Monday, December 17, 2007

Not exactly what the neo Cons had in mind for its "New American Century"

China leaves the US and India trailing

By M K Bhadrakumar

Hardly a week passes without Delhi taking stock of China's creeping "encirclement" of India. The Indian media reported on Thursday that Delhi denied permission for China's cargo carrier Great Wall Airlines to land in Mumbai or Chennai since the two Indian cities have "key nuclear facilities" which Chinese aeroplanes might reconnoiter.

That becomes more grist to the mill, though no one knows what it could be that the two aging Indian cities would hide that Google Earth hasn't yet spotted. Beijing predictably balked. Some Indian strategic thinkers go so far as to call it China's "containment" of India - as if the Indian rogue elephant has gone berserk in the Asian courtyard and needs to be shackled.

Actually, the latest irritant shouldn't have been aerial reconnoitering, but China's upset win - trumping formidable rivals like the US, Canada and Russia - in the massive Afghan tender for copper mines. But the strategic community in Delhi doesn't know, as the Indian media kept it in the dark.

The news from the Hindu Kush would have made Indian thinkers pull their hair in despair. China has never been a player in Afghanistan in modern history. Indeed, it is a needless provocation on the part of the Chinese to be so utterly fearless of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While India prides itself as a major donor for Afghan reconstruction - building roads, bridges, hospitals, a Parliament building and even, intriguingly, public toilets - China marches ahead and wins the tender for the Aynak cooper deposit in Afghanistan's Logar province bordering Kabul, which is billed as one of the world's largest copper mines.

The project involves US$4 billion in investment by China Metallurgical Group, which will be by far the biggest foreign investment in Afghanistan and is estimated to provide employment for 10,000 people. Significantly, the project includes the development of a railway system linking Afghanistan to China. (Nepal also has sought the extension of China's railway system from Lhasa to Kathmandu.)

Beijing-Tehran oil deal
These audacious Chinese are pole-vaulting across the impenetrable Himalayan ranges with merry abandon in their zest to globalize and integrate.

But the mother of all Chinese encirclement of India still remains largely unnoticed in Delhi - the Beijing-Tehran axis. There is wide recognition that if the United States hasn't been able to push through another tougher United Nations Security Council resolution against Iran over its nuclear program, that has been largely because of China's reluctance to concur.

But what happened last Sunday still came as a bolt from the blue. China Petroleum Corporation, better known as the Sinopec Group, signed a contract with the Iranian Oil Ministry for the development of the Yadavaran oil and gas fields in southwestern Iran.

The current estimation is that the project cost will be $2 billion. Under the contract, China will make the entire investment necessary to develop the fields. The first phase is to produce 85,000 barrels of oil per day and the second phase will add another 100,000 barrels. According to Iranian estimates, Yadavaran has in place oil reserves of 18.3 billion barrels and gas reserves amounting to 12.5 trillion cubic feet.

Iran is already China's third-largest supplier of crude oil, but the Iranians are simply delighted. Oil Minister Gholam-Hossein Nozari was quick to point out that the deal with China flies in the face of Washington's attempts to block foreign investments in Iran. Sinopec merely said, "We are very happy to sign this contract ... China is willing to buy LNG [liquefied natural gas] from Iran and we hope to talk about an LNG project later."

The Sino-Iranian deal has been closed within a week of the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program, which has conclusively debunked any conspiracies hatched by the neo-conservative coterie within the George W Bush administration for launching a military strike against Iran. Beijing has indeed moved fast.

But what stands out is that Beijing anticipated a long time ago the inevitability of precisely such a u-turn in US policy towards Iran. More important, it began plotting how it could take optimal advantage when the Iran question inexorably moved toward its denouement. Beijing estimated that time was of the essence. Beijing could visualize a day when Tehran would have competing customers from the Western world seeking access to its oil and gas.

Beijing's take on the Iran question
As far back as May, the government newspaper China Daily commented, "This policy [of Washington refusing to have dealings with Iran] is no longer workable. The reality of the Middle East is that the US cannot ignore Iran."

And by the beginning of June, Chinese regional experts had already assessed, "Iran, with no geopolitical competitors, has become the 'boss' within the Persian Gulf region. Since the US has fallen into the Iraqi quagmire, Iran concludes that the United States dare not use force against Iran. Therefore, it maintains strong strategic determination and refuses to make concessions on the nuclear issue.

"This favorable environment, coupled with a strategic resolve, has earned Iran a certain status of equilibrium with the United States in the contest within the Persian Gulf region. It is this balance of power that has forced the United States to sit down and talk with Iran. Iran, hence, has won the battle for survival and the status of a regional power."

The anonymous scholar from the Institute of Asia and Africa under the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, who wrote the above commentary for the People's Daily, went on to give his prognosis with extraordinary prescience. He wrote, "Despite many variables and the complicated situation in the Middle East, there is one thing that remains clear. The United States cannot reverse its current downhill trend in the Middle East. Iran's rise and its challenging gestures will further accelerate the decline of the United States' presence within the region. In the emerging 'new Middle East', Iran will certainly play a role that cannot be ignored."

By end-July, Beijing knew its assessment was perfect and that the US position with regard to Iran was rapidly eroding.

In the context of the US-Iran security talks over Iraq in July, the People's Daily noted, "The United States has eventually recognized Iran as a 'game player' in the region ... From the angle of geopolitics or religious culture, Iran can give scope to its role of a radiant power or influence over Iraq, which is exactly what the US refused to acknowledge but has [now] come to recognize."

India's Iran policy in tatters
How is it that such wisdom and foresight that immensely strengthens Beijing's hand today in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East eluded the strategic community in Delhi? Admittedly, Indian regional policy in the Middle East has been shaken to the core in recent days. The Indian strategic community was shell-shocked by the NIE.

The trauma was all the more painful as Delhi had just recently succumbed to Washington's arm-twisting and imposed banking restrictions on Iran, beyond what the two United Nations Security Council resolutions on that country demanded. That was a disastrous decision by any diplomatic yardstick. It is immaterial that Washington pressured Delhi into it despite knowing that the NIE was to sail into view. What matters is that Delhi looks very foolish and naive.

India is, alas, facing collateral damage from the reverses that the United States policy is taking in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Delhi's estimation that it was always safe to hitch its diplomatic wagon to the US-Israeli caravan in the Middle East region has been put to the test. Delhi must now confront the reality that playing poodle to Washington didn't help advance India's medium- and long-term interests.

Delhi's Middle East policy rested on assumptions. First, it was assumed that the Bush administration would ultimately sort out the Iran question on American terms and the international community would have to learn to live with it. Delhi believed that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's strategic defiance of Washington would prove to be vacuous once the formidable American juggernaut got cracking down in earnest.

The Indian security community lives in absolute thrall of Israel's capability to stretch its long arm and squash Iran. It was only logical to wait for the morning after Ahmadinejad to do any serious business with Iran. Meanwhile, Delhi assumed that calibrating its Iran policy in terms of US-Israeli thinking was simply the right
thing to do.

Thus, almost across-the-board cooperation with Iran got mothballed. No one talked anymore about the "north-south transportation corridor" that the previous government in Delhi initiated as a means of gaining access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian region (and Russia). The strategic dialogue with Iran on regional security issues lost traction, even though the ascendancy of forces of religious militancy and the Taliban's resurgence demanded it.

The gas pipeline project from Iran via Pakistan to India languished while Delhi seized one pretext or the other for keeping it on the backburner. The 25-year mega LNG deal, which the previous government in Delhi negotiated, has become moribund. The latest banking restrictions imposed by Delhi will discourage even normal trade and investment.

Delhi toes US-Israel line
Without doubt, the imperatives of the on-going negotiations over the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US left Delhi with hardly any leeway to withstand the combined American and Israeli pressure to curtail India's cooperation with Iran.

But that is only part of the story. On the broader issues of regional security in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Delhi also seemed to have moved with planning within the broad framework of India's rapidly expanding strategic partnership with the US.

Actually, Delhi's estimation wasn't altogether as illogical as it might seem today. It was an approach that fitted with the present Indian government's priorities of harmonizing India's regional policies with the US's global strategies. The thinking ran as follows: the core agenda of the Bush administration's Middle East policy lies in ensuring Israel's regional dominance, and the influence of the neo-conservatives on the Bush administration's foreign policy being what it is and given the challenge Iran poses to Israel's regional dominance, the Bush administration cannot be expected to sit back and allow Tehran to consolidate the strategic influence it gained during the period since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Besides, there was also a quid pro quo. American Congressmen known for their strong links with Israel stood up and constantly began reminding Delhi over the past couple of years that there is nothing like a free lunch. India has enjoyed excellent chemistry with the Jewish lobby and neo-conservative circles in the US in recent years, and they have enormous goodwill towards Delhi and time and again demonstrated their capacity to influence the US Congress, media and the White House over issues affecting Indian interests. (The Israeli lobby in Washington gave a big helping hand canvassing support for the nuclear deal on the Capitol Hill.) Delhi began feeling the heat when middle-level American politicians wantonly began mocking the Indian foreign minister and even addressing the Indian prime minister asking for explanations over Delhi's delay in signing the nuclear cooperation deal.

Furthermore, Indian thinking took into account Washington's sustained efforts in the recent period to bring together the pro-West Arab regimes and Israel in a grouping arrayed against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Delhi concluded that Iran's regional isolation was a foregone conclusion. The underlying assumption, of course, was that the conservative pro-West Arab regimes were in no mood to cohabit with the radical leadership in Tehran and were instead on practically alliance terms with Israel already.

Delhi needs course correction
In the recent period, therefore, India put a deliberate distance between it and what it saw as the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas lineup. But that didn't stop Delhi from voicing support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. The rhetoric remains important for its resonance in Indian domestic politics, considering that India has a huge Muslim electorate which keenly follows developments in the Islamic world. The rhetoric is carefully crafted insofar as it sounds passionately supportive of the Palestinian cause and lends itself to free interpretation while it can cause no annoyance to Israel.

Indian diplomacy has a lot of catching up to do. In the short term, Delhi will have to pay a price for overlooking the geopolitical reality that Iran is the only really viable regional power in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Delhi's best hope is that true to their innate pragmatism, Iranians will let bygones be bygones. The pressure will begin to mount once full-fledged US engagement of Iran commences. Ahmadinejad has said, "It [NIE] is a positive step, a step forward … If they [Bush administration] take one or two more such steps, the issues will be totally changed and ... the way will be paved for the resolution of regional and bilateral issues."

Second, Delhi has no choice but to revisit its blind faith in the US capacity to influence the countries of the Persian Gulf region. The Indian delegation at last Sunday's regional security conference in Manama, Bahrain, saw first hand the derisive reaction by senior Arab officials to the speech by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The Indian officials realized that contrary to what Delhi imagined, the Gulf Arab regimes have a complex attitude toward Iran.

When Gates maintained that Israel is a benign power while Iran is subverting its neighbors, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani retorted, "We can't really compare Iran with Israel. Iran is our neighbor, and we shouldn't really look at it as an enemy. I think Israel through 50 years has taken land, kicking out the Palestinians, and it interferes under the cover of security." He called on the US to hold direct talks with Iran. Other Arab officials referred to the US's "double standards".

Again, Delhi would have noted that Iran was invited to a Gulf Cooperation Council summit for the first time in Doha on December 2. And it transpired on Tuesday that for the first time ever, Saudi King Abdullah has extended an invitation to the Iranian president to make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Equally, there are indications that the Saudis are disappointed with the Annapolis meeting in the US on November 27 to discuss a solution to the Palestinian problem.

Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper published from London reported on Sunday that a revival of the Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement of February (involving Hamas and Fatah) could be in the works. Hamas' website also reported that Hamas chief Khaled Mishaal, who is based in Damascus, traveled to Riyadh "to discuss means of restoring Palestinian national dialogue". Even thoughtful Israelis like the former spy chief Efraim Halevy feel it's time to negotiate with Hamas' leaders - "the same men his former agency and his nation have targeted for assassination" (to quote The Wall Street Journal).

Clearly, Delhi's simplistic, one-dimensional view of the Persian Gulf lineup, imbued with the vision of the US neo-conservatives - that pro-West Arab regimes plus the US and Israel are fighting an epochal war with Iran - is untenable. The underlying flaws in India's Middle East policy, however, are difficult to jettison as long as the policy remains dovetailed to the US regional agenda. The specter of a Chinese arc of encirclement in the Persian Gulf may just be the stimulus needed for Delhi to seriously introspect where and how its policy floundered in figuring out the Persian puzzle.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

Original article posted here

No comments: