At this time last year, six months after the Biden administration had come to power in the US after four tumultuous years of the former Trump administration, the world was beginning to look forward to a period of reflection and calm in order to reorder world affairs around the inescapable necessity of security and stability for all powers, whether great or small.
Newly elected US President Joe Biden, an old hand in foreign affairs from his Senate days, had promised to favour multilateral diplomacy while working with the US’s traditional allies to rejuvenate the strategic alliance that binds them together. He also signalled a willingness to work with Russia and China. He held a virtual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they both agreed on “Strategic Stability” talks. Similarly, he held a virtual summit with President Xi Jinping of China.
The world was almost on the verge of an extended period of constructive engagement among the leading three great powers. How did one year make such a difference in world affairs?
Let me start with the two back-to-back summits that took place in Germany and Spain in the last week of June. I am referring to the G7 Summit and the NATO Summit. Future historians will probably consider the two together as defining a new era of disorder in world politics, an era that will extend for the next ten years judging by the decade-long plans of the New Strategic Concept for NATO that was adopted at the Madrid Summit on 30 June and covers the strategic priorities and challenges of its member countries for the next ten years.
At both summits, Russia and China were defined as immediate and long-term threats. For the first time since the establishment of NATO in April 1949, the Alliance named China, which incidentally is not covered by the geographical zone that it defends according to its founding charter, as a threat to the security interests and values of the member countries of NATO. The joint communique of the G7 Summit, released on 28 June, called on China to improve its human-rights record and abide by international rules after going over areas of cooperation with Beijing.
The hawkish British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss went a bit further before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British parliament on 28 June when she said that “I want to see the G7 acting as an economic NATO, not just looking at the challenge of Russia, but also at the challenge of China.” She added that “we recognise that China has built up its armed forces. It is more active in the European area, and therefore [we need] to be more actively looking at the threat from China.” She concluded by stressing that this is a “key step forward for NATO in its actions on China.”
This is the same China that had just concluded a very lucrative deal with Airbus, the leading European jet manufacturer, whereby four Chinese carriers, Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, and Shenzhen Airlines, would buy – hold your breath – 292 Airbus A320 jets. Unsurprisingly, Boeing, the main US competitor to Airbus, issued a statement expressing its “disappointment” that what it termed “geopolitical differences” continued to constrain the export of US jets to the world’s second-largest aviation market.
In their New Strategic Concept, the member countries of NATO define Russia as the “most significant and direct threat to Allied security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” It goes without saying that the war in Ukraine has hardened the position of the Alliance towards Russia. However, the targeting of China was more intriguing.
The document adopted at the Madrid NATO Summit states that the “People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values. The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power.”
The NATO countries, according to the New Strategic Concept, “will work together responsibly… to address the systemic challenge posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security and ensure NATO’s enduring ability to guarantee the defence and security of the Allies.” The following paragraph is key to understanding the true essence of the growing confrontation between the US-led NATO and both Russia and China.
It states that the “deepening strategic partnership between the PRC and the Russian Federation, and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order, run counter to our values and interests.”
Given such a formulation, it is no wonder that Moscow and Beijing are left with no choice but to reinforce their strategic alliance on the basis of the five-thousand-word declaration made after the summit between the Russian and Chinese presidents last February in Beijing.
In a move that will certainly raise regional tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand were invited to the NATO Summit in Madrid, a first in the history of the Alliance. Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, said, as quoted in the UK Financial Times last weekend, that the participation of the four Asia-Pacific allies in the summit reflected their leaders’ belief that the security of Europe and that of the Asia-Pacific were “inseparable.”
I am not sure that all member countries in NATO or in the Asia-Pacific region will subscribe to this point of view, which is highly debatable and very risky to long-term security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN Zhang Jun warned that the Asia-Pacific region would face “turmoil and conflict” if NATO extended to the region. He rightly added that NATO’s five successive eastward expansions after the Cold War had failed – and I would add miserably in the light of the war in Ukraine – “to make Europe more secure.” The implication is that NATO’s New Strategic Concept will neither assure security nor stability in either the European theatre or in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the light of the above, the question is whether the Arab countries will continue speaking and acting as the “allies” and “strategic partners” of the US in the years to come. I doubt they have any interest whatsoever in being part of the Western confrontation with Russia and China, whether actively or passively.
Our neutralism in this confrontation should be made clear to the US president when he comes to Saudi Arabia in July to confer with the six leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.