Russia’s Libyan strategy has been rather contradictory since the 2011 February revolution in the country. Yet the Kremlin’s refusal to back any one party to the conflict, its constant manoeuvring and zigzagging on the Libyan field ultimately brought Russia unexpected dividends, as this strategy allowed the country, together with Turkey, to lead the settlement of the Libyan crisis. Significantly, the decisions that the Russian leadership openly calls mistakes today (then President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev refusing to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973 about a no-fly zone over Libya) have in fact boosted Russia’s image in the eyes of every single Libyan political force in power since the February revolution and the first civil war. Consequently, the parties to today’s Libyan conflict hold no bias or resentment against Russia, unlike, for instance, the Syrian opposition. This makes it far easier to maintain contacts with Libyans, even though they do not understand Russia’s repeated statements condemning the destruction of the Jamahiriya and the overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi.
The Kremlin rather quickly and unconditionally recognized the legitimacy of both the National Transitional Council in September 2011 and the elections to the General National Congress (GNC) in July 2012. This allowed Moscow to launch a constructive dialogue with the new authorities of the post-Gaddafi Libya. At that time, Russia was primarily concerned with the prospects of implementing the large economic projects that had been agreed upon with Muammar Gaddafi. These included, for instance, the construction of the Sirte–Benghazi railway at a total cost of €2.5 billion (Russian Railways had already spent RUB 10 billion on preliminary work under the contract when the civil war broke out). MTC contracts between the two countries that could not be implemented because of the war were estimated at USD 4 billion, while unfulfilled oil and gas contracts were said to be worth USD 3.5 billion. Consequently, Russia’s military-industrial complex was interested in the restrictions on arms deliveries to Libya being lifted as soon as possible, while Russia’s Gazprom and Tatneft were interested in resuming their work in the country. In turn, Tripoli assured Moscow that all agreements would be honoured. Still, the new domestic political storms battering Libya prevented these assurances from becoming a reality.
The Islamists and the Military: Russia Banks on the Military
Despite the constructive nature of the dialogue between Moscow and Tripoli, the background of their interaction was negatively affected by the Kremlin’s attitude to the events of the Arab Spring as a whole. The Russian authorities had an emphatically negative attitude to all manifestations of Islamism and to the revolutionary events that resulted in the strengthening of the Islamist component of the Arab world. In addition, Moscow became increasingly suspicious of the new Libyan authorities, since they adhered to the ideas of political Islam and systematically introduced Islamic principles into the Libyan political agenda. Curiously, Moscow’s antagonism against Islamism often prompted Russian media and experts to falsely represent the late Muammar Gaddafi as a secular leader and contrast him with the new Libyan authorities dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization). Muammar Gaddafi had instituted Sharia law in Libya, and many scholars defined his ideology as “Islamic socialism”. When the GNC adopted a resolution in late 2013 enshrining Sharia as the foundation of Libyan legislation, the Council was merely demonstrating continuity with the country’s previously established legal system. However, this step could hardly be taken well in Russia.
Consequently, when General Khalifa Haftar (who attempted to assume dictatorship during the February revolution, but found himself rejected as the commander of the revolutionary forces) incited another mutiny against the GNC in May 2014, Moscow was sympathetic towards his cause. Like the majority of the global community, Russia recognized the elections to the House of Representatives, a new legislature that was to replace the General National Congress.
The elections themselves prompted many questions. For instance, they were essentially carried out at the point of the “bayonets” of Haftar’s forces and took place against the backdrop of continued fighting between Haftar’s forces and GNC supporters. As a result, voter turnout was only 18 per cent (compared to 65 per cent in 2012), and the Libyan Supreme Court declared the elections invalid. However, that did not prevent the UN and the global community from recognizing the elections and declaring the House of Representatives a legitimate legislature. Consequently, the international community put the GNC (that refused to dissolve itself) outside the legal framework. At that point, a duality of power emerged in Libya and the second civil continued between the Libya Dawn coalition supporting the GNC and Operation Dignity launched by General Haftar and the Libyan National Army he had formed, which acted on behalf of the newly elected House of Representatives. The situation was exacerbated by the many hotbeds of terrorist activity in the country led, for instance, by Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization), Islamic State (IS, banned in Russia as a terrorist organization) and other groups fighting against both Libya Dawn and the LNA.
Libya’s Nasser or Libya’s Sadat?
