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Hilal English

The Varying Regional Penchants

September 2023

The ceasefire in Yemen, the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, the resumption of ties by the Arab countries with Syria, and growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region are significant changing trends after decades of Cold War. These are expected to bring further political fluxes which may resonate beyond the regional sphere of activities.


In the first half of 2023, some interesting developments in Pakistan's western neighborhood again brought the world's attention to this region. The ceasefire in Yemen, the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, the resumption of ties by the Arab countries with Syria, and growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region are significant changing trends after decades of Cold War. These are expected to bring further political fluxes which may resonate beyond the regional sphere of activities.
The world is once again at the cusp of big powers tussle as China has become a potential contender to the USA due to its economic rise at an unexpected pace. The world witnesses a tussle between the incumbent and rising powers to take on the front seat. In its bid, the USA devised the Indo-Pacific strategy; the main concept behind this strategic framework is to form small groups of like-minded nations and put up resistance to China’s advance. China responded to this strategy with its concept of collective security through Global Security Initiative (GSI). To equate China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the USA offered Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). It has essentially been a game of quid pro quo between the two. 
Above notwithstanding, China surprised the world with its diplomatic maneuver when it succeeded in the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, a stroke that China played successfully and quite discreetly. The severed relations between the two countries since the year 2016 have now been repaired with the resumption of diplomatic ties. This rapprochement has opened a new vista for the regional countries to address inter-state political issues via mediation by China. It has added to China’s credibility as a dependable political actor. As expected, this move has been downplayed by China’s adversaries as a temporary reunion.
Interestingly, when President Biden attended the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in 2022, he was vociferous about not walking away and leaving a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran. However, it is a fact that during the last few months, the KSA has improved its relations with China, Russia, and Iran. Soon after this rapprochement, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken visited KSA in June 2023 to discuss matters of mutual interest, which could be easily discerned as it was Blinken who had earlier remarked that China had the intent and capability to challenge free, open, secure and prosperous international order. 
China’s political ingress into the region is noteworthy. Last year, the KSA hosted Chinese President Xi for bilateral talks and China-GCC and China-Arab summits. It worked more penetratingly than expected. China amazed the world when the long-time rivals, the KSA and Iran shook hands. It was significant also because, at the same time, the U.S. was tightening the noose around Iran on renewing the nuclear deal. 
The UAE, another important regional country, also maintained good ties with China and improved relations with France, which is also upset with the U.S. on a nuclear submarine deal with Australia under the ambit of AUKUS. It also engaged Iran, Russia, and India. China's outreach to the region continues as it hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing in June 2023, where President Xi offered his services for peace talks between Palestine and Israel. He supported the creation of an independent Palestinian state based on the year 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Given the Chinese diplomatic skills proven in the KSA-Iran case, the world can hope for the settlement of an age-old issue in the Middle East. 
When the Russia-Ukraine war commenced, the KSA and other regional countries continued their good relations with Russia. The trade between China and the Middle East between 2000-2021 grew from USD 15.3bn to USD 284.3bn, while with the USA, it saw a modest increase from USD 63.4bn to USD 98.4bn. The power of economics has thus emboldened the traditional allies of the USA to reach out to the rising giant of the East. 
In an interesting development, on June 3, 2023, Iran announced a proposal for a regional maritime alliance that included Iran, the KSA, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, and India. The purpose of the alliance is to ensure regional security. Iran has always been averse to any foreign presence in regional waters in the name of security. Post-1979 Revolution in Iran, the U.S. formed a Quick Reaction Force to patrol the Persian Gulf, which ultimately acted against Iraqi forces in the 90s decade. Iran has always objected to such presence. Now that its relations with the regional countries are becoming normal and there are signs that the region is flouting the U.S. impediments, Iran considers it the right time to manifest its intention. During his visit to Iran on June 17, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan endorsed the idea by highlighting the importance of cooperation between the two countries, especially maritime security. The fate of such an alliance is still unclear, yet the regional states have coined the idea, which can be worked upon. Earlier, Mr. Alireza Enayati, the newly appointed Iranian envoy to KSA, projected regional stability based on cooperation and development rather than militarization.
The U.S. articulated an Indo-Pacific strategy two years ago and formed new regional alliances. The Indo-Pacific region has more than 65 percent of the GDP, while half of the global trade passes through this area. Considering its strategic importance in economy and politics, it was conceived that the democracies in the region had shared economic and political stakes. Hence the Indian and Pacific Oceans should be treated as one large domain, and freedom of navigation at sea should be secured by all. It's a veiled hint toward declaring China as a common adversary. Alliances such as QUAD, AUKUS, and I2U2 came into being due to this philosophy. Not much headway could be achieved via this path of military confrontation with China, yet another alliance of four countries, including the USA, Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, was formed in June 2023. Just to stir more credibility to the Indo-Pacific philosophy, an economic prong with the name of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) was launched in the year 2022 by the USA. The countries included in this arrangement were Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Through an adroit economic strategy, China is forging ahead and creating space for its acceptability and reliability in different regions of the world. 


The writer is a freelance columnist and currently working at the Institute of Regional Studies.
E-mail: [email protected]