A 2-day academic hybrid conference organized in Bucharest at mid-July by MEPEI (Middle East Economic and Political Institute) and EuroDefense Romania, two Bucharest-based think-tanks, was the perfect venue to learn about the latest analyses on economic, geopolitical and security topics related to the Middle East and Asia, during which China was mentioned by all speakers as clearly playing a role in today’s international order. Entitled “Middle East in Quest for Security, Stability, and Economic Identity”, the conference was the 8th in a series of international conferences that annually gather well-known experts from all over the world to present their analyses and research on highly debated topics such as terrorism, Middle East, emerging Asian countries, the rising China, to which this year a new topic was added: the conflict in Ukraine.
Interesting ideas derived from the speakers’ presentations.
Adrian Severin, former Romanian minister of foreign affairs and EU parliamentarian, pointed out that “the conflict in Ukraine is actually one between Russia and the West, but economic sanctions never stop wars, and they even may lead to global disaster”. Severin considers it to be more and more difficult for NATO to defend its allies, with so many countries relying on NATO, and on the US, for their national protection, including non-European countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. When it comes to Asia, Severin sees “China to have a first rank role in shaping the world order.”
Teodor Meleșcanu, another former Romanian minister of foreign affairs, stressed that “Asia has the majority of the world’s population and lots and resources, and the future of Asia will assume the future of our civilizations.” Meleșcanu explained that “China wants to stabilize the world and to forge alliances, but not to fight with the West. Chinese trade is not interested in confrontation with Western partners by making alliance with Russia and it’s obvious why – because the West means more than 700 million people whereas Russia means only 114 million.” Meleșcanu suggested that the optimal solution in international relations is to operate with regional organizations in order to have dialogue, not directly with “the big boys in the garden.” Meleșcanu also encourages never-ending dialogue between the US-Russia-China, as the current situation proves it, in order to prevent such events that destabilize the world. He believes that the principles in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion will always apply, as war does not actually mean conquering territories.
Lily Ong, host of the Geopolitics360 live show in Singapore, confirmed that regional organizations are vital for dialogue: “Had it not been for ASEAN, Singapore would have been on the menu, not at the table.”
Foad Izadi from the University of Tehran informed that Iran signed a 25-year agreement with China, and a separate one with Russia, and said “Iran would welcome such 25-year agreements with European countries. It’s Europe’s decision if they really want to follow the US decisions, but the US interests are often not aligned with the European interests”, concluded Izadi.
Vasily Kuznetsov from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow reminded the audience that Russia and the West cooperated very well in Libya, in fighting against ISIS in Syria, and expressed his confusion about Europe’ militarized approach towards Russia. He stressed that “the current international situation will result into the strengthening of Asian centres of global power and global economics. China, as well as India and the Middle East as a collective actor become new great powers directly linked to each other, without the West.” At the same time, Kuznetsov sees “for China, a dilemma between pragmatic economic interest and global political ambitions, and for India, a choice between regional and global ambitions outside South Asia”, and he wondered whether “China can have a realistic foreign policy in the Middle East which is facing issues of internal reconfiguration, sovereignty and security.” For the US, Kuznetsov sees the biggest challenge in the effort “to preserve leadership without more engagement, to make American politics more successful and to combine values and pragmatism.”
“The rise of China is beneficial not only for China but for entire Asia”, believes Yao Jinxiang from China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) in Beijing. “The rise of Asia will rebalance the world.” Yao also stressed that “people are often biased about Asia. Let us not forget that, apart from the wars led by the US in Asia, Asia has been stable with no war for a long time. The self-control of the Asia countries ensures stability. It looks that it’s easier to attract Europe in a war than Asia. Asian countries try to solve problems by consensus. For example, China, Japan and South Korea step back because ASEAN is the leader. On the other hand, China has always been defensive. China does not want to claim hegemony or to replace the US, or another great power.” Yao equally explained the two terms used to refer to the same region: Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific: “Asia-Pacific reflects economic relations, whereas Indo-Pacific rather mirrors the political and military relations”, and he stressed that “China does not want to claim hegemony in this world or to replace the US or another great power. China is only interested in prosperity around the world and it watches carefully the Global Development Index and the Global Security Index”.
Pierre Fournié, French expert on Asia from SUFFREN International think-tank declared the Belt and Road Initiative, formerly One-Belt, One-Road (OBOR), to be “a magnificent project that could be pivotal in Europe” because “trade has always been a peaceful and fruitful relation among countries.” Fournié made clear that the war in Ukraine, inflation, migration, social discontent in Europe and the ongoing reconfiguration of the US society create conditions for Asian nations to become key partners in the post-war reshaping of Europe. “Thus, BRI, or the Indonesian Global Maritime Fulcrum are magnificent assets. Fournié also suggested that ”the current economic model creates tensions, and it’s time for people to apply mutual aid and to unite to create coo-petition, a term coined by himself, and not competition. He recommended people to “no longer analyze Asia with European eyes.”
Bangladesh-UK strategic dialogue: Significance in the post-Brexit era
On September 12th, Bangladesh and the UK held their fifth strategic dialogue. The future of Bangladesh’s ties to the United Kingdom in the wake of Brexit has been the subject of much conjecture. Analysts questioned Dhaka’s duty-free access to Britain, which has been generous to an LDC economy like Bangladesh’s, as the UK prepared for its exit from the EU. However, the United Kingdom and Bangladesh have weathered these worries quite well. Rather, the statement by FCDO Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Philip Barton during the dialogue, sums up the strength of Bangladesh-UK relations in current times- “The Dialogue is a reflection of the growing relationship between our two countries, and our desire to work together more closely on our economic, trade and development partnerships and on regional and global security issues.”
Dhaka and London are having a great year on cooperation and connectivity. In the post Brexit era, the year 2023 seems like to be the year that will shift the ties between these countries from a bilateral partnership to each other’s crucial strategic partner in the current geo-politics.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went to participate in the formal inauguration of the new King Charles III of the United Kingdom earlier this year. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had only good things to say about Bangladesh during the visit. This is also reflected in London’s post-pandemic approach to Dhaka.
Bangladesh-UK held their first ever defense dialogue in March of 2022 where they discussed various ways of strengthening cooperation including defense, security and trade and climate change. This year started with the second Bangladesh-UK Trade and Investment Dialogue on February. Both the UK and Bangladesh agreed during the discussion that they would want to enhance their trade connection in order to increase their prosperity. This discussion was followed by signing an agreement on March for working together in climate action bilaterally and multilaterally to help deliver the outcomes of COP26 and COP27.
UK’s Indo-Pacific Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan signed the doctrine during her visit to Bangladesh which also signifies UK’s understanding of Bangladesh’s geostrategic importance in the Bay of Bengal and in the Indian Ocean.
So, this dialogue was surely a much anticipated one among the foreign ministries of these countries.
The provisional agenda included the state visit of President Mohammed Shahabuddin to the United Kingdom in November and the possible visit of British King Charles III (Charles Philip Arthur George) to Bangladesh in 2024. Other than that bilateral trade, investment, and market opportunities; migration, mobility and a new visa scheme for students are expected to be at the top of the agenda. Discussions on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Rohingya crisis will also be featured.
The more complex agendas this year include discussions on mutual legal assistance and the extradition of convicted persons.
But Bangladesh has failed to gain an extradition treaty with UK. Although both countries agreed to constitute a joint working group to discuss migration, mobility and mutual recognition of qualifications, and agreed to sign a standard operating procedure (SOP) on returns of Bangladesh nationals in irregular situations in the UK.
The discussions regarding extradition issues if was fruitful, it might have helped the government to bring fugitives to national justice finally. Except this, the strategic dialogues between these countries in recent years have usually brought deep discussions and decisions on bilateral issues.
On the first of this strategic dialogue was in 2017, the issue of defense purchase was discussed- a much needed ground setting for the Forces Goals 2030 of Bangladesh. On the last edition of this dialogue, held in London back in 2021, the UK pledge to extend duty-free, quota-free access to its market until 2029, aiming to facilitate Bangladesh’s export-led growth.
Not only that, UK also added Bangladesh’s name to the list of the Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS) where the country will experience a more simplified regulation system and reduced tariffs on its products entering the UK. This only adds to UK’s commitment towards Bangladesh’s development – where the country is already one of the biggest developing partners of Bangladesh.
UK’s such generosity towards Bangladesh isn’t only because of the benevolence of its heart. The country is now out of the shell of EU, certainly has to widen its reach across other regions. Indo-Pacific is its preferred place to start.
Bangladesh’s geostrategic location between China and the Indian Ocean with its advantage of having a gate way to Southeast Asia makes Bangladesh seemingly the perfect candidate for UK’s strategic interests. Both countries have also announced their Indo-pacific policies which focuses mainly on their economic aspirations. With such resonating goals for the region, the countries can definitely build a bigger stage of collaboration with each other.
