Category Archives: Domestic issues & events

Posts on UK-related events and topics

Hidden Dragon: China quietly becomes a Major Player in the Middle East

The era of Western neo-colonial dominance in the Middle East may finally be drawing to a bloody close. The Western monopoly ended almost unnoticed in 2013 when China replaced the European Union as the region’s foremost trading partner, pushing the US into third place, with India breathing at America’s heels in fourth. The region was carved up between the victorious European powers in the aftermath of World War I after a long period of economic and social penetration in the 19th century. The United States replaced the European empires as hegemon after World War II, but otherwise little changed; the overriding concern of the Western powers remained securing energy supplies (a major reason for the original British-Saudi alliance signed in 1915).

The oil-rich Gulf states continue to set their economic focus on the United States and Europe well into the twenty-first century. Western states support autocratic Middle Eastern governments when these have backed their oil interests and intervened in the region’s wars whenever it looked as if these interests were threatened. 

The creation of a post-Cold War global marketplace under the American ageis helped broaden China’s economic horizons as it has bootstrapped its way up the global economic ladder. As the post-Iraq collapse of the Middle East’s fragile states has undermined any American comprehensive regional strategy, US policy increasingly seems to be done ‘on the hoof’. This has given China space to increase its political penetration of the Middle East to match its increasing economic clout.

Now China is an advanced economy it has the same need for energy supplies as other developed countries. Her Middle East strategy has already departed from its tradition of global non-intervention, starting in 2010 when it dispatched ships to patrol the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden. More recently it sent a shipment of arms to the Government of South Sudan in June 2014 as the civil war continued there. China had previously heavily invested in the northern Sudanese ‘Arab’ Islamist regime, but has moved quicklyto make new friends in the south as the trend of state disintegration in the greater Middle East gains ground. 

This higher Middle Eastern profile also reflects China’s own changing demographic conditions. Partially as a result of the controversial one-child policy its population has also begun to age, and a smaller generation is expected to follow the post-80s one that built the modern Chinese economy. Although China is likely to remain price-competitive in manufacturing labour costs for a number of years to come the ‘China price’ that allowed it to become a manufacturing giant has slowly begun to rise. Production is already being moved to other developing countries such as Vietnam.

A recent economic slowdown and a population that has rapidly modernized its lifestyles have made the Communist regime pay careful attention to the price and security of China’s oil supplies. Chinese oil demand has long since outstripped its own domestic supplies in the north-east and it has been a net oil importer since 1993. As the Communist central government has long preferred a Saudi-style approach to buying off its population with economic development over a brittle Soviet-style iron fist, reliable oil imports are now a vital prerequisite to curtailing internal dissent. The increased political importance of oil has in turn increased the amount of energy and attention China pays to its Middle Eastern policy.

So, what will a 21st century China policy towards the Middle East look like? Simply because it is a non-Western power one should not assume that the Chinese government’s influence in the Middle East would be selfless or benign.

But I for one highly doubt that China seeks to pursue a mercantilist foreign policy in the Middle East, or thinks of supplanting America as the regional security guarantor there as it wants to in East Asia. Rather I expect Beijing to free-ride on the back of America and try to copy the successful Chinese strategy in extracting commodities in Africa. China has greatly increased its share of the African market through the entrepreneurial energies of individual Chinese firms and by studiously avoiding taking positions on local issues. This strategy has its limits; unregulated Chinese firms’ willingness to bribe officials and to ignore industrial rights and environmental concerns has also sometimes caused a backlash in certain African countries. In the Middle East it will mean China avoidsentangling government to government alliances like the US-Saudi one, limiting its exposure in an unstable part of the world.

Since 2009 China has been the world’s second largest net importer of oil and petroleum products. Her energy dependence on fossil fuels is therefore overwhelming at present. The Chinese government’s main goal is therefore energy security through diversity of supply. In the longer term China will seek to reduce its dependence on foreign gas and oil supplies in favour of nuclear, solar and coal (primarily for its power generation), but for now it buys gas from Crimea-annexing Russia, conducts exploratory oil drills in its neighbours’ waters, and seeks oil contracts from whoever will sell drilling rights.

This does not make China a model international citizen but it allows it to avoid over reliance on Middle Eastern oil. It is an interesting fact that China has never sought to trade security guarantees for energy access in the region. The policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other states has kept it out of Middle Eastern disputes so far, officially even in cases like Sudan and South Sudan. Materially China may give aid to one regime or another, but it is careful never to get too close, or to become too publicly identified with a local ruler, as has been the case with successive British and American proxies. Perhaps that is the secret of its Middle Eastern success to date.

Neil Thompson is a freelance writer who has lived and travelled extensively through East Asia and the Middle East. He holds an MA in the International Relations of East Asia from Durham University, and is now based in London.

The article above is reprinted with kind permission from Juan Cole’s Informed Comment site. You can see the original here.

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Future Foreign Policy Published My First Contribution!

I will be a member of the Future Foreign Policy (FFP) editorial team for the forseeable future. The kind folks over at have already put up a new article by me on their website. This may mean a break in regular blogging, but I won’t neglect the site entirely. Any new work will get a mention here, together with a link to where it is posted.

Pragmatic Disengagement and Islamic Democracy

When many Westerners think of the Middle East today they tend to see a region gripped by religious and sectarian violence. Within Sunni Islam there is a struggle over religious authenticity, while secular governments in places like Egypt, Algeria and Syria face armed opposition to their rule by Islamist extremists. Meanwhile, much of the violence in long-running civil wars has taken on a sectarian nature, both between different strands of Islam and against religious minorities. Sometimes this has been encouraged as a deliberate divide-and-rule strategy by embattled regimes and, as in the case of Syria, the categories often overlap. What all the conflicts are perceived to have in common is the participation of inflexible and fanatical groups of fighters dogmatically opposed to the further modernization and Westernization of their home countries.

Should any of these groups seize power, it is feared that they will impose a backwards-looking theocratic form of governance across the spaces that they dominate, and will trample on the human rights of vulnerable groups such as religious minorities or women. The panacea for this in the eyes of many Western citizens is to temper religious fervor by separating it from politics and implementing a secular and liberal democratic system of government. However, no Middle Eastern state has yet to obtain such a system by its own efforts, while Western attempts to enact nation-building have so far ended in failure. Consequently, Western policymakers have tended to back authoritarian governments as a bulwark against fundamentalist rule.

The chronic weakness of state authority in the Middle East, coupled with the flourishing of extremist movements, once helped to maintain this ‘strongman’ model of governance. Yet, even in the face of political Islam’s enduring appeal in Muslim societies, this strategy is now regarded at best as a stop-gap measure rather than a long-term solution to the region’s myriad problems. The default Western response to this double-sided problem has been to propose the transfer of functions performed by some religious organizations (for example healthcare) over to a stronger state. Under this scenario, religious groups would cease to perform political functions and the state would guarantee their freedom to practice their beliefs without interference. Islamic movements are thus seen as an obstacle to better state capability as well as challengers to its monopoly on force and violence. As a consequence, attempts by local rulers or outsiders, to modernize, secularize and centralize the Middle East have quite often resulted in a religious backlash.

Towards Religious Democracies

But what if the West’s secular state model is a merely a product of its own historically violent struggles with modernity in the 17th century? Up until this point in time, the very idea that religious authority should have no place in the political system of a European state would have been controversial to say the least – just as it is in parts of the modern day Middle East. But the creation of democratic systems in Indonesia and Turkey help to disprove the notion that Muslim or Middle Eastern cultures are incapable of living under systems of governance inextricably linked to the West.

For the likes of Turkey and Tunisia, democratic transformation occurred after decades of secularist dictatorship or military coups. The price for Islamist participation in the political process was the promise not to pursue a theocratic or one-party model of government once in power. Only then did both the secular and religious sections of these societies agree to be bound by the results of future elections. By contrast, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood gambled that they could rule alone through electoral majoritarianism, they lost and a more familiar form of government returned.

These scenarios, in turn, suggest that while the Middle East’s secularists cannot keep the influence of Islamist organizations completely in check, Islamists are seemingly unable to monopolize power without resorting to the same type of oppression that discredited their republican or monarchical enemies. In this respect, democratic elections might offer a third path. However, developing organic and sustainable democratic processes undoubtedly takes time. Indeed, the collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing a dictator does not immediately create the conditions for political transformation. If anything, the ongoing travails within these countries helps to reinforce that the Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonization began a mere five or six decades ago – a predicament that bears some resemblance to the century of nation-building associated with German or Italian unification.

And when it comes to nation-building in Europe, it must also be remembered that political change in the West has quite often been violent and inconsistent. Even the most pacific Western democracies are less than a hundred years old. Indeed, at two hundred and thirty-eight years old, the United States could be viewed as a venerable patriarch. Accordingly, we should not distort the growth of groups like Islamic State as an inevitable consequence of political Islam’s rise to power once a secular dictatorship is removed. It should also be remembered that most Islamist movements remain locally-focused in their political objectives and have condemned violence as a political tool.

Stop Taking Sides

The emergence of democratic states in other parts of the Islamic world suggests that they can also emerge in Arab and Middle Eastern states. However, it is also highly likely that any indigenous political group that attains significant popularity under these systems will be influenced by Islam. This is in much the same way as many Western political parties are influenced by Christian frameworks and assumptions, such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. And just as Western politicians have to be in favor of ideals such as “freedom” or “democracy“, leaders in Muslim-majority countries also have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Invoking Islam is both a legitimizing measure and a short-cut to the communication of ideas. Even secular Middle Eastern political parties will have observant members.

Most Islamist movements also offer programs of action that do not necessarily threaten the West. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s determination to secure power via democratic processes diverges with the aims of groups like IS or Al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. Consequently, the West’s ‘tolerance’ of the removal of elected Islamist political movements by force could be regarded as a strategic blunder that has helped to encourage jihadist narratives of victimization. The recent killing of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is a case in point. While this Somali militant group’s profile has undoubtedly increased over the past few years, it could be argued that its rise to prominence was facilitated by the overthrow of its more locally-focused predecessor in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. By being seen to take sides in inter-Muslim disputes and colluding against fundamentalists with their local enemies, the West might have indirectly encouraged more extreme forms of Islamism.

Democratic Islamism Will Lead to Accountability

It might even have been wiser to leave these movements alone so that they can discredit themselves locally, much like the Iranian or Sudanese regimes have over the years. In this respect, have Tehran and Khartoum behaved any worse than the Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution-era China or today’s Gulf monarchies? It’s a question worth thinking about, given that the West managed to co-exist (or even aligned) with all these governments for decades. Indeed, China’s example shows that the need to tackle mounting social problems slowly brings out the pragmatism in the most extreme of movements. Even an Islamic movement in power inevitably leans to pragmatism as part of its bid to survive in government. Since 2002, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated Turkey’s domestic politics not because of its iron grip on culture and society, but mainly because it delivered on solid economic growth. This, in turn, gave it the legitimacy to defang Turkey’s coup-prone army, a feat that no previous elected government had managed to achieve.

Indeed, elections offer a fresh source of legitimacy for groups that have become popular through religious advocacy or offering social services. They provide a future goal around which supporters can be mobilized. Revolutionary parties which have relied on battlefield victories for their legitimacy have to adapt or lose ground when elections start to become more important. Once Islamic parties have to focus on practical problems such as healthcare and economic growth, they either lose much of their crusading zeal or risk their political credibility and relevance. It’s even possible that Iran might go through such a transformation in the coming decades.

No Quick Fixes

The key to separating religion and government in the region, and therefore creating a stronger Middle Eastern state, might be to tolerate religion governing through the state. By exposing the shortcomings of this model, democracy might consolidate its status faster in the Middle East as its political elites lose another vehicle for mobilizing public support. Electorally successful Islamic parties will moderate and their methodologies will be copied elsewhere. Consequently, it might be better if the West practiced a policy of pragmatic disengagement towards those countries now electing Islamist political parties. If it neither helps nor hinders the process of change, it cannot be held responsible for the outcome. This strategy is not a quick fix for the problems of the Middle East today, but it might be among the most enduring.

Re-posted from the ISN Security Watch blog.

I Have Joined Future Foreign Policy!

I have joined the volunteer board of Future Foreign Policy (FFP), a student and graduate led International Affairs Think Tank that was set up to engage young people in a fresh and innovative forum for progressive policies, and allow them to promote their ideas on the future direction of foreign affairs. As an editorial volunteer I report to FFP’s Editor-in-Chief Katy Ho and help manage members’ policy contributions to the site.

I am looking forward to taking on the role and continuing to develop the skills and experiences I gained in my previous spell as an editorial intern at the Berlin-based think-tank Atlantic Community.

What Threat Is Argentina To The Falklands?

Argentina has been making the international news again lately, penalised over the legal terms of a debt-restructuring saga stretching back to 2001, but succeeding in swaying the UN Special Committee On Decolonisation to back its view that the Falkland Islands are occupied Argentinean territory. Economically Argentina cannot support a military invasion of the islands at present, but this does not rule out an aggressive “lawfare” strategy of annexation.

Argentina has recently succeeded in persuading the UN Special Committee on Decolonization to call for negotiations again over the Falkland Islands territorial dispute. It has therefore succeeded in persuading the other nations on the committee to ignore the results of a referendum conducted by the local Falklands population in 2013 that voted overwhelmingly to remain an overseas UK territory. Argentina maintains that the issue is one of UK occupation of sovereign Argentine territory, so the islanders’ opinions are moot under international law.

Since neither Argentina nor Britain are economically or militarily strong enough to afford a war over the islands, the risk of a formal interstate conflict remains low. This does not guarantee the Islands’ future as a British possession however. It ignores the UK’s weakening geopolitical position since 1982 vis-à-vis states which may aid Argentina to further their own policy goals; it also ignores the possibility of an aggressive postmodern “lawfare” campaign of economic, legal and diplomatic sabotage which the Argentine government could conduct to delegitimize the UK administration of the islands. Witness the American effort against Iran over that country’s nuclear programme, or the more violent Russian drive to subvert the territorial integrity of Ukraine for the kind of costs which could be imposed on Britain and the Falklands. Occurring below the level of open war, this nonetheless could result in the end of the Islands’ status as a UK overseas territory.

From the British point of view the UK longer commands the hard and soft power the country had in 1982. Iraq ended a twenty year run of battlefield successes in the Falklands, the Gulf, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The 2008 financial crisis completed what the war on terror had begun, debilitating Britain’s military machine and undermining the economic engine any modern state needs to project power and influence other actors. Britain is also going through a tense period with its European Union partners at present and faces an uncertain political future as a united political entity. The UK’s ability to shield the islands from the machinations of their giant neighbour is correspondingly diminished.

This is significant because South American states which are friendly towards Argentina’s point of view have gotten stronger. The UK has no real remaining regional allies in South America, a continent with dim views on former European colonial powers. There is also a generational issue; key figures in Latin American states with left-wing governments today, such as current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, remember when Britain helped to back many of the repressive dictatorships in Latin America they grew up in, for example by helping to train military torturers in interrogation tactics. Relations with the Pinochet regime in Chile were particularly close until the return of democracy there in 1990. The Latin America of today is increasingly integrated economically and run by self-confident democracies, not pliable dictatorships in need of outside support to bolster their rule. Britain is therefore kept isolated in South America by its past associations for Latin Americans.

Presently Buenos Aires does not seem politically in a place where it can take advantage of British weaknesses. Its government is preoccupied by economic difficulties and foreign litigation. Inflation is a growing problem, and a recent ruling by an American court that Argentina must pay a group of “vulture funds” the full amount of their defaulted loans threatens its scare foreign currency reserves. If so, what kind of threat can Argentina pose to the Falklands today?

