Allies, Partners and Friends: Hedging Against American “Global” Leadership
America’s allies are hedging against current American approaches to exercise global leadership, mostly in response to its casual abandonment of Afghanistan after two decades of war that cost over $2 Trillion.
Adding to their unease with Washington was the abandonment of over $7 billion of military equipment to the Taliban, and the State Department’s admission that the U.S. had refused to negotiate with Russia about keeping Ukraine out of NATO, arguably forcing Russia’s hand.
But Washington soon found new conflicts, mostly to distract foreign and domestic audiences from the retreat from Kabul and to continue the war against Moscow that only paused with the end of the Cold War: the Russia-Ukraine war, and China’s increasingly aggressive moves to recapture the wayward province of Taiwan as part of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
America seeded the ground with a war in Iraq that many see as started under false pretenses, i.e., Iraq’s alleged arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The war upset the Iraq-Iran face-off that lent some balance to the region, and allowed Iran to deploy its irregular forces, weakening Lebanon and Yemen, and threatening Saudi Arabia and key U.S. client Israel.
The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, the “good war,” morphed into an experiment in reforming Pashtun culture that only found favor with newly-created Afghan urbanites who subsisted on a diet of Western contracts and foreign aid dollars.
The West’s reform campaign never put down roots and, when the Taliban entered Kabul on 15 August 2021, it vanished, its local acolytes hoping for new lives in Europe or America.
In the Middle East, American client Israel has avoided taking a side in the Russia-Ukraine war (and has accepted immigrants from both countries) and has welcomed Chinese investment in Bay Port container shipping terminal next to Haifa Port that is used by the U.S. Navy for visits. Israel also restored full diplomatic relations with Turkey, despite U.S. distaste for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Turkey’s disruption of eastern Mediterranean natural gas exploration.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump secured Arab agreement to normalize Arab relations with Israel via the Abraham Accords because he knew to get something you have to give something, like military aircraft or recognition of territorial claims. But, as the Biden administration single-mindedly pursued a new nuclear deal with Iran, ignoring local concerns, the Accords may become a way for the Arabs to stay connected with the only country that may act to counter an Iranian nuclear threat: Israel.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) aren’t dawdling and are reengaging Iran to start rebuilding relationships as U.S. influence wanes.
In fact, local unease is acute and many observers are convinced the U.S. will sacrifice the Arabs to appease Iran, which will save Chinese and Russian diplomats a lot of work and reinforce their message that, yes, Washington is reliable, but in the wrong way.
Saudi Arabia is America’s most important partner in the Muslim and Arab world, and the relationship as now recognized dates from 1945, when the U.S. and the kingdom established a security-for-oil bargain, though the relationship was stressed when many American politicians demanded an arms embargo of Riyadh for its actions fighting the Iran-backed Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen.
The Kingdom is the most important oil producer and de facto head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Saudi Arabia is the biggest customer for American military hardware, but has been growing its relations with China, its top export destination, and the two countries recently signed a memorandum of understanding between the Saudi Arabian Oil Company and the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation covering expanded oil, gas, petrochemicals, and other hydrocarbons activities.
China sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, increased its presence in the kingdom starting in 2017 and in the first half of 2022 the kingdom received Chinese investments worth $5.5 billion.
U.S. president Joe Biden recently visited the Kingdom and met the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), but came away empty-handed as the Saudis did not agree to increased oil production to drive down gasoline process before the U.S. mid-term elections in November. MBS did just fine though, as his fist-bump with Biden publicly rehabilitated him for the killing of Saudi activist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi spokesmen later casually rejected Biden’s claims he confronted MBS about Khashoggi’s killing.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping may soon visit Saudi Arabia and, after the opening ceremonies, will aim to exploit divisions between Riyadh and Washington and leverage the energy relationship to get Riyadh on Beijing’s side. If successful, China’s effort will complement the 2021 agreement to invest $400 billion in Iran in exchange for a steady supply of hydrocarbons, giving China a platform on both sides of the Persian Gulf with the most consequential states in the Muslim world.
Another goal for Xi is to secure a longtime Chinese desire: Saudi agreement for China to pay for oil in Yuan, both reducing its costs and eroding the U.S. Dollar’s preeminent position in the world economy. It’s a long shot, but doing so will allow Xi to return to Beijing in triumph before the 20th Party Congress where he plans to secure an unprecedented third term as general Secretary of the Chinese Communist party.
