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Gulf Sands Shift as Anchors of Regional Security Loosen

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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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S-400 Ballistic Missile Defence System and South Asian Strategic Stability Dynamics

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The actual use of nuclear weapons by the two south Asian nuclear rivals has been barred since overt nuclearization and the sense of mutual vulnerability is there. The mutual vulnerability entails that the two states has the power and capability to attack each other but due to the fear of terrible relation in response, they refrained from indulging in such activity, and the nuclear deterrence prevails, which becomes the reason for regional stability. India, however in its pursuit to attain regional hegemony and prestige, trying to remove this sense of mutual vulnerability by going for the aggressive military force postures and attainment of technology. India intends for a multi-layered defensive shield, and has indigenously developed a part of it, and has attained the technology form US, Russia, and Israel as well in order to complete its four –layered defensive shield, in its capital New Delhi and Mumbai. This pursuit of BMD system can create a false sense of security in the minds of Indian policy makers, and that could destabilize the region as they could go for any aggressive action against Pakistan, with the intention of defeating enemy at every level.

Besides the procurement of Israeli Iron Dome system, India has acquired Russain S-400 Triumf Air Defence System as well, in $5.43 billion deal between India and Russia, in 2016. The delivery of this system has recently been started. The S-400 system is developed by the Almaz Central Design of Russia and can primarily engage the cruise missiles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and aircrafts, at an altitude of 30km and 400km in the range.

The introduction of ballistic missile defence system in South Asia can make the already volatile region even more unstable, by increasing the chances of war in the region. The acquisition of such system will make India even more aggressive and could potentially lead to instability. India could potentially attack Pakistan’s Political, economic and strategic sites, with a view that they can halt the attack in response to that, which is really absurd.

India is trying to destabilize the deterrence equation, and hence Pakistan has to take appropriate steps before hand in order to maintain the credibility of its deterrence. Pakistan, keeping in view the economic constraints has not indulged in the development of BMD System, but is looking for more viable options to maintain the strategic stability in the region.

Though BMD system has some vulnerability as well, as no system could give 100% protection, as it is effective against the UAVs, aircrafts and cruise missiles, and not against the ballistic missiles, hence, the credibility get undermined. Moreover, India will be only protecting a few cities under this umbrella, and not the whole of the country falls under this, which will spark outrage amongst the Indians as well. Furthermore, given the short flight time between the two countries, the debris can still fall on the Indian side, causing damage over there as well. Moreover, the efficacy of Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) can’t be undermined, as BMD can hit only one missile at a time, and the MIRVs or the launch of multiple missiles simultaneously, BMD wouldn’t be able to intercept them all, which undermines the credibility of the BMD System.

The end of cold war gave rise to the regional hegemonic mindset, to which South Asia also became the victim. This approach has become the reason for regional chaos and instability. India continues to aspire its hegemonic behavior, continuously indulge Pakistan in conventional and unconventional arms race, the negative impact of BMD will also be driven in South Asia by compelling the vertical arms proliferation, which will further the instability in the already volatile region. Though, Ballistic Missile Defence System is a defensive technology, but India wants to exploit it offensively against Pakistan, by creating a false sense of security and going aggressively towards Pakistan, and to exploit the strategic, economic and political assets for bargain. Furthermore, BMD also undermines the core of regional stability which is the concept of deterrence. The exclusion of the phenomenon of nuclear deterrence will accentuate the arms readiness, and ‘use it or lose it’ strategy by the other state for its protection. Hence, it could prove to trigger nuclear war in the South Asian region.

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Bangladesh-France Defence Cooperation in the New Era of Geopolitics

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The journey of Bangladesh-France bilateral relations started from 14th February 1972 when France recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign state. On 17 March 1972, Bangladesh opened its resident Diplomatic Mission in Paris. France extended its valuable support of the government and people of the Republic of France during the War of Liberation in 1971. The people of France spontaneously came forward, under the leadership of the renowned French thinker and philosopher André Malraux, to mobilize international public opinion in support of the Liberation War in 1971. Since then, the relations have been going through a solid base of mutual cooperation involving high-level political visits and mutual understanding. Responding to the invitation of the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina has completed an official visit to France on 9-14 November 2021. The visit came when the bilateral relationship is ready to proceed to the next level given the issues and development of the engagement with progress in areas of the economy, trade as well as prospects of defence cooperation.

Notably, bilateral trade between Bangladesh and France is growing steadily. The two-way trade stands close to US$2 billion, France is now Bangladesh’s 5th largest export destination. Readymade garments alone account for around 90% of Bangladeshi export earnings from France, and French exports to Bangladesh include spare parts for aircraft and vessels, naval ships. In South Asia, Bangladesh is the largest support receiver of AFD (Agency France Development). Moreover, the visit has been remarkable when the European countries namely Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands are flocking to strike defence cooperation and France is showing enthusiasm after the formation of AUKUS on the one hand, and Bangladesh is stepping forward to define its defence and security cooperation through technology transfer, development of indigenous capability of defence equipment. It has also been marked as a shift in the foreign policy approach of Bangladesh.

The Defence arragements

France and Bangladesh are now highlighting their shared will to develop and deepen all aspects of their partnership from economic to strategic security. The visit of PM Sheikh Hasina demonstrates how both the countries emphasise transforming the traditional relations into defence cooperation. Having accorded a warm reception at Elysee Palace on the first day of her five-day visit to France, PM Sheikh Hasina sat for a discussion with her counterpart French President Macron to further the current pace of relations. On the 9th November 2021, both the leaders signed a letter of intent (LoI) to mark the defence cooperation reaching in next level. The LoI includes a) capacity building, b) technology transfer, c) training facilities and d) providing defence equipment based on the needs expressed and each party’s ability to respond to them. To that end, both countries agreed to strengthen dialogue and continue their cooperation which was launched during the visit.

Besides, Bangladesh Civil Aviation Authority has signed an agreement with France Civil Aviation Authority to strengthen the cooperation in knowledge sharing and training of employees. It thus will help organize different events including aviation safety which is mentionable progress in the field of civil aviation of Bangladesh. As Bangladesh is setting about developing aviation and aeronautical capacity building to advance indigenous defence and military equipment, the defence deal marking technology transfer, knowledge sharing as well as capacity building will be of great importance for Bangladesh. Moreover, it is also a remarkable achievement of Bangladesh foreign policy in striking such an ambitious and bold arrangement with France.  

Significance of the defence cooperation

The recent defence and security arrangement between Bangladesh and France signifies profound importance in respect of political directions, geopolitical dynamism, geostrategic calculations and overall foreign policy moves. First, the defence deal denotes the rising political importance of Bangladesh in the global arena as the global power like France attaches priority to Bangladesh in South Asia and the Bay of Bengal region. Notably, the warm welcome to PM Sheikh Hasina in the Elysee Palace is a timely recognition of Bangladesh. Second, from the strategic point of view, the deal stipulates the growing geopolitical significance of Bangladesh amid shifting global power centre from Europe and North America to the Asia-Pacific region where Bangladesh is at the strategic juncture in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The momentum has been created for at least two reasons: a) the confluence of strategic interest of both the countries in maritime security and blue economy put forward by a regional and global shift in strategic dimensions i.e. IPS, FOIP, BRI, QUAD, b) rising economies and flourishing markets in the region is turning the global market and supply chain into lucrative one to be flocked in here.

