Thanks to the Russian intervention the long sequence of the so-called “Arab springs” has long been interrupted in Syria, but it keeps on expanding elsewhere, considering the many players in the various national “civil societies” that still act within this strategic framework of the Arab springs, which was put in place mainly by the USA and its allies in the Sunni world.
This is undoubtedly the case of the revolt which took place in Jordan early June.
On June 4 last, after the revolt in various cities of the Kingdom and, above all, in Amman, King Abdallah accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki.
Hani Fawzi Mulki, former director of Aqaba’s Special Economic Zone, studied in Egypt and in the USA.
It is also worth noting that Mulki led the team that ratified the 1994 Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel. Later, after holding many important posts, he was appointed Prime Minister on May 29, 2016.
The major issue for Hani al Mulki’s government was above all the huge increase of the Jordanian public debt: after being renegotiated in 2016 during Mulki’s government, the Jordanian national debt was rescued with a package of 732 million dollars – a three-year loan of the International Monetary Fund.
A loan that was apparently supposed to bring the debt / GDP ratio down from 95% to 77% by 2021.
Debts, however, must be repaid and Jordan has been forced to follow the usual strategy: less public spending and increase in prices, especially the administered and regulated ones which obviously have a strong political impact.
It is strange for an expense to magically become a revenue, but it is worth noting that Jordan’s public debt is the sum of the dinar-denominated local debt and the external one, which has always been denominated in foreign currencies.
Even in this case the IMF has made no difference. Therefore, in 2016,Jordan’s public debt rose by 4.9%, but almost all this cost regards foreign currencies and not Jordanian dinars.
The magical debt reduction foreseen by the IMF analysts did not materialize.
Nevertheless, also the dinar-denominated prices and values have obviously borne the brunt.
If we sum both the external and internal debt, we reach 39.5% – the official percentage recorded in late 2016.
According to Jordan’s government statistics, the current public debt / GDP ratio amounts to 95.3% – much higher than the 77% foreseen by Western bankers.
Obviously the austerity program needed to repay the international loan in a short period of time created the conditions for the increase in basic commodities and electricity tariffs while,on June 1, King Abdallah ordered the immediate cessation of price increases.
Hence, if we leave the international financial bodies free to operate according to market rules -which are often manipulated – and in key countries from a strategic viewpoint, there will be no humanitarian or non-humanitarian intervention which can restore the status quo ante or regain a credible strategic hold of the Western Forces.
Hani Mulki’s government, however, had proposed to increase the employment tax between 20 and 40%, while the electricity cost for users has risen by 55% since last February.
Has the strategic universe still supporting the failed Arab spring project targeted Jordan, after having failed in Syria, Egypt and, initially, even in Tunisia?
Is somebody thinking to a long war that – pending Syria’s pacification – moves to Jordan, thus setting fire to the most dangerous area in the Middle East? Let us hope not.
After Mulki, the King of Jordan appointed Omar Al-Razzaz as Head of government.
Who is the new Prime Minister?
He is an economist who studied at Harvard and worked for the World Bank, both in the USA and in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
As former Education Minister, he often opposed free-market policies which destabilize the Third World’s poor masses without producing any acceptable economic result – and he did so when no one was even barely thinking about that.
Moreover, King Abdallah has not yet reaffirmed his support for Muhammad bin Sultan’s new Saudi policies.
Has Saudi Arabia put its invisible hand in Jordan’s destabilization? We cannot rule it out.
But it would be suicidal for the EU and the USA to support Saudi Arabia in this operation.
Saudi Arabia, however, is still key to Jordan’s economic and geopolitical rescuing, although the Jordanian King knows very well that his strategic region is currently ever more complex and multi-faceted and it also includes the Jewish State.
In fact, according to official statistics, Jordan hosts at least 675,000 refugees, probably in addition to further 540,000 unregistered ones.