The Kremlin was particularly sympathetic towards the LNA and its commander. They were secular Arab forces led by military people who had been educated in the Soviet Frunze Military Academy. Moscow could understand these people and had grown accustomed to interacting with them since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Consequently, Russia unequivocally supported Operation Dignity. However, the LNA’s initial drive was fizzling, while most objectives still remained unrealized, and it was becoming clear that at the present stage Khalifa Haftar would not become “Libya’s el-Sisi.” This prompted increased pessimism on the part of Moscow’s and mistrust towards the self-legitimized rebel commander.
There were several reasons for this. Unlike Bashar al-Assad, Khalifa Haftar had never severed his ties with the United States and the West. On the contrary, he had attempted to gain their support and always received it. The American, French and British special operations units aided Haftar in his operations against al-Qaeda and radical IS Islamists in Benghazi. Russia was fully aware that Haftar had American citizenship and had lived in the United States for a long time while at the same time being a member of the Libyan opposition to Gaddafi’s regime. His ties to the CIA thus appeared obvious. These factors probably prevented Moscow from giving practical aid to the LNA, despite the latter’s repeated requests.
Additionally, the second civil war in Libya reflected the global trends in the Arab world, where the Turkey–Qatar duo (and the Muslim Brotherhood they supported) was locked in a fight against the “triple alliance” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that had initially spearheaded Haftar’s mutiny and was the LNA’s chief sponsor. At this stage, it appeared too risky for Moscow to become enmeshed in these convoluted coalitions. Consequently, Moscow supported the Libyan Political Agreement that the UN developed in December 2015 and which was signed in Skhirat (Morocco). The agreement was finally adopted by the parties to the conflict on the night of April 5–6, 2016, when the General National Congress in Tripoli transferred power to the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj. The GNA committed to hold elections in Libya within a year of the signing of the agreement. The start of the peace process that put an end to the second civil war opened many more opportunities for Russia to boost its standing in Libya without directly or indirectly participating in the conflict. Additionally, Moscow was occupied with its military operation in Syria that at that point was far from being a success.
Islamists in Moscow
In the post-Skhirat period, Russia was able to largely move away from unconditional support for the LNA and started to develop ties with the Fayez al-Sarraj-led GNA. Soon after entrenching himself in Tripoli and gaining recognition from most groups within Libya Dawn, al-Sarraj came into conflict with the House of Representatives in Tobruk. Having failed to obtain guarantees that he would be given a high-ranking office in the new government, Haftar pressured its deputies to not give their vote of confidence to the GNA. Tellingly, Moscow was able to establish contacts at that time with various Islamist groups that had previously been parts of the Libya Dawn coalition and now supported al-Sarraj. Their role in the counter-terrorist activities was conducive to such developments. In particular, Misrata brigades conducted a successful operation to eliminate the Libyan branch of IS, which chose the city of Sirte as its “capital,” which was captured in 2016. In April 2017, the leaders of the Misrata’s Islamist command, Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos, who had led the operation in Sirte, visited Russia and met with Russian diplomats and deputies. In April, Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East and North Africa Mikhail Bogdanov met with al-Sarraj in Tripoli.
While the GNA’s forces were distracted by fighting IS, Haftar, seized the opportunity and in October 2016 captured the ports of the so-called “oil crescent.” The lion’s share of Libya’s hydrocarbon exports went through those ports. Thus, Haftar once again established himself as the key figure on the Libyan field. After capturing the ports, the House of Representatives conferred on him the rank of field marshal. His standing was further bolstered after the Battle of Benghazi (that had drawn out for years) finally ended. Haftar presented it as the decisive contribution to the defeat of radical Islamism in Libya. Moscow had previously steered a very balanced course, maintaining equidistant relations with the authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk. But this course began to change, with Moscow working to accommodate Haftar’s interests. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation and the LNA leadership established good relations. RSB- Group was the first to go to Libya (at that stage, they carried out “classical” PMC missions such as clearing minefields). Russian lobbyists probably began working with the field marshal, and consequently, the Russian media depicted him as “Gaddafi’s successor” (omitting his entire career in the opposition, starting from his surrender in Chad to his participation in the February revolution), which was supposed to create a positive image of him in the eyes of Russians. Haftar was also positioned as a guarantor of the preservation of the secular state in Libya which, as we have already mentioned, did not exist before. At the same time, the media purposefully omitted the field marshal’s ties to Libya’s radical Salafists, who constituted large parts of the LNA’s units and committed various crimes, including lynching their opponents and destroying Sufi mausoleums. Salafi sheiks led all the religions institutions affiliated with Haftar: the fatwa committee proclaimed Ramadan the “month of Jihad” (against the GNA), while Ibadi Muslims (who had long lived in Libya) were labelled “ infidels without dignity”.
