Catherine the Great is credited with saying that the only way to secure the borders of the Russian Empire is to expand them continuously. This logic is to some degree applicable to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which embarked on a path of geographical enlargement quite literally from the very first days of its existence. Seven rounds of enlargement over the next 70 years brought NATO membership from 12 to 29 countries. And, from the look of things, the expansion will not stop there.
It is far from obvious that there is a linear correlation between the number of NATO members and the organization’s military and/or political effectiveness. Geographical enlargement comes at a cost: the accumulation of internal contradictions; the emergence of tensions among members with diverging interests; and occasional heated conflict within the group. A recent example of such a conflict is Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft weapon systems and the failed attempts of the United States to scuttle the deal.
The sixth and seventh rounds of NATO enlargement into the chronically unstable and explosive region of the Western Balkans (Albania, Croatia and Montenegro) created more problems than significant new opportunities for the organization. The planned eighth round of enlargement (to include North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) also raises a number of questions as to the ability of the new members to strengthen the organization’s military potential and increase its overall security. The possible accession of Cyprus, not to mention that of Georgia and Ukraine, posits just as many questions.
The Logic Behind Enlargement
Alarmist voices can be heard from time to time in Europe and the United States calling for at least a temporary suspension of NATO’s endless and thoughtless enlargement and for its members to focus their attention on enhancing cooperation within the organization. The alarmists’ stance is clear: the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by including mostly “security consumers” puts the “security providers,” primarily the United States, in a difficult situation. The United States’ obligations to its European allies are mounting, while its security is not being strengthened. Last year, Donald Trump, in his typically outrageous manner, reminded the distinguished audience that a third world war might very well break out as a result of a crisis provoked by “aggressive” Montenegro.
Nevertheless, NATO’s ineluctable enlargement has its own logic and justifications, or can at least be explained.
One of these explanations is bureaucratic: each new member brings with it new personnel for the organization’s executive office, new budgets and targeted projects, and new instruments of exerting administrative pressure on old members. One look at NATO’s immense new headquarters, built two years ago at the cost of over $1 billion and taking up an area of over 250.000 square metres, is sufficient to understand why Brussels bureaucrats believe the enlargement process is rational.
Another explanation is legal: NATO cannot close its doors to potential new members without revising the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which that states in Article 10 that NATO membership is open to “any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” That is, NATO can reject specific applicants (the request of the Soviet Union was rejected in 1954, for example), but it cannot close its doors as a matter of principle. Revising or amending the founding Treaty under current circumstances is a purely hypothetical question.
A third explanation is economic: each subsequent candidate undertakes to modernize its weapons so that they comply with NATO standards. Accordingly, U.S. and European defence contractors gain a new market. It is not even important who ultimately pays for the modernization programme, the candidate or the United States itself, since in any case, the enlargement of the organization means new contracts and new profits for the politically influential defence industry.
And finally, the political explanation: enlargement is one of the principal instruments of legitimizing NATO. The constant flow of candidates wishing to accede to NATO means that any talk of the alliance being obsolete, ineffective or unneeded is groundless. Enlargement is a weighty argument for those who disagree with the diagnosis recently made by President of France, Emmanuel Macron, that NATO was experiencing “brain death.”
Supply and Demand
Given all of the above, it is unlikely that the further enlargement of NATO can be stopped through negotiations with the organization’s leadership or with its most influential members. While there are forces in both Washington and Brussels that oppose the endless process of NATO enlargement, their influence is clearly weaker than that wielded by the proponents of further expansion into the Balkans and possibly Eastern Europe. However, even if the desire to stop further enlargement once and for all dominated in the West today, enshrining this desire “for centuries to come” in the form of legally binding agreements is virtually impossible.
Presidents and prime ministers come and go, the strategic and geopolitical landscape of the Euro-Atlantic space changes, and the concepts of threats and challenges to national security evolve. History, including that of the recent past, demonstrates that “where there’s a will, there’s a way” when it comes to getting out of any treaty if it no longer satisfies the leadership of a signatory country for whatever reason. Legal commitments inevitably recede into the background when it comes to political expediency. Especially when fundamental security interests of great powers are at stake.
If this is the case, then the further geographical enlargement of NATO should be counteracted not so much on the supply side as on the demand side. This requires understanding the specific motivation that drives the population and political elites of those countries that are currently in line for the long-sought-after entrance to the building on Boulevard Leopold III in Brussels.
Clearly, the issue of NATO membership takes different shapes in Tbilisi, Kyiv or Chisinau: the level of public support for NATO varies widely, and those in Eastern Europe who call for membership countries (let us note in parentheses that such people, even if they are presently few, can be found even in Belarus and Kazakhstan) have their own specific set of expectations when it comes to NATO membership. Nevertheless, we can distinguish three groups of incentives that push a part of the population in these countries, and especially part of their “establishment,” into joining NATO. These incentives are linked to security, identity and inclusivity. Let us consider each group in more detail.
Naturally, not all security problems of the countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus can be automatically eliminated by acceding to NATO, especially when it comes to new issues that have appeared on the global agenda this century. For instance, NATO has no particular reason to advertise its successes in counteracting climate change and illegal migration, or even in the fight against international terrorism. Moreover, involvement in NATO’s activities or participating in situational Euro-Atlantic coalitions can generate additional security risks for participating countries. A textbook example of this is the series of large-scale terrorist attacks at Madrid train stations on March 11, 2004, which, according to those responsible (Islamists), were perpetrated as a means of exacting revenge on Spain for its active role in the Iraq War. However, some former Soviet republics interpret national security primarily as security in relation to the supposed aggressive intentions and actions of Moscow, and all other security aspects are automatically moved down the national priority scale.