It is worth recalling that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has a total population of 9.5 million people, of whom 3 million are old migrants or – to put it in the UN jargon – displaced persons while, since 2011, the most recent Syrian crisis alone has cost at least 2.5 billion US dollars to Jordan.
The latest ILO data shows that, in late 2017, Jordan had 2,100,000 Palestinians, 655,900 Syrians and additional 315,000 migrant workers officially registered.
Currently foreign workers are estimated at 950,000 of the total Jordanian population.
The migrants include Egyptians (61.63%), Bangladeshi (15.66%) and Filipinos (5.37%), while the Sri Lankans and the Indians range between 4.72% and 3.65%.
Moreover, the International Donor Conference for supporting Jordan, organized in February 2016, decided that the international community should provide Jordan with 1.7 billion dollars of loans and funds, but only in exchange for the opening of its internal labour market to Syrian migrants and with the further promise of abolishing the tariffs on Jordan’s products to the EU.
The Jordanian economy is currently worth 38 billion a year.
Syria’s clothing industry is mainly functional to the US market, which absorbs about 78% of products, above all thanks to the free-trade agreement reached between the two countries.
In February 2017, however, Jordan raised additional 900 billion foreign funds, including 147 million of World Bank loans, and an additional cash transfer between the USA and Jordan amounting to 300 million – a transaction carried out in December 2016.
It should be reiterated that the basic assumption was that Jordan’s clothing industry, which currently accounts for 20%of the GDP and employs mainly Asians, could provide job opportunities to the large mass of migrants from Syria and work above all for the US market – as already happens nowadays.
Nevertheless 80% of Syrian refugees – 1.3 million currently in Jordan – live in major cities and not in the regions where clothing is produced, while the statutory minimum wage in Jordan is not enough to even cover the minimum subsistence costs throughout the Kingdom.
This data was probably unknown to those who signed the above stated Jordanian Compact in London in February 2016.
Hence currently the positive results for Jordan are probable access to the EU free markets, as well as the above stated three-year loan to the tune of 1.7 billion euro and finally a ten-year exemption from import tariffs within the European Union.
Hence too little to replace Jordan’s Welfare State with private economy, which can survive only thanks to wage compression and to the “goodwill and generosity” of Western importers, who can always buy low value-added goods in Africa, in other Middle East countries, in central Asia or in India.
Hence the criterion of bilateral or multilateral commercial treaties, which is currently the compass for both the US and EU actions, is not at all sufficient to support the peripheral countries’ economic development.
We need a real, fast and significant aid program for Jordan, linked to foreign direct investment.
A program that can quickly be a stopgap solution to the economic and social crises of the now imploded Middle East. The danger of jihadist destabilization, with no way out, is closer than we believe.
As Karl Kraus said, “when the house burns, you can pray or wash the floor, but praying is more practical”.
The peripheral countries should be allowed to enter the world market, not with small commercial tricks and stratagems, which always last from the day until the morning, but with the analysis of every Middle East country’s productive specializations.
It should be recalled, however, that in exchange for funds the Jordanian government had to provide at least 220,000 “job opportunities” for Syrian refugees. Currently the Syrians employed are 39,500.
Jobs are not created, but are self-generated. Otherwise they are more properly called subsidies or unproductive activities disguised as work.
However, confusing the issue of refugees from Syria with the issue of Syria’s economic take-off was a big mistake.
Moreover, the primary economic and political choice made by the Jordanian government was, above all, ensuring new jobs for the refugees in the Special Economic Zones, such as Al Dulayl, north of Amman.
The true economists of the past knew that the labour market elasticity is always limited by its average productivity and the investment share.
In 2017, however, Jordan’s GDP grew less than 3% and currently the GDP growth foreseen by the Jordanian government is less than 2%.
Nevertheless, Jordan must at least double its current growth rate so as to reabsorb – without further political disasters – its internal unemployment which is currently at least 15%.
