Turbulence In East China Sea, Unrest In Ukraine, Thailand

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Context

As the American influence wanes in the Arab world, Russian and China are likely to gain. One of the important reasons why the US wanted to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan was to concentrate on the threat posed by the emerging clout of China. While the focus of the world was fixated on the nuclear deal with Iran and affairs of Syria for the last few months, tensions have been brewing in the Asia Pacific, related to the disputed islands of Senkaku/Diaoya in the East China Sea.

In the case of Syria, and other recent Arab conflict, both Russia and China have resisted the calls for intervention. Moreover, the last minute deal struck with Syria over its chemical weapons would not have been possible without Russian cooperation. In fact, many claim that Russia helped US out of a tight position, and thus also provided an opening for a political solution to Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, others argue it was the build up of military hardware in and around the Strait of Hormuz that finally convinced Syria and Iran about West’s seriousness.

Nonetheless, while most of these conflicts appear to have local underpinnings, it would be difficult to grasp the holistic picture without understanding their significance to the overall balance of power, especially amongst global actors such as US, Russia and China, including other European heavyweights.

The Russian Influence

While Russia encroaches in the Middle East, it has also been re exerting itself in Eastern Europe. The case of Ukraine is a case in point where under pressure from Russia, the government decided against joining the European Union and that has now led to public protests. Additionally, Russia wasted no time in the aftermath of the recent deal reached with Iran, to make a case for why there was now no need for the American/NATO missile defense system. While US and NATO had claimed the system was directed at countering the threats from Iran, the Russians had consistently protested against the placement of some components of this system in eastern Europe, alleging the system was actually meant for its missiles.

In South Asian theater, while Russia traditionally has good ties with India, it is also gradually warming up to Pakistan and offered assistance with building up the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. The Kremlin has also offered partial funding and technical assistance for CASA-1000 project, expansion of Pakistan Steel Mill ($500m), Guddu and Muzaffargarh power plants, and Thar coal project. On the other hand, good ties with Russia facilitate Pakistan’s outreach to Central Asia; another region previously under the Russian sphere of influence.

The American Influence

As the American influence ebbs in the core Islamic world and its long-term ties with nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan in flux, it has been building relations with the Islamic nations of the Pacific. The recent US engagement of US with Iran can be viewed as connected to the worsening of ties with Sunni Muslim states.

While China and Russia have been deepening ties with both the Shiite and Sunni states using SCO, US and NATO have remained disengaged from Iran and the Shiites. Now this pattern is heading for a historic reversal as US focuses on building a balance by engaging Iran and perhaps in the future attempt to pull it away from China and Russia. To what extent will this move disillusion the Gulf Sunnis, and if this would push them in the arms of Russia and China, remains to be seen.

How the other European powers respond to these changes will also help in understanding the emerging picture. Early signs indicate France is focusing heavily on the Islamic Maghreb and Central African region. On April 29th, UK based think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) presented a ‘Return to East of Suez’ policy brief. The paper suggests that Britain is considering placing its land, sea, and air forces across the Middle East, for touch and go type operations that increasingly look likely. The report adds that Arab awakening, the situation of Iran and Syria, has made the Middle East highly volatile and Britain is preparing policy options on how to respond. The British outlook looks pretty similar to the US; small bases located strategically across the region with Special Forces and smart weapons on the ready to conduct quick operations.

According to the RUSI report, the potential missions could be in support of the American and NATO operations, but could be taken independently as well. And, it goes on to ease European worries that Britain is looking to operate outside of European security arrangements. In a larger framework, while US is pivoting to the Pacific, UK appear to be pivoting back to the Middle East. Whether this is a coordinated move is not known yet, nonetheless, it would likely provoke reaction from other powers.

The Chinese Influence

The above context provides another angle to understand the recent occurring in the Asia Pacific, where China becomes more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims. China established a new air defense zone over the disputed islands in East China Sea last month, and has declared it will start enforcing fresh rules. The declaration was immediately tested when unarmed American B-52 and B-2 bombers intruded the zone without informing the Chinese, followed by Japan and South Korean planes doing the same. This has raised a discussion about the Chinese intent and reaction, and with that the chances of escalation. If China does not enforce the new rules, it would seem weak, but then why did it want to appear strong at this juncture.

Ironically, accompanying the air disturbances in East China Sea is the civil unrest in Thailand; a country with the strongest ties with China in the region. Whether it’s a matter of NATO supply line and drones in Pakistan, EU membership in Ukraine, or the type of government in Egypt, these are all reflections of the rapidly unsettling global balance of power.