A much anticipated US foreign policy move under the Biden administration on how to counter China’s unhindered economic growth and political ambitions came in the form of a virtual summit on 12 March linking the United States with India, Australia and Japan. Although the so-called Quad — Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — revealed nothing new in the participants’ joint statement, the leaders of these four countries spoke about a “historic” meeting, described by The Diplomat website as “a significant milestone in the evolution of the grouping”.
Actually, the joint statement contains little substance and certainly nothing new by way of a blueprint on how to reverse — or even slow — Beijing’s geopolitical successes, growing military confidence and increasing presence in or around strategic global waterways.
For years, the Quad has been busy formulating a unified China strategy but it has failed to devise anything of practical significance. “Historic” meetings aside, China is the world’s only major economy that is predicted to yield significant economic growth this year, and imminently. International Monetary Fund projections show that the Chinese economy is expected to expand by 8.1 per cent in 2021, whereas according to data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, America’s GDP declined by around 3.5 per cent in 2020.
The Quad began in 2007 and was revived in 2017 with the obvious aim of repulsing China’s advance on all fields. Like most American alliances, the Quad is the political manifestation of a military alliance, namely the Malabar Naval Exercises. The latter started in 1992 and soon expanded to include all four countries.
Since Washington’s “pivot to Asia”, the reversal of established US foreign policy that was predicated on placing greater focus on the Middle East, there is little evidence that its confrontational policies have weakened Beijing’s presence, trade or diplomacy across the continent. Aside from close encounters between the US and Chinese navies in the South China Sea, there is very little else to report.
While much media coverage has focused on this, little has been said about China’s pivot to the Middle East, which has been far more successful than the American geostrategic shift as an economic and political endeavour.
The seismic change in US foreign policy priorities stemmed from its failure to translate the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq into a decipherable geo-economic success as a result of seizing control of Iraqi oil, the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves. The US strategy proved to be a complete blunder.
In an article published in the Financial Times in September last year, Jamil Anderlini made a fascinating point: “If oil and influence were the prizes, then it seems China, not America, has ultimately won the Iraq war and its aftermath – without ever firing a shot.” He’s right. Not only is China now Iraq’s biggest trading partner, but Beijing’s massive economic and political influence in the Middle East is also a triumph. China is now, according to the Financial Times, the Middle East’s biggest foreign investor and a strategic partner with all Gulf States except Bahrain. Compare this with Washington’s confused foreign policy agenda in the region, its unprecedented indecisiveness, absence of a definable political doctrine and the systematic breakdown of its regional alliances.
This paradigm becomes clearer and more convincing when understood on a global scale. By the end of 2019, China became the world’s leader in terms of diplomacy, as it then boasted 276 diplomatic posts, many of which are consulates. Unlike embassies, consulates play a more significant role in terms of trade and economic exchanges. According to 2019 figures published in Foreign Affairs magazine, China has 96 consulates compared with America’s 88. In 2012, Beijing lagged significantly behind Washington’s diplomatic representation, by precisely 23 posts.
Wherever China is represented diplomatically, economic development follows. Unlike the disjointed US global strategy, China’s ambitions are articulated through a massive network known as the Belt and Road Initiative, estimated at trillions of dollars. When completed, the BRI is set to unify more than sixty countries around Chinese-led economic strategies and trade routes. For this to materialise, China moved quickly to establish a presence in proximity to the world’s most strategic waterways, investing heavily in some and, as in the case of Bab Al-Mandab Strait, establishing its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
At a time when America’s economy is shrinking and its European allies are fractured politically, it is difficult to imagine that any US plan to counter China’s influence, whether in the Middle East, Asia or anywhere else, will have much success.
The biggest hindrance to Washington’s China strategy is that there can never be an outcome in which the US achieves a clear and precise victory. Economically, China is now driving global growth, thus balancing out the US-international crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Hurting China economically would weaken the US as well as the global markets.
The same is true politically and strategically. In the case of the Middle East, the pivot to Asia has backfired on multiple fronts. On the one hand, it registered no palpable success in Asia, while on the other it created a massive vacuum for China to refocus its own strategy in the region.
Some argue, wrongly I believe, that China’s entire political strategy is predicated on its desire merely to “do business”. While economic dominance is historically the main driver of all superpowers, Beijing’s quest for global supremacy is hardly confined to finance. On many fronts, China has either already taken the lead or is getting there. For example, on 9 March, it signed an agreement with Russia to construct the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Considering Russia’s long legacy in space exploration and China’s recent achievements in the field — including the first-ever spacecraft landing on the South Pole-Aitken Basin area of the moon — both countries are set to take the lead in the resurrected space race.
The US-led Quad meeting was thus neither historic nor a game changer. All indicators attest that China’s global leadership will continue unhindered, a consequential event that is already reordering the world’s geopolitical paradigms which have been in place for over a century.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.