The countries used this occasion as the pinnacle of their further economic cooperation as Bangladesh and the UK have agreed to create new institutional cooperation to promote business, trade, investment and are considering signing a new MoU on economic cooperation. They also discussed potential increase of cooperation and capacity building on global and regional security issues of mutual interest, including maritime and blue economy goals in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.
The UK also announced a further £3m contribution to the Rohingya response, taking its total contribution since 2017 to £368m.
Another important discussion was on defense and cooperation where UK expressed its interest in selling advanced weapons to Bangladesh for protecting its air and maritime territory.
UK already recognizes Bangladesh as a critical stability provider in the Indo-Pacific and as both the countries have played their cards right, one could argue that bilateral ties are stronger than ever before. The dialogue has served as a further golden thread binding their visionary future together.
Greece-UAE Relations through a Personal Lens
Bilateral relations between two countries are cultivated over time through shared values, partnerships, as well as common strategic interests and concerns. This is the case between UAE and Greece, as described below as per my personal experience.
As part of the bilateral military cooperation, the F-16s of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came to Crete and trained with the Greek crews in the operational environment of the Eastern Mediterranean. Emirates aircraft have also frequently flied from Greece during operations in Libya.
Any strategic analyst, in order to study, understand and then successfully analyse the complex issues of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, should have visited the countries in the region and should have exchanged views with their citizens and experts.
I visited the UAE as a member of the Greek delegation of the Ministry of Defence, but also, I was member of the team hosting the UAE military delegations in Greece, for the signing of the annual bilateral military cooperation programs.
The First Official Experience.
The first official visit to the UAE was my participation, as a representative of the Greek Ministry of National Defence, in IDEX-2001 (International Defence Exhibition & Conference). The entire event was held under the patronage of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The hospitality was excellent with accommodation at the Abu Dhabi Officers Club which is an impressive building with a bat-shaped architectural design, with hydro-cultures in the inner corridors and wonderful gardens in the surrounding area.
At my disposal was a luxurious white car with the Greek flag on the windshield and an officer of the Emirates Air Force as my escort. This officer had studied for ten years in the United States, attending professional development Training Schools. He was an outstanding professional with military training and strategic thinking.
During a break in the scheduled activities of the Exhibition, the attendant offered to give me a “surprise” as he called it and show me something that connects the UAE and Greece. I accepted the challenge. We visited a small harbour in the north, where colourful boats from Iran were moored. Merchandise was spread out on the dock and on the boats, creating a great bazaar like a flea market. The strange thing was that around this peculiar bazaar there were iron bars and a strong police presence.
My escort explained: “we have serious problems with Iran, but we wish to maintain good relations with Iranian citizens through trade. For this reason, we allow this trade bazaar to be organized at regular intervals”.
Relations between UAE and Greece
“What does this “bazaar” have to do with Greece?” I asked, and my escort explained: “Iran claims islands of the UAE and has taken a military operation on Abu Musa Island where there are oil wells, as well as on the Little and the Great Tunb islets. These are near the entrance to the Gulf, inside from the Straits of Hormuz. Due to the depth of the sea, large ships must pass between Abu-Musa and Tunb, giving to these occupied islands great geostrategic importance, that Iran has been exploiting since their military occupation.
The UAE has submitted a formal proposal to the UN for a negotiated settlement of the disputes with the goal of a final settlement at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), based on International Law. On the contrary, Iran has militarized the dispute by occupying the islands with military forces. The Iranians do not accept the validity of International Law for these islands, because as they believe, historically they once belonged to the Persian Empire and were occupied by the British, who then handed them over to the UAE under an international treaty.” Iranians do not respect this International Treaty.
Concluding, my escort mentioned that the tension in the relations between the UAE and Iran resembles the corresponding relations between Greece and Turkey, especially after the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus. “Our staff monitors and analyses the way Greece deals with Turkey’s aggression, both diplomatically and militarily, and draws useful conclusions that we apply in our relations with Iran. This is our unique strategic relationship with Greece,” he told me.
Turkish Ministry of Defence Industry
Within the framework of the IDEX Exhibition, the Turkish Deputy Minister of Defence Industry invited all participants to a reception at one of the luxury hotels in the area. After proper advice from Greek Ambassador Zoes, I accepted the invitation. On the evening of the reception, I approached the Turkish Deputy Minister for the formal reception. The “allied” official offered me the emblem of his Deputy Ministry saying: “I want you to have as a gift from me the emblem that symbolizes the development efforts of the Turkish Defence Industry. We plan to be self-sufficient in the production of weapons systems in a decade.”
