The (Gradual) Rise of Asia in the Middle East & the Decline of US-led Security Architecture
By Dhruv Shah
Image source: Pixabay
To many, the cathartic sigh of relief brought about by the end of the 2020 has been no surprise. President Trump’s hawkish foreign policy brought the country close to war with Iran on several occasions, while the US’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has caused it to accumulated the highest number of deaths globally. The cautious optimism people may have had beginning 2021, with the announcement of vaccine efforts, was shattered by the series of growing calls of election fraud which culminated in supporters of President Trump storming Capitol Hill – to much of the world’s shock. With countries questioning the strength of US democracy and its capabilities to lead the world globally as well as regionally, Asian countries are likely to step up as leaders.
In no other region is this clearer than the Middle East, where the waning of US power has been a long time coming. This receding influence is being reinforced by the gradually increasing ties between Arab and Asian countries. Asian countries have increasingly focused their attention on the Middle East region through growing and substantive ties. This pivot is underpinned by energy trade, investment, and migration. While these ties remain primarily economic, Asian countries have also made a conscious effort to increase their defence and security relations. As the two regions develop their relations, the United States’ regional position is likely to be progressively threatened as Asian countries seize the new opportunities in the region.
Asia’s orientation towards the Middle East has been slowly materialising for a number of years. Energy acts as a crucial pillar of Gulf-Asian relations, with the Gulf countries shipping over half of their crude oil and gas exports to Asian markets. China has entered as a key player in the region economically, using its Belt and Road initiative to aggressively invest in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the largest recipients of Chinese credit. In the last year capital flows to Saudi Arabia have risen by a further 7% to $4.6bn. Other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have begun investing heavily in construction and finance. For example, the South Korean, Exim Bank, has invested 5% of its portfolio into the Gulf.
With the Middle East weighed down by civil wars and regional tensions, the area has become increasingly contested as countries fight to build influence. In recent years, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran began geopolitical manoeuvres undermining the region’s stability – the effects of which are visible in states like Syria and Yemen. At the same time, the administrations of Obama and Trump have made it clear in the past that disengaging from the region was necessary, signalling their intention to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq. However, as critics point out, disengagement may lead to a power vacuum if done too quickly. Middle Eastern countries who rely on protection and assistance are worried, as they watch the US security architecture built so meticulously over time crumble. with the US led security architecture faltering of this very point. To remedy this, many countries are beginning to look East, not West.
For Asian countries, the growing economic ties have become a platform from which to undertake stronger security ties, albeit at a much slower pace in comparison. Asian countries will be careful not to antagonise the US, who currently remains the region’s undisputed hegemon. Regardless, Donald Trump has accelerated this process through his criticism of America’s security umbrella, bluntly describing Asia’s reliance on US security as ‘free riding’ , along with expectations that countries must contribute more to security. Undoubtedly, many countries are starting to reconsider their dependency on US security in the region.
China has already established comprehensive strategic partnerships with several Middle Eastern countries, expecting full cooperation and development in regional and international affairs. This has directly translated to joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman, with both Iran and Russia. India have similarly signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with the UAE in 2017, and announced the Strategic Partnership Council with Saudi Arabia. Additional developments include the 2019 US-led international coalition to protect oil shipping in the region, made up of Asian countries like India, Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile, at the height of tensions between Iran and the US, both Japan and Pakistan forayed into the dispute and attempted to act as mediators. With Asian countries willing to influence and take responsibility for security issues within the region, the future of the eminent United States’ security architecture is diminishing.
But how likely is an alternative security network led by Asia? While there is a likelihood of this occurring, this possibility exists mainly in the long-term. It is highly unlikely that the United States will completely withdraw its leadership on security matters in the Middle East, despite setbacks. Fears of a China-dominated region have spurred other Asian countries into action to counter it. India, who considers the region as an extension to its strategic neighbourhood, has engaged Gulf states in a bid to curtail Chinese influence. On the flip side, the growing rivalry between China and the US will mean that Japan, South Korea, and India will have to manoeuvre foreign policy very carefully and think twice before choosing sides in their competition. The US still has some sway with Middle Eastern countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and under President Biden, can still reverse the tide of declining US power by promoting the image of a responsible great power.
The future of the Middle East has remained a complicated and topical question to many. With the advent of a new year, it makes sense to contemplate this question. Considering that Asia contains the world’s fastest growing economies, coinciding with the declining power of the United States on a global scale, Asia is set to lead the region on matters of economics and security in the long term. However, this trend is not concrete and will only happen gradually. Trust deficits between major Asian players are likely to hamper any future prospects of a united Asian security architecture. However, for the United States this might not be a terrible outcome to be feared. Asian led security offers the US a dignified exit strategy from the region which is in line with an ‘America First’ policy. Regardless of the eventual outcome, what is for certain is that the securing the future of the Middle East remains a multifaceted and complex endeavour.