Hence, what about the economic relationship between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally been essential for the survival of the Hashemite Kingdom?
In 2011, a largely non-bank 5 billion US dollar fund was set up for Jordan by the various Gulf powers, just as the global financial crisis was worsening.
Between 2011 and 2012, Saudi Arabia guaranteed additional 1.4 billion US dollars of cash flow only, as well as further 1.5 billion US dollars of deposits with the Jordanian Central Bank.
During King Salman’s visit to Amman in March 2017, an agreement was also signed regarding 15 bilateral economic transactions between Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which also entails a future agreement for additional 3 billion funds to back Saudi Arabian projects in Jordan.
With specific reference to tourism, which is essential for Jordan’s balance of payments, revenues have fallen by 2-2.5% in recent years.
Currently minimum aid is provided by Saudi Arabia and by the Sunni Gulf powers – and this is precisely the root cause of the Jordanian economic crisis.
Certainly what is at stake is the redesign of the Saudi geopolitical alliances and of the Saudi project known as Vision 2030,within which Prince Muhammad bin Salman plans to create – in the future – an economy no longer depending on the oil financial cycle and oriented to investment where it is more useful, namely in the West.
No more Saudi “free lunch” in the Middle East.
Jordan’s current riots take place in the usual scenario which saw the birth and implementation of the “Arab spring” project.
Increase in the prices of basic commodities, before the outbreak of riots. Later, gradual destruction of the Welfare State to raise money and finally exert control over masses transferred to the jihadists or the Muslim Brotherhood – as happened in Egypt, where the Brotherhood carried out crowd control and provided law enforcement service at Tahrir Square.
Over a longer period of time, the aims are the destruction of the remaining pro-Western middle class, as well as the decline in people’s support for moderate regimes, and finally the breaking of borders.
If this happens in Jordan in the future, Jordan’s crisis will spill over and will inevitably add to the Syrian destabilization, to the Iraqi failed state and to the military tensions on the border between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel. The worst possible scenario.
It is surprising how the international investment banks are free to destabilize in the Greater Middle East.
In Jordan, as elsewhere in the Middle East and in Northern Africa, the old social contract was defined by some scholars as “autocratic exchange”.
The middle class was supported and expanded thanks to the government selective benefits which obviously bought political stability, while the contributions for food and housing -albeit generic – stabilized the poor people and turned them into “subordinate masses”, as Elias Canetti said.
The Public Administration wages, which could be found in every family, were interpreted by the masses as very useful safety nets.
Just at the beginning of this millennium, however, this type of social contract has become financially unsustainable.
Nevertheless what was lost with the freeze of public employment wages and the number of civil servants, or with the end of subsidies to the poor, was not recovered by the private sector.
It was obvious that this happened.
At the beginning of the great crisis of 2000, in a world where the social elevator had ensured very fast upward social mobility, unemployment hit especially young people with good qualifications.
As Isaiah Berlin taught us in his extraordinary book The Soviet Mind, they became the arrogant unemployed people we could find at the beginning of every modern revolution, from the French to the Bolshevik one.
From this viewpoint, Al Qaeda’s sword jihad is the response of the new masses of rootless Arabs at the end of their Welfare State and of the political pact that created and stabilized the Middle East, which had been reshaped and defined in the Cold War and during Nasser-style “national socialism”.
Against this background of slow,but relentless social and economic degeneration, a central role is played by the wasta, i.e. the connections with the power elites, above all of the financial power connected to international “aid”.
Protests in Jordan, however, have now a long-standing tradition.
In 1996 they broke out especially in the poor South of the country against the increase in the price of bread, whereas in 1989 the revolt had been confined to the city of Maan, where King Husseyn managed to hush up and silence the masses, to reform the support network for the poor and to eliminate – as far as possible – the Muslim Brotherhood’s network.
Today, a solution to Jordan’s crisis could be to rebuild contacts with Qatar.
