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Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022

How Biden Can Reverse China’s Gains in Saudi Arabia

How Biden Can Reverse China’s Gains in Saudi Arabia

Preventing growing Chinese influence in the Middle East is more important than making Riyadh a pariah.
When U.S. President Joe Biden visits Saudi Arabia next week, China should be on his mind. His agenda will, of course, include other important matters: recent Saudi commitments to increase oil production, a cease-fire with the Houthis in Yemen, and progress in Saudi normalization with Israel. But the president should also use this trip to argue that deeper ties with China are not in the kingdom’s long-term interest and to show that the United States wants to return to its traditional position as Saudi Arabia’s partner of choice.

The goal is not to block the Saudi-Chinese oil trade. Biden’s aim should be to strive to reverse the two countries’ emerging strategic relationship.

China is Saudi Arabia’s most important crude oil customer. Beijing buys about a quarter of Saudi oil exports, more than three times the U.S. share. The kingdom was the largest source of China’s oil imports in 2021, though this year it has been supplanted by Russian oil exporters seeking markets unaffected by the West’s sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine. This bilateral trade is fundamental to both countries’ economies and does not, in and of itself, harm U.S. interests.

The United States can, however, seek to stop the blossoming of a broader Chinese-Saudi strategic partnership. China’s arms transfers to Saudi Arabia increased by 386 percent in 2016-2020 relative to 2011-2015. The growth can mostly be accounted for by Chinese sales of armed drones, which the Saudis have not been able to purchase from U.S. suppliers. Saudi Arabia bought Chinese Wing Loong II drones in 2017, and the two countries inked a joint venture deal to design and construct drones in Saudi Arabia in March of this year.

Though the Saudis still rely mostly on manned aircraft provided by the United States and Europe, their plans to produce up to 300 Wing Loong unmanned aerial vehicles suggest more drone use in the future. Significant progress in manufacturing those drones could permanently shut the door to U.S. drone sales to Saudi Arabia, especially given the similarities between the Wing Loong and the U.S.-made MQ-9 Reaper.

The United States is still the predominant arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, but such deals with China suggest that the Americans, who have been signaling a desire to play a smaller role in the Middle East, may someday soon be displaced by China as the major outside influence on the region.

Facing daily threats from Iran and its proxies, the Saudis need a reliable source of arms to deter those enemies and, failing that, to defend against them. If China becomes the Saudis’ primary weapons supplier, Beijing could one day pressure Riyadh to cut off oil exports to Europe and the United States in the event of a U.S.-China conflict. That would debilitate allied unity and U.S. warfighting capabilities.

The de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, does not trust Biden, who pledged as a candidate to make the kingdom a “pariah” and, early in his presidency, publicized a report implicating the crown prince in the murder of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. When the two meet next month, Biden will want to persuade Mohammed bin Salman—who is 43 years his junior—that staying in the U.S. security orbit is the right move for Saudi Arabia, not just now but for decades to come.

How can Biden do this?

First, he should publicly recommit the United States to Saudi Arabia’s security interests, including through weapons sales. China is helping the Saudis domestically manufacture ballistic missiles, and Washington has an interest in preventing those weapons’ proliferation. U.S. defense officials should determine what types of weapons Biden could offer to sell the Saudis that would displace their desire for China’s missile know-how.

Biden does not have the leverage to issue an ultimatum on Chinese missiles, but it has been proposed that he condition his support for U.S.-led integrated air and missile defense systems on the Saudis’ freezing their domestic missile development. Even if Biden comes bearing a carrot and not a stick, Riyadh might still hesitate to trust him, given anti-Saudi sentiment within the president’s political base and threats from members of Congress to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Biden could mitigate that concern by speaking to the American public about the importance of engaging the Saudis at this time. Oil prices are high, the Iran nuclear negotiations are collapsing, and there are prospects for further improvements in ties between Israel and America’s traditional Arab friends. The president could also endorse a new bill requiring the Pentagon to develop an integrated air defense system for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and eight other Arab countries.

Second, it would be useful to explain the China challenge in terms that will register in Riyadh. After all, China is helping Iran, which poses a deadly threat to the Saudis. In recent years, China has become Iran’s economic partner of choice. Chinese oil purchases defied the U.S. “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Tehran.

Last year, China pledged $400 billion in energy and infrastructure investment in Iran over 25 years. And the two countries are growing their security partnership; Iran, China, and Russia conducted joint naval drills in January. Biden could provide the Saudi crown prince with U.S. intelligence assessments of Chinese-Iranian economic and security cooperation and how those links could harm Riyadh in the long run.

Chinese support of Iranian aggression is a clear threat to Saudi interests, but Mohammed bin Salman appears to have calculated that the benefits of China’s military assistance outweigh the costs for now. Biden should be looking for a way to change that calculus.

Third, Biden will have to balance U.S. strategic interests with justified human rights concerns about Saudi Arabia. The American people rightly care about human rights. But government leaders have to balance competing principles. When meeting the crown prince, Biden can advance human rights by discussing cases of activists being oppressed in the country, while also using the occasion to set aside his campaign pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah.”

That “pariah” policy is not tenable given strategic realities, nor is it effective in promoting human rights. China markets partnerships with nondemocratic countries through promises of “non-interference in internal affairs.” Pushing Saudi Arabia into a strategic embrace of China—which is committing a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and seeks their extradition from Saudi Arabia—does not serve U.S. interests, nor the human rights interests of Saudi citizens or residents, nor the interests of the Uyghurs.

Saudi Arabia has been making public overtures to China, but many are reversible. This January, the Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, pledged to deepen his country’s military relationship with China. The Saudi foreign minister led a delegation from Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the Gulf Cooperation Council to Beijing. The Saudi and Chinese foreign ministers met in Pakistan in March, and around the same time, it was reported that Saudi Arabia is considering denominating its oil trade in yuan—a threat to U.S. dollar dominance.

Chinese readouts of these meetings have emphasized progress toward a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council. None of this has yet produced public announcement of any major deals, but the talk can be expected to produce action if American officials fail to repair U.S. strategic ties with Saudi Arabia.

Biden can start repairing those ties on this trip, before a possible visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia. (The Saudis reportedly invited Xi in March, but his trip to Hong Kong last month was the first time he left mainland China since the outbreak of COVID-19.) U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently laid groundwork for a reset, stating that the president plans on “preserving” the Saudi relationship, “because it also helps us accomplish many important things.”

While the United States and Saudi Arabia have had their disputes—mainly over the oil embargo in the 1970s, the export of radical Islamist ideology in the 2000s, and, most recently, the killing of Khashoggi—improving their relationship would now greatly benefit both countries. China makes the argument that the United States is no longer a reliable strategic partner. Biden’s task is to show Saudi Arabia why the United States’ influence in its region is far preferable to China’s.

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