Edited by Sam Thielman
BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, Xi Jinping may already be in Saudi Arabia. Xi is holding his first bilateral and regional summits since the Trump and Biden administrations redefined U.S.-China geopolitics as a "Great Power Competition." They'll be closely watched, since China, the Saudis and the other Gulf states are expected to sign what Reuters calls "dozens of agreements…on energy and investments." Citing experts, the Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post frames Xi's trip as "a 'milestone' for China’s relationship with the Middle East." Inevitably, the visit will test how economically competitive the U.S. is in a region it has treated as a battlefield for twenty years.
Not quite three weeks ago, senior U.S. officials appeared at a security conference in Manama, Bahrain, alongside their counterparts from the Mideast and elsewhere. There they laid out a pitch for the preservation of the post-World War II security-for-cheap oil status quo. Only now, as the Great Powers Compete, the U.S. told the Gulfie and Israeli notables assembled that they expected limits to be set on the region's ties to China. They defined those limits in terms of interoperability: It doesn't make sense to buy the latest Macbook when the security and economic networks the U.S. set up in the region run on Windows.
This year's Manama conference was awkward. (Not that I attended. I caught up on all this later.) In October, OPEC decreased oil production, defying President Biden's entreaty for a production bump that would lower gas prices, help the Democrats in the midterm elections and hurt Russian oil revenues post-Ukraine invasion. The year before, the U.S. prevailed upon the United Arab Emirates to cancel planned Chinese access to an Emirati port, all while China is a major trade partner of the Gulfies and presently Saudi Arabia's largest trade partner. I would contend that the Biden administration's foreign policy is defined by waging two Cold Wars at the same damn time. Manama displayed the pressures, and the fissures, of both those Cold Wars. Xi's trip undoubtedly seeks to exploit such vulnerabilities.
Representing the U.S. were Brett McGurk, the National Security Council's Mideast czar; Colin Kahl, the top Pentagon official for policy; and Gen. Erik Kurilla, who earlier this year took charge of the military's Central Command (CENTCOM). All have been fixtures of American power in the Middle East throughout the War on Terror. While the War on Terror was decidedly not their focus, they underscored, as Biden officials did this time last year, that the U.S. military intends to stay in the Middle East, including in eastern Syria as a hedge against the resurgence of the so-called Islamic State. Kahl observed that even after the Afghanistan withdrawal and the transition of the Iraq mission to a residual force (my terms, not his), the U.S. maintains 35,000 troops in the Middle East. This is what you emphasize to a foreign audience ostensibly worried about U.S. departure, rather than a domestic audience that wants the boys to come home.
Kahl's remarks might be the most important of the three. His tone was occasionally hectoring. "This region has a stake in what happens in Ukraine, and this region needs to do more," Kahl said, vocalizing the frustration Biden officials feel with Saudi Arabia not helping the U.S. leverage the global oil market against the Russian invasion. Kahl described the stake the region has in Ukraine as one in which autocrats don't decide to smash their neighbors. It was an interesting argument to present to a room full of functionaries for autocrats, many of whom, materially supported by the U.S., have spent seven years smashing Yemen.
Beyond Kahl’s hectoring was his affirmative proposal, which I'll paraphrase. The Abraham Accords have brought the surreptitious anti-Iran coalition—Israel, the Gulf States and the United States—out of the shadows and into formal cooperation, which is to say a super-charged weapons market. Kahl told the Manama conference not to turn back now. With CENTCOM as the hub, Kahl and his colleagues described an advancing "integration" of security architecture across and among national militaries (and intelligence services) aligned with Washington. Kurilla, a veteran special-operations officer, outlined an emergent sensor capability, backed by potent artificial intelligence, for detecting Iranian maritime threats to commercial shipping that conventional radar, sonar and intelligence analysis won't pick up. He also previewed a new project within CENTCOM's experimental Task Force 99: a "system of aerial drones with tailored payloads and other capabilities," i.e., weaponizing small drones.
Here the Biden team sounded like weapons pitchmen. Sure, the Gulfies or the Israelis might purchase some Chinese artillery or partner with the Chinese on machine learning. (Russia, Kahl pointed out, has miscalculated so catastrophically in Ukraine that it will likely spend the next decade rebuilding its military rather than expanding its share of the arms export market.) But they won't be able to integrate that stuff into the security architecture the U.S. has already established in the Mideast. Reliance on competitor products (China, primarily) will be a disadvantage in a security environment like the one CENTCOM's Kurilla promised, even if the quality of any particular piece of hardware can advance to match what the U.S. arms industry produces.
"You could have a great, shiny piece of kit—an air defense system, a 4th or 5th generation aircraft. It doesn't mean that much if it can't communicate, if it can't integrate, not only with the stuff you already have, but with your neighbors," Kahl offered. "No other competitor of the United States can do that, and that's just an objective fact, and that's not going to change anytime soon, because China neither has the capability nor, as I said, the intention of playing that role."
