How US’ new China policy might affect the Gulf

How US’ new China policy might affect the Gulf

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, in Yorba Linda, California, U.S., July 23, 2020. (Reuters)

The closures of the Chinese consulate in Houston and the US consulate in Chengdu in the last week were the latest signs of the deteriorating China-US relationship, coming at a time of tough talk and saber-rattling between the two greatest world powers. As the war of words gradually turns to action, how is this fight going to affect Gulf nations?

Over the past few weeks, several US officials have addressed this pivot in US policy to confront China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. This “near-peer competition,” as US officials describe it, narrates the new direction of US policy globally. The shift is taking place during a transitional period in the US, as it prepares for November’s presidential election, but will probably continue after the vote, regardless of who wins. It is therefore extremely important to discuss these developments with the US’ partners in the Gulf to prepare them for the new phase.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week outlined a new approach to China that signaled the shift in US policy. At the speech he gave at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California, Pompeo appeared to question America’s China policy, which started with Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972. For a long time it was a win-win policy of peaceful coexistence, economic cooperation and political reform, but Pompeo went through a long list of issues to demonstrate its failure to bring the desired results. He outlined a few specifics, including confronting China on the rules for “fair terms” in international trade, addressing the security implications of government-backed entities such as Huawei, and students who “come here to steal our intellectual property.”

On the military front, Pompeo said that, this month, the US had reversed “eight years of cheek-turning with respect to international law in the South China Sea,” including by ramping up military efforts to secure freedom of navigation in the Sea of Japan, South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. He also pointed to the administration’s creation of a “space force” to confront China in space and called on Beijing to “conform its nuclear capabilities to the strategic realities of our time.”

Diplomatically, Pompeo said that his State Department had “built out a new set of policies” to “rewrite the imbalances that have grown over decades.” He referred to the blacklisting of Chinese individuals and entities on human rights grounds and the closure of the consulate in Houston “because it was a hub of spying and intellectual property theft.” But he also referred to talks between State Department officials and their Chinese counterparts “at every level, all across the world… simply to demand fairness and reciprocity.”

The changes outlined by Pompeo appear to be closely coordinated. His speech was the fourth in a series on China, following those he had asked National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr to deliver. This whole-of-government effort represents “a very clear purpose, a real mission.” It should be taken seriously.

How does the new policy affect the Gulf? 

Last month, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr spoke of a “resurgence” of great power competition in the Gulf and the rest of CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, which includes the Middle East, East Africa, Central and West Asia. He described this area as a “newly active area of engagement between us and other great powers as we compete on the global stage.” Despite that realization, McKenzie lamented that, for almost 20 years, the US’ focus on the CENTCOM area has been largely on the military level, “at the cost of certain other things,” allowing China to gain a “march on us.” 

McKenzie said the Pentagon now realizes the need to turn to “where the greatest threats are,” primarily in China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, rather than in the CENTCOM area. This means that the US military has to shift resources from CENTCOM principally to the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), but also to the European Command (EUCOM), to more directly confront those threats at a military level. More important are the longer term commitments that the US has made to allow it to compete and prevail militarily in the INDOPACOM and EUCOM’s areas.

McKenzie likened the superpower competition in the Gulf to the chaos of the Wild West, with China moving in “principally economically” to establish a beachhead, while other aspects, meaning security threats, will follow over time. He also spoke of the dilemma of reassuring partners in the CENTCOM region that, while the US is shifting focus to Asia and Europe, it is still going to be around in this region as a dependable partner.

While McKenzie generally supports the new pivot, he cautioned against abandoning the Gulf and the rest of CENTCOM. He pointed out that, as a “global superpower,” the US does not have the luxury of focusing on any one theater. However, he provided very little detail as to what the US is prepared to do to “counter the growing encroachment” of other powers into the Gulf. His remarks focused on US military sales and how to discourage the buying of weapons from elsewhere, particularly China and Russia. 

McKenzie likened the superpower competition in the Gulf to the chaos of the Wild West.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The US and its partners in the region need to have a serious discussion on how Gulf security, for example, is affected by these new shifts. Pompeo, McKenzie and other officials have repeatedly stressed that Gulf security and energy security are among the key objectives of US global policy. How are those objectives served under the new policy? Another question that needs to be addressed is where does the US-Iran policy fit in with the new changes? What should we make of the reportedly growing relationship between China and Iran? 

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are partners with both the US and China, albeit at different levels and with different goals. They could help coordinate a coherent security policy for the Gulf that avoids superpower confrontations in the region.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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