America’s allies are determined to avoid the Meloni Dilemma

(File photo: Jordan News)


The writer is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. ©Syndication Bureau.

So much of this year’s G20 summit in New Delhi was focused on people who weren’t there. With the war in Ukraine on-going, Vladimir Putin chose to skip proceedings. When the summit’s closing joint declaration appeared, it was milquetoast, merely denouncing the use of force for territorial gain, but without specifying any particular nation.اضافة اعلان

Yet the real focus of this year’s G20 was on the other absent leader, Xi Jinping. China’s president had decided at the last minute to skip the summit, without explanation – the first time he has missed the forum.

Even if he wasn’t there, the ghost of Beijing hovered over the event. The G20 was marked by the bloc proposing a new plan to rival China’s 10-year-old Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – and by the sight of Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni trying to wriggle out of her country’s involvement in the Chinese scheme.

Western countries signaled their intent to create a new passage to India, and Italy was forced to choose a side. But those countries beyond Europe are determined to avoid the dilemma faced by Meloni.

The G20’s new initiative is part of a plan that has been kicking around for some years. Originally announced two years ago as the “Build Back Better World” plan, President Joe Biden explicitly linked it to China’s BRI, which finances bridges, roads and rail infrastructure in developing countries to link trade routes together. The new plan, the US president said at the time, would be “much more equitable” – a dig at China’s plan, which has often been criticized for locking countries into significant debt.

Last year, Build Back Better became the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment. At this year’s G20, a new economic corridor was announced, as part of the PGII, which would link India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and, ultimately, the European Union through a combination of rail and sea links.

This creates two rival plans, both linking East and West, both flowing through parts of the Middle East. And Italy was caught in the middle.

Italy is the only G7 and Western country to be part of BRI, and at the G20, Meloni was clearly paving the road to the exit, saying it was more important to maintain a close partnership with China, than the specifics of the BRI.

Four years of being in the BRI has certainly increased bilateral trade, but some Italians grumble it has benefited China more, while also straining relations between Rome and its Western allies.

Meloni’s dilemma is the most stark yet played out in public. But it is a version of a broader dilemma that many of the Asian and Middle Eastern countries involved in the rival plans face. It’s a dilemma that, frankly, some Western countries are determined to push them into. And it is one that almost all are determined to avoid.

The root of the rivalry is not the idea of expanded trade corridors East and West, but the political posture of the countries within it.

The Meloni dilemma also emphasizes an issue that many Western countries are grappling with: whether to treat a rising and more assertive China as a partner or a threat.

This is why the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was so public about his decision to berate the Chinese prime minister at the G20 summit, over the arrest of a researcher in the UK accused of spying for China. Within his own political party, there is a serious debate – schism, even – over how to treat China and how serious the threat is.

Yet before the G20, Sunak sent his foreign minister to China for talks, the argument being that it isn’t credible not to engage with a country that is Britain’s fourth-largest trading partner.

The same applies elsewhere in the West. When French President Emmanuel Macron went to China earlier this year, he was criticized for undermining Western unity by saying that Europe should maintain some “strategic autonomy,” and stay independent from both the US and China.

It is America under Biden that has taken the lead in containing China, seeking to limit Chinese access to Western technology, to limit US investment in high-tech industries in China, and, as Biden’s trip after the G20 to Vietnam demonstrated, to ensure that America’s alliances with countries around China remain strong.

Just as countries in the West are grappling with the dilemma, so too are countries beyond it. Yet most of America’s allies don’t want a confrontational path.

The three non-Western countries at the G20 most involved in the new corridor have no interest in confrontation. On the contrary, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are actively seeking better relations with Beijing. America’s military footprint in the region may be larger, but China is the biggest trading partner of both countries.

India’s relationship with China is more complicated, yet India would never “choose” between its relations with China or America.

America’s preference appears to be that these countries do choose, so that China can be isolated and contained. But the US’ ability to persuade or cajole these countries is limited. The rise of China has been enabled by a perception, perhaps even an environment – not merely in the Middle East, but certainly there – of American retreat. Many of America’s allies have come to the same conclusion that its Middle East allies have: keep the path to the West open, but build bridges to the rising powers of the future.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. X: @FaisalAlYafai

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