The recent anti-Qatari measures decided by Saudi Arabia and by many of its allies, including Westerners, which also saw Jordan’s partial and lukewarm support, were clearly at the origin of the new tension between Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom.
Hence a way out for King Abdallah could now be new support from Qatar and also a new relationship with Turkey.
There is also the issue of refugees that Jordan cannot keep on its territory. This entails an annual cost of 5.6 billion US dollars of which only one fourth is, in fact, available for Jordan’s finances.
Another safety net for Jordan now comes from Kuwait, with a recent mix of investment, loans and grants.
However, also religion matters in the recent disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The Saudi Prince had asked King Abdallah II not to attend the Istanbul Conference on Jerusalem, but the Jordanian King decided to go anyway, arguing that Jordan is responsible for the city’s Islamic structures, namely the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in addition to all the other Islamic sites in East Jerusalem.
Abdallah’s refusal was immediately followed by the freeze of the latest Saudi funding to Jordan, with a recent 750 million US dollar tranche that was stopped in Riyadh.
In response, Jordan decided to stop the transit of Saudi trucks to its territory – a traffic of around 3,000 vehicles a day, which is vital to Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia stopped the operations of the Saudi military mission on the border with Syria, in the point where the Jordanian forces hit targets in Syria from Jordanian areas.
Therefore, the link between economic crisis, military strategy and redesign of the traditional equilibria in the Middle East results not only from Western indecision, but also from the end of the Arab Welfare State, which will destabilize those societies as never before.
Certainly a EU and possibly US share of fast aid to the Hashemite Kingdom would be a good solution, at least to begin with.
We doubt, however, that Western decision-makers currently understand the link existing between economy and strategy.
A New Era in US-Jordan Relations
King Abdullah of Jordan is the first Arab leader who met American President Joe Biden at the White House. The visit has reaffirmed the strong and long-standing Jordan-US strategic partnership and reinvigorated the bilateral engagement for working together on security issues, and economic development on the basis of shared values and priorities. The King’s visit to Washington reaffirmed Jordan’s value as a reliable ally who plays a critical role for stability in a highly volatile region.
Jordan’s value is multi-dimensional and ranges from bilateral military cooperation, intelligence sharing and joint global counterterrorism operations including as a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve to deployment of almost three thousand (3,000) American troops to Jordan as part of the ongoing campaign to combat regional terrorism. The US has expanded military footprint to Jordan after Washington’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria and reduce military presence in the Turkish airbase of Incirlik. In addition, the kingdom’s geopolitical position in the heart of the Middle East provides a viable alternative for logistical support to the American military taking into consideration the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and close three bases in Qatar. Notably, the remaining supplies from the three Qatari bases along with the Support Mission have been transferred to Jordan and have become part of the Area Support Group-Jordan that operates as the Base Operations Support Integrator to back contingency operations and military-to-military engagements within the US Army Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Jordan’s value also stems from its critical role in addressing the overwhelming humanitarian needs created by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as well as in hosting almost two million registered Palestinian refugees.
Support of Two-state Solution
The fact that Jordan remains at peace with Israel and is a key interlocutor with the Palestinians adds to the kingdom’s reliability to mediate and advance initiatives that support the two-state solution. This presupposes the resetting of Jordan-Israel relations. Washington is well-placed to offer its good offices and help restore trust between the two neighboring countries. The twenty-seventh year Jordan-Israel peace treaty shows not only the possibilities for coordination and co-existence but also the ceilings to peace with Israel in the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A “cold peace” and quiet, limited cooperation are currently the maximum possibilities vis-a-vis a “warm peace” that will unlock Jordan-Israel cooperation and potential.
