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Saturday, June 27, 2020

Gulf states beware. Chinese policy towards Sri Lanka tells a cautionary tale



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

China was quick to aid coronavirus-stricken Sri Lanka. Chinese magnanimity and speed in responding to the Indian Ocean island’s request contrasted starkly with Beijing’s more measured response to Africa’s needs, widely expected to be the pandemic’s next hotspot.

Geography was but one reason why China favoured the strategic island that straddles one of the Indian Ocean’s busiest shipping routes.

China was rewarding Sri Lanka for stalling military-related talks with the United States two years after the People’s Republic was accused of pursuing predatory debt trap diplomacy. Sri Lanka granted China in 2018 a far greater stake in its port of Hambantota at a moment that it was unable to service its debt to Beijing.

Sri Lanka has so far dragged its feet on signing a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States that would regulate the rights and privileges of visiting US military personnel.

The hold-up was prompted by Sri Lanka’s rejection of the terms of an associated US$480 million Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) development aid package on the grounds that it impinged on the country’s national security.

At the same time however, Sri Lanka has done nothing to challenge its Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the United States that governs the transfer of US logistics supplies as well as support and refuelling services for US military operations in the Indo-Pacific region.

The discrepancy in China’s approach towards Sri Lanka as opposed to Africa could revive charges that predatory debt diplomacy is a feature of China’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to connect the Eurasian landmass to the People’s Republic.

To be fair, only a handful of renegotiations of Chinese debt would suggest that China is using liability as a diplomatic tool.

Nonetheless, China’s willingness to grant Sri Lanka a 10-year US$500 million concessionary loan to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic in addition to donations of medical supplies offered by China to countries across the globe is likely to raise eyebrows.

The risk is that countries in Africa as well as the Middle East like war-torn Syria and financially bankrupt Lebanon that no longer can count on assistance from Gulf countries struggling with economic woes of their own may feel that they have little alternative but to follow in Sri Lanka’s footsteps.

It is a risk that not only capitalizes on the United States’ already tarnished image but also China’s ability to maintain close ties to Middle Eastern nations without being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts.

To be sure, there are stark differences between Indian Ocean nations and Middle Eastern states that are in some respects far more dependent on a US defense umbrella designed to protect them against Iran.

Like Sri Lanka, Middle Eastern states benefitted from close healthcare and pandemic-related cooperation with China and unlike the Indian Ocean nation, Gulf states face a financial crisis but not an immediate cash shortage.

Nonetheless, the risk for China of some countries feeling that their security and economic wellbeing is better ensured by a greater balancing of their relations with China and the US is that they will want to see China engaged in regional security arrangements to a degree that Beijing has so far been unwilling to entertain.

The risk is enhanced by US aspirations to reduce America’s commitment to the Middle East and focus attention on Asia and its rivalry with China.

The risk for Gulf states in the implications of China’s policy towards Sri Lanka is that China rather than being sucked into the Middle East and North Africa’s myriad conflicts could opt to reduce its engagement in the Middle East.

Countering Western perceptions of ever greater Chinese economic involvement, Xinchun Niu, director of Middle East studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), widely viewed as China’s most influential thinktank, argues that Chinese-Middle Eastern economic relations have past their heyday. Mr. Niu also suggested that the Middle East ranked low on the Chinese priority totem pole.

“China-Middle East countries is not a political strategic logic, it’s an economic logic. For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies… Covid-19 combined with the oil price crisis will dramatically change the Middle East. (This) will change China’s investment model in the Middle East… The good times of China and the Middle East are already gone… Both China and the Middle Eastern economies have been slowing down… In the future, the pandemic combined with the oil price problem will make the Middle East situation worse. So, the China economic relationship with the Middle East will be affected very deeply,” Mr. Niu said.

As a result, Gulf states, among the world’s foremost arms buyers and confronted with a need for far more incisive economic reform in the wake of the pandemic than many other nations, are likely to find a rebalancing of their big power relationships more difficult than Sri Lanka.

The success of Chinese policy towards Sri Lanka is nevertheless more than an isolated incident. It offers insights into what a more assertive Chinese policy could mean for the shaping of a new world order.

"When India or the West get involved in Sri Lankan affairs, there is suspicion as to what the motive is. Is it to divide the country? Is it (to) exploit, subjugate us?" said Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council. By contrast, he added, Sri Lankans view Chinese investment as "essentially benign (because) China has never been a historical enemy of this country."

James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

US-China Rivalry: Gulf States Struggle to Hedge Their Bets



by James M. Dorsey

An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

The Trump administration’s quest to curb relationships between its allies in the Middle East and China offers a preview of how big power rivalry in the region is likely to unfold. It also suggests the limits on the United States’ ability to reduce its commitment to regional security.