It must be remembered that the 1982 invasion was sparked in part by the unrest caused by the disastrous economic policies of the country’s then-military government. If Argentinean politics were to again become destabilised by economic difficulties, it is not hard to see a case where a populist government comes to power with a nationalist worldview that is more committed to “recovering” the Falklands. In the same way that Hong Kong was used by Communist China as a bargaining chip before 1997, Britain’s Falkland’s policy could even become hostage to Argentinean political jockeying.

Coercive gestures towards the islands could easily become a substitute for hard economic reforms or their “price”. Argentina could easily unilaterally escalate the crisis on the ground by, for example, sending an exploratory oil rig with a naval escort to drill inside the Falklands maritime boundary. Alternatively it could try to undermine the Islands economically with a blockade. Given the parlous state of Argentina’s navy this makes no military sense. But as a public relations gesture to rally regional support for itself against Britain, a clash could be easily be spun as a moral victory.

Much still depends on the attitude of the Latin American states and on the UN Decolonisation Committee. While Argentina could make life very difficult for the Falklands, it would still be reliant on its neighbours and international patronage for any future success in getting the islands placed under Argentinean legal jurisdiction. At present these parties make sympathetic noises, but real Latin American support does not extend much beyond symbolic gestures like supporting the UN vote or blocking Falklands-flagged ships from docking at their ports. This could change if, for example, the regional giant Brazil resumed campaigning again for a Security Council seat and opted to use the issue as leverage to put pressure on the UK. In this sense the futures of the islands, Argentina and the UK are hostage to the unpredictable horse-trading of international relations.

The Decolonisation Committee has repeatedly called for negotiations over the Falklands between Britain and Argentina, therefore inferring that the UN already sees the dispute as a colonial one. The committee is an unsympathetic forum for Britain with influential members. It numbers Russia and China as permanent ones; while people might scoff at states with their record calling for decolonisation, they are veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Nonaligned great powers India and Brazil are also represented. The committee therefore contains no allies of Britain, several strategic competitors, and some states whose governments are downright hostile to it, such as Iran. While it has no power to compel the United Kingdom to obey its resolutions (which the UK could veto in any case), the repeatedly ignored injunctions from the committee provide Argentina with a useful symbolic legalistic pretext for any actions short of war that it chooses to take to “enforce its sovereignty”.

I do not believe that a military occupation of the islands is a strategic goal of Buenos Aires in the present political climate. Argentina lacks the advantages of a superior local military presence, a friendly local populace and a disorganised opposing state that allowed Russia to “peacefully” occupy and subsequently annex Crimea earlier this year. In my opinion the real threat Argentina poses today is a legal and moral one; should it lead a successful propaganda campaign to convince the right international actors that they should enforce her claims, Buenos Aires could create a situation where the economic and political burden of maintaining UK control over the Falklands becomes prohibitively costly. Similar “delegitimisation” campaigns have been tried in the past against apartheid South Africa and modern Israel with mixed results.

Under this worst case scenario, a “Diego Garcia” situation could occur where, under the aegis of the UN declarations, the “implanted” British population is removed/evacuated back to the UK by the British government. The administration of the islands would then pass to Buenos Aires. It would be an injustice, but with good diplomacy the operation could acquire the veneer of legalism that state conductors of “lawfare” rely upon to win international acquiescence in their actions. There are plausible modern precedents for the surrender of overseas territories with large citizen populations.

In 1962 then-President Charles De Gaulle gave up the three French overseas territorial “départements” in what is now Algeria. These had been regarded as an integral part of France up to that moment. Almost a million European Algerians (Pied Noirs) fled to mainland France afterwards, and today there is no significant French population in Algeria. The Falkland Islands had no indigenous population for Britain to mistreat the way the French did native Algerians so the parallels here are not exact. But the point I wish to make is this; France did not lose militarily in Algeria, anymore then Britain lost in the Falklands War. Yet legally it could be argued there are similarities between the two situations. When France retreated from Algeria, it did so because it was widely seen as having lost the “battle of ideas” with its nationalist enemies. Britain must not rest on its laurels and allow the same to happen with Argentina.