It is nevertheless noteworthy that the last five years have been discerned by the previous American administration’s lack of appreciation of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump peace proposal, known as “the Vision”, not only undermined the long-established aim of a two-state solution but also reinforced discussions over alternatives including a one state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; different measures of annexation, such as Israeli annexation of Area C in the West Bank; “exotic options” such as a federation in which Israel and Palestine share certain aspects of sovereignty; potential unilateral Israeli initiatives with most prevailing a Jordanian model, in which Jordan takes control of the West Bank and Palestinians are given Jordanian citizenship; and, reinforcement of the notion that “Jordan is “Palestine””.
Practically, Jordan can serve as honest broker in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but as the late King Hussein stated in an interview with The New York Times in 1991 “Jordan should not be, cannot be, will not be a substitute for the Palestinians themselves as the major aggrieved party on the Arab side in a process that leads to peace”. The cited statement is fully embraced by Jordan’s current leadership.
Acknowledgment of Jordan’s Custodianship
The public acknowledgement by the American President of the kingdom’s special role as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem is translated into a vote of confidence and a commendation for Jordan’s efficient safeguarding of religious sites for decades. As known, Amman pays the salaries of more than one thousand (1,000) employees of the Jerusalem Waqf Department and its custodianship role is carried out on behalf of all Islamic nations. The kingdom holds the exclusive authority of the Jordanian-appointed council, the Waqf, over the Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif and has spent over 1 billion dollars since 1924 for the administration and renovation of Al Aqsa mosque.
Jordan has admittedly served at multiple occasions as credible intermediary for Israel and the Palestinians to suspend tensions in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif and pursues a successful administration of religious funded schools favoring moderate religious education and religious tourism. Jordanian moderation has guaranteed co-existence of the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem at a time when on the contrary, counties like Turkey funnel millions of dollars in charity projects in Jerusalem promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Overall, Jordan’s custodianship has proved to be successful in maintaining delicate arrangements for the benefit of all religions and parties involved.
American Loan Guarantees
The King’s discussions with the American President also centered on the economic challenges exacerbated by the effect of the pandemic and the enhancement of bilateral economic cooperation. Admittedly, Jordan showed strong leadership and governance with early actions that reduced the coronavirus pandemic pressure on the kingdom’s health system. The Jordanian government imposed a nationwide lockdown and severe social distancing measures at a much earlier stage of the pandemic than other Middle East countries.
Jordan withstood the pandemic’s impact with minimal loss of life but with a significant cost to its economy. As of June 2020, most restrictions on economic activity were lifted turning Jordan into one of the first Arab countries to reopen. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has contracted in 2020 by 3.5 percent after growing 2 percent in 2019 due to losses in state revenues because of fewer remittances and a weakened tourism market.
To cope with the direct negative effects of the pandemic on its state budget, the Kingdom received $396 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The amount of finance has specifically helped address the country’s balance of payments needs and allowed for higher spending on healthcare, and assistance to households and companies most affected by the pandemic. Despite that the IMF provided in March 2020 another multi-year $1.3 billion loan package to Jordan, the pandemic has caused a $1.5 billion shortfall in its balance of payments.
This complex economic reality along with Jordan’s moderation in the Arab world justify continued robust annual American economic assistance to the kingdom in the form of budgetary support (cash transfer), USAID programs in Jordan, and loan guarantees. US cash assistance should increase in the coming years taking into consideration that it is directed to refugee support and to segments of the economy that are mostly affected by the pandemic like foreign debt payments and fuel import costs. Overall, a pledge should be made for Jordan in American congress for the authorization of moreUS sovereign loan guarantees that will help the kingdom weather the pandemic’s adverse medium-to-long-term effects on its economy. US sovereign loan guarantees will allow Jordan to issue debt securities that are fully guaranteed by the American government in capital markets, effectively subsidizing the cost for the Jordanian government to access financing.
It is also noticeable that in a genuine effort to help the kingdom contain the pandemic and safeguard public health, the American administration proceeded with the delivery of over 500 thousand covid-19 vaccines to Jordan highlighting American commitment to international vaccination programs including that of the kingdom.