Is it realistic to offer the countries in the “shared neighbourhood” alternative options of protection against what they perceive as the “Moscow threat”? It should be immediately acknowledged that there is no full-fledged alternative to the military guarantees stipulated in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. But we should also remember that, frequently, those countries of Central Europe that have already become full-fledged NATO members do not even see Article 5 as a complete and sufficient guarantee of their security.
A heated discussion on the security of the Baltic countries in the face of “possible Russian aggression” following the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 served as another reminder of the profound uncertainty within these countries concerning the effectiveness of Article 5. It is probably no coincidence at all that Poland (a NATO member) has long been fighting to have U.S. troops and U.S. military facilities on its territory, since the country views NATO’s multilateral guarantees as insufficiently convincing.
If we strip Article 5 of its “sacral” and metaphysical meaning, then there are grounds for discussing alternative options for ensuring the security of the countries in the “shared neighbourhood.” Long-term and interconnected actions in two areas could potentially serve as a replacement for NATO enlargement.
In order to alleviate the security concerns of its neighbours, Russia needs to pay persistent, consistent and carefully considered attention to the eastern trajectory of its foreign policy. This work should be done no matter how grounded or divorced from reality these concerns appear to the Russian leadership. This task looks exceedingly difficult following the 2014 crisis, and it will take many years to resolve. Without going into detail, let us note that Russia’s success will, to a great degree, depend on its ability to effectively combine the military, political, diplomatic, public and humanitarian aspects of its approaches to its post-Soviet neighbours.
As for the western trajectory of its foreign policy, Russia should take NATO ‘s efforts to expand its cooperation with its partners as a given, as long as this cooperation does not turn into practical preparations for admitting new members to the alliance. Several neutral and non-aligned countries have experience of working in partnership with NATO without the explicit goal of joining the organization (for example, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland). Some of these countries participate in a number of the alliance’s programmes (in particular, the “Partnership for Peace” programme) and even hold joint exercises with NATO. They have also repeatedly deployed troops to support NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
The attempts of some European countries to make up for the lack of multilateral guarantees from NATO by concluding bilateral agreements with the United States (following the example of Japan and South Korea) should also be viewed as inevitable. The effectiveness of these attempts will most likely depend above all on the state of U.S.–Russia relations. Whatever the case may be, however, it is highly unlikely right now that the United States will provide military guarantees to an Eastern European country.
It is well known that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is both a military bloc and a self-proclaimed “club of Euro-Atlantic democracies,” an alliance based on “western values.” During the 70 years of its history, the organization has not always lived up to this image: for instance, Turkey in the 1950s, or Greece at the time of the Regime of the Colonels could hardly qualify as democratic states. Nevertheless, the interconnection between NATO and political liberalism is evident. At the 1999 Washington summit, the attendees adopted a list of requirements for new members that included, among other things, the obligation to demonstrate a commitment to human rights and the rule of law and to organize the necessary democratic and civilian control over the national armed forces.
Consequently, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have traditionally viewed NATO membership as both a security issue and a matter of identity. Belonging to North Atlantic Alliance also meant belonging to the Euro-Atlantic, or the western civilizational space as a whole. Historically, the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic began to drift towards NATO long before they pondered and legitimized their fears of the “revanchist” Russia.
Strictly speaking, during the 1990s and up to the 2014 crisis, Russia itself actively debated the possibility of acceding to NATO’s political bodies (for instance, the North Atlantic Council and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly). Even back then, the complete military integration of Russia into the organization seemed like an impossibility, or at least as a task for the foreseeable future. However, the idea of using the “French model” of political integration with NATO seemed possible during the period 1966–2009, when Paris did not take part in the activities of the Defence Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Group but continued to work in NATO’s political bodies and joined some of its military operations in 1995. The proponents of Russia’s gradual political integration with NATO believed this step would be an essential confirmation of the unalterable Euro-Atlantic orientation of Russia’s foreign political strategy.
Of course, it is clear to any politician in Central or Eastern Europe that, from the point of view of western identity, EU membership significantly outweighs NATO membership. However, becoming a member of the European Union is far more complicated than joining NATO. Accession to the European Union requires a far more profound (and more painful) socioeconomic and political transformation of the candidate country than NATO membership. It even took the United Kingdom 12 years (from 1961 to 1973) to become a member of the European Union.
Most countries of Central Europe and the Western Balkans (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia) joined NATO first and later acceded to the European Union. In some cases, accession to both alliances was almost simultaneous (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia), while in others, countries that are already NATO members are still waiting to join the European Union (for example, Albania and Montenegro). However, there has not been a single case of a former socialist country acceding to the European Union first and then to NATO. The current sentiments in EU leadership do not leave much hope that such a precedent will be set in the foreseeable future.
This experience leads Eastern European countries to the logical conclusion that NATO membership is an insufficient, yet requisite condition for acceding to the European Union. In the worst-case scenario, NATO membership can be seen as a “silver medal” of sorts in the historical race for western identity. Although Turkey’s experience demonstrates that, while a silver medal does not satisfy everyone, it is still better than withdrawing from the race.
Accordingly, if the objective is to stop the further territorial enlargement of NATO, then NATO and EU membership should be separated as far as possible. It would be useful here to rely on the rich experience of the non-aligned and/or neutral European states that are EU members: Finland, Sweden, Austria and the Republic of Ireland, whose European identity cannot be doubted. On the other hand, the attention of potential NATO members should be drawn to the fact that several countries that have long been NATO members have not come any closer to full-fledged EU membership.
Strengthening the “strategic autonomy” of the European Union could play a certain role in reducing the appeal of NATO membership for post-Soviet states. This, in turn, means that Russia should not perceive the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) programme in security and defence for the EU countries in a solely negative light. On the contrary, if this programme is successful, it could help lay down the foundations of long-term defence cooperation between Russia and Europe outside the framework of the highly toxic Russia–NATO relations.
In addition to the important, yet somewhat abstract issue of “Euro-Atlantic identity,” Eastern European countries are faced with the no less important, but far more specific issue of their participation in practical everyday decision-making on matters of European security. Each country seeks to gain a seat at the table where the most pressing political and military issues — issues that are of direct relevance to them – are discussed. Nobody would like to find themselves in the position of an outside observer who does not have a say in this discussion, not to mention the right to veto decisions.
It should be acknowledged that in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War, Europe has failed to create sufficiently influential pan-European bodies that are capable of ensuring adequate and effective representation for all, including the continent’s smaller countries. Meanwhile, over the course of its 70-year history, NATO has established approximately 20 committees and councils of various kinds for all imaginable issues, from air traffic to public diplomacy. All these bodies are well staffed with officials and experts, have large budgets and, most importantly, enjoy close and stable ties with the relevant ministries and agencies in member states.
NATO has numerous national and international think tanks and leading European media outlets at its disposal. Any ambitious politician from a Central European or Balkan country can clearly see that working in the NATO executive office may prove to be a unique springboard to a high-flying career. Suffice it to recall the story of Croatian Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who in 2015 moved from the office of Assistant Secretary-General of NATO for Public Diplomacy directly to the Presidential Palace in Croatia.
In short, NATO quite simply does not have any worthy institutional competitors on many specific security issues in Europe. This means that reducing the appeal of NATO for the countries in the “shared neighbourhood” will require attempts to strip the organization of its current monopoly on the European security agenda, which can be achieved by strengthening the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), developing regional cooperation mechanisms and creating inclusive pan-European regimes regulating individual dimensions of European security.
Europe does have a positive experience of “outsourcing” its security issues. For instance, the very pressing problem of military flights over the Baltic Sea by aircraft that, as a matter of protocol, had their transponders turned on was ultimately settled not in the NATO–Russia Council, but by a special Baltic Sea Project Team created under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
On the other hand, history demonstrates that adhering to a policy of neutrality that frees countries and their leaders from rigid bloc discipline can, under certain circumstances, afford them several additional opportunities in international affairs. Frequently, neutral states find it easier to propose original new ideas, act as unbiased intermediaries in acute conflicts and exhibit maximum flexibility in their foreign policies without having to agree to morally and ethically dubious compromises.
Let us once again refer to examples of such non-NATO states like Austria, Finland and Sweden, which have played an active role both in Europe and around the world for many decades now, sometimes being far more visible and effective than larger and more powerful NATO members. Thus, neutrality and non-alignment do not themselves always mean some kind of defective status. On the contrary, in certain circumstances, they can prove to be a significant comparative advantage on the international stage.
How about Plan B?
None of the proposals provided a guarantee that NATO will curtail its geographical enlargement. Sceptics will likely say that the current momentum of geographic expansion is too great, that NATO will continue its process of enlargement unless Russia and its partners fill the “geopolitical vacuum” in the “shared neighbourhood.” However, we should note that the attempts to fill that “geopolitical vacuum” in the three decades or so following the collapse of the Soviet Union have not been particularly successful, and that today, Russia is not surrounded exclusively by friendly neighbours. Even in the best-case scenario, it would take an extremely long time to create a reliable “good-neighbourliness belt” around Moscow. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that many in Russia view as potential “Eurasian” counterbalance to the North Atlantic Alliance is hardly capable of filling the “geopolitical vacuum” in the near future. While NATO continues the process of enlargement, the CSTO, on the contrary, is shrinking, as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan have all pulled out of the organization within the past ten years (Tashkent has even managed to leave the CSTO on two separate occasions, once in 1999 and again in 2012).
The idea that Russia could block the accession of former Soviet republics to NATO entirely by using the candidate requirements formulated at the 1999 Washington summit has gained widespread popularity in Moscow. The requirements state that potential members first resolve, by peaceful means, any international disputes, as well as any ethnic, territorial and political conflicts in which they are involved, in accordance with OSCE principles. Stoking the flames of smouldering territorial or other conflicts in neighbouring states could, in theory, block the paths of these countries to NATO membership indefinitely.
However, even if we put rather important moral and ethical considerations to one side, as a long-term strategy, this route will not necessarily bring the desired results. First, it is entirely possible that the requirements for candidates may be revised at a future NATO summit. The western expert community is already actively discussing proposals to “make an exception” for Tbilisi so that Georgia can accede to the organization despite its unresolved problems with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Once this issue is resolved, nothing is stopping the expert community from turning their attention to Ukraine with a similar idea in mind.
Second, the existence of unresolved, albeit mostly frozen conflicts along Russian borders itself creates multiple large-scale national security threats. It is entirely unreasonable, to say the least, to construct a foreign policy based on the “lesser evil” principle, since an always present “lesser evil” could at some point turn out to be more dangerous than what was initially thought to be the “greater evil.”
There is another possible course of action, which is to observe NATO’s irresponsible enlargement dispassionately until the organization collapses under its own weight. If we are to believe Napoleon Bonaparte, all “great empires die of indigestion,” and there is no reason to suppose that NATO will be an exception to the rule. And, following the logic of the lesser-known British writer, historian and satirist Cyril Northcote Parkinson, NATO’s move to its ostentatious headquarters is a clear symptom of its approaching decline and inevitable collapse.
However, will a world without NATO be better for Russia than a world with NATO? Will it be better if Turkey or Germany start to think about acquiring their own nuclear weapons, while Poland attempts to create an anti-Russian “three seas” military and political alliance, uniting the states of Central Europe? Will it be better if another president of the United States turns out to be entirely free of all the obligations and restrictions imposed on him by NATO’s multilateral rules and procedures?
We should harbour no illusions regarding NATO: as it approaches its 70th anniversary, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization appears to be a clearly obsolete, very costly, exceedingly cumbersome and significantly fossilized organization that is stuck somewhere in the world of the middle of the last century. The organization is very poorly prepared to counteract the threats posited by networked non-state structures and the ever-increasing number of global problems and challenges. On the whole, the idea that security issues can be resolved on a territorial basis by creating a region of “absolute security” around oneself appears rather unconvincing, to put it mildly, in the age of globalization, especially given the ”project-based” approach to security that is rapidly gaining ground in the world today.
Nevertheless, we believe that the task is not to simply go back to a “world without NATO.” Nor is it to go back to a “world without nuclear weapons.” Any return to the past is not only impossible, but it is also undesirable, since the world of the past has never been the ideal for the future. The task is to replace the bloc security system inherited from the Cold War era with a new system that exceeds its predecessor in such critical parameters as openness, efficiency and reliability.
From our partner RIAC
Could India’s Diplomatic Outreaches Be a Success amid Heightened Border Tensions?
The India- China border scuffle at Galwan Valley on June 15, in which India lost its twenty servicemen of Assam rifles wing, marked a watershed moment in the Sino-Indian Relation. Although the tensions from unsettled borders prevail over for more than a decade, fatalities occur after long forty-five years, at the 3500km long Line of Actual Control (LAC). The LAC lies in between two Asian heavyweights endures undemarcated for more than half a century. Even though Beijing hasn’tyet formally confirmed casualties on their side, several international bureaus and Chinese state-backed Global Times have reported death toll on either side.
The recurrence of violence at LAC has lit a fuse in between two nuclear powers in the continent, exacerbating the mutual skepticism and long-drawn-out conflict of interests. The hostility has grabbed international attention, as both parties involved possess substantial political and economic leverage, along with highly sophisticated weapons in their arsenal. The European Union and United Nations have expressed concerns over the conflict escalation and have insisted to peacefully resolve the dispute.
The Trump administration has articulated a paradigm shift in favor of New Delhi, from the initial offer for mediation in May last and the support for a peaceful resolution, soon after the standoff turned deadly on 15 June. Since tensions skyrocket, New Delhi and Beijing are mounting up firepower on their side of LAC. India, anticipating a conflict escalation or even limited war at the double frontier, taking the threat from Pakistan into account, are exploring all diplomatic pathways to enhance its position in the standoff. Under the current circumstances, the outcome of these diplomatic outreaches assumes new criticality in New Delhi’s strategic designs aimed to keep the dragon at bay.
India’s Diplomatic Outreaches
The New Delhi has invigorated its diplomatic channels amid intensified border tensions. New Delhi wants to ensure the flow of weaponry from top suppliers, foreseeing a persistent battle at the LAC. Indian strategic circles also anticipate the possibility of a multi-front attack, considering the strategic partnership and all-weather alliance prevailing in between Islamabad and Beijing. Several agencies report that Islamabad plans to move around 20000 Pak soldiers to the Line of Control (LoC), coupling with the Chinese presence in the East.
Given this, the firepower up-gradation on a war footing is ever more vital for India. The defense minister, Rajnath Singh, called on Moscow to attend the 75th Victory Day parade of the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany, has thrust upon the Kremlin administration to expedite the delivery of S-400 Air Defense System. Russia is the host country for the RIC meet and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit (SCO) this year, offers plenty of occasions for bilateral engagement. Apart from this, the Indian Ambassador to Moscow, DB Venkatesh had a cellular conversation with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgolov on June 17 regarding the clash between both countries. Beijing has already integrated the same to its defense complex, becoming the first nation to move in this direction in 2014.
The New Delhi has scaled up its diplomatic engagement with Washington in the backdrop of growing border frictions with Beijing. Both nation’s threat perceptions about the PRC go in line with the other’s. The New Delhi has been briefing the border situation to Washington’s circles. New Delhi is well aware that the U.S. support is indispensable during the Chinese aggression. The unflinching support of the United States would boost Indian morale and would exert pressure on Beijing in an aggressive standoff. Besides this, the access to state-of-art weapons and defense equipment from Washington at the time of conflict escalation or limited war is of paramount significance for Indian forces to cope up with the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army. The Indian authorities are in attempts to speed up the supply of precision artillery weapons from the U.S.
The delivery of Rafale fighter jets from the French firm, Dassault Avionics, assumes top priority in Indian defense acquisition plans. France has reaffirmed its commitment to deliver the fighter jets on time in a conversation with the Defense minister Rajnath sigh and French defense minister Florence Parly. The initial transfer of four aircraft is expected by July end. The Indian leadership is leaving no stone unturned to raise the number of aircraft delivered in the first phase to six.
Jerusalem is another door for New Delhi to knock in time of watershed moments. Israel, during the 1999 Kargil skirmish, provided technical backstopping for IAF to integrate the Paveway Laser Guided Missiles into Mirage 2000 fighters. This technological advancement, with Israeli assistance, played a pivotal role in Indian success during the conflict. India, which has been Jerusalem’s top defense export destination, is actively going in pursuit of a SPIDER in service Air Defense System from the Jewish state.
Apart from this, the Indian external minister explained the border situation to his French foreign minister, Jean Yves Le Drian. The Indian secretary of foreign affairs, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, has also reached out to this French counterpart in a video conference. As part of these interactions, Paris has expressed its willingness to boost cooperation with India in the Western Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific. The New Delhi on similar lines has discussed the India-China Border scuffle with one another European power, Germany. The interaction took place between the German state secretary, Miguel Berger Friday, and India’s HV Shringla.
Outcomes of these Engagements
The outcomes of New Delhi’s diplomatic engagement would be a determining factor concerning the Indian aspirations to emerge victorious in its ongoing and future border strife with Beijing. The Indian endeavor to win the support of Moscow in any skirmish with Beijing is critical as it has a historic friendship with New Delhi and an ongoing economic and strategic partnership with Beijing. Taking the depth of its engagement with Beijing into account, the Kremlin does not want to get dragged into the India-China bilateral power rivalry. But at the same time, Russia has assured to hasten the delivery of weapons amid the worsening scenario at LAC.
Albeit the fact that both the New Delhi and Washington share common anxiety regarding the rise of China and its security implications, the extent to which the U.S. be willing to get involved in the India-China dispute remains contentious. The White House has reiterated its support to New Delhi in its border clash with Beijing. However, the Trump administration’s first response to the deadly standoff on 15th July sounds the alarm on the U.S.’s commitment to the Indian security concerns. Washington’s initial statement has been to find a peaceful settlement, taking a neutral stance. The U.S. could ensure the supply of arms and ammunition to New Delhi during the crisis.
Similarly, Israel, despite its increased economic interaction with PRC would supply sophisticated weapons to New Delhi. The enhanced cooperation with France would provide a booster to Indian initiatives to counter the Chinese naval dominance in IOR. Likewise, the mutual exchange with Berlin assumes greater importance for India as it would hold the presidentship of the EU for the next five years. The intensified interaction with the European powers would help to exert diplomatic pressure on Beijing to exercise restraints at Border.
The support from key allies is critical at this stage as New Delhi faces a huge engulf in firepower, both in terms of nuclear warheads and conventional power, with PRC. But, the extent of support that these countries be willing to provide is questionable. On these grounds, the strategic option before New Delhi seems to be limited, compelling New Delhi to sort out the situation, on its behalf to a great extent.
Turning Gulf Security Upside Down
Like many paradigms across the globe, the pandemic and its associated economic downturn have changed the paradigm shaping debates about Gulf security that was inevitably set to gradually migrate from a unipolar US defense umbrella that shielded energy-rich monarchies against Iran to an architecture that was more multilateral. In many ways, the pandemic’s fallout has levelled the playing field and not necessarily in ways that favour current policies of Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West are increasingly being called into question, with the Saudi–Russian oil price war in March potentially having broken the camel’s back. The Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stand to lose at least some of the financial clout that allowed them to punch above their weight even if they are likely to exclude arms purchases from their austerity measures.
Weakened financial clout comes at a moment when the Gulf states and Iran are gearing up towards an arms race in the wake of Iran’s recent satellite launch and unveiling of an unmanned underwater vehicle against the backdrop of the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme inching towards collapse. The unmanned underwater vehicle puts Iran in an elite club, of which the only other members capable of producing them are the United States, Britain and China. The satellite adds Iran to a group of only about a dozen countries able to do launches of their own. 
Add to this the fact that none of the regional players — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, Turkey and Israel — feel secure that any of the external powers — the United States, China and Russia — are reliable security and geopolitical partners.
Gulf states have, for years going back to the era of Barak Obama if not Bill Clinton, increasingly perceived the United States as unfortunately their only option on the premise that they are not willing to change their policies, particularly towards Iran, but one that is demonstrably unreliable, unwilling to defend Gulf states at whatever cost, and at times at odds with them in terms of policy objectives.
The Gulf states’ problem is that neither Russia nor China offer real alternatives at least not on terms that all Gulf states are willing to accept. Russia is neither interested nor capable of replacing the United States. Moreover, its Gulf security plan is at odds with at least the policy of Saudi Arabia.
The plan calls for a security arrangement modelled on that of Europe under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It would be an arrangement that, unlike the US defence umbrella in the Gulf, includes Iran, not directed against it. It would have to involve some kind of regional agreement on non-aggression.
Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has made clear that it is not interested, as is evident in the pandemic where it has refrained, in contrast to other Gulf states, from reaching out to Iran with humanitarian aid even though it last year engaged in an indirect exchange with the Islamic Republic. That exchange died with the killing by the United States in January of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani.
The Elephant in the Room
China is obviously the elephant in the room.
Logically, China and the Gulf states are in the same boat as they grapple with uncertainty about current regional security arrangements. Like the Gulf states, China has long relied on the US defence umbrella to ensure the security of the flow of energy and other goods through waters surrounding the Gulf in what the United States has termed free-riding.
In anticipation of the day when China can no longer depend on security provided by the United States free of charge, China has gradually adjusted its defense strategy and built its first foreign military facility in Djibouti facing the Gulf from the Horn of Africa. With the People’s Liberation Army Navy tasked with protecting China’s sea lines of communication and safeguarding its overseas interests, strategic planners have signalled that Djibouti is a first step in the likely establishment of further bases that would allow it to project long-range capability and shorten the time needed to resupply.
But like with the Russians, Chinese strategic planners and their Gulf counterparts may part ways when it comes to what would be acceptable geopolitical parameters for a rejuvenated regional security architecture, particularly with regard to Iran. Any new architecture would break the mould of Chinese engagement in the Middle East that is designed to shield the People’s Republic from being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts.
The assumption has long been that China could at best postpone execution, but that ultimately, it would have no choice but to engage in the politics of the region. More recently, influential Chinese analysts are suggesting that China has another option: turn its back on the region. That may seem incredulous given China’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy resources as well as its significant investments in the region.
These analysts argue, however, that China is able to diversify its energy sources and that Chinese investment in the Middle East is but a small percentage of overall Chinese overseas investment. They describe Chinese Middle Eastern economic relations as past their heyday with economies of both in decline and the prospects of the situation in the Middle East getting worse before it becomes better.
“China–Middle East countries is not a political strategic logic, it’s an economic logic. For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. (This) will change China’s investment model in the Middle East … The good times of China and the Middle East are already gone… Both China and the Middle Eastern economies have been slowing down … In the future, the pandemic, combined with the oil price problem, will make the Middle East situation worse. So, the China economic relationship with the Middle East will be affected very deeply,” said Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.
Pessimistic forecasts of economic prospects in the Middle East bolster Niu’s prediction. Data and analytics company GlobalData predicted in an email that depressed oil markets and prices in the Middle East and North Africa would lead to a contraction in non-oil sectors, including construction. “Construction activity for the remainder of 2020 is set to see poor performance … In addition, public investment is likely to be moderate, which will translate into fewer prospects for private sector businesses to grow — especially within sectors such as infrastructure. Expected increase in taxes, selected subsidy cuts and the introduction of several public sector service charges will influence households’ purchasing power, having a knock-on effect on future commercial investments,” said GlobalData economist Yasmine Ghozzi.
Moreover, the downplaying of Chinese economic interest in the Middle East fits a pattern of reduced Chinese capital outflows. “What we may not have seen is how much China has retreated financially already for the past four years … Especially since 2016, China’s outflows have come down dramatically in both lending and investment. Foreign direct investment is now at about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016,” said Agatha Kratz, associate director of Rhodium Group, an independent research provider.
To be sure, Chinese officials and analysts have consistently maintained that the Middle East is not a Chinese priority, that any future battles with the United States will be fought in the Asia Pacific, not in the Gulf. Their assertions are backed up by the fact that China has yet to articulate a comprehensive policy towards the region and in 2016 issued its one and only white paper on policy towards the Arab world that essentially was an elaboration of its basic foreign and defense policy principles.
More likely than China seriously entertaining turning its back on the Middle East is the probability that it is sending the region a message that is not dissimilar from what Russia is saying: get your act together and find a way to dial down the tension. It is a message that appears to varying degrees to have been heard in the smaller Gulf states but has yet to resonate in Riyadh. It is also a message that has not been rejected out of hand by Iran.
Discussing a possible extension of a United Nations arms embargo against Iran, Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al Mouallimi, arguing in favour of a prolongation, suggested that it would serve Russian and Chinese interests even though they would not agree with that assessment. “They have their views, we respect their views, but their interests would be better served and promoted with the embargo extended,” said Al Mouallimi.
A Chinese Communist Party newspaper made days later a first reference in the People’s Republic’s state-controlled media to reports of an alleged secret 25-year multi-billion-dollar co-operation agreement in Iran amid controversy in the Islamic Republic. Chinese officials and media have largely remained silent about Iranian reports of an agreement worth anywhere between US$120 billion and US$400 billion that seemingly was proposed by Iran, but has yet to be accepted by China.
Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a subsidiary of Liberation Daily, the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party of China, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. Fan’s suggestion that the US–Chinese divide gave China more room to develop its relations with Iran will not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.
An Emerging Tug of War
How all of this may shake out could be determined by the emerging tug of war in the Middle East between China and the US. Israel has already been caught up in it and has made its choice clear, even if it still attempting to maintain some wiggle room. Nonetheless, Israel, in the ultimate analysis, knows where its bread is buttered, particularly at a moment where the United States is the only backer of its annexationist policies. In contrast to Israel, the US is likely to find the going tougher when it comes to persuading Gulf states to limit their engagement with China, including with telecom giant Huawei, which already has significant operations in the region.
Like Israel, UAE officials have sought to convey to the US that they see relations with the United States as indispensable even though that has yet to be put to a test when it comes to China. Gulf officials’ stress on the importance of ties will, however, not shield them from American demands that they review and limit their relations with China, nor its warnings that involvement of Huawei could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.
The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, in a shot across the Gulf’s bow, last month rejected a UAE offer to donate hundreds of coronavirus tests for screening of its staff. The snub was designed to put a dent in China’s health “Silk Road” diplomacy centered on its experience with the pandemic and ability to manufacture personal protective and medical equipment.
A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy. The US softened the blow when the prestigious Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic sent 40 nurses and doctor to its Abu Dhabi subsidiary. The Abu Dhabi facility was tasked with treating the UAE’s most severe cases of coronavirus.
The problem for the US is that it is not only Trump’s policy or lack thereof towards the Middle East that undermines confidence but it is also policies that, on the surface, have nothing to do with the Middle East. The United States has been asking its partners including Gulf states to give it time to develop an alternative to Huawei’s 5G network. Yet at the same time, it is barring the kind of people entry that technology companies need to develop systems.
A Silver Lining
No matter how the tug of war in the Middle East evolves, the silver lining is that, like China, the United States despite its desire to reduce its commitment cannot afford a power void in the region. That is what may create the basis for breaking the mould.
It will require a backing away from approaches that treat conflicts as zero-sum games not only on the part of regional players but also of external players, like in the case of the US versus Iran, and it will require engagement by all regional and external players. To achieve that, players would have to recognise that in many ways, perceptions on both sides of the Gulf divide are mirror images of one another: all parties see each other as existential threats.
Failure to break the stalemate risks conflicts becoming further entrenched and threatening to spin out of control. The opportunity is that confidence-building measures and a willingness to engage open a door towards mutually acceptable regional security arrangements and conflict resolution. However, for that to happen, major powers would have to invest political will and energy at a time when they feel they have bigger fish to fry and prioritise geopolitical jockeying.
In a twist of irony, geopolitical jockeying may prove to be an icebreaker in a world, and certainly a region, where everything is interconnected. Increasingly, security in the Gulf is not just about security in the Gulf. It is not even just about security in the Middle East. It is about security in the Mediterranean, whether one looks at Libya on the sea’s southern shores, Syria in the east, or growing tension in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. And it does not stop there with regional rivalries reaching into the Black and Caspian Seas and into Central Asia.
Finally, there are the grey and black swans built into partnerships and alliances that are either becoming more fragile like those of the United States or ones that have fragility built into their DNA like the ties between Iran, Turkey, China and Russia. Those swans could at any moment swing the pendulum one way or another.
To be sure, contrary to Western perceptions, relations between Iran, Turkey, Russia and China are not just opportunistic and driven by short-term common interests but also grounded in a degree of shared values. The fact of the matter is that men like presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei find common ground in a view of a new world order that rejects democracy and the rule of law; disregards human and minority rights; flaunts, at least for now, violations of international law; and operates on the principle of might is right.
That glue, however, is insufficient, to prevent Turkey and Russia from ending up on opposite sides of conflicts in Libya and Syria. It is also unlikely to halt the gradual erosion of a presumed division of labour in Central Asia with Russia ensuring security and China focusing on economic development. And it is doubtful it would alter the simmering rivalry between Iran and Russia in the Caspian Sea and long-standing Russian reluctance to sell Iran a desperately needed anti-missile defense system.
In short, fasten your seat belt. Gulf and broader regional security could prove to be a bumpy ride with unexpected speed bumps.
 “Iran’s UUV to add new dimension to its warfare capability: Forbes”, Tehran Times, 30 May 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/448370/Iran-s-UUV-to-add-new-dimension-to-its-warfare-capability-Forbes.
 Mike Wall, “Iran launches its 1st military satellite into orbit: reports”, Space.com, 22 April 2020, https://www.space.com/iran-launches-first-military-satellite.html.
 Theodore Karasik, “Is Russia’s ‘old’ Gulf security plan the best it can do?”, Arab News, 20 July 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1533096.
 Niu Xinchun speaking on “How are China’s Relations with the Middle East Evolving During the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, Chatham House, 19 May 2019, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2721841274725780.
 Agatha Kratz speaking on “China and the Mediterranean Region in and Beyond the Pandemic, German Marshal Fund”, 3 July 2020, https://www.gmfus.org/events/china-and-mediterranean-region-and-beyond-pandemic.
 Joyce Karam, “Russian and Chinese interests ‘better served’ if Iran arms embargo is extended, says Saudi official”, The National, 2 July 2020, https://www.thenational.ae/world/the-americas/russian-and-chinese-interests-better-served-if-iran-arms-embargo-is-extended-says-saudi-official-1.1042822.
 Seth J Frantzman, “Iran media discuss 25-year deal between Iran and China”, The Jerusalem Post, 3 July 2020, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/iran-media-discuss-25-year-deal-between-iran-and-china-633739.
 Fan Hongda, “Iran announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation plan with China, can Sino-Iranian relations get closer?” [观察家 | 伊朗宣布与华25年全面合作计划，中伊关系能否进一步走近？], Shanghai Observer, 20 June 2020, https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=264494.
Interview with the author, 8 June 2020.
Author’s note: This story first appeared as an MEI Insight
The Chinese Navy: A new force is rising in the East
The information coming to the West from various sources, either open or closed, regarding the Chinese Navy, concludes on the finding that in the last couple of decades an extensive program of modernization and numerical expansion of the Navy, by the Chinese authorities, is underway. The fundamental pillar of China’s (not-so-future) Navy, known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy PLAN, (will be) for its aircraft carriers; cruisers; destroyers; amphibious assault ships; and submarines. In general, China is arming with modern multi-purpose ships, with the purpose of attacking and defending capabilities. Its discernible ambition is to use its fleet against the dominant US Navy, whose presence is pronounced in the China Sea and consequently in the Pacific Ocean. As a matter of fact, the Chinese Navy is already considered to be the second most powerful in the world, exceeding historical Naval Powers such as the United Kingdom and Japan. Indicatively, we note the fact that the once dominant Royal Navy is currently comprised of only 9 destroyers and 2 aircraft carriers, while the Chinese, respectively and exceeds those numbers. It is the swiftest growing Navy in the world. Literally, since 2014, the Chinese Navy has launched more warships than the Royal Navy has on duty today.
This article will be focusing on the rapid development of the Chinese Navy, which incidentally is only one aspect of Beijing’s overall maritime strategy (another aspect refers to the construction of military bases on tiny islands within the entire Chinese Sea and abroad, as in Djibouti). China aims to secure the homeland from a possible attack from the sea and to protect their vulnerable maritime supply lines. In the Chinese strategic culture, the Age of Humiliation is of paramount importance, because it had been the period when the Chinese were subservient to Westerners. Therefore, the Never Again of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is the legitimizing substance which keeps it in power but simultaneously a commitment that satisfies the nationalist Chinese instincts. China is keen to return to its former position, before its contact with the Western Powers, so its policy is towards this strategic target.
It was not until the 1990’s that the Chinese forces consisted of out-of-dated naval vessels with limited offensive and defensive capabilities. Furthermore, the Chinese fleet was limited to about 150 main units (destroyers, frigates, submarines) and no conventional aircraft carriers. Today, China has both fiscal and technological ability to build domestic projects at a rapid pace. In order to understand the class size of the Chinese naval armaments program we will note that in 2016 and 2017 the country’s Navy launched 18 and 14 units respectively, while the US Navy launched only 5 and 8.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that in the forthcoming 15 years, the Chinese Navy will deploy 430 surface units and 100 submarines, while other valid US estimations set this number up to 530. The U.S. Pentagon estimates that this year alone (2020) the Chinese Navy will deploy 78 submarines; 60 stealth-guided-missile ships; 40 corvettes fit for the environment of the Chinese Sea (while 60 more are waiting to be delivered); 24 modern all purpose frigates; 20 state-of-the-art destroyers; 12 cruisers with a delivery horizon in the current decade; 4 fleet support ships; 3 helicopter carriers; 5 ships of amphibious assault missions; and 2 aircraft carriers with the third already under construction.