While much of the focus in recent weeks has been on Israel’s relations with China, the real litmus test of the United States’ ability to counter the People’s Republic’s growing footprint in the Middle East is likely to be in the Gulf.

In talks last month with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli leaders made clear that while wanting to maintain close relations with China they would not risk jeopardizing their long-standing ties to the United States, their closest ally and supporter of their controversial annexationist policies.

Within days of Mr. Pompeo’s visit, Israel awarded a tender for the world’s largest desalination plant to an Israeli company rather than a competing Chinese firm.

Similarly, Israeli officials say that Israel is unlikely to buy Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei’s 5G offering because of security considerations of its own. The US has been campaigning against integration of Huawei components into networks of its allies.

The real Israeli test may come next year when China takes over the management of Haifa port that is often frequented by ships of the US Sixth Fleet. US officials have suggested that Chinese control of the port could impact the US Navy’s willingness to use Haifa’s facilities.

In contrast to Israel, the US is likely to find the going tougher in persuading Gulf states to limit their engagement with China, including with Huawei, which already has significant operations in the region.

Like Israel, United Arab Emirates officials have sought to convey to the US that they see relations with the United States as indispensable even though that has yet to be put to a test when it comes to China.

“The United States is our single most important strategic partnership. Sometimes people, when they think of our relationship with the US, they just look at the political/military angle. But this relationship is really much, much wider,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash. Such a relationship, he added, is to be found in “IT, in business, investment, in soft power, in the presence of institutions such as NYU Abu Dhabi, in people like me who spent some of the best years of their lives in America.”

Mr. Gargash was speaking after Mr. Pompeo’s visit to Israel and after a senior official issued a direct warning to Gulf states.

“These states have to weigh the value of their partnership with the United States. We want our partner nations to do due diligence,” said US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker.

Describing Chinese aid as “predatory,” Mr. Schenker warned that Huawei’s participation in 5G infrastructure in the Gulf would make it difficult for American and Gulf forces to communicate. Huawei has signed agreements with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

“We’re not forcing countries to choose between the United States and the PRC,” Mr. Schenker said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “Countries can and should maintain healthy relationships with both, but we want to highlight the costs” that come with certain engagements with China.

Earlier, an unidentified senior US official warned that Gulf states “risk rupturing the long-term strategic relationship they have with the US.”

The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet operates out of Bahrain while Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM).

In a message to Israel that was also intended for the Gulf, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman laid out US concerns.

“For two countries as close to each other as Israel and the US, when they cooperate and exchange intelligence and other secrets for their mutual protection on such a robust level, both countries need to be really careful about exposing that level of cooperation to a foreign power that may have a different agenda,” he said.

Mr. Friedman asserted that China uses investments and infrastructure projects to “infiltrate” countries. “These [Chinese] companies have the ability to flick various switches and gain access to the most sensitive communications.”

The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, in a shot across the Gulf’s bow, last month rejected a UAE offer to donate hundreds of coronavirus tests for screening of its staff.

The snub was designed to put a dent in China’s health silk road diplomacy centered on its experience with the pandemic and ability to manufacture personal protective and medical equipment.

A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI, a 
Chinese genomics company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy.

The US softened the blow when the prestigious Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic sent 40 nurses and doctor to its Abu Dhabi subsidiary. The Abu Dhabi facility was tasked with treating the UAE’s most severe cases of coronavirus.

The seemingly escalating US effort to box in China is hampered by the fact that no US company produces a 5G alternative. “5G is the future. To reconsider Huawei, the US has to offer an alternative. So far, it hasn’t done so,” said a Gulf official.

The same dilemma applies to the United States’ desire to reduce its commitments in the Middle East. In its global rivalry with China, the US cannot afford to create the kind of void that China and Russia would not be able or willing to fill in the short-term.

“It’s a toss-up,” a Gulf analyst said. “The US can’t compete on 5G and China and Russia can’t compete on security. This is a situation and a set of relationships that requires careful management. The problem is that big power leaders show little inclination to find a middle ground. That leaves Gulf states grappling for ways to hedge their bets.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Hedging Bets: Turkey positions itself as supply chain alternative to China



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

A Turkish-US business council is projecting Turkey as a trading alternative to China with the help of influential US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close associate of President Donald J. Trump.

The Turkish effort comes two weeks after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heralded a new era in long-strained relations with Washington.

Mr. Graham’s agreement to participate in a webinar organized by the Turkey American Business Council (TAIK), an affiliate of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK), the country’s oldest and largest business association, comes amid Turkish efforts to improve relations with the United States as a hedge to its ties to Russia.