The UAE is also a long-time customer of U.S. weapons and has long cooperated with Washington in the security area. China is the emirates #2 export market and emirate has also welcomed Chinese investment and is a leading customer for China’s Huawei mobile 5G technology. The UAE was also a customer for America’s stealthy F-35 combat aircraft, despite U.S. opposition to the Huawei partnership, but Washington eventually relented on the 5G rollout.
The emirate recently abandoned what the U.S. claimed was a secret Chinese military facility at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa port, though the emirate claimed it was nothing of the sort, implying it acted as a favor to Washington, though it may have to accommodate China elsewhere as a result.
The UAE abstained from United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine and has welcomed Russian oligarchs fleeing confiscation of their wealth by the U.S. and Europe. U.S. attempts to get the emirate to seize oligarchs’ assets may be opposed by the Pentagon and U.S. weapons manufactures that rely on the UAE for contracts and are still smarting from the UAE suspension of a contract for F-35s, armed drones, and munitions, which was probably pushback for Washington’s pressure on the UAE’s selection of Huawei as the mobile 5G provider, and the cancellation of the Khalifa port facility.
Africa has always been a welcoming venue for China as many of the governments remember China’s help in their national liberation struggles against the colonial powers and China’s role as a fellow member of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
Thirty-nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The U.S. opposes BRI, claiming China intends to use debt to force the host nations to surrender infrastructure to China when they cannot repay the debt. The U.S. and Europe offered nothing to counter BRI but criticism, but at the 2022 G-7 meeting U.S. president Joe Biden announced a competing (and unfunded) initiative, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII). PGII is estimated to cost $600 billion compared to China’s $1 trillion in infrastructure spending over the past decade.
The White House claims PGII will focus on “climate and energy security, digital connectivity, health and health security, and gender equality and equity” as opposed to China’s emphasis on hard infrastructure, i.e., roads, bridges, telecommunications, and hydro power, reinforcing the view that China does civil engineering and the West does social engineering.
More plainly, Africa may prefer China’s development model that emphasizes economic development and political non-interference, which resonates with its leaders, some of whom were born when their countries were colonies of Western powers and have no interest in trading the old suzerain for a new one in Washington.
China is a communist country but it isn’t trying to spread Communism. The U.S. and Europe, by contract, demand local adoption of a social model that many see as materialistic, irreligious, and hyper-sexualized, and what local people may see as a “soft colonialism” that claims to respect everyone’s “rights” but will corrode their societies from the inside.
Sanctions related to the Russia-Ukraine war have caused a spike in prices for food, fuel, and fertilizer, which hurt low-income Africa more than the wealthier West. Unfortunately, American diplomats, such as U.S. ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, threatened African nations with sanctions if they buy anything from Russia other than grain and fertilizer. South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, was likely speaking for the continent when she told U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, that “patronizing bullying” by the U.S. and Europe was unacceptable.
On the other hand, China was channeling George Washington Plunkitt who said, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em,” when Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced China supported African Union membership in the G-20. (South Africa is the only representative of the continent on the G-20.)
The next meeting of the G-20 is in November, under the presidency of Indonesia. Jakarta announced that Russian leader Vladimir Putin will attend, prompting a protest from Washington that was ignored.
African countries haven’t vocally sided with Ukraine in the Russia-Ukraine war, and many, such as South Africa, Angola, and Congo, abstained from the UN General Assembly (UNGA) against the Ukraine invasion, impertinence that was the cause of Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s sanctions threat. Recently only four of Africa’s 55 leaders attended a Zoom call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, probably because the Africans noted the Europeans were finally settling their differences in Europe instead of Asia or Africa.
Threats from the U.S. and Europe won’t persuade Africans they are respected partners when the West has to compete with China’s offering. The Africans know China isn’t all-that and expects to be repaid for its largesse, but a transactional relationship may be more appealing than George Bush’s, “You are either with us, or with the terrorists.”
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”) is an anti-China coalition comprised of the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan, though the group says it’s goal is to deepen economic and military ties among the members.
India abstained from the UNGA Ukraine resolution, then took advantage of sanctions on Moscow by buying Russian oil at a discount and reselling it to Europe, earning the ire of Washington, which ignored India’s decades-long relationship with Russia, founded in part to counter America’s allying itself with Pakistan during the Cold War
Russia is a longtime supplier of weapons to India, though India has made some moves to diversity suppliers. U.S. troops will take part in a joint exercise in October less than 100 kilometers from India’s disputed border with China, however, India announced its troops will also take part in the Vostok-2022 military drills in Russia.
China is building a road through territory claimed by India, but Indian prime minister Narendra Modi may still meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the September meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where the leaders may also discuss the ongoing border tensions in Ladakh, which may be moving to resolution.
India and China have deep economic ties: China is India’s #2 export market ($18.5 billion in 2020), and India is China’s #9 export market ($64.2 billion in 2020.) Inia is also a source of foreign direct investment (FDI) to India, though the amount has fluctuated in recent years and may be slowed by mandatory reviews of FDI projects from countries that border India, a roundabout way of saying “China.”
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad recently claimed the U.S. is seeking to provoke war in Taiwan so the U.S. can “sell a lot of arms to Taiwan.” Malaysia voted for the UNGA resolution, but that may have been out of convenience not conviction if Mahathir is now saying the quiet part out loud.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, the U.S. reacted with alarm when it learned China and the Solomon Islands signed a security pact in early 2022. The U.S. hastily dispatched a delegation to visit the islands to reminisce about the glory days fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal, and the delegation head said ominously the U.S. would respond if China established a military presence on the islands. Australia’s then-prime minister Scott Morrison was America’s bad cop and thundered a Chinese base would be a “red line,” and was likewise vague about retribution. You can be sure American diplomats didn’t mention the 105 above-ground nuclear tests the U.S. conducted in what it called the Pacific Proving Grounds, but what the Pacific islanders call “our home.”
Apparently Washington failed to make an impression on Honiara as the Solomons just secured a $100 million loan from China to build 161 Huawei mobile phone towers, a project the U.S. could have funded with petty cash – if it was paying attention. The states of Central Asia assisted the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. mostly by facilitating cargo shipments from Europe and aircraft refueling.
For example, Uzbekistan hosted U.S. military aircraft at the Karshi-Khanabad air base from 2001-2005, and Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan allowed transit of shipments to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network. Also, Kyrgyzstan allowed the U.S. to use the Manas Transit Center for refueling, though the American refueling contracts were thought to be the cause of corruption in local ruling circles which helped push the U.S. out of the country in 2014.
After the NATO retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021, Uzbekistan allowed escaping Afghan military pilots a short stay before they moved to processing points for potential relocation to the U.S., and refused to return the aircraft to the Taliban government.
Uzbek officials publicly met with Taliban officials starting in 2018 and encouraged them to engage the Kabul government in negotiations. Since the NATO retreat, Uzbekistan has worked to keep Afghanistan in the spotlight to ensure the country does not become a source of instability in Central and South Asia. Though Washington would prefer to wage economic war on the Taliban by sanctioning Taliban government officials and seizing the country’s central bank dollar-denominated reserves in order to force the Taliban to seat a government more to the liking of the West, the Central Asian neighbors have to work with the neighbors they have, though they have encouraged the Taliban to reverse many of their policies and to seat a representative government.
Tajikistan, which opposes the Taliban and supports the Afghan National Resistance Front recently participated in command-post and field exercises with U.S. forces (and other Central Asian countries). Tajikistan is also an ally of Iran and the countries created a joint military defense committee in early 2021 and, in the summer of 2022 Iran inaugurated a drone factory in Tajikistan.
If that’s not flexible enough, Tajikistan hosts Chinese, Russian, and Indian military and police bases in order to stop the spread of instability from Afghanistan.
America’s friends may find safety in numbers in BRICS – the informal group of Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa, and that may be the reincarnation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and NATO member Turkey may soon join BRICS and Indonesia and Argentina (and Iran) are also interested in the group that can informally coordinate responses (or non-responses) to America’s actions.
With the exception of China, BRICS countries aren’t superpowers, but are influential “middle powers,” are on every continent, and many are significant producers of food, energy products, and primary metals, including many needed for Europe’s Net Zero and Joe Biden’s Green New Deal.
Hedging against the currently designed and executed American approach to global leadership is a return to normal interstate behavior – the world before 1945 and outside America’s historical memory.
Washington’s attempt to rally the world against Moscow and Beijing is a return to the certainties of the Cold War after the anger and humiliation caused by defeat in Afghanistan and a tie game in Iraq, and a reluctance to admit the 9-11 emergency is over.
Unlike the Cold War, China offers an alternative development model and a policy of non-intervention, and the shine has rubbed off the U.S. as the world observes urban violence, racial tension, increasing drug abuse, and security service meddling in elections. The days of breaching the Iron Curtain with a stack of Miles David LPs are over.
The U.S., bounded by two oceans and weak neighbors, and shielded from the immediate consequences of its actions, was distracted by the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and was heedless of how its interventions were perceived by rest of world.
Or maybe Washington didn’t care, assuming victory would overcome others’ distaste for the American campaigns that ultimately failed by strengthened Iran and the reinstating the Taliban.
James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
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