The informed reader may be concerned as this extensive construction of warships is inconsistent with the Silent Rise which was the official doctrine of the Chinese government until recently. According to it, the country should, at all costs, continue its uninterrupted economic growth, capitalizing on the globalization. This will happen only if the country manages not to provoke the United States as well as neighboring countries, many of which are close allies to Washington (like Japan and South Korea). However, it seems that the Chinese elite is increasingly abandoning this doctrine while adopting a more provocative stance through a peculiar nationalism, especially as economic growth decelerates. In this context, the extensive reinforcement of the Chinese Navy is deliberated and resulting in an increasing concern of neighbor states and the United States, which realizes that the balance of naval power is gradually turning at its expense. China, in order to become a great power again should secure its sovereignty, especially the homeland, from possible attacks. This is incidental to the expulsion of all the American forces which are based in the region and specifically from the China Sea. The Chinese high strategy can only be fruitful with the presence of a modern and powerful Navy (blue-water Navy) combined with an extensive network of military bases which Beijing is rapidly building on tiny, sometimes disputable, islands throughout the China Sea. With those facts and the Chinese demands, no state including the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan, feels safe, although the published Chinese military doctrine remains chiefly defensive.
Regarding the Chinese Navy, it’s noticeable that the modernization program is traced back only to 2012, when President Hu Jintao, during the 18th Congress of the CCP, ordered the country to be transformed into a sea power. More recently, President Xi Jinping declared that the current situation urges China to develop its naval forces promptly. This statement was followed by a 55% increase in defense spending between 2015 and 2020, making China the world’s second-largest spender behind the United States (China’s defense spending is estimated at $260.8 billion in 2019). The significance of the Navy for the country’s leadership is reflected in its budget, which increased by 82%, reaching $57 billion. As a result, six shipyards across the country have lifted the burden of building an advanced fleet capable of dealing with the dominant US Navy. The construction of advanced warships is the implementation of the Chinese Dream, the vision of the current President for a powerful China which is respected home and abroad.
The result of this policy is astonishing. In 2018 China became the country with the most warships on order, surpassing South Korea with 43.9% share in global orders. In February 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, China fell to 4th place with a 35% share in global orders, a testament to the country’s industry dynamics. Despite the impressive armament program, it should be noted that a capable naval force consists not only of modern warships, but also as a key component consists of well-trained crews who have a deep knowledge of the maritime environment. This knowledge can largely be taught in naval schools, but actual engagement with the maritime environment is also required. Seamanship is exactly that, the long-term contact with the sea and the valuable experience that a nation acquires from this contact. For many centuries China has become a land power by turning its back on the sea. The current leadership seems to have understood this historical mistake and tries to change it by turning the Chinese people back to the sea from their school years.
Today, the US Navy is the most powerful in the world as it enables the United States to demonstrate its power globally. At the same time, it protects peace and free navigation on the high seas. It is a key contribution to world trade which is essentially maritime, and eventually to the global economy. Chinese officials occasionally admit that despite the Chinese Navy’s numerical superiority, it still lags behind technologically from the US Navy. Even in terms of tactics and training, the US Navy is a highly professional force tested in real war conditions as distinct from the Chinese which has not yet demonstrated its true value and capabilities in realistic conditions. However, the situation across the China Sea seems to be tilting in favor of the Chinese side as its naval forces are dramatically strengthened due to the proximity of the area of operations to the Chinese coastline.
Beijing’s growing military network is making it increasingly difficult for U.S. ships to sail safely into the disputed area to effectively support their allies. One of China’s main targets now is Taiwan which is considered Chinese territory. As a result, Chinaωstrongly opposes any attempt towards Taiwanese independence and that is the main reason behind China’s amphibious force, a capable force ready to invade the island at any time.The Chinese leadership seems to have fully recognized the domains in which it lags behind its main rival and is trying to fill the gap by developing more and more contemporary navy ships and continuous crew training in order to be ready to cope with a realistic conflict. Similarly, the United States is closely monitoring the progress of its most important rival for the world’s hegemony.
Palestinians between COVID-19 pandemic and unilateral Israeli plan of annexation
On March 2020 took place the third general elections in the parliamentary Republic of Israel, for the 120 seats of...
Ongoing India China Confrontation in the Himalayan Region
China and India are two of the most populous countries in the world with ancient civilizations that date back over...
China’s Post-COVID strategy
In the aftermath of the covid19 pandemic, the increasingly belligerent behaviour exhibited by China in South Asia and South East...
Transformation of E-Commerce Businesses and their Future after COVID-19
World has witnessed an unprecedented human destruction caused by Covid-19.As on 7th July 2020, the virus has taken 533,780 lives...
The weakness of the West
2020 looks set to be a historic year and it’s not over yet. The coronavirus pandemic in combination with the...
U.S. Now Past 3,000,000 Covid-19 Cases- World Nears 12,000,000 Cases
The most-authoritative site presenting, in real time, the number of coronavirus-19 (Covid-19) cases and data, country-by-country, throughout the world, and...
A Story about a World Heritage in Bali
Monday, June 29, 2020, when you open the Google search engine, you will see a picture of a farmer sitting...
Africa3 days ago
Igbo Women Seek Biafra, Voice Nigeria’s Bleak Future
Americas3 days ago
Countries Ranked on ‘Democracy’ in 2020
Eastern Europe3 days ago
Azerbaijan’s Inclusive Diplomacy Amidst COVID-19
Europe2 days ago
Turkey in the Balkans: A march westward
Southeast Asia2 days ago
Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia amid the rising tide of secessionism in the region
Economy2 days ago
Covid-19 Create more Challenges for Industrial Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in Pakistan
Science & Technology2 days ago
FLATOD-19 – Flexible Tourism Destinations: An innovative management tool for visitors and destinations
Americas3 days ago
Fighting Existential Angst: Vainly Seeking “Therapy” On The Social Networks