from the whole Western alliance.
Although remarkably successful in resisting Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s war efforts have proven increasingly divisive in the US, with top Republican leaders calling for a peace settlement. But while the US could share its Ukraine burden with its wealthy allies in Europe, the situation in the Middle East is different.

The Biden administration’s exit from Afghanistan and its attempts to secure a new nuclear deal with Iran should have rung alarm bells early on. Intent on focusing on China and facing a proxy war with Russia, the US tried to establish a fragile status quo in the Middle East in tandem with like-minded Arab powers and Israel.


Biden reaffirms commitment to Ukraine in Poland after Putin suspends nuclear arms treaty with US

Biden reaffirms commitment to Ukraine in Poland after Putin suspends nuclear arms treaty with US
On closer examination, however, Biden and his team effectively adopted the Trump administration’s regional policy, which largely marginalised the Palestinian question and almost ignited a war with Iran back in 2020. In short, the Biden administration hoped to secure, with a few tactical and rhetorical adjustments, a different outcome by largely sticking to a failed strategy.

The upshot is a strategic quagmire as the Biden administration faces pressure from multiple sides to act in contradictory ways. Within the Democratic Party, there are growing calls for a ceasefire in Gaza just as Biden is under pressure to stand by the country’s chief ally in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, a resurgent Iran, backed by Russia and China, is also testing the US regional position with greater assertiveness. All of sudden, Biden has found himself in an impossible situation. He is trying to avoid direct war with Iran while responding to lethal attacks by Iran-backed militants which have claimed the lives of American soldiers this month.

However, these new-found US troubles in traditional theatres of conflict could inject an element of pragmatism into the Biden administration’s China strategy. To begin with, the prospect of a protracted conflict in the Middle East and eastern Europe means a China-centred foreign policy is likely to be untenable.

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Both Iran and Russia, which inspire different partisan divides in the US, will continue to put heavy demands on Washington’s strategic bandwidth for the foreseeable future. To further complicate matters, the possibility of Donald Trump’s return to the White House has rattled US allies, sparking serious conversations over potential conflict with the US in the not-too-distant future.
At the very least, US allies from Brussels to Tokyo are also exploring a more self-reliant security strategy should a future Trump administration embrace an extreme unilateralist-transanctionalist foreign policy. In contrast, China can concentrate on its own backyard in East Asia with its increasingly sophisticated armed forces and economy.
The good news is that Beijing is also in no mood for confrontation. Facing an economic slowdown at home and growing geopolitical friction with key neighbours – from India and South Korea to the Philippines and Japan – President Xi Jinping signalled his preference for de-escalation during his much-publicised meeting with Biden and top US business leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last year.

With no concrete solutions on the horizon in multiple theatres, the Biden administration has an incentive to keep things on an even keel with its chief competitor. As a result, a relatively uncertain US could be forced to embrace strategic sobriety in the greatest rivalry of the century.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific, and the forthcoming Duterte’s Rise