IN ESSENCE, the U.S. is taking a walled garden approach to regional security. Within the logic of Great Power Competition (which I, personally, do not subscribe to), it's an advantageous strategy that leverages the major military advantage the United States currently enjoys: its unrivaled network of alliances, measured in bases, ports and intelligence access, around the world. Kahl defined the U.S. posture in its Great-Power-Competition era as a "coalition of coalitions," something that both suits Biden's longstanding multilateralism and maneuvers competition onto terrain where China, currently, is woefully outmatched.
That locks U.S. military clients into long-term security arrangements, boxing out China as Beijing seeks to project power commensurate with its global economic strength. Kahl pitched all that as a virtue. China, to say nothing of Russia, seeks "transactional" relationships, while the U.S. is trying to put a ring on it. "Turning to Beijing or Moscow for help with Tehran is a fool's errand, they're allied with Iran. … It's less likely to work with Russia now than at any time in the past," Kahl noted, referencing Russia's newfound reliance on Iranian drones as its military shits the bed in Ukraine.
But questioners pressed Kahl and McGurk on the implications of this coalition-of-coalitions walled-garden security arrangement. Can you be neutral? Can a Gulf country (or Israel) opt out of Great Power Competition? Will the U.S. view any given country's ties with China, or Russia, as signs that it's opting out of what America calls its "rules-based international order"?
"A lot of it depends on what the term 'neutrals' mean. Can countries have relations with other countries? Of course," Kahl replied. But the United States will set limits on what those relations can be. McGurk used similar formulations in his own talk, but Kahl got into it with more precision, so I'm going to quote him at length a bit:
At a certain point, across a certain threshold, if our closest allies and partners cooperate too deeply with China on the security side, it'll create security risks for us. Getting into certain networks that create real cybervulnerabilities and risks for us. Infrastructure that generates real intelligence risks for us, and networks that touch our military networks that create real risk for us, or a presence in certain countries that allow surveillance of our forces and what we're doing in ways that presents a threat to us. So there should be no illusion that across some threshold, raising the ceiling too much with Beijing will lower the ceiling with the United States. Not for punitive reasons, not because we're vindictive or frustrated or mad or anything, but because of our self-interest.
Don't put in the newspaper that America got vindictive or frustrated or mad! It would only punish a client, which is of course free to set its own foreign policy, out of self-interest!
But even if Israel and the Gulfies were to accept the U.S.' distinction—security partnership can only happen with the U.S., while economic or diplomatic partnership with U.S. competitors is fine—it's a line that blurs in practice.
To give one longstanding example, the U.S. doesn't want Saudi Arabia to work with Huawei on 5G technology because of concerns that Huawei is a security adjunct of Chinese intelligence. (You're not supposed to bring the NSA's internet surveillance dominance, or its history of sub rosa partnerships with American tech and telecom companies, into this conversation, apparently.) But the Saudis are going forward with it. I see from Jordan Schneider's ChinaTalk newsletter that Chinese think tanks view Biden's wave of economic decoupling from China as the U.S. "securitizing" its trade and industrial policies. ("Technology collaboration, investment, and industrial chains, which were once encouraged on the basis of market principles, are now progressively being subjected to securitization," according to Fudan University's Wu Xinbo.)
And the U.S. blurs this distinction itself, by viewing Chinese foreign-port access—and again, this is understandable considering the U.S.' own history in both the Mideast and Asia—as a military issue. Kahl, in what I took to be a reference to the UAE port where Washington last year nixed Chinese access, articulated U.S. concerns that China's Belt and Road foreign infrastructure initiative takes a commercial port and "ten years from now, 15 years from now, morphs [the port] into a base."
Xi's trip to the Middle East isn't going to instantly unwind decades of U.S. security and economic primacy in the region. But it displays the downside for a regnant hegemonic power declaring global affairs as a field of great-power competition. The client states get to comparison-shop for patronage. They get to play the aspirant hegemons against one another. Kahl's message to U.S. clients was plain: "Don't Hedge," as Axios' Barak Ravid wrote a few weeks ago.
In envoys like Xi's over the coming years, we'll learn how competitive the U.S. actually is as a great power. We'll also learn whether the U.S. is really speaking the language of great-power compulsion—the lingua franca of Cold Wars.
CORRECTION: Oops, I accidentally wrote that Biden wanted OPEC to cut production when, of course, he wanted a production boost to bring prices down. That error isn’t Sam’s fault, it’s mine. Still, you guys pretty much all recognized that we had reversed the dynamic by accident and rolled with it, so, thanks for that. Thanks especially to Andrew MacDowell for pointing out my goof-up.