The so-called ‘QUAD 2’, or the West Asian QUAD, comes at a time when, on the one hand, the US is facing an unprecedented global challenge from China, and on the other, when the US’ European allies continue to refuse to support the US in its tussle with China. While European powers do consider China a rival, it remains that – and it is more evident now than ever – there is no appetite in Europe to tackle this rival through any strategy other than dialogue and engagement. Europe, unlike the US, continues to emphasise mutual co-existence, which is more in line with China’s own global, multilateral vision. It is for the lack of support from Europe that the Biden administration has been forced to reactivate and weaponise the QUAD, a grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia, in the Indo-Pacific region. While NATO itself is unlikely to disintegrate, it remains that the growing wedge within NATO has played a key role in pushing the US to make new allies in its search to build a global ring to ‘contain’ China’s rise. Hence, the ‘QUAD 2’, comprising the US, India, the UAE and Israel.
The ‘QAUD 2’ is part of a series of steps the Biden administration has taken in past few months. Apart from reactivating the QUAD, the US recently finalised the so-called AUKUS, an alliance comprising the US, the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific. Whereas the AUKUS is expected to complement the QUAD, the ‘QUAD 2’ not only shows a massive geo-political expansion of the US’ ‘containment strategy’, but also underpins how the US is actively creating multiple – and even overlapping – alliance systems across the most important regions in the world to entrench itself vis-à-vis China, also ensuring its own survival as an uncontested hegemon. The creation of the ‘QUAD 2’ also recognises the fact that, for Washington, the ‘China threat’ is not merely confined to the Indo-Pacific. The Middle East, for so many reasons, remains a key geo-political region for both the US and China. In fact, its significance has increased for China more than ever as a key route of its Silk Road mega-projects. Hence, the continuing importance of the Middle East for the US. The fact that the US has itself started to disengage militarily from the Middle East – in particular, from Saudi Arabia – does not mean a diplomatic withdrawal as well. In fact, military disengagement has produced a new sort of multilateral engagement between the US and the Middle Eastern powers. The Indian presence in the ‘QUAD 2’ signifies how the US’ Middle East and South Asia policy overlaps and compliments the US’ overall policy of allying with countries to create a ring of anti-China alliances.
Also, the fact that the both the QUAD and the ‘QUAD 2’ emphasise maritime security shows that the US intends to build these alliances as a means to control the Sea Line of Communications that China uses for most of its trade. As the US calculations indicate, fully activated – and weaponised – alliance systems, such as the QUAD and the ‘QAUD 2’, could give Washington a considerable sway over both the Strait of Malacca and Bab-el-Mandeb. While the Strait of Malacca provides China access to the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb is the key to accessing the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, leading Chinese containers all the way into Africa. Both the UAE and Israel have already established an intelligence base in the Yemeni island of Socotra. Thus, by integrating both the UAE and Israel, the US aims to broaden the apparently Iran-centric bi-lateral alliance into a China-centric multilateral alliance system, one that would certainly continue to watch Iran as well.
The US’ renewed QUAD-scale engagement comes at a time when China, too, has started to expand its footprint in the Middle East. Its massive economic deal with Iran has been seen as a stepping-stone for China’s Silk Road project to expand further into the Middle East, a possibility that, if materialised successfully, could significantly erode the US position in the Middle East. Therefore, to prevent this eventuality, the US has come to the point of completely redesigning its mode of engagement with the region. As reports in the US mainstream media have been highlighting as well, the US needs to secure the Middle East first to implement its pivot to Asia, including in the Indo-Pacific, vis-à-vis China.
But can the US do this with help from the UAE and Israel? While the US allies may be willing to ally with China, the Middle East is, as has always been the case, a complex territory offering multiple possibilities of alliances and counter-alliances. In this context, the US is not the only country building alliances. There is already a counter-alliance formation taking place.
For instance, while China already has a number of friends in the region, the US military withdrawal from the Middle East – especially, from Saudi Arabia – has also created new opportunities for China to expand its economic footprint, especially in regions the US has started to withdraw from. In the wake of the Biden administration’s spat with Saudia’s crown prince, China is already emerging as the Kingdom’s next best friend. Bi-lateral China-Saudia ties also stem from the Kingdom’s own search for diversifying its foreign ties. With China giving priority to its ties with Saudia, the latter stands to gain vis-à-vis the US. In a recent phone-call with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi said that “China is willing to be Saudi Arabia’s long-term, reliable and stable good friend and partner …. In the face of the volatile international situation, China and Saudi Arabia need to maintain close strategic communication, which is an inherent part of the China-Saudi Arabia comprehensive strategic partnership.”
Notwithstanding the US’ anti-China plans for the Middle East, the Chinese, too, have their own plans, which make it difficult, if not impossible, for the US to freely pursue its objectives without any challenges.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.