US railway plan a mere copycat, hard to win favor from Middle East
Published: May 08, 2023 08:27 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

According to media reports, national security advisors from the US, India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE met in Saudi Arabia on Sunday to discuss a US proposal to link the Middle Eastern nations through a network of railway lines and connect the region to South Asia via sea lanes.

US media outlet Axios, which ran an exclusive report before the talks, said, "The project is one of the key initiatives the White House wants to push in the Middle East as China's influence in the region grows. The Middle East is a key part of China's Belt and Road vision."

Xu Liang, an associate professor at the School of International Relations, Beijing International Studies University, told the Global Times that the US is trying to coordinate its Middle East policy with its South Asia policy, thereby creating a US-style railway plan in the Middle East that is different from China's initiative. 

"This is the revival of the Cold War mentality in the Middle East. The plan is a deliberate containment of China's Belt and Road Initiative," said Xu.

China has been engaging with the Middle East through the Belt and Road Initiative for years. Its peacemaker role in the recent Saudi-Iran detente has been lauded by the international community, countries in the region in particular, and injected momentum of stability to the region. All these trajectories have deeply worried the US.

The idea for the railway project germinated in the I2U2 forum 18 months ago, which includes Israel, India, the US and the UAE. Wen Jing, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University, told the Global Times that I2U2 was relatively quiet since its formation, but after the US saw China's successful mediation in the Saudi-Iran deal, I2U2 is now becoming active with the discussions of the railway plan. "I2U2, together with Quad and AUKUS, constitutes the US' global strategy to contain China," said Wen.  

Ding Long, a professor with the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, believes that the US is saving its declining influence in the region with something it is not good at, which will make the US' rail plan hard to achieve its desired goal.

According to a report released by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2021, the US spent just over half of what was required to support infrastructure, the backbone of the economy. Even former US president Donald Trump once compared the US' crumbling infrastructure to that of a third-world country. US President Joe Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law at the end of 2021, while a Politico article in mid-2022 said the inflation plaguing Biden's presidency was also shrinking what's so far been his crowning legislative achievement, referring to the infrastructure bill.

It is worth mentioning that the victims of the calamitous train derailment accident in East Palestine, Ohio, are still suffering. There were at least 1,164 train derailments across the US last year, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. Here is another startling data: The Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that 54,539 train derailments occurred in the US from 1990 to 2021, an average of 1,704 per year. If there is something that the US could export to the Middle East besides its "democracy" and "freedom," it must be the freedom to derail.

The US, the most powerful country in the world, performs so poorly in terms of railway construction and infrastructure. As it's now trying to woo Middle Eastern nations to establishment a network of railway lines, it is a mere copycat. While connectivity and win-win cooperation are in China's mind when it is promoting infrastructure, what is in the mind of the US is countering its perceived rivals and sustaining its global hegemony.

"In terms of the technology and costs of building railways, no other country in the world than China has the prominent advantage. What the Middle Eastern countries want from the US is not a railway, but security. However, the US did not and could not bring security to the region, but messed up the security situation there. This is the dilemma the US is facing in the Middle East," said Ding.

Now the Middle East is witnessing a strong wave of rapprochement. The reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran under China's mediation presents an alternative vision to the Middle Eastern geopolitical scene. Qatar and Bahrain reestablished diplomatic relations. Egypt and Turkey are also mending ties. Progress is made in Yemen's peace talks. Just on Sunday, the Arab League has brought Syria back into its fold after 12 years. All these show that the US' Middle Eastern allies do not act in accordance with the US' playbook. 

"They care more about their interests, and aren't following US lecturing. As their independence and autonomy is increasing, the Middle Eastern countries will not buy into US tactic of forming small cliques," said Ding.