Third, it is notable that the major powers of the world including Europe, in recent years, have been placing increasing importance on defence cooperation with Bangladesh. Germany, France, Italy and Spain have become increasingly interested in supplying high-tech weapons when Bangladesh has taken the initiative of modernizing its armed forces through the “Forces Goal-2030” programme. During PM visit to France, Eric Trapier, CEO of Dassault discussed selling Dassault Rafale, a French twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft. Fourth, as a common objective of both countries is to maintain regional peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, the defence cooperation thus will further the shared principles. Both countries, therefore, jointly expressed their support for counter-terrorism efforts and agreed to enhance their cooperation. It has been more salient while the South-Asian security architecture is going through a constant change after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. The deal is addressed to counter the growing re-rise of the threats of terrorism as Bangladesh has a policy priority to halt the spread of terrorism. Finally, the defence cooperation along with the LoI will have positive impacts on further development in non-traditional security like climate change, trafficking and socio-economic and trade engagement.

Facing a new era of geopolitics

First, going beyond the traditional approach of economic diplomacy, this visit has heralded a new era in foreign policy initiating the foundation of defence diplomacy. It has proved that Bangladesh is rising as a middle power with its growing importance in the global order. Second, as economic development extends the policy orientation to defence engagement, therefore, the visit has demonstrated that Bangladesh is being regarded as the rising economic power that is paving the way for consolidating its position in the world. Third, global recognition of Bangladesh as a crucial partner in the regional and international arena has also been proved by it. Now, the world is recognizing Bangladesh as an important player in world politics and diplomacy that once was being ridiculed by some Western powers. Fourth, it has facilitated the bilateral engagement with powerful states and obviously, it will extend interests when the joint statement stipulates the very nature and development of bilateral relations in areas of the economy, business, and investment.

Fifth, significantly, Bangladesh can exploit the opportunity created by the visit to further its policy in repatriating the Rohingya while France has extended its warm hands to Bangladesh. In thejoint statement both the states have underscored the need to ensure funding for the UN’s Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya in Bangladesh and to enable their voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return to Myanmar as soon as possible. Notably, in response to Bangladesh’s request to take the Rohingya issue to the UN Security Council, France has assured that they would remain beside Bangladesh until the permanent solution of the Rohingya crisis. This is an outstanding achievement of Bangladesh’s diplomatic manoeuvre. 

Sixth, Bangladesh as a geopolitically and geo-strategically important country in the Indo-Pacific region, has once again been proved, when the world powers are trying to court Bangladesh in engaging in the Indo-pacific alliance and France is not an exception to it. Seventh, the defence deal proves that Bangladesh has changed its policy directives by diversifying its exporters of defence equipment that signifies the policy autonomy of Bangladesh. Arguably, when there are larger options, there are bigger opportunities, signifying the policy efficiency and sustainability in strategic manoeuvres. Finally, amid the great power competition in the region and especially in the Bay of Bengal, the defence cooperation will provide profound significance to Bangladesh as it signals something to other powers in the region. In brief, the visit will facilitate cooperation in other areas like economy, trade, climate change, combating terrorism when Bangladesh foreign policy priorities are giving emphasis on economic diplomacy, climate cooperation, sustainable development, maritime security, attracting FDI as well as boosting trade.            

In conclusion, it can be argued that this visit will turn a new chapter in further strengthening the bilateral partnership between France and Bangladesh. As more European powers – France, Germany, Italy and Spain want the benefits of economic diplomacy using the channels of defence as well as economic sectors, Bangladesh can grab the opportunity. This visit will open up new paths for increasing cooperation and taking Bangladesh-France relations to a new height. That will be beneficial for both countries, considering the changing geopolitical realities and economic objectives. PM Sheikh Hasina’s visit has reflected the changing dynamics of Bangladesh foreign policy priority by putting a timely emphasis on defence cooperation considering strategic, geopolitical as well as economic points of views.   

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U.S. Withdrawal from INF Treaty: Policy Implications for China

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INF, “the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty”, was initially signed between Russia and USA in 1987. The treaty sought to demolish a whole category of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons; the ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles whose range varies between 500 to 5500 km.  Eventually, both U.S. and Soviet Union demolished 2692 ground operative ballistic missiles.

