shadow

A president, a crown prince, and a tale of two summits

Why We Wrote This

All eyes are on the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. But another summit last week underscores how quickly assumptions about global influence are shifting – and changing the political calculus of many countries.  

Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Li Huaxin, the Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, toured the Great Wall of China in Beijing on Feb. 21.

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Even as the Trump-Kim summit gets under way in Hanoi, a different Asian summit trip, just days earlier, may prove equally portentous.

That trip was made by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Shunned by the West for his role in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he was warmly welcomed in Pakistan, India, and China. He sealed agreements worth around $20 billion in Pakistan and discussed Saudi investments amounting to five times that in India.

It’s evidence of a fundamental shift in world diplomacy: US-European bonds are weakening, and rival powers like Russia and China are increasingly assertive. And that is changing the political calculus for other countries.

The United States still matters, a lot. But Prince Mohammed has found it increasingly difficult to draw Western investment interest. In China, however, there were signs of a deepening partnership. That included China’s readiness to avoid mention of Khashoggi’s murder, reciprocated by the prince's silence on the detention of some million Uyghur Muslims in western China.  Prince Mohammed went home with a deal for more Saudi oil exports and higher expectations for investment. The message: the West’s cold shoulder no long carries the impact it did even a few years ago.

All eyes have been on a high-profile summit in Asia – between US President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. But a different Asian summit trip, just days earlier, could prove every bit as telling a barometer of the current instability, and uncertain future, of world diplomacy.

The man involved in that Asia visit, including stops in Pakistan, India, and finally China, was Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS. And his meetings had a message: that being politically ostracized by the West – in MBS’s case, for the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses – no longer carries the impact it might have had even a few years ago.

It’s the latest sign of a fundamental shift in the world order: a weakening of the post-World War II bond between the US and Western Europe, accompanied by a new assertiveness on the part of rival powers like Russia and most significantly China. The Saudi leader’s excursion into Asia offered a close-up view of how that is altering the political calculus for other countries.

America still matters, a lot. That’s not going to change overnight, if only because it has the world’s largest economy and most powerful military. The Saudis still export oil to the United States, and rely on the US for much of their advanced weaponry and training. Geopolitically, the Trump administration remains a key ally, sharing Saudi Arabia’s laser-like focus on its main regional foe, Iran.

Mr. Trump, almost alone among US politicians, has also deliberately soft-pedaled MBS’s role in Khashoggi’s killing as well as other rights abuses, whether in the war in neighboring Yemen or the imprisonment of women political activists.

At the Group of 20 summit of leading rich and developing nations in Buenos Aires late last year, however, shortly after Khashoggi was murdered, Trump felt the need to skirt a public embrace of MBS. And, crucially, in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, MBS has found it harder to draw Western investment interest in “Vision 2030” – the centerpiece of his expansive and expensive ambitions for a future Saudi Arabia less reliant on oil.

That’s where his recent five-day swing through Asia comes in. Far from being shunned, he was feted at every stop. He sealed economic agreements worth around $20 billion in Pakistan and discussed a range of possible Saudi investments amounting to five times that amount in India.

Still, as potential geopolitical partners, the Pakistanis and Indians have a clear limitation. Both nuclear-armed countries have been rivals for seven decades, since the retreat of the British empire from Asia. Their rivalry suddenly reignited earlier this month, with a cross-border attack in Indian Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary police and was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish e-Mohammad terror group. India hit back Tuesday, striking what it said was a training camp for the group.

MBS’s key stop, however, was his two-day visit to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which very much had the look of a deepening partnership that serves both leaders’ interests. At the G20 summit, Mr. Xi did meet the Saudi crown prince. A statement afterward not only omitted any mention of Khashoggi, it spoke of China’s “strategic, long-term” interest in closer ties and explicitly cited a readiness to back MBS’s vision for “economic diversification.”

On his Asia trip, the crown prince returned the favor. As custodian of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has long positioned itself as a guardian of Muslim interests around the world. But MBS pointedly omitted any public criticism of the widening network of concentration camps in western China, where an estimated million Uyghur Muslims are being held. He was quoted by Chinese television as echoing Beijing’s official line, citing China’s “right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security.”

On a nuts-and-bolts level, MBS’s visit not only sealed arrangements for more Saudi oil exports to China. He made a pitch – to an openly sympathetic Chinese audience – for major Chinese involvement in Vision 2030.

While in Pakistan, he also announced plans for new Saudi investment in the port of Gwadar, a cog in China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project to expand its trade routes and political footprint through Asia and into Africa. Interestingly, the Saudis’ own interest in Gwadar includes concern over the major, Indian-funded expansion of the port of Chabahar – just over the border in Iran.

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