US-Jordan Defense Partnership
The strategic US-Jordan defense relationship was reflected in the discussions that were conducted between the Jordanian King and the American President. American support for the modernization of Jordan’s F-16 fighter jets has been at the forefront of the agenda with the aim of achieving greater interoperability and effectiveness for the Jordanian Armed Forces. The American President recognized Jordan’s contribution to the successful international campaign to defeat ISIS and honored as an example of heroism the memory of captain Muath al-Kasasbeh who was executed in 2015 by the terrorist organization’s militants.
Jordan has suffered avowedly from terrorism throughout the years and works collectively at regional and international levels to eliminate all its forms. The kingdom lost two prime ministers, Haza’a Al-Majali and Wasfi Al-Tal, as victims of terrorism and experienced a series of terrorist attacks like the simultaneous suicide bombings against three hotels in Amman in November 2005 that led to the loss of life of American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian nationals.
In effect, Jordan is the third-largest recipient of annual American foreign aid globally, after Afghanistan and Israel. A Memorandum of Understanding on American foreign assistance to Jordan commits the United States to providing $1.275 billion per year over a five-year period for a total of $6.375 billion (FY2018-FY2022). Renegotiations on the next such agreement for FY2023-FY2027 is estimated that will aim at increasing the American commitment to Jordan, a key ally in the fight against international terrorism whose military should be in position to procure and maintain conventional weapons systems.
On the whole, Jordan is a steadfast security partner of the United States in the Middle East whose moderation and pragmatism helped the kingdom weather regional and world challenges. As 2021 and past years have showed, Jordan’s position as a bridge between the Levant and the Persian Gulf provides it a unique geopolitical standing, in a way that nowadays Amman is granted with a significant security, diplomatic and humanitarian role that signals a new era in US-Jordan relations.
Chinese FM Wraps Up his Visit to Egypt
Wang Yi, the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, visited Egypt on July 18, 2021, in El Alamein City, northwest Egypt. The Chinese Foreign Minister is the first foreign official to visit this strategic city.
Wang Yi met with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, during his visit to Egypt, and they discussed bilateral relations between the two countries. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and China. Egypt is the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with China and the first African country to do so. In the Arab world, the Islamic world, Africa, and developing countries, Egypt has long been one of China’s most important strategic partners. At the international level, the two countries mutually support one another. The meeting between Egypt’s Foreign Minister and China’s Foreign Minister focused on three main issues: the Covid-19 vaccine, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and international and regional issues such as Palestine and Syria
Both Egypt and China have a long history of cooperation and friendship. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19, the two countries’ relations were based on economic and trade cooperation, with China being Egypt’s first trading partner for the eighth year in a row since 2013, and the volume of trade exchange between the two countries exceeding $14.5 billion in 2020. However, as the outbreak Covid-19, cooperation between the two countries expanded to include medical cooperation. Egypt and China worked together to combat the virus. Egypt sent medical supplies to China, and China sent medical supplies and Chinese vaccine to Egypt. In addition, in December 2020, the two sides signed a cooperation agreement on COVID-19 Vaccine Production and China dispatched technical teams to Egypt to assist in the vaccine’s local manufacture. As a result, Egypt is considered Africa’s first vaccine manufacturer.
One Belt One Road Initiative
Egypt is an important strategic partner in building the Belt and Road Initiative. According to CGTN, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, stated that:” Egypt supports the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).” He added that Egypt is ready to strengthen cooperation with China in the fields of economy, trade, industry, science and technology, and expand human exchanges within the framework of the “Belt and Road Initiative.” One Belt and One Road Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of the twenty-first century, announced by President Xi Jinping during official visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan in 2013. Egypt was one of the first countries to participate in this initiative. In 2014, Egyptian President al-Sisi expressed in an interview that China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative was an “opportunity” for cooperation between China and Egypt. Egypt was willing to participate in it actively.
