Biden shifted focus to China in 2021 despite Middle East challenges

President ends year with renewed determination to counter Beijing while battling perception that he is less committed to US security partnerships in region

President Joe Biden answers a question from a reporter at the White House on December 3, 2021. AFP
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In his first major foreign policy address in February, US President Joe Biden vowed to counter China while announcing the end of offensive support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels — albeit with a pledge to continue defensive support for Riyadh.

“America is back; diplomacy is back,” Mr Biden proudly declared while emphasising his intent to repair US relations with allies and partners following a series of tumultuous disputes under former president Donald Trump.

Mr Biden rounded out the year with a two-day summit aimed at combating democratic backsliding across the globe almost 12 months after a failed insurrection in the US as well as a series of coups in countries including Sudan and Myanmar.

With instability at home and abroad, Mr Biden is also closing out a year marked by a series of regional crises: from the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, to clashes with Iran-backed proxies in the Middle East, to another brutal war between Israel and Hamas that once again decimated the Gaza Strip.

“Virtually every group that does international ranking and stability of countries has shown that the world in general has seen a significant increase in instability and economic problems, weakness and governance,” Anthony Cordesman, an emeritus chair in strategy at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told The National.

“Saying the US is back in terms of the policy goals the president outlined, that’s probably valid. Saying that the United States has somehow increased the level of global stability, international order and development, that’s kind of an ambitious goal — and one that often gets confused with what US foreign policy can actually do.”

Mohammed Soliman, a non-resident scholar at The Middle East Institute, said that the Carter Doctrine — which stipulated that the US would use military force to defend its interests in the Arabian Gulf — is dead under the Biden administration as it seeks to shift its attention to China while warding off Russia.

“America has a strategic posture in the Middle East, an extensive military footprint,” Mr Soliman told The National.

“However, it doesn’t have the same commitments it used to have in the Middle East.

“The administration wants to empower allies to develop and be responsible for their own security.”

Although Mr Biden did freeze two multibillion-dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia agreed to under Mr Trump, he has agreed to a $650 million air-to-air missile sale and $500m attack helicopter sale to the kingdom.

And while every Gulf Co-operation Council country has endorsed Mr Biden’s efforts to negotiate back into the Iran nuclear deal, the Afghanistan withdrawal has enhanced a perception that the US is less willing to intervene militarily in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al Faisal went so far as to publicly question whether Mr Biden remains committed to traditional US security partners in the region.

“The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a strategic decision of its own,” said Mr Soliman. “We can argue that the implementation had some flaws, but the decision itself to free US resources from Afghanistan to move to Asia makes sense from a strategic standpoint.”

Mr Biden announced a new security partnership between the US, the UK and Australia, called Aukus, to increase co-operation in the Indo-Pacific — though Washington’s nuclear submarine deal with Canberra did create a diplomatic rift with France, which lost out on its own $80 billion deal.

Still, the new partnership lends the Biden administration another avenue to co-ordinate with its allies as it contends with China in the Pacific, augmenting the other Indo-Pacific partnership known as the Quad, which consists of the US, Australia, India and Japan.

“In some ways, particularly competition with China, there may not be that much difference from the Trump administration,” said Mr Cordesman.

Mr Biden, for instance, has opted to keep Mr Trump’s China tariffs in place even as he has moved to remove tariffs from Europe.

But as Mr Biden looks forward to a more China-centric policy, he may find it as difficult to extricate himself from the Middle East as his two immediate predecessors did.

While the US has focused more on energy independence in recent years, lessening its reliance on Gulf oil, Mr Cordesman noted that Washington is heavily reliant on manufactured exports from Asia — and most of Asia is heavily dependent on Gulf oil exports.

“You actually probably have a higher percentage of the American GDP dependent on the flow of Gulf oil to Asia than you had when the US was importing oil from the Gulf,” said Mr Cordesman.

Updated: December 16th 2021, 9:06 PM