Moscow and the Field Marshal’s “Waterloo”
When the LNA launched its Tripoli offensive in April 2019, Moscow intensified its involvement in Libyan affairs, gradually increasing its support for Haftar. This step was taken because Moscow had become less interested in the Syrian settlement. Moscow had succeeded in making a “comeback” in the Middle East and becoming a key player in the region. However, in order to confirm this status, Moscow needed to move beyond Syrian case, which had not brought Russia any significant economic dividends anyway. Moscow continues to play a double role in the Syrian conflict (as both a participant in the conflict and a mediator in its settlement), but has largely exhausted itself in terms of new foreign political dividends. Moscow’s interest in the Libyan settlement increased accordingly, and Libya began to eclipse Syria in Russia’s foreign policy.
During the battle for Tripoli, Moscow did attempt to maintain relations with all the parties to the Libyan conflict, but it was particularly interested in ensuring that Haftar and forces loyal to him remained the leading players on the Libyan field. Although Russia was not pleased with the prospects of a military leader whom it could not entirely trust establishing a personal dictatorship, the Kremlin expected Haftar and his supporters to have the final say in the post-conflict Libya, even if a certain balance remained and the field marshal’s opponents kept their places as legal political forces.
Turkey stepping up its military aid to Tripoli prevented this scenario from materializing. Ankara’s limited support for the GNA (including small shipments of weapons and sending several drones to the battle ground starting in May 2019) helped Libya’s governmental forces take Gharyan, the LNA’s principal base in the vicinity of Tripoli.
Unlike Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, Russia boosted its standing in Libya, in spite of the field marshal’s failures. First, Haftar’s military weakness and defeats made the LNA more dependent on Russian support. In January 2020, a phone call from Cairo or Abu Dhabi was enough to convince the field marshal to leave Moscow without signing the ceasefire agreement drafted by Russian and Turkish diplomats. But he could hardly afford such escapades four months later. While President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making threatening statements, PMCs (which the West believes to have arrived from Russia) remain the only buffer keeping the GNA’s forces from capturing Sirte and Jufra on the route to Tobruk and Benghazi. Russia–Turkey consultations are preventing the GNA from launching an offensive against these key areas. Second, Moscow had never banked on the field marshal as the unconditional winner in the civil war. Moreover, Haftar was not Russia’s only point of contact even within the East Libyan camp. In late April, Russia assisted Aguila Saleh, the Chairman of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, in drafting peace initiatives for resolving the conflict, as it simultaneously opposed Haftar’s attempts to usurp power and withdraw from the Skhirat Agreement in early May.
Libya was a main topic during the telephone conversation that took place between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on May 18. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted “the need to immediately resume the permanent truce and the intra-Libyan dialogue based on the resolutions of the Berlin International Conference on January 19, 2020.” Soon afterwards, Russian-speaking mercenaries began to leave the frontlines in the vicinity of Tripoli. The PMCs were withdrawn from Tarhuna and Bani Walid and sent to Jufra and Sirte, where the GNA’s offensive was stopped. By taking this step, Moscow could make Haftar more receptive to further peace initiatives, depriving him of support and showing the futility of further attempts to capture Tripoli. Without Russia’s support on the frontlines, the LNA was forced to retreat from many of its key positions near the Libyan capital. The possibility of this being intended to partially satisfy the demands of the GNA’s leader Fayez al-Sarraj cannot be ruled out. At the talks in Moscow Back in January 2020, al-Sarraj made the withdrawal of the LNA’s forces to their original position a condition of agreeing to the ceasefire and engaging in talks with the opponents.
In the final analysis, Russia has succeeded in beating both Cairo and Abu Dhabi in the game they played on the Libyan field and pushing them out of their central positions. The experience of working together that Moscow and Ankara gained during the Syrian settlement was rather successfully transferred into Libya and certainly played a positive role for Russia. This is why experts even talked for a while about Russia and Turkey pushing for an “Astana format” for Libya. Today, all signs point to Russia and Turkey further strengthening their standing in Libya, while el-Sisi’s demarches will hardly be able to diminish their role. Egypt’s unsuccessful attempts to act as a guarantor of the so-called “Cairo Declaration” have forced it to switch to a policy of direct threats against Ankara and Tripoli. Nevertheless, we should take into account the fact that the only thing holding up the frontlines in Sirte and Jufra is the mutual understanding between Russia and Turkey, and not the ultimatums made by Egypt after the GNA had suspended its offensive. Consequently, no matter what moves Cairo makes from here on in, Russia and Turkey are most likely to hold the keys to resolving the Libyan problem, and their efforts will apparently result in freezing the conflict. The political division of the country and the sluggish peace process will be preserved, while hydrocarbon resources will be managed jointly and the revenues distributed between Tripoli and Tobruk.
From our partner RIAC
A New Era in US-Jordan Relations
King Abdullah of Jordan is the first Arab leader who met American President Joe Biden at the White House. The visit has reaffirmed the strong and long-standing Jordan-US strategic partnership and reinvigorated the bilateral engagement for working together on security issues, and economic development on the basis of shared values and priorities. The King’s visit to Washington reaffirmed Jordan’s value as a reliable ally who plays a critical role for stability in a highly volatile region.
Jordan’s value is multi-dimensional and ranges from bilateral military cooperation, intelligence sharing and joint global counterterrorism operations including as a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve to deployment of almost three thousand (3,000) American troops to Jordan as part of the ongoing campaign to combat regional terrorism. The US has expanded military footprint to Jordan after Washington’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria and reduce military presence in the Turkish airbase of Incirlik. In addition, the kingdom’s geopolitical position in the heart of the Middle East provides a viable alternative for logistical support to the American military taking into consideration the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and close three bases in Qatar. Notably, the remaining supplies from the three Qatari bases along with the Support Mission have been transferred to Jordan and have become part of the Area Support Group-Jordan that operates as the Base Operations Support Integrator to back contingency operations and military-to-military engagements within the US Army Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Jordan’s value also stems from its critical role in addressing the overwhelming humanitarian needs created by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as well as in hosting almost two million registered Palestinian refugees.
Support of Two-state Solution
The fact that Jordan remains at peace with Israel and is a key interlocutor with the Palestinians adds to the kingdom’s reliability to mediate and advance initiatives that support the two-state solution. This presupposes the resetting of Jordan-Israel relations. Washington is well-placed to offer its good offices and help restore trust between the two neighboring countries. The twenty-seventh year Jordan-Israel peace treaty shows not only the possibilities for coordination and co-existence but also the ceilings to peace with Israel in the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A “cold peace” and quiet, limited cooperation are currently the maximum possibilities vis-a-vis a “warm peace” that will unlock Jordan-Israel cooperation and potential.
It is nevertheless noteworthy that the last five years have been discerned by the previous American administration’s lack of appreciation of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump peace proposal, known as “the Vision”, not only undermined the long-established aim of a two-state solution but also reinforced discussions over alternatives including a one state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; different measures of annexation, such as Israeli annexation of Area C in the West Bank; “exotic options” such as a federation in which Israel and Palestine share certain aspects of sovereignty; potential unilateral Israeli initiatives with most prevailing a Jordanian model, in which Jordan takes control of the West Bank and Palestinians are given Jordanian citizenship; and, reinforcement of the notion that “Jordan is “Palestine””.
Practically, Jordan can serve as honest broker in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but as the late King Hussein stated in an interview with The New York Times in 1991 “Jordan should not be, cannot be, will not be a substitute for the Palestinians themselves as the major aggrieved party on the Arab side in a process that leads to peace”. The cited statement is fully embraced by Jordan’s current leadership.
Acknowledgment of Jordan’s Custodianship
The public acknowledgement by the American President of the kingdom’s special role as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem is translated into a vote of confidence and a commendation for Jordan’s efficient safeguarding of religious sites for decades. As known, Amman pays the salaries of more than one thousand (1,000) employees of the Jerusalem Waqf Department and its custodianship role is carried out on behalf of all Islamic nations. The kingdom holds the exclusive authority of the Jordanian-appointed council, the Waqf, over the Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif and has spent over 1 billion dollars since 1924 for the administration and renovation of Al Aqsa mosque.
Jordan has admittedly served at multiple occasions as credible intermediary for Israel and the Palestinians to suspend tensions in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif and pursues a successful administration of religious funded schools favoring moderate religious education and religious tourism. Jordanian moderation has guaranteed co-existence of the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem at a time when on the contrary, counties like Turkey funnel millions of dollars in charity projects in Jerusalem promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Overall, Jordan’s custodianship has proved to be successful in maintaining delicate arrangements for the benefit of all religions and parties involved.
American Loan Guarantees
The King’s discussions with the American President also centered on the economic challenges exacerbated by the effect of the pandemic and the enhancement of bilateral economic cooperation. Admittedly, Jordan showed strong leadership and governance with early actions that reduced the coronavirus pandemic pressure on the kingdom’s health system. The Jordanian government imposed a nationwide lockdown and severe social distancing measures at a much earlier stage of the pandemic than other Middle East countries.
Jordan withstood the pandemic’s impact with minimal loss of life but with a significant cost to its economy. As of June 2020, most restrictions on economic activity were lifted turning Jordan into one of the first Arab countries to reopen. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has contracted in 2020 by 3.5 percent after growing 2 percent in 2019 due to losses in state revenues because of fewer remittances and a weakened tourism market.
To cope with the direct negative effects of the pandemic on its state budget, the Kingdom received $396 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The amount of finance has specifically helped address the country’s balance of payments needs and allowed for higher spending on healthcare, and assistance to households and companies most affected by the pandemic. Despite that the IMF provided in March 2020 another multi-year $1.3 billion loan package to Jordan, the pandemic has caused a $1.5 billion shortfall in its balance of payments.
This complex economic reality along with Jordan’s moderation in the Arab world justify continued robust annual American economic assistance to the kingdom in the form of budgetary support (cash transfer), USAID programs in Jordan, and loan guarantees. US cash assistance should increase in the coming years taking into consideration that it is directed to refugee support and to segments of the economy that are mostly affected by the pandemic like foreign debt payments and fuel import costs. Overall, a pledge should be made for Jordan in American congress for the authorization of moreUS sovereign loan guarantees that will help the kingdom weather the pandemic’s adverse medium-to-long-term effects on its economy. US sovereign loan guarantees will allow Jordan to issue debt securities that are fully guaranteed by the American government in capital markets, effectively subsidizing the cost for the Jordanian government to access financing.
It is also noticeable that in a genuine effort to help the kingdom contain the pandemic and safeguard public health, the American administration proceeded with the delivery of over 500 thousand covid-19 vaccines to Jordan highlighting American commitment to international vaccination programs including that of the kingdom.
US-Jordan Defense Partnership
The strategic US-Jordan defense relationship was reflected in the discussions that were conducted between the Jordanian King and the American President. American support for the modernization of Jordan’s F-16 fighter jets has been at the forefront of the agenda with the aim of achieving greater interoperability and effectiveness for the Jordanian Armed Forces. The American President recognized Jordan’s contribution to the successful international campaign to defeat ISIS and honored as an example of heroism the memory of captain Muath al-Kasasbeh who was executed in 2015 by the terrorist organization’s militants.
Jordan has suffered avowedly from terrorism throughout the years and works collectively at regional and international levels to eliminate all its forms. The kingdom lost two prime ministers, Haza’a Al-Majali and Wasfi Al-Tal, as victims of terrorism and experienced a series of terrorist attacks like the simultaneous suicide bombings against three hotels in Amman in November 2005 that led to the loss of life of American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian nationals.
In effect, Jordan is the third-largest recipient of annual American foreign aid globally, after Afghanistan and Israel. A Memorandum of Understanding on American foreign assistance to Jordan commits the United States to providing $1.275 billion per year over a five-year period for a total of $6.375 billion (FY2018-FY2022). Renegotiations on the next such agreement for FY2023-FY2027 is estimated that will aim at increasing the American commitment to Jordan, a key ally in the fight against international terrorism whose military should be in position to procure and maintain conventional weapons systems.
On the whole, Jordan is a steadfast security partner of the United States in the Middle East whose moderation and pragmatism helped the kingdom weather regional and world challenges. As 2021 and past years have showed, Jordan’s position as a bridge between the Levant and the Persian Gulf provides it a unique geopolitical standing, in a way that nowadays Amman is granted with a significant security, diplomatic and humanitarian role that signals a new era in US-Jordan relations.
Chinese FM Wraps Up his Visit to Egypt
Wang Yi, the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, visited Egypt on July 18, 2021, in El Alamein City, northwest Egypt. The Chinese Foreign Minister is the first foreign official to visit this strategic city.
Wang Yi met with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, during his visit to Egypt, and they discussed bilateral relations between the two countries. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and China. Egypt is the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with China and the first African country to do so. In the Arab world, the Islamic world, Africa, and developing countries, Egypt has long been one of China’s most important strategic partners. At the international level, the two countries mutually support one another. The meeting between Egypt’s Foreign Minister and China’s Foreign Minister focused on three main issues: the Covid-19 vaccine, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and international and regional issues such as Palestine and Syria
Both Egypt and China have a long history of cooperation and friendship. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19, the two countries’ relations were based on economic and trade cooperation, with China being Egypt’s first trading partner for the eighth year in a row since 2013, and the volume of trade exchange between the two countries exceeding $14.5 billion in 2020. However, as the outbreak Covid-19, cooperation between the two countries expanded to include medical cooperation. Egypt and China worked together to combat the virus. Egypt sent medical supplies to China, and China sent medical supplies and Chinese vaccine to Egypt. In addition, in December 2020, the two sides signed a cooperation agreement on COVID-19 Vaccine Production and China dispatched technical teams to Egypt to assist in the vaccine’s local manufacture. As a result, Egypt is considered Africa’s first vaccine manufacturer.
One Belt One Road Initiative
Egypt is an important strategic partner in building the Belt and Road Initiative. According to CGTN, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, stated that:” Egypt supports the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).” He added that Egypt is ready to strengthen cooperation with China in the fields of economy, trade, industry, science and technology, and expand human exchanges within the framework of the “Belt and Road Initiative.” One Belt and One Road Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of the twenty-first century, announced by President Xi Jinping during official visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan in 2013. Egypt was one of the first countries to participate in this initiative. In 2014, Egyptian President al-Sisi expressed in an interview that China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative was an “opportunity” for cooperation between China and Egypt. Egypt was willing to participate in it actively.
International and Regional Issues
Regarding the international and regional issues, the two sides exchanged views and coordinated positions on some issues as Palestine, Syria issues. It’s worth mentioning that Wang Yi paid a visit to Syria the day before his trip to Egypt, marking him the first Chinese official to visit Syria since the country’s civil war began. China supports the Syrian sovereignty and rejects foreign interference in Syria, and also rejects the regime change. The Egyptian Minister Sameh Shoukry also discussed with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi the GERD issue. According to Sky News, Shoukry explained Egypt and Sudan’s positions as two downstream countries, the importance of preserving the interests of all parties and not jeopardizing the downstream countries’ water security, and the importance of engaging in intensified negotiations under the auspices of the African Union presidency. The two sides signed an agreement on the Egyptian-Sino Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee at the end of their meeting.
Greater Middle East may force China to project military power sooner rather than later
China may have no short-term interest in contributing to guaranteeing security in parts of a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the East coast of Africa, but that does not prevent the People’s Republic from preparing for a time when it may wish to build on long-standing political and military relationships in various parts of the world to project power and maintain an economic advantage.
Determined to exploit the principle of allegedly win-win relationships that are underwritten by economics, trade, and investment as the solution to problems, China has so far delayed if not avoided bilateral or unilateral political and military engagement in conflicts beyond its borders.
The question is how long it can continue to do so.
China took a first baby step towards greater power projection with the creation in 2017 of its first overseas military base in the East African state of Djibouti, a rent-a-base nation that hosts multiple military facilities for among others the United States, France, and Japan and potentially Saudi Arabia. The base signals the importance China attributes to regions like the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.
A recent article in a Chinese military publication sheds further light on Chinese preparations for a day when it may have to project military might in different parts of the world. The article laid out Chinese thinking about the virtues of offering Middle Eastern, Asian, and African militaries and political elites training and educational opportunities.
“Students who can study in China are mostly local military and political elites or descendants of notable families. After they have studied and returned to their country, they have a high probability of becoming the top military and political leaders of the local country. This is very beneficial for China to expand its overseas influence and corresponding armaments exports,” the publication, Military Express, said.
The publication asserted that Chinese military academies were more attractive than their Western counterparts that impose “political conditions,” a reference to students having to hail from countries aligned with the West.
“Chinese military academy does a better job in this regard. There are no political conditions attached here. Foreign military students here learn Chinese strategies and tactics and learn to operate Chinese weaponry by themselves,” the publication said.
The publication failed to mention that China unlike Western producers also refrains from attaching political conditions to its arms sales like adherence to human rights.