International and Regional Issues
Regarding the international and regional issues, the two sides exchanged views and coordinated positions on some issues as Palestine, Syria issues. It’s worth mentioning that Wang Yi paid a visit to Syria the day before his trip to Egypt, marking him the first Chinese official to visit Syria since the country’s civil war began. China supports the Syrian sovereignty and rejects foreign interference in Syria, and also rejects the regime change. The Egyptian Minister Sameh Shoukry also discussed with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi the GERD issue. According to Sky News, Shoukry explained Egypt and Sudan’s positions as two downstream countries, the importance of preserving the interests of all parties and not jeopardizing the downstream countries’ water security, and the importance of engaging in intensified negotiations under the auspices of the African Union presidency. The two sides signed an agreement on the Egyptian-Sino Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee at the end of their meeting.
Greater Middle East may force China to project military power sooner rather than later
China may have no short-term interest in contributing to guaranteeing security in parts of a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the East coast of Africa, but that does not prevent the People’s Republic from preparing for a time when it may wish to build on long-standing political and military relationships in various parts of the world to project power and maintain an economic advantage.
Determined to exploit the principle of allegedly win-win relationships that are underwritten by economics, trade, and investment as the solution to problems, China has so far delayed if not avoided bilateral or unilateral political and military engagement in conflicts beyond its borders.
The question is how long it can continue to do so.
China took a first baby step towards greater power projection with the creation in 2017 of its first overseas military base in the East African state of Djibouti, a rent-a-base nation that hosts multiple military facilities for among others the United States, France, and Japan and potentially Saudi Arabia. The base signals the importance China attributes to regions like the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.
A recent article in a Chinese military publication sheds further light on Chinese preparations for a day when it may have to project military might in different parts of the world. The article laid out Chinese thinking about the virtues of offering Middle Eastern, Asian, and African militaries and political elites training and educational opportunities.
“Students who can study in China are mostly local military and political elites or descendants of notable families. After they have studied and returned to their country, they have a high probability of becoming the top military and political leaders of the local country. This is very beneficial for China to expand its overseas influence and corresponding armaments exports,” the publication, Military Express, said.
The publication asserted that Chinese military academies were more attractive than their Western counterparts that impose “political conditions,” a reference to students having to hail from countries aligned with the West.
“Chinese military academy does a better job in this regard. There are no political conditions attached here. Foreign military students here learn Chinese strategies and tactics and learn to operate Chinese weaponry by themselves,” the publication said.
The publication failed to mention that China unlike Western producers also refrains from attaching political conditions to its arms sales like adherence to human rights.
Recent months have not been necessarily kind to Chinese aspirations of remaining aloof to conflict beyond its borders, suggesting that reality on the ground could complicate China’s strategic calculations.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to put an ultra-conservative religious regime in power on the border with Xinjiang, the north-western province where China is attempting to brutally Sinicize Turkic ethnic and religious identity.
Recent Taliban military advances have already bolstered ultra-conservative religious sentiment in neighbouring Pakistan that celebrates the group as heroes whose success enhances the chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.
“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.
Nine Chinese nationals were killed last week in an explosion on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan, a region more prone to attacks by religious militants than Baloch nationalists, who operate from the province of Balochistan and are responsible for the bulk of attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian nation.
It was the highest loss of life of Chinese citizens in recent years in Pakistan, the largest recipient of Chinese Belt and Road-related infrastructure and energy investments. China’s sees Pakistan as a key to the economic development of Xinjiang and part of its effort to Sinicize the region.
Indicating Chinese concern, China last month advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan and last week evacuated 210 Chinese nationals on a chartered flight. China last week delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Complicating Chinese calculations is the fact that both Russia and Turkey are maneuvering for different reasons to strengthen Turkic identity in the Caucasus that potentially would be more sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.
