The Biden Administration Contemplates a New Pivot to Asia

Is the pivot to Asia for real this time?

That is one of the key questions Washington policy analysts, pundits, and diplomats are asking themselves as President Joe Biden’s foreign policy and his team take shape. Harking back to President Barack Obama’s well-intentioned but incomplete “pivot to Asia” (or the “rebalance to Asia and the Pacific,” as his administration officially called it), today’s version is being discussed by key Biden advisors as a necessary repositioning to reflect the economic interests of the United States in Asia, the rising challenge of China, and the waning importance of the Middle East. Biden insisted during the campaign that “the United States does need to get tough with China” and recently acknowledged that Washington and Beijing are locked in a “long-term strategic competition” that will require reprioritizing US foreign policy goals.

But the potential shift raises a number of questions, among them whether the proposed rebalance will be more strategic and focused this time, and how it will affect the United States’ relations with key allies and partners in the region as well as its ongoing confrontation with Iran.

Above all, will the pivot toward Asia amount to nothing more than a fool’s errand, with the United States doomed by circumstances and unfinished business to return in force to the Middle East, a region it hoped to leave in the rear view mirror?

A New Direction

The Biden Administration entered office signaling a new foreign policy approach regarding the Middle East and Asia in a variety of subtle ways.

White House press Secretary Jen Psaki, while not addressing the issue directly, told reporters on January 25 that “Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity, and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach.” Incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is naming a National Security Council staff that is notably heavy on Asia experts, including Kurt Campbell, veteran of the Obama Administration’s Asia team, who has been tapped as coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs. As a key architect of Obama’s original pivot to Asia, Campbell will lead the White House strategy toward China and help rebuild relationships with key US allies in the region. At the same time, the NSC directorate responsible for the Middle East is reportedly being downsized. The new president himself signaled where his priorities lie with his choice of initial phone calls to foreign leaders. President Biden started by touching base with close allies—including South Korea, Japan, and Australia—as well as Xi Jinping of China and Narendra Modi of India. Only on February 17, almost a month after his inauguration, did the president call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden is not reported to have spoken with any other leader in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Some foreign policy analysts have admired the pivoting to Asia, describing it as a more accurate reflection of strategic priorities as well as the waning appetite in Washington to commit more time and attention to the Middle East.

Some foreign policy analysts have admired the new approach, describing it as a more accurate reflection of strategic priorities as well as the waning appetite in Washington to commit more time and attention to the Middle East after years of overextension and neglect of more important priorities. Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution argued recently that “the reality … of reduced priority, diminished interests, and resulting diminished influence” for the United States in the Middle East is more of a blessing than a curse, pointing the way out of the Middle East “purgatory” of entrenched conflicts and policy stasis that have pinned down Washington without a clear path “to move the region in a better direction.”

What Does This Mean for the Middle East? 

As Sullivan and former Biden advisor Daniel Benaim wrote in Foreign Affairs in May 2020, the United States should adopt an approach that is “simultaneously less ambitious and more ambitious than traditional U.S. statecraft in the Middle East: less ambitious in terms of the military …. but more ambitious in using U.S. leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.” Both Biden and former President Donald Trump shared the view that America should wind down its “endless wars,” so a gradual drawdown of troops from the region would come as no surprise. (Any troop reductions under Biden, however, are likely to be more considered, consistent, and strategic than the haphazard and tweet-driven approach of the previous administration.) And, as the NSC restructuring indicates, policy resources—primarily personnel and expertise—would be increasingly devoted to managing China and strengthening US relations with countries of the Indo-Pacific region.

Sullivan and Benaim wrote that the core of the new approach would be a US-driven “regional dialogue on issues of peace and security” designed to tackle some of the region’s most long-standing and vexing problems, paving the way for different streams of regional diplomacy intended to defuse specific sub-regional conflicts. The ongoing conflict in Yemen would be one such issue, potentially involving Saudi-Iran negotiations on de-escalation, prospects for which may be enhanced by the Biden Administration’s recent decision to cut off US support for the Saudi war effort and remove the Iran-supported Houthi rebels from the State Department’s terrorism list. As Sullivan and Benaim conceive it, such negotiations could set the stage for broader talks between Riyadh and Tehran to address other sources of tension. Additional conflicts and rivalries could be addressed through the regional dialogue architecture as well.

Ironically, encouraging normalization between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, as well as midwifing Israeli diplomatic ties with Morocco and Sudan, may prove a major boost to Biden’s would-be pivot to Asia.

Ironically, the Trump Administration’s success in encouraging normalization between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain through the Abraham Accords, as well as midwifing Israeli diplomatic ties with Morocco and Sudan, may prove a major boost to Biden’s would-be pivot to Asia. By opening new avenues of regional cooperation, especially against Iran, the previous administration may have contributed to regional stability and rendered Israel and America’s partners in the Gulf somewhat more trusting of one another, and more willing to undertake joint action against common threats, particularly Iran. Israel’s addition to the CENTCOM area of responsibility in the waning days of the Trump administration will make that cooperation even easier.

If the Pivot Has a Fulcrum, It’s Iran

The key to success in all of this is the ability of the administration to handle the Iran issue deftly—i.e., to direct the nuclear issue toward a diplomatic resolution, which might in turn lead to talks on Iran’s unhelpful behavior in the region. Washington can hope to reduce its military footprint only if the Iran issue comes off the boil.

Biden has stated his intention  to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), but only if Iran first returns to strict compliance with its terms. So far, the Islamic Republic has refused to meet this condition, countering that the United States must make the first move by lifting sanctions reimposed by Trump in 2018 after he withdrew the United States from the deal. Tehran likewise has expressed no interest in negotiating over its regional policies, including support for terrorism, Syria’s Assad regime, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and militia proxies in Iraq.

