Such worries misapprehend how U.S. partners are responding to growing competition between the United States and China. Pushed to choose between the established order led by Washington and the alternative order proffered by Beijing, our partners are instead choosing “all of the above.” By and large, it is neither the United States nor China they see as most threatening, but the competition between them.
States and collaborating closely with Washington on security matters related to Asia via the Quad, has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations and has thrown Moscow an economic lifeline in the form of increased oil purchases. Likewise, Turkey, despite backing Ukraine militarily, has bolstered its economic ties with Russia over the past year through increased trade and tourism.
As frustrating as it may be, there is a method to U.S. partners’ madness. They face a world of tremendous uncertainty. They fret not only over the scope of Russia’s and China’s ambitions, but also about the United States’ own strategy for responding and commitment to its traditional partners.
U.S. officials warn their partners that relationships with Beijing are transactional, and that Beijing is therefore not to be trusted. Many of our partners understand this but fear the same may be true of a United States wrestling with its role in the world. Washington’s ambivalence and China’s ambitions have sparked a hedging impulse among our partners that has upended much conventional wisdom about the world. South Korean officials openly musing about acquiring nuclear weapons and Arab states embracing Israel are two of the most striking examples of the trend.
Riyadh’s decision to look to Beijing as a broker is simply the latest example. Arab officials often speak of Beijing as their primary economic partner and Washington as their preferred security partner. Yet, in reality, economics, politics and security are unavoidably intertwined, and China’s aspirations, unsurprisingly, are not limited to trade. As Beijing’s economic stake in the region has grown, so too has its diplomatic tempo: It has unleashed a fusillade of peace proposals, conferences and envoys on the region even as Washington has scaled back such activities. Riyadh turned to China not only because it has influence with Iran, but because Beijing has positioned itself to seize just this sort of opportunity.
But this does not mean Saudi Arabia is turning toward China or away from the United States. Indeed, even as it looks to China for mediation with Iran, Riyadh appears to be seeking a defense agreement with the United States and mulling a normalization deal with Israel. States that during the Cold War might have chosen to be nonaligned are, in the current iteration of great-power competition, electing instead to be “omni-aligned” — that is, they are opting to participate in the multilateral orders led by both Washington and Beijing rather than choosing between them. It’s an obvious hedging strategy, making them the object of competition between the great powers, while protecting their interests if one or the other draws back.
Our partners’ approach frustrates U.S. officials who like to think of global order in binary terms — democracy versus autocracy, or those upholding the international order versus those undermining it. Washington must adapt to a world skeptical of these formulations and hesitant to get caught in the U.S.-China crossfire.
To this end, Washington should first avoid overreacting to our partners’ dealings with China, lest our protests become background noise. Vigorous objections should be reserved for actions detrimental to U.S. security. Something like the Saudi-Iran normalization should be judged based on the deal’s content and impact, both in the Middle East and Asia. The Chinese role may rankle, but in itself is not central to U.S. interests.
Second, the United States should structure proposals to appeal to partners’ self-interest even as they advance U.S. strategy. So rather than continuing to pitch cosmic divisions of the world, Washington should build and strengthen smaller groupings centered on shared interests, such as the Abraham Accords in the Middle East and the Quad in the Pacific. And rather than only telling partners what business they shouldn’t do with Beijing, Washington must be prepared to propose what business they should consider with the United States. The United States might help Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, to develop the region’s critical mineral industry, which would help both states advance their goals of diversifying their economies. The value of such actions for countering China is obvious even if left unheralded.
* Michael Singh is the managing director and Lane-Swig Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.