Turkey moreover may see Afghanistan as another stepping stone towards recreating a Turkic world. Turkey has reportedly asked Azerbaijan, whom Ankara supported in last year’s Caucasus war against Armenia, to contribute forces to a Turkish contingent that would remain in Afghanistan after the US and NATO withdrawal to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Turkish influence among Afghanistan’s Turkic minorities has been bolstered by the operation of Turkish schools, an increased number of Turkish scholarships, training of Afghan military and police personnel, the popularity of Turkish movies and television series, and efforts to mediate an end to conflict in the country.
The Taliban have rejected the continuation of a Turkish military presence that for the past six years was part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. The Taliban insisted that Turkish soldiers were “occupiers in Afghanistan” who should leave with NATO and US forces even if they were also representatives of a “great Islamic nation.”
In anticipation of a threatening development in Afghanistan, China quietly established a small military post in 2019 in the highlands of Tajikistan, a stone’s throw from where Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor meets Xinjiang.
More recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ji advised his interlocutors during a visit last week to Central Asia that going forward Chinese private military companies would play a greater role in securing Belt and Road-related strategic infrastructure projects.
Some analysts suggested that the Chinese companies would also be employed to train Central Asian militaries – a domain that was until now largely a Russian preserve.
In a similar vein, France’s withdrawal of its forces from West Africa steps up pressure on China to defend its overseas nationals and interests. Three Chinese construction workers were among five foreigners kidnapped by gunmen this weekend in southern Mali. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
All of this leaves aside the question of how long China will feel that it can rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf to secure the flow of energy and much of its trade against the backdrop of a reconfigured US regional commitment and increasingly strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
It also does not consider China’s ability to manage expectations of the People’s Republic’s willingness to engage, in some cases not only politically or militarily, but also economically.
That was evident during Mr. Wang’s most recent visit to the region, and particularly Syria, which for much of its civil war was home to Uighur jihadists who distinguished themselves in battle.
It was Mr. Wang’s second visit to the Middle East and North Africa in four months. Furthermore, Mr. Wang last week discussed Afghanistan and Gulf security with his Saudi counterpart on the sideline of a regional cooperation meeting in Uzbekistan.
Syrian officials have for domestic and foreign policy reasons long touted China as the imaginary white knight that would come to the rescue in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.
“China is far less interested in Syria than Syria is in China… Syria has never been a priority in China’s economy-driven approach to the Middle East,” noted scholars Andrea Ghiselli and Mohammed Al-Sudairi.
The scholars cautioned however that “the significant potential impact of narratives created by local actors in the context of international politics,” a reference to Syria’s projection of China as its saviour, cannot be ignored.
Implicit in the scholars’ conclusion is the notion that Chinese policy may in future increasingly be shaped as much by decision-making in Beijing as developments on the ground in a world in which powers compete to secure their interest and place in a new world order.
Ultimately, the fundamental question underlying all these push factors is, according to Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman, whether China has not only the capability and aspiration to become a superpower but also the will.
“If China is unwilling or unable to achieve a global military presence that rivals that of the US, it may have to find a new way of being a superpower – or give up on the ambition,” Mr. Rahman argues.
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Sweden: Invest in skills and the digital economy to bolster the recovery from COVID-19
Sweden’s economy is on the road to recovery from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, yet risks remain. Moving ahead...
The New World Order: The conspiracy theory and the power of the Internet
“The Illuminati, a mysterious international organisation made up of the world’s top political and social elites, controls the workings of...
Western Indian Ocean region has declared 550,000 square kilometers as protected
The Western Indian Ocean region has declared 143* marine and coastal areas as protected – an area covering 553,163 square...
Six things you can do to bring back mangroves
Don’t be fooled by their modest appearance: mangroves are important players in some of the greatest challenges facing the world...
ADB Calls for Just, Equitable Transition Toward Net Zero in Asia and Pacific
Asian Development Bank (ADB) President Masatsugu Asakawa today called for countries in Asia and the Pacific to take bold action...
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