All posts tagged Geopolitics

Central Asia: Renewed Focus on Kashmir

Posted by / 1st July 2012 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , / -

The geostrategic situation in central Asia is likely to change dramatically in the next few years, and especially after 2014. Two main events will trigger this: the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan– leaving a power vacuum in the region-, and the already growing economic dominance of China, as well as India. The consequent rivalry for resources and influence in the region between is likely to have large consequences.

In this environment, the Kashmir conflict will be a scenario where the intentions and political strategy of China for this new context might be revealed. The solution of the conflict in this region between India and Pakistan remains complex, with no real prospect of a long-lasting agreement. The relative calm in the region seems to have been the result of the situation in Afghanistan and US pressure to put the conflict on halt to not exacerbate the difficulties it is facing already. Now, with the US removing itself from the equation, Beijing will become a more prominent variable. It has welcomed positive developments between Islamabad and New Delhi, but it has been reluctant to show its cards. The fate of Kashmir is now in the hands of three, rather than two, regional and nuclearly-armed rivals. India seems to have more to gain from this than Pakistan.


Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmir has been the main battlefield for the projection of their rivalry. However, the Kashmir territorial dispute has been also a global concern, as it caused nuclear proliferation and cross-border terrorism.

China has not remained indifferent to the conflict either, even if its involvement has not been consistent. China´s Kashmir policy has rather flowed through different phases, each one determined by its own current interests in the region, its relations with Pakistan and India, and its general Asian strategy.

From neutrality in the 1950s, Beijing moved to a clear support of Pakistan during the 1960s and 70s, as a result of the take-over of Tibet and its own war with India in 1962. But since Deng Xiaping took over direction of China´s external policy in 1978, China returned to neutrality, as its relations with India improved. By early 1990s China´s position is that Kashmir conflict is a bilateral matter, and currently China clearly supports a peaceful solution to the conflict: Beijing is interested in a stable Asia and better relations with India.

The above stated different phases of the Beijing’s Kashmir policy are sketched by a network of complex interests and bilateral relations that will also influence China’s future position on the conflict. The most obvious of those interests is its own entanglement: India claims the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin of approximately 35,000 square kilometers as part of the territory in Ladaakh, Kashmir. This border area, even though it has no natural resources, has been strategic territory for China as it connects Tibet and Xinjiang. However, with the completion of numerous road and rail links to Lhasa from other parts of China, Aksai Chin has lost part of this significance for China.

Security and economic concerns are paramount to Beijing. Both elements are present in its relations with Pakistan and India, and the evolution of those is the key element that will define China´s approach to Kashmir´s conflict.


China´s cooperation with Pakistan has been strong over time. Pakistan is important for Beijing, both as a counter to India and also because of Chinese’s fight against separatist movements in its northwestern territories.

The conflict with Pakistan has distracted India from increasing its influence in the region, and has also been an obstacle in its relation with the US. In this sense China needs a strong Pakistan to contain India, to keep alive the situation of balance of power in South Asia. That is why China supported Pakistan renewed alliance with the US after 11/9. It was the only means to avoid Pakistan growing isolation in the international sphere, given its links with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Recently, however, fear of Islamic fundamentalism originating in Pakistan has also been a major concern for the Chinese. Terrorists helped radicalize Uighur separatists in Xinjiang in the 1990s and the Uighur still today find a safe haven in Pakistan´s tribal areas. The withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan will increase Beijing´s fears of terrorist destabilization of its western border; China needs a capable Islamabad of controlling this threat, and until now Pakistan has not proven a real ability or willingness to do so.

Economic interests are also part of the equation. China has invested in Pakistan infrastructures and transport routes –a significant example is the maintenance of the KKH road or the construction of the port complex at the naval base of Gwadar – as an important part of the Chinese strategy to reduce its dependence on oil supplies through the Malacca Straits and create alternative routes. In recent years the economic cooperation has continued growing, with increasing Chinese investment in different sectors, especially in energy and trade.

In the Boao Forum for Asia celebrated in April, China and Pakistan renewed their close relationship, thus formally showing the stability of their alliance. But even though Islamabad is still seen as a key piece in regional security, China has become increasingly weary of its reliability as a partner. It does not seem to be able to offer Beijing concrete results.


