A question of reviewing traditional relations - GulfToday

A question of reviewing traditional relations

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Mohammed Bin Salman meets Xi Jinping in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reuters

Mohammed Bin Salman meets Xi Jinping in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reuters

Last week’s triple summits with China in Riyadh reinforced Arab unity and proclaimed Arab support for a multipolar world rather than the unipolar model exploited by the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, the US has adopted the view that countries are either “with us or against us,” as US ex-President George W. Bush put it.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declared the visit of the Chinese delegation headed by President Xi Jinping was “not conducive” to international order and said US President Joe Biden had ordered a review of relations with Saudi Arabia. His administration has already alienated other key global players by waging a proxy war in Ukraine against Russia, imposing punitive sanctions on Iran rather than re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal, and adopting a policy of “containing China” while stepping back from this region.

The administration cannot simply expect other countries to follow its lead in all circumstances but to choose cases which promote their interests as well as those of the US. The importance of multipolarity was demonstrated last week when UAE mediation secured the freeing of US basketball star Britney Griner from imprisonment in Russia in exchange for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout. If the UAE did not have good relations with Russia, this would not have happened. So far, China has focused on economic cooperation and left partners to decide what suits their own interests in foreign affairs. China has good relations with US antagonists Russia and Iran; Saudi Arabia and the UAE cooperate with Russia on oil and pursue commerce with China.

“Beijing does not burden its partners with demands or political expectations and refrains from interfering in their internal affairs,” columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat daily.

While the shift away from US dependence has been taking place gradually, it is significant that it was confirmed at the Saudi, Gulf and Arab summits with China, which has become the main trading partner of Gulf Cooperation Council members, notably the UAE and Saudi Arabia. At the outset of the summits, Xi predicted a “new era” in Chinese-Arab relations.

This “new era” is, however, founded on traditional Arab/Chinese regional policy. For example, China-Arab summit’s final communique reiterated the commitment of both sides to the 2002 Beirut Arab summit’s Saudi-proposed solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict calling for the end of the Israeli occupation of Arab territory conquered in 1967 and the emergence of a Palestinian state.

China’s stand coincided and contrasted with US pressure on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights not to update a list of firms doing business in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This line contradicts the Biden administration’s call on Israel to halt settlement expansion.

As Beijing has built economic relations in this region, China has become the main political competitor of Washington on the world scene.

Xi did not claim that this “new era” involves China and the Arabs alone. This era involves Arab outreach to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — members of BRICS — and other countries seeking to act according to their own interests rather than capitulate to US demands which do not serve Arab interests. BRICS is not a rival of NATO which is a military alliance but of the Group of Seven, an economic bloc made up of the major advanced economies — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the US. The latter has the world’s largest economy and behaves accordingly.

BRICS members have opted for a multipolar world rather than unipolar domination by the US following the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989-91 and the waning of the once influential Non-Aligned Movement. Formed in 2009, BRICS, with a population of 3.23 billion and a combined GDP of $23 trillion, has not, so far, played a starring role in international affairs but has begun to assert itself since the Ukraine war. BRICS has refused to condemn Russia, opposes sanctions and presses for negotiations to end the war. These are the positions adopted by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Following a visit to Rayadh in late October, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa revealed that Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad Bin Salman had expressed the kingdom’s desire to join BRICS. Argentina and Iran already voiced their intention to do so last spring. So far, India has vetoed the admission of new members but could come under pressure to agree.

While European leaders proclaim unity with Biden in the war in Ukraine, they and BRICS and governments from this region and elsewhere must act as a brake on the Biden-NATO juggernaut which is depriving developing countries of grain for bread and fuel, deepening poverty, and boosting global inflation.

Europeans are set to endure rising food and fuel prices as well as serious stress as winter closes in if there are power cuts due to sanctions on Russia. While the distant US is beset by inflation partly due to the war, its population is unlikely to suffer without electricity and fuel for heating. Consequently, Biden is not under pressure to push for an early end to the war.

Politico.com quoted an unidentified US official as saying about Europe: “Things are holding steady for now, but it is a shaky situation.”

It has been made all the more “shaky” by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to resort to nuclear weapons if Russia comes under serious threat from Ukraine. Nuclear fall-out would, of course, be in Europe not the US.

And, if that was not scary enough, hawkish NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last Friday that the Ukraine war could become a “full-fledged war that spreads into a major war between NATO and Russia (involving Europe). We are working every day to avoid that.”

Unfortunately, Biden seems determined to continue arming Ukraine in order to deal the Russian military heavy blows and pile on sanctions to wreck Russia’s economy. This encourages Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak of reclaiming all territory seized by Russia since 2014, including Crimea and the eastern Donbas.

These policies are a recipe for disaster. The only way to end the conflict and avoid post- war political and economic crises is to negotiate on the basis of the “no-victor-no-vanquished” formula. Russia must withdraw to pre-war positions, and Ukraine must renounce its candidacy for NATO membership, which is Russia’s casus belli. While Ukraine has to be rebuilt, this should not beggar Russia as a country and punish its citizens. The West must not repeat the harsh post-World War I treatment of Germany which led to World War II.

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