The emblem was a red glass ladybug with a large eye on her right spine. I thanked him and walked away to my companion who witnessed the brief conversation and commented, “the Turks are making a very strong presence at this IDEX. They are trying to secure Arab funds for the development of their Defence Industry.” In a period of about ten years, they managed to gain access to Arab funds from Qatar, while in 2013, in their favourite tactic, they managed to establish a military installation in Doha.
For the Hellenic Aviation Industry (HAI)
In the year 2009, I visited the UAE once more time as member of a delegation of the Directorate of International Relations of the Ministry of Defence/National Defence HQ. One of the topics discussed was related to the Hellenic Aviation Industry (HAI). The ground technical personnel of the UAE Air Force were trained in the past at the Hellenic Aviation Industry (HAI) in Greece. The UAE officers resided in the town of Chalkida about 80 Km north of Athens, contributing to a certain extent to the economic life of the town. I had been informed by Chalkidian friends that the Emirati military were very friendly and were beloved by the locals.
The training of the UAE Air Force Staff was halted after an unfortunate moment of misunderstanding occurred by the representatives of the Police and Diplomatic Authorities of Greece at the expense of the Sheikh when his aircraft made an unplanned landing at the Hellenikon International Airport of Athens on March 2000.
Being in the UAE, I requested to meet with Colonel Mohammed who was the head of the last group of UAE technicians trained at the HAI. In the context of traditional Arab hospitality, the Colonel offered a working dinner. During the discussion, he mentioned the pleasant memories he had from his stay in Chalkida, but also the professionalism with which HAI organized the training of the technicians he supervised. Of course, the decision to resume technical training was far away from the jurisdiction of the Colonel, but he promised to work to support the resumption of bilateral cooperation between Greece and the UAE for the training of UAE Air Force technicians in Greece.
Finally, after ten years, the efforts succeeded and in 2019, an Agreement was signed to restart training of UAE AirForce technicians in HAI.
The Last Official Visit to UAE.
In November 2011, I visited the UAE once again, as representative of the Hellenic Ministry of Defence. During this visit, an extremely important event happened, precisely on the day of the opening of the Airshow and specifically during the day of the official reception. All the guests formed a line in front of the host Sheikh Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The protocol of introduction and greeting was a formal process that unfolded in a calm and repetitive pattern.
When I approached the Sheikh and presented myself as representing the Greek Ministry of National Defence, something spectacular happened. Putting formalities aside, the Sheikh grabbed me by the shoulders and with genuine interest asked me: “How is Greece dealing with the economic crisis?” Will she be able to overcome it?” Impressed by the Sheikh’s reaction, I replied: “Your Highness, those of us who love Greece will help it deal with whatever economic problems the recent international crisis creates.” “Yes, indeed this is what we have to do” he replied.
After the reception was over, I headed to the exit of the hall in order to watch an aerobatic demonstration. Suddenly I felt a light tap on the shoulder. Turning I saw a gentleman in a grey suit, who politely asked me: “Excuse me, do you know the Sheikh personally? Because this appeared from your conversation. I replied that it was the first time I had ever met him in person, but we were connected by our common interest in the economic future of Greece. The gentleman nodded and handed me his card. He was the Defence Minister of India.
Thoughts and Conclusion.
The strategic threat faced by the UAE from Iran is like the strategic threat faced by Greece from Turkey. To counter this threat, the National Defence Policy that is formulated in both friendly countries is almost identical. On this basis, it is possible to develop relationships that are not temporary and situational, but a strategic cooperation that will be strong due to mutual understanding and mutual respect.
The development of the Greek Defence Industry is suffering due to the lack of vision, political determination, and long-term strategic planning. There is great opportunity for collaboration between the UAE and Greece on the field of Defence Industry. In contrast, the competitive Turkish Defence Industry, despite its structural problems, managed in a single decade, after succeeding to receive Arab funds from Qatar, not only to develop and cover much of the needs of the Turkish armed forces but also to export defence systems.
High Time for Multi-Track Dialogues between Greece and Turkey
Dialogue is a valuable communication process that fosters mutual understanding among warring parties, paving the way for conflict resolution. Dialogue can take the format of track-1.5 and track-2 diplomacy to sustain channels of communication either when discussions between officials have ceased or when there is need to engage civil society, and groups of experts. As known, Track-1.5 dialogue involves non-government experts along with government officials who participate in an unofficial capacity, while Track-2 engages only unofficial members. While both tracks constitute the so-called “back-channel” diplomacy, none holds the official importance of traditional diplomacy.
Since members of these meetings participate unofficially, they have unprecedented freedom to exchange views informally with counterparts who they might otherwise see only as competitors or adversaries. These meetings allow time for one-on-one “walks in the woods” that can generate new ideas and fresh approaches to solving problems, without the must-achieve pressure of diplomatic summits.
It is upon this logic, that the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCSP), an international foundation with 54 member states and the Canton of Geneva that facilitates discussions between civil servants, military officers, diplomats, experts, and civil society, provides substantive support and acts as secretariat of the Eastern Mediterranean Initiative (EMI). EMI is an inclusive dialogue platform for collective reflection and action that brings together experts from around the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Since 2020, GCSP has facilitated a series of Track-2 meetings between EMI experts from Greece and Turkey to discuss maritime differences in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Seas. Swiss sponsored Track-II meetings have turned into an interactive conflict resolution process that developed concepts of sustained dialogue among Greek and Turkish experts during a period that tensions climaxed between Greece and Turkey.
In fact, nine Track-2 meetings were held along with respective meetings in Greece and Turkey where experts on both sides discussed differences over maritime zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean Seas, and not issues of “national sovereignty”. Greek and Turkish experts, participating in their private capacities, have created dialogues that would otherwise be impossible because of frequent communication gaps among their countries. For example, exploratory talks resumed in January 2021 after a five-year hiatus.
As a result, these Track-2 meetings hosted by GCSP, free from the constraints of formal government-to-government discussions, have operated in a painstakingly fostered climate of openness. The meetings have created a sense of comfort and trust, encouraging otherwise wary and aloof experts from both countries to engage, share ideas, and develop a common statement. This statement comes at a time that Greece and Turkey prioritize dialogue to settle their maritime differences. The meeting of the Greek Premier with the Turkish President on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius after the devastating earthquake in Turkey, where Greek rescue teams were sent in affected areas, led to the reignition of the engines of an action-oriented formal (Track-1) dialogue between the two countries. Political dialogue, Confidence Building Measures, and the Positive Agenda are the three pillars of the Greek-Turkish rapprochement.
Let us Continue Dialogue
The statement by Greek and Turkish members of EMI, among them Prof. Yücel Acer, Lt Gen (retd) Ioannis Anastasakis, Ms Antonia Dimou, Prof. Talha Köse, Prof. Petros Liacouras and Prof. Zuhal Mert Uzuner, goes as follows:
One hundred years ago, Turks and Greeks put an end to decades of confrontations through the Treaty of Lausanne. Within only a few years, this led to an almost miraculous friendship between the two countries. Since then, however, new conflicts arose over issues that were not on the table in Lausanne, among them the delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and beyond, as the Law of the Sea evolved at the global level.
Nonetheless, the issues to be resolved are much less complex and painful than the ones that were settled one hundred years ago. And the reward for overcoming the differences would be a huge win-win situation for both nations. The way to a settlement is not going to be easy and will require a will to accommodate each other’s crucial and legitimate concerns. The fact that the supreme principle in both customary international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is that of “equitableness”, could greatly assist overcoming differences.
The Greek and Turkish people have lived side by side for hundreds of years, sharing the same geography and developing commonalities in culture and customs. It is a fact, proven through countless personal encounters and by recent opinion surveys in both countries, that at a personal level, Greeks and Turks get along well and do not see each other as enemies. All of us, as individuals and members of our respective societies, can contribute in this spirit to overcome remaining prejudices and distorted concepts of the other side and create a degree of understanding of its legitimate concerns. This is required if common ground is to be found.
Thus, we can encourage and support our leaders in going down the road of completing the basis of peaceful and fruitful neighborly co-existence, that was established one hundred years ago. They have recently decided to engage in an enhanced process of dialogue and deserve our full support in this endeavor. Success in their search for common ground will have positive repercussions outside our borders in the whole Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. At a time when to the north of our region, political differences have led to unbearable bloodshed and destruction, this could inspire others.
Once again, the region of the Eastern Mediterranean, which is the cradle of various civilizations, could become a beacon of light onto humanity. Let us not squander this opportunity.
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