U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait next week, the Pentagon said on Friday, in a “thank you” tour for allies and troops that helped in the massive U.S.-led airlift from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.
Austin planned to leave on Sunday and meet with regional officials as well as U.S. service members and other government staff.
“Throughout his trip, Secretary Austin will meet with regional partners and thank them for their cooperation with the United States as we evacuated Americans, Afghans and citizens from other nations from Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
The United States’ longest war culminated with a hastily organized airlift that left thousands of U.S.-allied Afghans behind and was punctuated by a suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport that killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans.
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It was one of the largest airlifts in history, evacuating more than 120,000 Americans, Afghans and people of other nationalities.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would travel to Qatar on Sunday to meet with the country’s leaders and thank them for their help during the evacuation.
US Rallying allies
Amidst all chaos in Afghanistan, US allies started projecting their anxieties over the US role in subsiding conflicts and supporting its allies in Southeast Asia and the Far East. US Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit was pre-scheduled but the timing coincided with the events in Afghanistan. She in her speeches reaffirmed the US support to allies like Singapore and Vietnam against China’s wolf warrior diplomacy.
While the trip is reportedly for “thanking” allies in the gulf, it is likely to entail prospects from deeper engagements across a broad spectrum of issues like counter-terrorism and drug trafficking.
The Gulf and Middle east arms exports from the US continue to increase owing to security threats in the region. According to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database: “Saudi Arabia—the world’s largest arms importer—increased its arms imports by 61 per cent and Qatar by 361 per cent. Arms imports by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) fell by 37 per cent, but several planned deliveries of major arms—including 50 F-35 combat aircraft from the USA agreed in 2020—suggest that the UAE will continue to import large volumes of arms.”
The US aims to counter the threat of expanding Chinese-Gulf ties
China has been increasing its footprint in the Gulf in recent years. There is enough evidence that suggests Chinese expansion of trade and arms export to the region since the 1980s. China has bolstered trade ties with Iran in the form of strategic partnerships enhancing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s overall aims in the region are well described in its Arab Papers leak of 2016 where it says: “achieve win-win cooperation, common development, and a better future of the China-Arab strategic and cooperative relations.”
For the US this rings an alarm. While the US would like to focus on the Indo Pacific region to counter China, it can not leave too many loopholes behind for China to fill. China is likely to attract the Gulf states in its own security based institution, The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation given the security trends in South Asia, West Asia and the Middle East.
US Defence Secretary Austin is likely to rally support through defence deals and increased military cooperation.
Via Reuters with inputs from GVS