“The growing rift between the United States and China creates significant opportunity for geopolitical cooperation. Turkey and the United States would both benefit economically,” said a Turkish businessman.

Criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has widened the gap between Washington and Beijing and sparked calls for diversification of China-centric global supply chains.

Already hard hit, Turkey’s economy has suffered further body blows as a result of the pandemic at a time that Turkish and Russian forces have in recent months ended up on opposite sides of battles in northern Syria and Libya.

Forces of the Turkish-backed, internationally recognized Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA) drove Russian-supported rebels led by self-appointed Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar out of western Libya in recent weeks after Turkish electronic warfare and drones whacked Russian anti-defense missile systems.

Rejecting calls by Egypt and Mr. Haftar for a negotiated end to the Libyan conflict, the GNA has vowed to push further by taking the Haftar-controlled, oil-rich south-eastern city of Siirt.  Turkey has seconded the GNA’s refusal to negotiate with Mr. Haftar.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi suggested this weekend that Egyptian troops could intervene if GNA forces attacked Siirt. An Egyptian intervention could lead to a battlefield confrontation with Turkey and further muddle Turkish attempts to manage differences with Russia.

Turkish efforts to improve relations with the United States are betting on the belief that the GNA’s military victories have dampened US hopes that Mr. Haftar could emerge as a unifying figure in Libya.

Turkish relations with the United States were strained by the NATO member’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system, the presence in the US of a Turkish preacher whom Mr. Erdogan holds responsible for the failed 2016 military coup against him, and legal proceedings against a state-owned Turkish bank charged with circumventing US sanctions against Iran.

Mr. Erdogan is also banking on his personal relationship with Mr. Trump that in the past has produced decisions by the US president that overrode opposition from the Pentagon and other branches of his government.

First and foremost was Mr. Tump’s acquiescence to Mr. Erdogan’s request last year for a pullback of US troops in northern Syria that paved the way for a Turkish military incursion.

Mr. Erdogan again sought to capitalize on his relationship with Mr. Trump in a June 9 phone call. “To be honest, after our conversation tonight, a new era can begin between the United States and Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said without offering further details.

Mr. Erdogan spoke to Mr. Trump as Turkey was projecting itself as an important US trading partner.

The TAIK webinar, entitled ‘A Time for Allies to be Allies: Turkish American Global Supply Chain,’ in which Mr. Graham is scheduled to speak alongside former U.S. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, is part of an effort to position Turkey as a key player in reducing US dependence on Chinese supply chains.
Foreign Lobby Report, a Washington-based online news service, reported that TAIK, working with lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs, had approached Mr. Graham in March with the proposition that Turkey could serve as the United States’ gateway to Africa.

“As we strive to move forward, we at TAIK are already contemplating how we can reignite the economy post-pandemic,” TAIK chairman Mehmet Ali Yalcindag wrote in a letter to Mr. Graham. “Joint ventures in Africa could be an exciting part of this plan. Not only would we be helping fragile economies that will need assistance in recovering, but we also would be striking a blow against Chinese designs in Africa and forging closer economic ties between Turkey and the US.”

Mr. Yalcindag recommended in a separate letter last month to US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “an initial focus on LNG (liquified natural gas) and agriculture imports from the US. At the same time, Turkey could boost exports of white goods and automotive parts — diversifying America’s supply chain away from China, a stated goal of the Trump Administration.”

Boosting agriculture exports that were hard hit by Mr. Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports ranks high on the president’s priority list.

Mr. Vitter, the former senator scheduled to speak in the TAIK webinar, backs a push by Louisiana Natural Gas Exports Inc. to provide Turkey with “long-term, secure, competitively priced access to Turkey’s LNG terminals, gas pipeline and storage facilities” that would make the country less dependent on Russian and Iranian imports.

The push came as Botas, Turkey’s state-owned gas grid operator, opened a tender for the construction of a pipeline to Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave in Armenia. The pipeline would allow Azerbaijan to reduce imports from Iran.

Mr. Erdogan and his energy minister, Fatih Donmez, have long called for diversification of Turkey’s energy imports.

Turkey last month authorized twice weekly cargo flights by El Al, Israel’s national carrier, between Istanbul and Tel Aviv despite its strained relations with the Jewish state. Two of those flights ferried medical supplies from Turkey to the United States. The flights to Turkey were El Al’s first in ten years.

“Now is the time to reinforce the climate of cooperation and solidarity, China-dependent firms in the supply chain are…turning their eyes to different countries, Turkey being among them,” Mr. Yalcindag said, pointing to the fact that Walmart, one of the world’s biggest retailers, had begun to source products in Turkey.

Predicting that a decoupling of the United States and China would create common interests between the US and Turkey, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay added that “the pre-pandemic global economy was built on a single supply chain, with China at its core. For countries like Turkey, with our robust manufacturing sector and our young population, this will be an economic opportunity.”

James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany

Friday, June 19, 2020

Fragile Big Power Relationships Add to Middle Eastern Uncertainty



A web of relationships between Turkey, Russia, Iran, and China have to a significant degree shaped Middle Eastern and North African geopolitics. The fragility of those relationships, however, begs the question whether fluidity in regional geopolitics rather than paradigm shifts is, at least for now, the name of the game.

by James M. Dorsey

An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Fraught with multiple powder kegs that could blow up at any moment, Turkish-Russian relations constitute a study in the management of a new world order’s seemingly fragile alliances.

Much like relations between Russia and China, Russia and Iran, Turkey and Iran, and Turkey and China, Turkish-Russian ties are fragile despite the fact that they, contrary to Western perceptions, are not just opportunistic and driven by short-term common interests but also grounded in a degree of shared values.

The fact of the matter is that men like presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, find common ground in a view of a new world order that rejects democracy and the rule of law; disregards human and minority rights; flaunts, at least for now, violations of international law; and operates on the principle of might is right.

That glue, however, is insufficient, to prevent Turkey and Russia from ending up on opposite sides of conflicts in Libya and Syria.

It is also unlikely to halt the gradual erosion of a presumed division of labour in Central Asia with Russia ensuring security and China focusing on economic development. 

And it is doubtful it would alter the simmering rivalry between Iran and Russia in the Caspian Sea and long-standing Russian reluctance to sell Iran a badly needed anti-missile defense system.

Similarly, the balance of power in Syria where Russia and Iran are hoping to reap the economic benefits of reconstruction after having played the key role in securing President Bashar al-Assad’s military victory could shift dramatically if and when China commits to investing in the war-devastated country. Neither Russia nor Iran have the financial muscle to compete.

So far, Turkey, Russia, China, and Iran have been adept at ensuring that differences do not get out of hand. The question is whether stopgap management of potential blow-ups is sustainable.

In Libya, Turkey temporarily halted drone operations to allow Russian mercenaries to evacuate areas lost to the Turkish-backed, internationally recognized Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA) after Turkish electronic warfare whacked Russian anti-defense missile systems operated by Moscow-supported rebels led by self-appointed Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.

In Syria, Russia and Turkey have negotiated an uneasy ceasefire and security arrangement in Idlib, one of the last rebel strongholds, following clashes in which Turkey dealt a serious blow to the Russian and Iranian-backed forces of Mr. Al-Assad.

The band aid-solutions may serve immediate economic interests and geopolitical goals but do little to mask the four powers’ seemingly incompatible long-term hegemonic ambitions.

“What is Turkey doing [in Libya]?” asked Mesut Hakki Casin, a member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Security and Foreign Policy Board. “The reason is that Ottomans conquered Egypt after establishing dominance and control in the straits of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Turkey is in Libya because of historical and political reasons.”

Diverging interests do not only play out on the battlefield, as is evident in the shifting balance of power in Central Asia. They are also evident in the competition in arms sales.

The credible performance of Turkish drones in Libya and Syria have boosted demand for Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic warfare systems and dented the infatuation with Russian anti-missile defense batteries.

Dubbed Bayraktar TB-2 and Anka-S, Turkish drones destroyed Russian-backed Syrian military units in northern Syria earlier this year even though they operated Russia’s Pantsir and Buk surface-to-air missile systems. A similar scenario played out in the defeat in western Libya of Mr. Haftar’s forces.

Clashing interests in Libya and Syria and economic woes at home accelerated by the fallout of the pandemic, persuaded Mr. Erdogan to seek to improve relations with the United States and rejuvenate his personal relationship with President Donald J. Trump while massaging his ties to Russia.

In a recent gesture, Botas, Turkey’s state-owned gas grid operator, opened a tender for the construction of a pipeline to Nakhichevan, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. The pipeline would allow Azerbaijan to reduce imports from Iran.

Lobbyists in the United States for the Turkish business community are seeking to capitalize on the opening by pushing an offer by a Louisiana energy company to provide Turkey with “long-term, secure, competitively priced access to Turkey’s LNG terminals, gas pipeline and storage facilities” that would make the country less dependent on Russian and Iranian imports.

Mr. Erdogan and his energy minister, Fatih Donmez, have pushed the notion of diversification of Turkey’s energy imports.