Chinese relation with India has been much more tortuous over time. Characterized by border disputes in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, the rivalry between the countries has resulted in several military confrontations in 1962, 1967 and 1987. However, in the last two decades they have relaunched their diplomatic ties.

The most powerful engine that promotes their improved relationship are the growing mutual economic interests. Trade and economic growth of both countries in south Asia has led towards cooperation in security issues as well: they share the necessity to confront the threat of organized crime, terrorism and domestic instability of countries in the region. They also share a common interest- both being rising powers- to limit United States influence in their own backyard, as well as in improving their representation in international institutions.

Even though it is true that India is an increasingly important strategic ally for the US, mainly as a possible counterweight against China in Asia, there are also concerns about their relationship. Obama’s protectionist economic policies, the US close relationship with Pakistan and its renewed emphasis on non-proliferation all put pressure on India. Just like China, India has begun to wonder if its neighboring rival could be a more useful partner than its natural friend. Some specific efforts at solidifying these mutual interests were already attempted in the past, such as the “Strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” agreed by Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh in April 2005.

Of course, the Sino-Pakistani strategic nexus remains a concern worry for India. China is the main provider of military capabilities to Pakistan and that is a clear threat to India, as well as seen as a display of Beijing´s hostility. Similarly, the militarization of their disputed border areas, though stable, is a focus of tension between the countries. China´s growing presence in Myanmar and in other small countries in south Asia are interpreted as a struggle for dominance of the Indian Ocean. China wants multi-dimensional (including military) cooperation with most of the region for economic and strategic reasons. Some of the countries (Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, etc.) are in the traditional sphere of influence of New Delhi, creating even greater tensions between the two most populous nations in the world


With the nuclear threat ever surrounding the Kashmir conflict and its three regional rivals, the direction that China chooses in the next years is no trivial matter. Its natural ally, Pakistan, is increasingly seen as untrustworthy and unable to support China in it ambitions. Whereas in theory its position is strong, practice has created serious doubts on whether it really has anything tangible to offer.

Its natural rival, India, is still very much a source of strategic concern and practical headaches, but is also respected in Beijing. The fact that they have so many areas of contention paradoxically also means that they have a lot to offer each other. Mutual cooperation might allow dealing at the detriment of Pakistan and the United States. Diplomatic support in the Kashmir conflict is a bargaining chip that China might very well be willing to offer India in exchange for more important issues on the People’s Republic’s agenda.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Syria: Geopolitics vs. Civilian Casualties

Posted by / 6th June 2012 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , / -

On June 16th, UN observers in Syria suspended their monitoring activities and were withdrawn to their headquarters. According to the head of the UN Stabilisation Mission, the Norwegian General Robert Mood, the reason to ground the monitors was that their safety could not longer be guaranteed amidst the current escalation of violence. While this does not mean that the UN observers are already bound to leave the country, it is a worrying sign since it mirrors the behaviour of the Arab League monitors who entered Syria at the beginning of the year only to flee the country shortly after, and without having accomplished any of their objectives. However, the most important issue is that the recent development of the crisis is confirming what many feared: UN peace envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan is nearly dead. Although nobody was really optimistic about this plan’s possibilities when it was presented in March and accepted by all parties in conflict, now we have jumped to the full realization that something has gone truly wrong. It is necessary now to look back and try to find the flaws in the handling of the crisis to set the right course.

The main question to be asked is about the clarity of objectives when it comes to the Syrian crisis. In an ideal world in which the primordial end was the security of those civilians suffering the conflict, the main goal would be to stop the violence and the killing of civilians. Yet for most parties involved, either externally or internally, this is secondary at best. The problem is commitment: every party has its own objectives which overshadow the attainment of peace, that is, the immediate end of the slaughter. There is indeed a conflicting agenda over Syria, and this is central to analyse the questionable behaviour of the United States and its allies. This has had a deep and negative impact on the implementation of Annan’s diplomatic efforts. At the core there is an issue that is as old as mediation itself: impartiality. The West has disregarded this principle and further jeopardized peace.

At the beginning of April, days before the six-point plan supposedly came into force, the international platform Friends of Syria agreed to fund the rebels by supporting the Syrian National Council (SNC), the sector of the opposition which favours the use of violence against the regime of Bashar al Assad.Others, like the National Coordination Body, prefer a non-violent solution. Later, the media reported that the US was helping several Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia to coordinate arm supplies to Syrian rebels, with Russia doing its part to support Damascus. Clearly, these states are playing a dual and dangerous game: on the one hand, they say they support a peaceful solution to the crisis; on the other, they pour weapons into Syria days before the deadline to implant an UN-sponsored ceasefire. Consequently, as time passed it was clear that neither Damascus nor the opposition were willing to stop their operations. Most importantly, it started to be difficult to conceal the fact that the opposition, empowered by those arm shipments, had more interests in maximizing its military goals than in sticking to the peace plan. This further escalated the violence. But even then, it was relatively rare to hear Western policy makers asking the armed opposition to stop their military manoeuvres and halt the abuses they were committing.

It is not the first time supporting militarily rebels backfires this way: an interesting parallel happened when the West publicly sided with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). At that time, when it was clear that the KLA was ignoring the truce that preceded NATO’s air campaign even more than the Serbian army, yet the West also turned a blind eye. Up to date, in Syria we have got the exact opposite to an unbiased mediation. Just take, for example, the words of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon when he says that Assad “has lost all legitimacy”, undermining the diplomatic position of Kofi Annan, who in fact has recently called for a unity government to end the crisis.

The reason that explains this contradictory policy is that Syria is the scenario of proxy wars. Unfortunately for the people living there, Syria rests on the fault lines of the Middle East; it is a tremendously important geopolitical actor. Annan puts it very graphically: “Syria is not Libya; it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders”. He is correct. Assad is a fundamental piece in geopolitical chess. Certainly, great and regional powers have high stakes in the outcome of the crisis.

At a regional level, it is easy to understand the stakes for countries like Turkey and Israel. Netanyahu’s government has remained silent and will continue like that since Assad, despite its brutality internally, is still preferable to an unpredictable power vacuum in Syria. Ankara, for its part, is now being more vocal against Assad and is suspected to aid the rebels, but this is not something Erdogan had wished. The economic and political ties between the two countries are profound –they both share the problem with the Kurds’ pro-independence aspirations-, and for Turkey its relation with Syria is crucial to present itself as an important Middle East peace maker. In fact, before the Arab spring broke out, Erdogan acknowledged that the Assads “became part of [his] family circle”.

From a global perspective, Russia’s power struggle in the area has been thoroughly discussed already. Russia is driven not only by strategic and arms trade concerns, but also by the somewhat paranoid fear that backing any form of intervention in the country would threaten the Kremlin’s power elite. However, the main factor that has affected Annan’s peace plan is the rivalry between Iran, on one side, and the United States and its allies, on the other. For the West, it all boils down to the question of either pursuing peace or, instead, trying to weaken Assad –and, by extension, Tehran- by using the SNC and its fighters, the Free Syrian Army. The dilemma is choosing between saving lives or forcing regime change, and the outcome might be completely different if the latter gets priority over the former. Now that Syria is on the very verge of complete civil war, we have seen how siding with the rebels and focusing on bringing down Assad has only meant a higher death toll. It has encouraged both an emboldened opposition and Assad himself to fully embrace violence and rule out any other kind of engagement. If this is to be avoided, then a fundamental transformation in the way the issue is being tackled is needed. As a first step, this implies abandoning hypocrisy.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Belligerence against Iran: Reckless and Counterproductive

Posted by / 19th January 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

In the wake of last November’s IAEA report, it is time once again to examine the adopted policy on the issue: sanctions. This in the context of the latest moves by the United States and the European Union to cripple Iran’s oil industry, and subsequent threats by Tehran to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Specifically, it is necessary to think about the nature of those sanctions and whether they are in any way useful to prevent the ayatollahs from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Moreover, we could go further and ask ourselves if that goal is worthwhile at all, regardless of the cost.

The rationale behind sanctions is the following: If enough material pain is inflicted against the Iranian people, the alleged nuclear weapons program would become so politically and economically costly that the regime would have no other options than to drop it. This way of thinking would be flawless if we could objectively agree on what level of suffering is inacceptable for both the Iranians and their leadership. Obviously, the problem is that we cannot do that. In fact, more sanctions could be not only ineffective, but even counterproductive.

Weapons, particularly of the big and terrifying kind, give a country prestige and security. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its political elite have felt insecure and suspicious of the intentions of its neighbours and its main enemy, the U.S. That still holds true. With Russia, India, Israel and Pakistan all having nuclear arsenals, and with Turkey being part of NATO, atomic bombs would give Iran a ‘calming’ deterrence capability. Consequently, there is a reasonable argument to be made that the reasons behind the nuclear program are too strong for Tehran to abandon its plans, even though if this implies losing oil revenue that is vital to an already besieged economy.

If this is indeed the case, popular protests triggered by the latest sanction would not oblige the regime to change its nuclear policy; in fact, the situation could result in repression and push Iran to speed up its pace towards nuclearization. It seems clear that in the mind of the Iranian leaders the experience of Libya and the defeat of Gaddafi are starkly present. Certainly, for them the words of Aisha Gaddafi, the Colonel’s daughter, probably ring true: “To every country that has weapons of mass destruction: keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya” (March, 2011).

But in our analysis we may well be more adventurous and question if it is possible that the bulk of Iranian society could itself be willing on enduring more economic sanctions to attain nuclear capabilities. This might be the case. We should not ignore that the clerics’ shows of strength are partly intended at gathering popular support. Playing the card of national unity against the enemy might work up to a certain degree. Of course, this does not cancel the possibility of street protests like those in 2009. This latter prospect is surely one of the regime’s main fears, but we should bear the ambiguity of Iranian society in mind nonetheless.

Iran has abandoned its previous stance towards the West and shifted to a more combative attitude. This was the idea behind Tehran’s war games in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for exporting 40% of the world’s oil. According to prominent officials in the Iranian army, they are capable of blocking it as a response to sanctions considered by the regime to be an “act of war”. It is unlikely they would actually make good on such threats, for the Strait is as important to the overall world oil exports as to Iran’s own. Yet it is a scenario that should not be discarded out of hand. If indeed the oil embargo the West has agreed on is fully implemented, which already is a complex task, Tehran might well decide it is worth trying to close the Strait. It would certainly harm those Iranian oil exports still flowing despite the embargo, but it would also provoke spikes in oil prices, not a pleasant prospect for Western nations in the actual economic situation.

This is precisely what makes the implementation of sanctions difficult and what lies behind the reluctance of several actors (including here the Obama Administration itself). However, if the Strait is blocked, the U.S. Fifth Fleet would quickly retaliate. Assuming the Iranian navy gets defeated, that would expose the military vulnerability of the clerics, and reinforce the call of hardliners for greater weaponization. Yet another reason why sanctions may backfire.

So, if sanctions seem to be too risky, unpredictable or unsuited for this task, what is left then? Probably not diplomacy, at least in the foreseeable future, since both sides have burnt that bridge. There are already covert operations in place. These include facility sabotage, the assassination of scientists relevant to the program and cyberwarfare (2010 Stuxnet attack). However, this has only slowed down Iran’s nuclear plans, nothing more.

Thus, now is when we get to the critical point of possibly opting for a preventive attack, and here let us not delude ourselves: a strike against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure is highly dangerous to international security and stability. On the one hand, a preventive strike like this would only work if it is unexpected, so there would not be any Security Council debate before an attack. This would make it illegal under international law and upset not only the Iranians, but also the Russians and the Chinese. On the other hand, a quick strike, probably carried out by Israel, might not be that effective. It can be argued that to render the nuclear program useless a more sustained campaign is needed, and that would need the involvement of the U.S. and maybe others. Apart from all of this, Iran’s- as well as its and its allies’- possible retaliation should not be ignored. All of this makes it unclear whether playing this gambit is reasonable. A Middle East with a nuclearized Iran would might be a region with increased instability. That, however, is not enough of a reason to start a war over it. facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail