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Gulf Sands Shift as Anchors of Regional Security Loosen

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China and the Gulf states are in the same boat as they grapple with uncertainty about regional security against the backdrop of doubts about the United States’ commitment to the region.

Like the Gulf states, China has long relied on the US defense 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 signaled 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 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.

A rejiggered architecture would likely embed rather than exclude the US defense umbrella primarily designed to protect conservative energy-rich monarchies against Iran and counter militancy.

In contrast to China and Russia, Gulf states, as a matter of principle, favor identifying Iran as the enemy and have cold shouldered proposals for a non-aggression agreement. But for that they need the United States to be a reliable partner that would unconditionally come to their defense at whatever cost.

For its part, China goes to great lengths to avoid being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts. Adopting a different approach, Russia has put forward a plan for a multilateral security structure based on a non-aggression understanding that would include Iran.

No doubt, China, unlike Russia, wants to postpone the moment in which it has no choice but to become involved in Gulf security. However, China could find itself under pressure sooner rather than later depending on how Gulf perceptions of risk in the continued reliance on the United States evolve.

One factor that could propel things would be a change of guard in the White House as a result of the US election in November.

Democratic presumptive candidate Joe Biden, as president, may strike a more internationalist tone than Donald J. Trump, though a Biden administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia could prove to be more strained. Similarly, Mr. Biden’s focus, like that of Mr. Trump, is likely to be China rather than the Middle East.

By the same token, China’s appraisal of its ability to rely on the US in the Gulf could change depending on how mounting tensions with the US and potential decoupling of the world’s two largest economies unfolds.

China’s increased security engagement in Central Asia may well be an indication of how it hopes to proceed in the Gulf and the broader Middle East. China has stepped up joint military exercises with various Central Asian nations while its share of the Central Asian arms market has increased from 1.5 percent in 2014 to 18 percent today.

Founded in 2001 as a Central Asian security grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has expanded its relationships in South Asia and the Caucasus, and admitted Iran as an observer.

Referring to China’s infrastructure, telecommunications, and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to link the Eurasian landmass to the People’s Republic, China and Central Asia scholar Raffaello Pantucci explained that: “China is expanding its security role in Central Asia to protect its interests in the region and is increasingly unwilling to abrogate security entirely to either local security forces or Russia.”

“By doing so, Beijing is demonstrating an approach that could be read as a blueprint for how China might advance its security relations in other BRI countries,”  Mr. Pantucci wrote.

Central Asia may find it easier than the Gulf to accommodate the Chinese approach.

The problem for most of the Gulf states is that taking Chinese and Russian concerns into account in any new security arrangement would have to entail paradigm shifts in their attitudes toward Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which has recently made overtures to Iran, insist that any real détente has to involve a halt to Iranian support for proxies in various Middle Eastern countries as well as a return to a renegotiated agreement that would curb not only the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program but also its development of ballistic missiles.

Caught between the rock of perceived US unreliability and the hard place of Chinese and Russian geopolitical imperatives, smaller Gulf states, including the UAE, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, are hedging their bets by cautiously reaching out to Iran in different ways.

They hope that the overtures will take them out of the firing line should either Iran or the United States, by accident or deliberately, heighten tensions and/or spark a wider military confrontation.

To be sure, various Gulf states have different calculations. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have adopted the most hardline position toward Iran. Oman and Qatar have long maintained normal relations, while the UAE and Kuwait have made limited overtures.

In the short run, Gulf states’ realization of China and Russia’s parameters could persuade them to maintain their levels of expenditure on weapons acquisitions. And, in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to pursue the development of a domestic defense industry, despite the economic fallout of the pandemic, the drop of oil and gas prices, and the shrinking of energy markets.

Probably, so will recent Iranian military advances. Iran last week publicly displayed what is believed to be an unmanned underwater vehicle that would allow the Revolutionary Guards’ navy to project greater power – because of its long-range, better integrated weapons systems – and more efficiently lay underwater mines.

The vehicle put Iran in an even more elite club than the one it joined in April when it successfully launched a military satellite, a capability only a dozen countries have. When it comes to unmanned underwater vehicles, Iran rubs shoulder with only three countries: the United States, Britain, and China.

Iran’s advances serve two purposes: they highlight the failure of the United States’ two-year-old sanctions-driven maximum pressure campaign to force Iran’s economy on its knees, and, together with massive US arms sales to Gulf countries, they fuel a regional arms race.

To be sure, Russia and China benefit from the race to a limited degree too.

In the ultimate analysis, however, the race could contribute to heightened tensions that risk putting one more nail in the coffin of a US-dominated regional architecture. That in turn could force external powers like China to engage whether they want to or not.

“China is quickly learning that you can’t trade and invest in an unstable place like the Middle East if you don’t have the means to protect your interests,” said Israeli journalist David Rosenberg. “Where business executives come, warships and commando units follow, and they will follow big.”

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Defense

The Chinese Navy: A new force is rising in the East

Themistoklis Z. Zanidis

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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.

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Who Exactly Fights For The UN-backed Sarraj Government?

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The latest turn of the tide in the Libyan conflict ended in the forces loyal to the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj pushing back the Libyan National Army and establishing full control over the capital Tripoli and the surrounding areas. Coverage of these developments in Western media was shaped along the tune of justice being restored by legitimate forces. Is that narrative off-key, and what exactly are these ostensibly legitimate forces?

First and foremost, the recent successes achieved by the GNA were only made possible by military support provided by Turkey, who supplied Sarraj with drones, military advisors and Syrian fighters recruited among the Turkish proxies notorious for their criminal tendencies. Contrary to the narrative enforced by the West depicting the GNA militias as a legitimate regular army, in reality these forces are little more than a bunch of criminals and radical elements financed by the Turkish intelligence.

Knowing this, it makes sense that the GNA forces resort to any means, including those explicitly forbidden by the international humanitarian law. The GNA supporters, however, choose to ignore these crimes turning a blind eye to the violations of Geneva conventions committed both by the fighters and their backers.

Finding evidence of these crimes presents no difficulty, as the fighters make little effort to hide them. In fact, they often unknowingly document their own atrocities. Perhaps the most telling example is the video published on the official Facebook page of the militia named Tripoli Protection Force that features armed members of the group driving in a vehicle marked with Red Crescent symbols. The raid showed on video ended in capture of a number of people who were promptly declared agents of the LNA. The video is still online.

When the GNA militants are not busy driving medical vehicles, they engage in torture of civilians such as these Egyptian workers who were violently beaten and abused by the fighters. The Egyptian nationals had been working in Tarhuna before the town was captured by the militias loyal to the GNA.

UN expressed “deep concern” over the detention and torture of Egyptians in Tarhuna, urging the authorities in Tripoli to investigate the incident. In its turn, Egypt took offense and claimed that it will launch an independent investigation, emphasizing that it is ready to make a strong response to the GNA aggression.

These examples are but a small part of the violations committed by the GNA militias. Despite the support it receives from the UN and its foreign backers, the GNA will not be able to contribute to a safer, stable Libya, unless it gives up on the radicals who do not abide by the law. It has long been evident for everyone except the GNA allies abroad.

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Sino-American Rivalry: Impact on South Asian Security

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The US-China relationship is an extremely complex one; it is driven by many different dimensions each dimension has got its own logic. The United States of America, being a dominant power of the world, has engaged itself with many nations throughout the world. Mainly it has engaged itself in those regions of the world from where it considers any entity could pose a threat to its interests as well as its dominance. Washington has remained an influential state because of its active involvement in most parts of the world for its national interest, particularly economic benefits. However, China being a re-emerging power, wants to influence the world through its engagement with more nations employing initiatives such as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or via economic engagement with various nations. However, the nature of relations between Washington and Beijing has changed ever since Donald Trump’s presidency. Under the Trump Administration, the US has shifted from viewing China as a strategic partner to a strategic competitor. There are multiple areas where Trump Administration has challenged Beijing, such as trade and economy, Asia-Pacific region, technology, Chinese military modernization, South Asian region, and Beijing’s pursuit for alternative global markets.

In this regard, the South Asian region assumes much importance when it comes to great powers politics such as the US and China. Over the time, the occurrence of events, incidents and initiatives such as 9/11 and Chinese BRI have added more significance to the region for great powers politics. On one hand, the incident of 9/11 provided a reason for the US to engage itself in the region actively, particularly Afghanistan, under the pretext of the War on Terror or security issues. On the other hand, active Chinese involvement through BRI compelled the United States to increase its influence by engaging with more nations in South Asia for containing China and its initiative. When it comes to South Asian security, three countries, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, hold much importance in determining the security of South Asia. The presence of American forces in Afghanistan after the incident of 9/11 has presented a dilemma for Beijing. Because it considers presence of the US troops at its backyard as a severe threat. In this regard, China wants the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan to fulfil its desires by engaging more actively with Kabul for its development and stability through BRI or other economic engagement.

Moreover, peace and stability in Kabul is Beijing’s fundamental interest because chaos in Afghanistan could trigger extremism, terrorism, and fundamentalism resultantly that will threaten not only the peace, security and stability of the region but can spill over into the adjacent Xinjiang region of China. However, Afghanistan is considered the “graveyard of empires” therefore, China does not want to risk its position by getting involved in Afghan affairs that are not in the interest of the people of the country. Similarly, China supported the “Peace Deal” between the US and Taliban representatives on February 29, 2020, in Doha, Qatar. After the US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is highly likely that China is going to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan further because it fears the return of Uygur militants in Xinjiang after a withdrawal of US troops. While the United States wants to engage India in the region to counter China, in this regard, since long, the US has been supporting Delhi in defense and trade ties to minimize the influence of Beijing in South Asia. As the US former Secretary of State John Kerry said that America wants to see India in a more dominant role in South Asia. However, American support towards India and giving it special waivers not only generate serious threats for China but also for Pakistan. Similarly, China and Pakistan have been trying to further strengthen their relations by increasing cooperation in multiple fields via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

As far as the American history about problem-solving of this region is concerned, it portrays bad picture where the US has the most significant stake in spoiling the regional peace along with generating various problems such as the birth of terrorism, gun culture, deaths and destruction, economic instability and many other issues as well. The emergence of gun culture and terrorism within Pakistan started after its alliance with the US during Afghan War and in War against Terror. It is mostly believed that the growing Sino-American rivalry is one of the primary reasons behind the worsening security conditions in South Asia. However, the friction between both countries could trigger new conflicts resultantly it would push the region into turmoil. Any misadventure created because of American support and favour to India and its policies of sidelining Pakistan and China in Afghan issue at this stage could further escalate the tensions among regional states resultantly invoking threats for the peace and stability of the region. In this regard, there is a dire need that both the US and China review their policies concerning South Asia and try to avoid conflict or misadventure for the sake of peace, stability and development of the region.

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