As the next US president, Joe Biden will come to power with a busy foreign-policy agenda. Iran, China, North Korea and the Paris Agreement on climate change will all be near the top of the in-tray. However these issues are tackled, one of the key guiding principles of a Biden foreign policy will be restoring America’s relationship with its key allies. A Biden administration will seek to improve relationships with allies and lead formal and informal alliance structures with more determination and consistency.
But in the two most strategic regions of the world – the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific area – the US faces a very different environment. In the Indo-Pacific region, a spate of recent diplomacy, treaty signing, announcements and arms deals is helping an informal alliance of US-friendly states coalesce around the idea of resisting China’s assertiveness in the region. Meanwhile in the Middle East, traditional US allies are at loggerheads, often competing for influence and on occasion pursuing proxy wars against each other.
In Asia, the trend recently has been very clear. A group of four states – Australia, India, Japan and the US – has in the last few months taken decisive steps to solidify what had otherwise been a very lackluster proto-alliance. It was in fact on the very same day as the US election, November 3, that the US guided missile destroyer USS John S McCain, Australian frigate HMAS Ballarat, Japanese destroyer JS Onami and Indian submarine INS Sindhuraj sailed in formation in the Bay of Bengal. It was the first time these four nations had participated in a quadrilateral exercise and signified a rapidly developing collaboration between the four.
The exercises formed part of the burgeoning Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad for short), a security-focused group of democratic states led by the US. The development of the Quad is motivated by one key factor: a wariness of China. And it is proving to be one of the more successful US diplomatic policies in the region.
It was not always thus: the Quad in fact had its first meeting in May 2007, but beyond a brief exercise with all four nations and Singapore in September that year, little was achieved before the group fizzled out, as a top-down attempt to gather together a diverse group of nations with differing strategic priorities appeared to fail.
But the Quad has made a comeback in recent years. Aided by gradual, methodical engagement by all four states on a bilateral level, the Quad is now thriving. For example, India began “2+2” meetings (involving its defense and foreign ministers and those of the respective partner country) with Australia in 2017, with the US in 2018 and with Japan in 2019.
While the strengthening of strategic ties between the four countries is facilitating the Quad’s resurgence, the China factor is proving a great motivation for rapid development. New Delhi had always been the most reluctant of participants in the Quad, but after the Sino-Indian border violence in June, India launched headlong into the Quad.
In Asia, therefore, a new Biden administration will come to power with allies moving closer together, joined by the shared strategic fear of a rising China. While the story is not entirely one-sided – as shown by the Duterte administration’s attempts to weaken the Philippines’ military ties to the US and build stronger relations with China – the Quad is a powerful sign of US allies in the region coming together to face a shared perceived threat.
In the Middle East, the US alliance system is in a very different place. Key regional allies, such as Turkey and Egypt, are developing alternative strategic relationships with US rivals such as Russia. Turkey test-fired a missile from a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft defense system in late October, taking the country one step closer to deploying a system that the US has said threatens the country’s relationship with Washington and Nato.
Meanwhile, US allies such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are locked in a competition for influence in various regional theaters, including proxy wars in Libya. Even within the Gulf, the diplomatic embargo between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other has been going on since 2017 with no end in sight yet.
Even as allies in Asia come to see China in a similar light, America’s allies in the Middle East do not see eye-to-eye with policymakers in Washington on the main policy issue in the region: Iran. Turkey and Qatar maintain a much closer relationship to Tehran than other states in the region.
For a new Biden administration, which is seeking to prioritize relationships with traditional allies, the challenges are thus very different in these two regions. In Asia, the administration faces a complex but achievable task: nursing a nascent Quad into life, while corralling a group of close allies who largely share a strategic goal.
In the Middle East, the task is far more daunting. The Biden administration will aim to convince a disparate group of allies that rejoining the Iran nuclear deal and re-engaging with Tehran is in all their interests, while at the same time trying to influence a group of states that have become more used to acting without US leadership.
For all the worthy ideals of rebuilding relationships with allies, in the Middle East it may be difficult to convince states that have become used to a US that is largely detached from regional conflicts such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, that it now has the resolve to act.
Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London and The Hague. Previously he was a senior advisor to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. @c_lemiere