COP26’s unintended consequences: Pushing our allies into China’s hands

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Careful observers of international affairs must remain attentive to the COP26 spectacle in Glasgow. The Biden administration seems fully committed to reorienting America’s Middle East policy along bizarre lines, gifting erstwhile American allies to a bellicose and ambitious China.

The most notable development from the climate summit was China’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

COP26’s central policy proposals necessitate transparent emissions reporting. Naturally, without this transparency, global regulatory frameworks are irrelevant. Saudi Arabia and China both refuse to reveal this data. In the former’s case, emissions statistics would provide insight into Saudi Aramco’s opaque operations, thereby reducing the House of Saud’s control on oil production and pricing. China’s objection is broader: Emissions data would offer a concrete indication of Chinese economic performance, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) most closely guarded state secrets. 

The Evergrande default crisis, the CCP’s attacks on high-technology executives and other wealthy individuals, and Premier Li Keqiang’s recent comments that China’s economy faces “downward pressures” — a euphemism in Party-speak for slowing growth — show that the CCP has no interest in revealing macroeconomic data.

Indeed, economic malaise is the CCP’s greatest fear. China’s young urban professionals already are overwhelmingly bourgeois, forced into a brutal “996” work culture entailing 72-hour work weeks. Two-working-adult no-child relationships are rising, as is the practice of “lying flat” to escape the CCP’s state-capitalist rat-race. Much like legitimate COVID-19 data would demonstrate the CCP’s institutional incompetence and callous brutality, legitimate economic data would contradict the CCP’s insistence that it has guided, and will continue to guide, China to a prosperous future without the uncertainty and instability of market capitalism. 

Sino-Saudi cooperation at COP-26 follows on the heels of two previous events. First, in late August, Russia and Saudi Arabia signed a defense technology agreement. Details are limited, but the deal likely includes helicopters and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Saudi Arabia has sought Chinese defense cooperation for the past half-decade, beginning during the second Libyan civil war; by purchasing Chinese drones, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to counter Turkish UCAVs, which demonstrated their lethality in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Second, it’s reported that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund applied for a “Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor License,” allowing it to buy stocks directly on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Similarly, the UAE’s Royal Strategic Partners recently announced a $2 billion deal with China’s Jinsha Holding for high-technology investment. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both have sought Chinese investment through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia’s increased contact with China and Russia is a direct result of American policy. President Biden, who hopes to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), ended funding for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. His administration publicly released an intelligence assessment that found de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed Bin Salman responsible for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 assassination, embarrassing the long-standing U.S. ally. The administration also avoids discussing the Trump administration’s “Abraham Accords,” the greatest breakthrough in American Middle East policy since the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace agreements, thereby precluding the otherwise likely normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations and the development of a functional anti-Iran alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Nor has President Biden improved the odds of his new Middle East policy remaining intact under a Republican administration. Indeed, he remains in the same bind and seems to employ the same political tactics as his Democratic predecessor. President Obama never seemed to consider seriously making the JCPOA a formal treaty with Senate approval and faced predictable opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress, despite the administration’s denials that the JCPOA was, legally speaking, an “Executive Agreement” subject to presidential discretion. The Paris climate agreement suffered the same fate. In both cases, absent an overwhelming Democratic Senate majority, no president could expect either treaty to be ratified.

Biden’s insistence that the U.S. rejoin the JCPOA, and his administration’s negotiation attempts at COP26, have allowed Iran to articulate the justifiable worry of U.S. defection once again. Like his climate agenda, Biden’s Iran policy will founder in Congress.

A 2024 Republican victory would eliminate a new climate agreement and a revived JCPOA, with predictable criticism from the chattering classes at home and European liberals abroad. 

As the U.S. opens to Iran, China and Russia will continue to solidify their relationship with the Gulf Arabs and Israel, with only minimal damage to their Tehran links, given the mutual recognition that the JCPOA is a tactical spoiler against American pressure, rather than a real rapprochement.

Why then, does Biden pursue a new Iran deal so doggedly? The answer, as COP26 indicates, may lie in climate policy: The Biden administration is caught between the demands of political rationality and the pressures of its own party.

Still, a shadow of realism flits in the corners of Washington’s halls of power: Although Biden proposed cutting the top-line military budget in real terms, his administration has reached a deal with Australia. The AUKUS deal, although flawed by the decades needed for Canberra to receive its first nuclear-powered submarine, makes Australia a full anti-China partner. Biden verbally committed to defending Taiwan, despite the White House’s subsequent walk-back of his statements. And at COP26, Biden criticized China’s climate inaction.

However, the left of his party has quietly but consistently argued that the U.S. should compromise security and human rights considerations for progress on climate issues. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and national security advisor Jake Sullivan have denied this. But by further extricating the U.S. from the Middle East, the Biden administration may be able to add climate issues to the Left’s litany of grievances against America’s most hated allies (i.e., oil-producing Arabian Gulf states) outside of Israel. The Biden administration’s behavior demonstrates a worrying prioritization of abstract climate issues over the concrete realities of international relations.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a U.S. naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy.

Harry Halem, a research associate at Hudson, contributed to this op-ed.

Tags American allies Barack Obama Belt and Road initiative Biden climate policy Biden foreign policy China Climate Summit COP26 Iran Israel Jake Sullivan Jamal Khashoggi Joe Biden John Kerry Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Middle East Policy Mohammed bin Salman Nuclear program of Iran Russia Saudi Arabia UAE United Nations Climate Change Conference

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