“From Syria to Libya, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Erdogan now figures that Turkey needs America politically and strategically more than it did some months ago. He learned by experience that getting the United States on board by making Trump his personal friend is easier than any other way,” said veteran Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar.

Mr. Erdogan is banking on his past experience of talking to Mr. Trump directly and getting what he wants despite opposition from the Pentagon as was the case with Turkey’s most recent intervention in Syria.

“To be honest, after our conversation tonight, a new era can begin between the United States and Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said during a television interview afterward speaking to Mr. Trump by phone on June 9.

Mr. Erdogan’s approach may not be available to Iran with its deeply engrained distrust of the United States, but it certainly is what guides the thinking regarding Russia of numerous European leaders and politicians. No doubt, it is also an option that Mr. Putin has not lost sight of.

The web of relationships between China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran may seem formidable but the complexity of Turkish-Russian relations suggests that they may be built on more quicksand than any of the players are willing to admit.

On the principle of “It ain’t over until the fat lady has sung,” that is something that Gulf and other Middle Eastern leaders no doubt have taken note of.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany

Sunday, June 14, 2020

UAE Targets Turkey and Qatar in the Mediterranean



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Europe is progressively being sucked into the Middle East and North Africa’s myriad conflicts. As if wars on its doorstep in Libya and Syria were not enough, UAE support for an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline that could hurt Qatar economically — combined with Greek, Cypriot and French opposition to Turkish moves — leaves Europe with few, if any, options but to get involved.

Europe’s headaches just got worse. Its efforts to contain wars on its doorstep in Libya and Syria have failed at a moment that Europe is struggling to control a pandemic and reverse its economic fallout.
Proxy wars that pit the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey have spilled out of Libya and Syria into the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole.

European nations, including France, Greece, and Cyprus, feel threatened by Turkey’s use of Libya to extend its grip on gas-rich regional waters in violation of international law. As a result, Middle Eastern and North African disputes are becoming European problems.

Libya’s internationally recognized Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by Turkish military might, has forced rebels led by Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia, Egypt, France and the UAE to retreat in recent weeks from western Libya and fight to maintain control of key cities in the center of the country.

A statement last month by the foreign ministers of France, Greece, Cyprus, the UAE, and Egypt made their concerns clear.

The statement condemned Turkey’s "illegal activities" in the Eastern Mediterranean. It called on Turkey to “fully respect the sovereignty and the sovereign rights of all states in their maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Israel was conspicuously absent among the signatories even though it maintains close relations with all of them.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a prominent Israeli think tank, warned that “given that Israel’s ties with Turkey have been highly problematic and relations with Russia remain delicate, Jerusalem needs to prepare for the possibility of a continuing and even growing regional influence of both, especially in light of Washington’s continued reluctance to assume a more active diplomatic or military role.”

So does Europe, which at the European Union level has so far remained on the sidelines at its peril.

“Now that the catastrophic consequences of European inaction are evident and Haftar no longer has a chance to seize power, a (European) policy shift is both possible and indispensable,” said Libya scholar Wolfram Lacher.

“Two key goals should guide European policies: first, safeguard Libya’s unity; second, counter Russian influence in Libya as a matter of priority. The U.S. shares both goals. But Europeans will only be able to act in unison if the French position shifts away from its relative tolerance for Russia and adversarial stance towards Turkey,” Mr. Lacher suggested.

Mr. Lacher appears to believe that countering Russia would not only help thwart the threat posed by Moscow but also prevent Turkey and Russia from carving up Libya into spheres of influence, if not separate states.

Arguing that the EU can no longer afford to stand by, Mr. Lacher advised the EU to impose sanctions on Mr. Haftar in a bid to undermine Russian support for his forces.

“In parallel, Western states should finally push their interests in a stable Libya more strongly when engaging with Haftar’s other foreign supporters, particularly Egypt and the UAE, to dissuade them from further cooperation with Russia,” Mr. Lacher said.

Underlying the UAE’s Saudi-backed determination to stymie Turkey is its assertive global campaign to confront any expression of political Islam. The UAE is aided by Egypt, whose president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, came into power in a 2013 Emirati-backed military coup that toppled an elected Muslim Brotherhood president.

Coupled with an agreement between Turkey and the Tripoli-based GNA which extends the two countries maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish involvement in the wars in Libya and Syria appears to have fueled Emirati efforts to suck Europe, and ultimately the United States, into its conflict with Turkey.

Greece and Italy — which was believed to be supporting the GNA prior to Turkey’s intervention — this week signed a maritime boundaries agreement to counter Turkish moves. The accord recognizes Greek territorial waters off its many islands in accordance with the international Law of the Sea. The Turkish-Libyan agreement ignores those rights for a number of Greek islands.