The Biden Administration has offered to participate in European Union-hosted talks with Iran to discuss the nuclear issue, but the latter has not responded and the whole issue appears frozen for now. But the administration is keenly aware that reaching a modus vivendi with Tehran, including a workable solution to the nuclear problem, is crucial to Biden’s plan to focus more heavily on the Indo-Pacific region. The administration will try to keep its options open by seeking to lower tensions that could touch off a protracted military confrontation, one that could complicate its emerging Asia strategy.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

All the talk of a pivot is likely to make some nations in the Middle East nervous. President Obama’s attempt to rebalance the United States toward the Indo-Pacific region during his first term fueled fears that the United States was abandoning the MENA region, and contributed to his cool relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The Obama Administration’s failure to reach agreement with Iraq on a robust stay-behind troop presence after the 2011 withdrawal of US combat forces, as well as the failure to enforce Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, reinforced the impression of American neglect. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others responded by taking matters into their own hands, energetically pursuing proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, while Middle Eastern autocrats cooperated in cracking down on internal dissent in the wake of the Arab Spring and in fending off halfhearted attempts by Washington to oppose their human rights abuses.

A more concerted rebalance toward Asia might have similar effects. Already rattled by the incoming administration’s assertions that human rights will be a more prominent factor in its regional policy, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states could distance themselves from Washington and seek closer ties with Russia and China. They might exploit any sense that Washington is not paying attention by indulging in the type of policy entrepreneurship that led to the disastrous war in Yemen and the multipronged conflict in Libya. The Gulf states and Israel will be scrutinizing Biden’s Iran policy, and a perception that the United States is selling out their interests could encourage them, separately or in concert, to confront Iran more aggressively in ways that may run afoul of Washington’s interests.

The Gulf states and Israel will be scrutinizing Biden’s Iran policy, and a perception that the United States is selling out their interests could encourage them, separately or in concert, to confront Iran more aggressively in ways that may run afoul of Washington’s interests. 

Others Are Pivoting, Too

On the other hand, a US rebalance toward the Indo-Pacific region may be less disruptive than many might think. A number of countries in the MENA region already have been drawing closer to Asia, economically and diplomatically.

Israel, for one, has been carrying out its own pivot to Asia for years. Israel imports more goods from China ($10.4 billion annually, as of 2018) than from any other country, while China ranks second after the United States as the top importer of Israeli goods, mainly advanced technology. Israel is a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Beijing sees Israel as a small but important part of its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A Chinese company signed an agreement with Israel to take over management of the port of Haifa in 2021 and invest $2 billion to expand its facilities, a deal that raised security concerns for the United States.

A number of Gulf countries have followed suit. The Gulf Arab states have singly and collectively focused on building diplomatic and economic ties to China since the mid-2000s; China is now the largest source of foreign direct investment for the region and a small but significant source of arms. It is also Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner at present, due mainly to China’s purchases of Saudi oil, and the two countries signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2019. Iran and China are also working to finalize a major, multi-billion-dollar trade and security agreement. MENA region countries have been eager to sign BRI-related agreements with Beijing, and five of them, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are slated for major port and infrastructure development under their terms. Trade and political ties between China and the region are likely to continue to follow a strong upward trend.

Middle East to Remain a US Priority

It has become a cliché to claim that the United States cannot quit the Middle East; if it tries to withdraw, the cycle of conflict always pulls it back in. The truth is much more complex. American security and economic commitments ensure that the region will remain important and that the United States will continue to be engaged.

American security and economic commitments ensure that the region will remain important and that the United States will continue to be engaged. 

Talk of a pivot notwithstanding, the reality is that the Middle East, and in particular the Gulf, is a vital strategic interest for the United States. Oil—while not the US economic lifeline it once was—remains important to many key American partners. Economically, the United States exports products worth tens of billions of dollars to the MENA region; even with the coronavirus pandemic driving down exports by 27 percent in 2020, the total still amounted to $45.66 billion. These totals are significant in themselves, but US trade and commercial ties are also important elements of American efforts to promote regional peace and stability.

In addition, the United States retains a vast military apparatus throughout the region, with around 60,000 troops in at least 11 countries stationed in dozens of bases (as of early 2020) supporting American regional security and counterterrorism goals. The largest US facilities, such as Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the massive base network in Kuwait, and the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, not only facilitate long-standing defense relationships (seven countries in the MENA region are designated as major non-NATO allies), but they are also important symbols of commitment that undergird broader bilateral political relationships between host nations and the United States.

These economic and military relationships will remain critical, in no small part because the region is likely to become an ever more important arena in the US-China strategic competition. With the growth of political and economic ties between China and the Middle East (particularly with the Gulf states, Iran, and Israel), China’s expanding interests will face increasing risks as well. Thus, while Beijing may be content to allow Washington to play the role of regional security hegemon for now, in years to come China may find it necessary to expand its own military role in the region. Indeed, pressure—primarily internal—is already increasing on Beijing to do just that. If the  United States wants to rebalance to Asia as part of the “long-term strategic competition” with China, it can only do so by recognizing that the MENA region is a vital part of that competition.

It remains to be seen how soon and how comprehensively the proposed rebalance of US foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific region will be carried out. The Biden Administration has given every indication that it is serious, and repositioning has already begun. But any notion that the Middle East will be substantively downgraded in US foreign policy as a result seems, at least for now, unrealistic.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here

Image credit: Flickr/Trey Ratcliff