Biden Risks Driving Saudi Arabia into Beijing's Arms
“Don’t get angry, get even.” That seems to be the philosophy driving Xi Jinping following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan earlier this month as the Chinese President is expected to make his first international trip since COVID-19 to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the coming days. While the details have not been finalized, the news highlights both how the Middle East may play a key role in any future conflict over Taiwan and how much Biden has lost the trust of former U.S. allies.
Ahmed al-Faraj, a Saudi Professor of International Affairs, told the Jerusalem Post that the visit “will be a clear message that Saudi Arabia has strategic allies other than the United States of America and that it is a strong country that cannot be overcome in the Middle East.” The visit is expected to see, among other things, an agreement on allowing China to purchase Saudi oil in Yuan rather than Dollars and an agreement on arms sales and joint-investment projects. The most important signal will be to the United States
Notably, the visit does not mark a definitive defection of Saudi Arabia from the American to any sort of Chinese camp. Saudi Arabia retains close military ties with the United States, with the Biden administration recently approving more than $3 billion in additional arms sales. Saudi Arabia also remains a foe of Iran, which has tried to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
But the visit is nonetheless a signal from Riyadh that the United States remains under “probation,” so to speak, at least as long as Joe Biden remains president. The Saudis have not forgotten Biden’s refusal to speak with them or threats to block arms sales, nor his continued efforts to woo Iran into a nuclear deal on terms even less favorable than those agreed to by Barack Obama. Biden’s visit, in its awkwardness—especially when it came to confrontations over human rights and the death of rogue Saudi intelligence asset turned Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—was a far cry from the ceremony of Donald Trump’s trip in 2017, or that expected for Xi’s.
Trump, for one thing, was received by the King, as Xi is expected to be. Biden was denied such a meeting. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia made a point of inviting Xi to visit the Kingdom in March, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, during a period when the Biden administration was threatening to isolate China if it did not break relations with Moscow, and simultaneously threatening the Saudis to do the same while begging them to increase energy production and pave the way for Biden’s own trip. Given that Biden called the Saudi Crown prince a “murderer” to his face, it is easy to see why Riyadh would adopt Reagan’s old adage of “trust, but verify” regarding relations with Washington.
What of China? A few weeks ago, I observed that the nature of China’s challenge to U.S. hegemony is often misunderstood and more akin to that of a scavenger rather than a predator. China has generally shied away from direct confrontation with the West, never explicitly opposing U.S. policy towards Iran, Syria, or North Korea. In the case of Afghanistan, the Chinese Communist Party did not move to establish ties with the Taliban until the U.S. had already departed.
Reaching out to Saudi Arabia at a time when U.S.-Saudi relations are poor is therefore exactly in keeping with the Chinese approach. China did not trigger Saudi-American tensions, but once they became evident, Beijing moved in to see how it could profit, either economically through ties with Riyadh or by subtraction through undermining U.S. energy security and therefore U.S. strength in Asia.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would play a pivotal role in any conflict between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, a much greater one than any of the parties played over Ukraine. When it came to Ukraine, the Middle East functioned as a potential alternative source of energy to replace Russian gas. When it comes to East Asia, however, neither China nor America’s allies in the region, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, are themselves energy independent. They are instead largely dependent on energy supplies shipped from the Gulf, many of which pass through the narrow straits of Malacca. Almost any U.S. strategy for a conflict with China would involve trying to cut Beijing off from such energy exports. But as with Europe, where European states had fewer alternative energy suppliers than Russia had customers, China can secure at least some energy from Russia, whereas Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia would be almost entirely out of luck.