The UAE and its partners in the Eastern Mediterranean were expected to support the Greek-Italian accord.

The UAE is banking on the fact that Turkey’s traditional ties to its NATO allies, Europe and the US, are strained over a host of issues, including Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, the fate of millions of refugees primarily from Syria hosted by Turkey, and Turkey’s relationship with Russia and its acquisition of an S-400 Russian anti-missile defense system.

The UAE has been putting in place the building blocks for enhanced influence in the eastern Mediterranean for some time. Increasingly close ties to Israel, whose relations with Turkey are complex, constitute a cornerstone. So does UAE participation in Greek-led annual military exercises in which Israel, Cyprus, Italy, and the United States also take part.

Containing Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean has taken on greater significance after the UAE’s hopes for a planned EastMed pipeline that would have transported natural gas from Israeli, Cypriot and Lebanese fields via Greece to Italy, were dashed.

The pipeline threatened to replace up to half of Qatari exports to Europe with gas from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Among Qatar’s detractors, the UAE is believed to be the most resistant to finding a compromise that would end the three-year-old UAE-Saudi-led boycott of the Gulf state.

The $7 billion USD, 2,200-kilometre-long pipeline project was effectively put on hold because of the economic fallout of the pandemic and the collapse of energy prices.

A consortium led by France’s Total, which includes Italian oil and gas major ENI and Novatek, Russia’s second largest gas producer, was expected to halt drilling after its first well proved to be dry.
ENI and Total have also suspended plans for six drillings off the coast of Cyprus while ExxonMobil has delayed exploration of its two wells in the area. US explorer Noble Energy together with Shell and Herzliya-based Delek Drilling is likely to follow suit in Israel’s Aphrodite field.

All of that does not seem to deter Turkey. The country’s Official Gazette announced on May 30 that state-owned oil company Turkish Petroleum had been granted 24 exploration licenses that include waters off the coast of Greek islands such as Crete and Rhodes.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ warning that his country would answer what he called, "the Turkish provocation" if Turkey were to proceed would further draw Europe into the Eastern Mediterranean’s mushrooming imbroglio.

It is a development that would boost Emirati efforts to further corner Turkey internationally even if it would for now likely further dampen prospects for dealing a blow to Qatar.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany

Friday, June 12, 2020

Syria lures but will China bite?



By James M. Dorsey

The original version of this article was published by the Geneva Center for Security Policy
A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

China looms large as a potentially key player alongside Russia and Iran in President Bashas al-Assad’s post-war Syria. With Russia and Iran lacking the financial muscle and the United States and Europe refusing to  engage with the Al-Assad regime, China is from Syria’s perspective the shining knight on a white horse. Syria could become a key node in China’s infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Syria could also bring it closer to being sucked into the Middle East’s multiple conflicts.

China’s economic interests in Syria

Mohammed Jarah and Ahmad Bustati’s warehouse in Damascus symbolized China’s emergence as the largest supplier of industrial and consumer goods to Syria on the eve of the Syrian civil war. The dilapidated warehouse was stocked with everything from Chinese laser cutting machines to plastic toys for children.

A decade of fighting dashed the two Syrian entrepreneurs’ hopes. However, things seem to be looking up for businessmen like Mr. Jarah and Mr. Bustati with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad having gained the upper hand in the war with Russian and Iranian assistance and China seeing longer-term economic potential in Syria as a regional node of what BRI will look like irrespective of the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic consequences.

Syrian officials have sought to drive home China’s competitive advantages and perceived interest in taking a lead in the reconstruction of their country. “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran,” said Buthina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad’s media advisor, referring to the BRI.

Chinese access to the Syrian Mediterranean Sea ports of Tartus and Latakia is an attractive prospect for China’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic. It would complement Beijing’s footholds in Greece’s Piraeus and the Israeli harbours of Haifa and Ashdod and echo Syria’s key position on the ancient Silk Road.

Closely connected to Chinese interest in Syrian ports is the exploration by China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) of the possible upgrading of the deep seaport of Tripoli, Lebanon to allow it to accommodate larger vessels. In contrast to Syrian ports, Tripoli would grant China greater freedom of action because it would not have to share control with Russia. Together with Syrian ports, Tripoli would serve as an alternative to passage through the Suez Canal.

Russia appeared to be anticipating potential Chinese moves when it last year negotiated with the Assad government an extension of its access to military bases including what it describes as a “logistics support facility of the Russian navy” in Tartus.

