Biden’s Middle East policy contradicts his China policy – The Diplomat


US President Joe Biden has just completed his first trip to the Middle East. Much has been written about this, especially with regard to the implications for internal regional policy. But the global implications of this trip, the lessons it offers regarding US-Indo-Pacific policy and the Sino-US rivalry have not yet been systematically discussed. Below I will unpack four implications.

Values ​​vs. Interests

In the so-called “new cold war” that the United States is attempting to wage against China, Biden promotes “values” (e.g., democracy and human rights) as the primary foundation upon which alliances should be built. His visit to Saudi Arabia puts a serious dent in this discourse.

Few missed this aspect of the trip. After the gruesome assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi death squad in Turkey, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) came under intense diplomatic pressure. Biden personally contributed to this pressure by pledging during his presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state because, unlike Trump, he would stand for “values”.

On that trip, Biden “ended the Saudi prince’s pariah era” with an already infamous fist bump that will not go unnoticed by both Indo-Pacific allies and swing states. The latter are countries that are not firmly anchored in one camp or the other and can be influenced in either direction. For example, most ASEAN countries can be categorized as such. Developing countries could now easily justify a cold, calculated approach to working with China. Biden’s “values” talk is unlikely to convince too many of them – if it ever did.

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“Don’t run away” from the Middle East

President Barack Obama’s Pivot to Asia in 2011 was designed to have the United States confront or contain China. He wanted the US to turn away from the Middle East and Europe, hence his 2009-2013 reset with Russia and the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (formerly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). From the start, the pivot has been “derailed” by major distractions and crises, some of which are self-imposed, such as US policymakers’ over-focus on Syria since 2011.

The Russian reset fell apart when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. In 2022, the biggest gaffe of the linchpin happened: Putin’s war in Ukraine. The United States is now effectively in a proxy war against Russia. This does not help Washington keep its attention on the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, the JCPOA has been bursting at the seams since 2018 when the US broke and pulled out of the deal. Instead of rejoining the deal when he takes office and removing a major distraction for US foreign policy – and bringing Iranian energy to Western markets – Biden has essentially pursued Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran. This is an entirely homegrown US problem.

This trip has shown that, willy-nilly, the United States will not turn its back on the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Biden told a summit of Arab leaders that the US is “not leaving” the region so as not to leave a “vacuum” for China, Russia or Iran to fill. The more the US gets bogged down in the Middle East (and Europe), the more breathing room China will have to do its Indo-Pacific thing.

Push Iran further east

In addition to searching for more oil, Biden’s trip to the Middle East became something of an anti-Iran tour, much like his recent trip to Asia was an anti-China tour. Biden’s trip has not only exacerbated the JCPOA’s death spiral, but he has also threatened Iran with the use of force, spelling out another possible large-scale, catastrophic war that the US can hardly afford.

While this policy works as a short-term money-making arms sales tactic, it falls spectacularly short of strategy. A regional strategy must have a comprehensive, constructive and long-term vision; it has to be about more than simply taking action against a country. Biden’s anti-Iran policies have already backfired on both a regional and global scale.

Regionally, this policy has already backfired in two ways. First, regional countries have announced they will not join any anti-Iran alliance. The Saudis said there was no Arab NATO against Iran and that the kingdom wanted to normalize relations with Iran. The Emiratis said they would send their ambassador to Iran and rebuild ties.

Second, in response to Biden’s threats on that trip and the failed nuclear negotiations, Iran has announced that the country “is technically capable of building a nuclear bomb” but has not made up its mind to pursue such a goal. All of this could have been avoided simply by having Biden rejoin the JCPOA.

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Globally, Biden’s Iran policy works against his China and Indo-Pacific policies. Due to its history and geography, Iran has been a global swing state, located between East and West. Before 1979 it was a staunch ally of the West against the USSR. After 1979 she joined the anti-imperialist Non-Aligned Movement. In recent years, the country has steadily joined the Sino-Russian Eurasian camp, thanks in no small part to American sanctions against the country – and, of course, Iran’s own decisions.

The JCPOA was (and still is) an opportunity for the US and the West to lure Iran back, reduce its dependence on China and Russia, bring Iranian energy to markets, and build on the country’s heavily pro-Western culture. But Biden’s policies, including on this trip, are urging Iran, a vital geopolitical and geoeconomic player at the heart of Eurasia, to further solidify its own alignment with “the East” by enthusiastically aligning itself with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and possibly the BRICS connects. Signed a 25-year strategic pact with China and pursued a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. In other words, China (and Russia) are by far the biggest winners from US policy towards Iran.


US foreign policy towards West Asia suffers from the same malaise as in East Asia, namely a glaring lack of geoeconomics. Unlike China, which has achieved RCEP (not to mention its BRI) with Indo-Pacific countries, the US has not joined any existing major free trade agreement (such as the Japanese-led CPTPP), nor has it offered any substantive deal or initiative.

That absence was felt during Biden’s most recent trip. While arms sales or humble Saudi pleas for more oil can technically qualify as short-term geoeconomic efforts motivated by profiteering or the Ukraine crisis, they do not represent a regional geoeconomic strategy that can compete with China’s.

China’s global strategy has a clear long-term vision for West Asia. In fact, part of China’s logic is to increase its presence in West (and Central) Asia, including breaking free from American containment policies and East Asia’s claustrophobic dynamics. The BRI functions as the long-term geoeconomic component of China’s strategy, which encompasses both East and West Asia. With this strategy, China has become the most important trading partner for most West Asian countries, even Saudi Arabia, for which the United States used to be its most important trading partner.

Saudi and regional leaders would not overlook the fact that Biden made this trip not out of a strategic perspective, but out of the near-term urgency of the Ukraine crisis. This does not bode well for the United States’ regional competition with China. Regional countries will continue to look east (to China, India, and others) after Biden’s visit, as they did before this visit. For better or for worse, China’s geoeconomic influence in the region remains unchallenged.

Conclusion: The strategic way forward

The United States needs a comprehensive multi-pronged strategy for West Asia, like it needs for the Indo-Pacific if it is to be taken seriously and compete with China. Such a strategy should recognize the following four interrelated realities of the region: First, the region is geopolitically exhausted, so much so that even traditional enemies are (re)establishing diplomatic ties, such as Saudi-Iranian de-escalation talks or Arab-Israeli détente.

Second, the widely recognized challenge for the region is to overcome its dependence on hydrocarbons, hence the different development visions in the region, including the 2030 vision of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar or the 2040 vision of Oman.

Third, geoeconomic connectivity is the top-selling commodity in the region to replace hydrocarbons. Various regional countries are vying for more connections between East and West, North and South.

Fourth and most importantly, the Middle East is one of the regions most affected by climate change, currently burning in extreme heat, drying out with little water and suffocating from clouds of dust; it urgently needs a great green future.

Going back to old, tired geopolitical games of oil and guns is not the way to go. Demonizing China in the Indo-Pacific and relying solely on weapons is not a strategy and is not enough to convince the Indo-Pacific countries to join the United States. Similarly, the demonization of Iran and its nuclear issue (which can easily be brought under control by the US rejoining the JCPOA) and arms sales cannot really constitute a serious US regional strategy in West Asia, nor can they be compared with China’s multi-pronged strategic approach in compete in the region .


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