The planned meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco this week will take place at the height of an international crisis precipitated by the most recent war in Gaza, the stalemate of the Ukrainian offensive against the Russian invaders, the rising frictions in the Indo-Pacific, and nuclear sabre-rattling from North Korea, among other concerns.
This high-stakes encounter follows Xi and Biden's previous meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia a year ago, after which the Sino-US relationship has remained ensnared in a web of challenges. From the Indo-Pacific's tumultuous waters to the restrictions imposed on semiconductor exports, the discourse is bound to be more symbolic than substantive.
Both sides may debate the precarious implications of US-China economic decoupling, a potentially ruinous outcome for both nations. However, amid the economic jargon, hope persists that a mutually agreed resolution will crystallise in a shared commitment to prevent the Middle East from going to the point of no return.
The ongoing conflict, pitting Israeli military forces against Hamas, the militant group in control of the Gaza Strip, poses an escalating risk of regional expansion. Over the past month, as the Gaza war persisted, daily skirmishes have unfolded between the Israeli army and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group, along the Israel-Lebanon border. These incidents fuel concerns that the conflict could broaden into a more extensive regional war.
...both China and the US could reap rewards from closer collaboration. However, the likelihood of such cooperation appears slim.
Prospects of US-China cooperation slim
Although both Beijing and Washington share a reluctance for heightened instability in the region, the starting positions of Xi and Biden in their face-to-face meeting are so divergent that a positive outcome may be elusive.
The Middle East retains its status as a critical battleground for great power rivalries, particularly in terms of energy security and safeguarding sea lanes of communication. Nonetheless, the mounting uncertainty stemming from the Gaza conflict serves as a stark reminder that the Palestinian cause and ongoing conflicts from Yemen to Libya cannot be overlooked. Ignoring these issues comes with consequences.
Amid the tumultuous landscape of the Middle East, where Russia thrives in the chaos and Iran exploits proxy conflicts, both China and the US could reap rewards from closer collaboration. However, the likelihood of such cooperation appears slim.
For several years, in anticipation of a reduction in US engagement in the Middle East in favour of the Indo-Pacific, countries in the region have been gradually decreasing their reliance on the US security umbrella. Instead, they are strengthening their connections with both Russia and China.
However, despite the professed “no limits” friendship between Xi and Putin, a discrepancy emerges between China's pursuit of stability in the Middle East and Russia's interests in sustaining high energy prices, lucrative arms sales and “manageable chaos”. While doubts persist about the reliability of the US as an ally, particularly in the oil-rich Gulf region, China is limited in its ability to provide a comparable level of military intervention.
While it is true that China maintains good relations with various conflicting parties in the region, the efficacy of relying solely on economic development to ensure security remains uncertain.
China stuck in ‘development for stability’
Nevertheless, the Middle East remains strategically vital for China's energy security and trade. Despite perceptions of waning US interest, the US continues to hold a dominant position in the military domain in the region. At the same time, China is progressively wielding more economic influence, with a new active diplomatic posture that has recently brokered the unprecedented detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Nevertheless, from a military standpoint, Beijing still faces serious interrelated strategic, operational and tactical challenges to function in the Middle East. The limited capabilities to project power and the unwillingness to use quasi-private military companies such as the Russian Wagner Group in Syria and Libya as a geopolitical placeholder, force Beijing to continue to rely on its decade-old mantra of "development for stability".
While it is true that China maintains good relations with various conflicting parties in the region, the efficacy of relying solely on economic development to ensure security remains uncertain. Also, prolonged regional insecurity may serve as a precursor to the resurgence of terrorist organisations with global ambitions. This is a scenario that both Beijing and Washington are eager to avert at all costs.
Finding common ground
Against the backdrop of escalating security challenges in the Middle East, President Biden will inevitably prioritise this issue in his discussions with President Xi, particularly as both leaders grapple with domestic challenges.
For Biden, broaching discussions with China is a political minefield, especially in the midst of an election season. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party faces mounting pressure due to sluggish economic growth, compelling them to focus on delivering at home and avoiding costly missteps in overseas investments.
Beijing's economic lifeline to Iran and its significant alliance with Moscow stand as potential leverage points in the looming San Francisco event.
Despite the promise brought by the Abraham Accords and the improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional tensions persist, with disputes and conflicts approaching a critical juncture. This comes at a moment when China has the opportunity to assume a prominent role in global diplomatic efforts to restore some stability to the region. The upcoming meeting between Biden and Xi holds the potential for a collective solution, which the recent emergency summit of the Arab League, convened to address the Gaza conflict, did not achieve.
Beijing's economic lifeline to Iran and its significant alliance with Moscow stand as potential leverage points in the looming San Francisco event. However, the failure to address the criticalities in the Middle East would be a grave oversight.
Despite the escalating great power competition between the US and China, finding common ground on a strategy for regional stabilisation in the Middle East is crucial.
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