In the absence of making the agreement public, it remained unclear what Russian intentions are. However, modernization of Tartus for military purposes that would guarantee Russia a role in control of the Eastern Mediterranean would have to involve upgrading it to be able to accommodate all types of vessels, including aircraft carriers.

In a further move, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his foreign and defence ministries in May to reach agreement with Syria on an additional expansion of a 2015 accord that governs Russia’s naval presence in Tartus and allows the Russian navy to base up to 11 ships in the port for 49 years. Mr. Putin wants the life of the agreement to be extended by an additional 25 years.

“From the coast of Syria, there is an opportunity to control not only the eastern part, but the entire Mediterranean Sea,” said Captain 1st Rank Anatoly Ivanov, a Moscow-based naval expert. “The United States has in the Mediterranean Sea not only the ships of its Sixth Fleet, but also an extensive ship repair base and training centres of the Navy. For Russia, the Mediterranean Sea is much closer not only geographically, but also geopolitically. Therefore, to use the opportunity to establish (itself) more densely in Syria seems to be a reasonable measure”

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has already sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to China’s state-owned COSCO Shipping Lines docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria. China has suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the  BRI and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.

Adding to China’s expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, COSCO acquired in 2015 a 65 percent stake in Turkey’s  Kumport Terminal on the Ambarli coast of Istanbul. To round off the circle, Egypt’s navy last year signed an agreement with China’s Hutchinson Ports to build a terminal in Abu Qir, a port 23 kilometres northeast of Alexandria.  Chinese companies already operate Alexandria’s own port as well as that of El Dekheila, ten kilometres west of the city.

Chinese influence in at least ten ports in six countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean - Israel, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria - could complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

This was one reason that the Trump administration has warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa, where the Chinese have built their own pier, could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US sixth fleet.

Informing US thinking is China’s Military Strategy white paper, published in 2015, that emphasises the “strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas.” It raises the spectre of Chinese-managed or owned ports in the Eastern Mediterranean serving the People’s Republic’s economic and commercial, as well as military interests.

The Chinese sway over multiple ports in the Eastern Mediterranean could also  encourage  Turkey to bolster its grip on the  energy-rich waters in violation of international law. Turkish military support for the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord produced a maritime agreement between the two entities that created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean favouring expansive Turkish claims.

China’s interest in Mediterranean ports is part of a larger effort to integrate the Middle East into the maritime leg of the Belt and Road that also includes the Gulf, the Arabian Sea with the Pakistani port of Gwadar as its focal point, and the Red Sea with the establishment of the People’s Republic’s first military outpost in Djibouti. 

The integration is further advanced by Chinese investment in ports and logistics facilities in among others Dubai and Oman as well as industrial parks linked to maritime infrastructure. China’s moves have been embraced by Gulf states, several of which have incorporated them in long-term plans to diversify and streamline their economies.

Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador in Damascus, spelled out China’s interest in Syria when he stressed in 2018, in a statement in 2018 to the People’s Republic’s state-run news agency Xinhua as well as in a letter, his country’s intent to expand its economic, political, and military footprint in  the.

"I think it's about time to focus all efforts on the development and reconstruction of Syria, and I think China will play a bigger role in this process by providing more aid to the Syrian people and the Syrian government," Mr. Qi said during a visit to a hospital in the Syrian capital.
Donations in recent years of at least US$44 million to Syria for humanitarian purposes back up Mr. Qi’s statements.

In  a letter written in August 2019, the ambassador focussed among other things, on the development of Syrian railways and seaports. The letter was published a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to lend  $20 billion to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Jordan for reconstruction and economic development.

Few doubt that China, even prior to the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic fallout, is best positioned to be a key, if not the key player, in post-war reconstruction of Syria, estimated to require between  $250 and $400 billion in investment.

This is even more the case as other potential funders, the United States, Europe, Russia and the  Gulf Cooperation Council states, will either refuse to work with the government of Mr. Al-Assad or be consumed with fighting a domestic and global recession and substantial loss of revenues in the wake of the pandemic.  

Moreover, in opposition to Western states, China on six occasions, backed Russian vetoes in the United Nations Security Council that blocked condemnations of the  Syrian government and its backers, Russian and Iran; calls for ceasefires; and sanctioning of alleged war criminals.

One  of China’s comparative advantages in heavily sanctioned Syria is the experience it garnered  in circumventing US and United Nations sanctions imposed on  Iran and North Korea.  
China further benefits from  alternative institutions that it built like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that it either controls or in which it has considerable influence.

That has not stopped the US Justice Department from accusing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei of operating in Syria in violation of US sanctions. The department is seeking the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer and daughter of its founder. Ms. Meng was detained in Canada at the request of the United States.