Recent months have not been necessarily kind to Chinese aspirations of remaining aloof to conflict beyond its borders, suggesting that reality on the ground could complicate China’s strategic calculations.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to put an ultra-conservative religious regime in power on the border with Xinjiang, the north-western province where China is attempting to brutally Sinicize Turkic ethnic and religious identity.
Recent Taliban military advances have already bolstered ultra-conservative religious sentiment in neighbouring Pakistan that celebrates the group as heroes whose success enhances the chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.
“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.
Nine Chinese nationals were killed last week in an explosion on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan, a region more prone to attacks by religious militants than Baloch nationalists, who operate from the province of Balochistan and are responsible for the bulk of attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian nation.
It was the highest loss of life of Chinese citizens in recent years in Pakistan, the largest recipient of Chinese Belt and Road-related infrastructure and energy investments. China’s sees Pakistan as a key to the economic development of Xinjiang and part of its effort to Sinicize the region.
Indicating Chinese concern, China last month advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan and last week evacuated 210 Chinese nationals on a chartered flight. China last week delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Complicating Chinese calculations is the fact that both Russia and Turkey are maneuvering for different reasons to strengthen Turkic identity in the Caucasus that potentially would be more sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.
Turkey moreover may see Afghanistan as another stepping stone towards recreating a Turkic world. Turkey has reportedly asked Azerbaijan, whom Ankara supported in last year’s Caucasus war against Armenia, to contribute forces to a Turkish contingent that would remain in Afghanistan after the US and NATO withdrawal to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Turkish influence among Afghanistan’s Turkic minorities has been bolstered by the operation of Turkish schools, an increased number of Turkish scholarships, training of Afghan military and police personnel, the popularity of Turkish movies and television series, and efforts to mediate an end to conflict in the country.
The Taliban have rejected the continuation of a Turkish military presence that for the past six years was part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. The Taliban insisted that Turkish soldiers were “occupiers in Afghanistan” who should leave with NATO and US forces even if they were also representatives of a “great Islamic nation.”
In anticipation of a threatening development in Afghanistan, China quietly established a small military post in 2019 in the highlands of Tajikistan, a stone’s throw from where Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor meets Xinjiang.
More recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ji advised his interlocutors during a visit last week to Central Asia that going forward Chinese private military companies would play a greater role in securing Belt and Road-related strategic infrastructure projects.
Some analysts suggested that the Chinese companies would also be employed to train Central Asian militaries – a domain that was until now largely a Russian preserve.
In a similar vein, France’s withdrawal of its forces from West Africa steps up pressure on China to defend its overseas nationals and interests. Three Chinese construction workers were among five foreigners kidnapped by gunmen this weekend in southern Mali. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
All of this leaves aside the question of how long China will feel that it can rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf to secure the flow of energy and much of its trade against the backdrop of a reconfigured US regional commitment and increasingly strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
It also does not consider China’s ability to manage expectations of the People’s Republic’s willingness to engage, in some cases not only politically or militarily, but also economically.
That was evident during Mr. Wang’s most recent visit to the region, and particularly Syria, which for much of its civil war was home to Uighur jihadists who distinguished themselves in battle.
It was Mr. Wang’s second visit to the Middle East and North Africa in four months. Furthermore, Mr. Wang last week discussed Afghanistan and Gulf security with his Saudi counterpart on the sideline of a regional cooperation meeting in Uzbekistan.
Syrian officials have for domestic and foreign policy reasons long touted China as the imaginary white knight that would come to the rescue in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.
“China is far less interested in Syria than Syria is in China… Syria has never been a priority in China’s economy-driven approach to the Middle East,” noted scholars Andrea Ghiselli and Mohammed Al-Sudairi.
The scholars cautioned however that “the significant potential impact of narratives created by local actors in the context of international politics,” a reference to Syria’s projection of China as its saviour, cannot be ignored.
Implicit in the scholars’ conclusion is the notion that Chinese policy may in future increasingly be shaped as much by decision-making in Beijing as developments on the ground in a world in which powers compete to secure their interest and place in a new world order.
Ultimately, the fundamental question underlying all these push factors is, according to Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman, whether China has not only the capability and aspiration to become a superpower but also the will.
“If China is unwilling or unable to achieve a global military presence that rivals that of the US, it may have to find a new way of being a superpower – or give up on the ambition,” Mr. Rahman argues.
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