(Originally published here on March 14, 2023 in the South China Morning Post.)
Should we laud Beijing for brokering last week’s surprise Saudi-Iran rapprochement or regard it with scepticism? On its face, the diplomatic breakthrough is good.
Any time heavily armed regional rivals reduce tensions, we should expect that region to become more peaceful. Suspicions should be around how committed the two sides are to peace and less about who brought them to the table.
What the China-brokered accord means for US security and influence is another matter. Seen from the perspective of this column, which frequently warns about the danger to democracy posed by the far-right wing of the US Republican Party, we can find another reason to celebrate the development.
That vortex of election denialism, LGBTQ debasement and book ban fetishism – a truly Putinesque mix – is more torqued up than ever about China’s efforts to undermine US interests, as we have seen in a crush of congressional hearings on the subject in recent weeks. This includes the first hearing by the House committee on China, which beat this drum for a prime-time audience.
A central theme in most of the other hearings in Washington has been the extent to which a defeated Russia would be catastrophic for Beijing’s global ambitions. Even the top Asia adviser on former US president Donald Trump’s National Security Council, Matthew Pottinger, drove this point home in an interview with The Washington Post, in which he praised some of US President Joe Biden’s strategy on this front.
With all this in mind, how do right-wing Republicans who have criticised or questioned US aid to Ukraine react to the image of top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a three-way handshake with Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser?
Republican enmity towards Iran has always run deep, while the party has generally accepted Washington’s long-time ties with Saudi Arabia. This was even the case after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Will China’s diplomatic triumph undercut their ability to look past the contempt that Salman has for democracy and human rights? More importantly, how can they ignore the indications that the Biden administration’s warning of an alignment between authoritarian countries – one led by China – isn’t a political scaremongering tactic but an objective reality?
The Republican Party as a whole appears to be taking the US intelligence community more seriously than Trump did when he dismissed their conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 US general election. The only sustained resistance to the intelligence chiefs briefing senators last week about the biggest threats the United States faces was their failure to come to a definitive assessment about the origins of Covid-19.
None questioned the central assessment by Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, who warned that “the next few years are critical as strategic competition with China and Russia intensifies”. While some are still questioning the extent to which Washington should continue supporting Ukraine, direct attacks by the most Trump-aligned Republicans against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are fewer and further between.
Most headlines from last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference centred on how thin the audience was. The event featured the extreme right’s usual blather, including a call for the eradication of “transgenderism” – one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature causes.
Otherwise, though, even those most critical of the war in Ukraine couldn’t bring themselves to assassinate Zelensky’s character. Perhaps it has finally sunk in that their lambasting of a leader who is fighting, and winning, against a foe that is increasingly aligned with China will backfire.
This is also not entirely bad news for Beijing. A Republican Party that acts more like it was under former president Ronald Reagan is a much less erratic adversary.
China wants to bend and rewire the rules, norms and global institutions that have served to maintain global stability into something that accommodates authoritarianism more than it seeks to abandon them, as Trump’s followers in the Republican Party seem wont to do.
None of this is to suggest that Beijing should stop its efforts to broker genuine peace anywhere in the world. China could start by securing a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.