After approximately 23 years, in 2014, US allegedly held Russia accountable of its violation of the treaty, the “not to possess, produce, or flight test… and not to produce launchers of ground missiles” clause.  After repeated allegations, by February’19, President Trump decided to exit this treaty, mainly due to two reasons; the Russian non-compliance to the treaty and the threats from China’s growing intermediate-range missile arsenal. In response, Russia also withdrew from INF treaty.

China’s Response to US Withdrawal

U.S. immediately tried expanding the accord to include China to the treaty and restrict its growing ballistic missile arsenal, meanwhile, China opposed both US withdrawal and its intentions to extend the accord. According to China’s foreign military spokesperson, “making an issue out of China on withdrawing from the treaty is totally wrong.”

It should be kept in mind that China since mid-1990’s developed its huge arsenal of more than 2000 ground launched ballistic missiles, specifically, for its military strategy to counter U.S. forces if a regional conflict breaks out and USA tries to interfere, such as a territorial conflict in Taiwan or at any of its claimed islands in East and South China Seas.  Chinese believe that U.S. withdrawal from the treaty poses threat to the regional and strategic stability as U.S. would now possess a more aggressive nuclear policy. It could now be expected that U.S. would deploy land based ballistic missiles in East Asia which were fortunately banned under the INF Treaty.

Policy Implications for China 

  1. Foreign Policy Implications;

China, after the withdrawal of U.S. from INF treaty, should work on strengthening its alliances with countries of East Asia, especially Japan and South Korea. Because it can be very well predicted that Japan, being a US ally, would be pressurized and hence allow U.S. missiles on its bases to deter China. Such an alliance can only be diplomatically countered on the basis of mutual interests. The ultimate goal should be to keep U.S. interference out of Asia.

Other than that, levels of transparency should be maintained in foreign policy decisions, because high number of missiles, which can be armed with both conventional and nuclear explosives can create doubts, thus contributing to the risk of escalation in a military conflict.

  •  Defense Policy & Military Up gradation;

China can respond to such a withdrawal through its military capability up gradation; ensuring the survivability of its nuclear weapons, achieving command and control over modern ICBMs, introducing the use MIRVs, and by constructing and deploying advance nuclear submarines. Besides these, China can indulge in cyber weapons to suppress US command, communication and control systems.

China now must start working for the effective and efficient development of its nuclear triad, as its SSBNs, the ballistic missile submarines are not any competition to the U.S. ones.

  •  Economic/ Trade Policy Implication;

China is already growing to be a regional hegemon through both its hard and soft power capabilities. It is now in its best interest to expand its economic ties and invest in its foreign trade rather than in expanding its military arsenal, because China already has enough military capability to deter US. Furthermore, by withdrawing from INF, U.S. has only contributed in the quantitative increase of missiles and not qualitative, as US already had its sea and air missile deployed in the Asian region which are certainly more effective than ground ones.

There is also a high chance that by extending trade incentives to Japan and South Korea, China can diplomatically persuade them into not giving U.S. the access to their strategic bases. Japan had already opposed to U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, and according to its traditions, local governments have a say in foreign decision-making process, which of course are made through public consent, and it is noted that public sentiments in Japan are against the deployment of U.S. missiles into Japan’s territory.

In case of South Korea, it already has faced China’s economic and diplomatic sanctions of around $7 billion due to the deployment of US THAAD against North Korea, and now it wouldn’t want the same by allowing U.S. the access again to their strategic bases, this time directly targeting China. 

Conclusion:

It can be argued that U.S. withdrawal from the treaty was biased, and its plans for deployment of ground-based cruise missiles into Asian region are provocative, which can certainly destabilize the balance of the region, cause military confrontation between both the US and China, which can have high chances of escalation and can also certainly initiate an arms race.

It would be in better interest of super power states to diplomatically negotiate such matters and come up with an extended version of INF Treaty in order to contribute for the better cause of arms control and eventually disarmament.

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