Seemingly oblivious to the risk of being targeted by the long arm of US justice, some 200 Chinese companies in 2018 and 58 in 2019, active in sectors such as telecommunications, oil and gas, and transportation, attended the Damascus International Fair where they discussed deals ranging from car manufacturing to development of mobile hospitals.

The participation of China National Heavy Duty Truck Company highlighted Chinese interest in the Syrian automotive sector. Syria could also prove to be a lucrative market for Chinese military exports. Mr. Al-Assad could well see Chinese interest as a way of loosening Moscow and Tehran’s grip on his country despite Russian and Iranian effort to reap the benefits of their boots-on-the-ground support for his government by winning lucrative reconstruction contracts.

China has so far refrained from responding in any real way to Syrian urging to kickstart reconstruction of critical national infrastructure even before remaining rebel strongholds in the country are reconquered. It has however exploited commercial opportunity.

The vast majority of Syrian exports go to China and Chinese goods are ubiquitous in Syrian markets. Hama, Syria’s most important industrial region after the collapse of manufacturing in Aleppo and Damascus as a result of the war, is awash with Chinese-made car parts, machine tools and equipment for the automobile, motorcycle, and shoe industry.

Multiple delegations of Chinese investors and businessmen have visited Syria in recent years. In 2018, China hosted its First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects with some 1,000 Chinese companies in attendance and pledged $2 billion for the construction of industrial parks.

China’s security concerns from Syria

Mr. Al-Assad’s ability to regain control of most Syria, with the exception of the rebel-held northern region of Idlib, created not only economic opportunity but also heightened already existing Chinese security concerns.

As  Syrian government forces rolled back rebel fighters, China feared that their battle-hardened Uyghur and Central Asian contingent would gravitate towards Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan from where it would be easier to target China.

The presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria was one driver for a brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. It also persuaded China to step up border security cooperation with Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where militants of the Uyghur jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, allegedly fight alongside the Taliban.

The Uyghur presence in Syria prompted China to consider sending Chinese troops to join the fight for Idlib in violation of its foreign and defense policy principles. China ultimately dropped the idea, which would have amounted to the People’s Republic’s first military intervention in recent memory beyond its borders.

Repeated unconfirmed media reports have, however, suggested that China has been sharing intelligence with Syria and has been sending military advisors for the past four years to help in the fight against Uyghur militants.

The discussion about an intervention followed a pledge in 2016 by Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to increase military cooperation with the  Syrian government.

Two years later, a Syrian state-controlled newspaper, Al Watan, Mr. Qi, the Chinese ambassador, and China’s military attaché, Wong Roy Chang, as saying that China wanted to contribute “in some way” to Syrian military campaign against the rebels in Idlib. The PLAN took nine days to deny Chinese interest in getting involved in the fighting, calling the report a “misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, while supportive of efforts to negotiate an end to the Syrian war, China has studiously avoided taking a leading role. Its sole initiative to shape the outcome of the conflict was a four-point plan that never gained significant traction.

China’s dilemma in Idlib lies partially  in sensitivity to Turkish opposition to an all-out assault on Idlib. Turkey fears that it would likely spark a renewed refugee exodus and concern that Chinese involvement in an assault could whip up pro-Uyghur sentiments in Turkey despite growing anti-refugee sentiment in the country.

Turkey has long supported Uyghur rights and has frequently turned a blind eye to Uyghur militants.

An Uighur dressed in a Turkish military uniform and sporting an automatic weapon, claiming in a video clip posted on Twitter that he was fighting in the northern Syrian district of Afrin alongside Turkish-backed rebels, advised Han Chinese residents of China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang to leave the area. “Listen you dog bastards, do you see this? We will triumph! We will kill you all. Listen up Chinese civilians, get out of our East Turkestan. I am warning you. We shall return, and we will be victorious,” the Uyghur said.

Syria in the wider Chinese Middle East  policy

Beyond its hesitancy of becoming embroiled in the Syrian war, China, despite its consistent backing of the Syrian government as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremism, feared that greater involvement in Syria could jeopardise its successful efforts to remain aloof in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that influenced multiple disputes in the Middle East.

That fear has receded with states in the GCC ending their long-standing support for anti-Assad rebels and cosying up to the Syrian leader in an effort to counter Iranian and Turkish influence.

Chinese aloofness also shielded it from entering into direct competition with Russia and Iran in the post-war reconstruction phase. Deepening Chinese-Russian ties in the wake of the pandemic and perceived greater Iranian dependence on China may allow for a divvying up of the pie in ways that turn Syria into an important Belt and Road node

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany