Rajiv Saxena

The 1928 Group Agreement (better known as the “Red Line” Agreement) was a deal struck between several American, British, and French oil companies concerning the oil resources within territories that formerly comprised the Ottoman Empire within the Middle East. The origin of American economic involvement in the Middle East, particularly with regards to crude oil, dates back to 1928, with the signing of the Red Line Agreement. US currently encompasses the area from Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus in the west to Iran and the Persian Gulf in the east, and from Turkey and Iran in the north, to Yemen and Oman in the south. There were seven countries with active armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa in 2019 (the same as in 2018): Egypt (high-intensity, subnational armed conflict), Iraq (internationalised civil war with ISIL), Israel (low-intensity, extra state armed conflict with Hamas), Libya (internationalised civil war), Syria (major conflict with ISIL) and Lebanon (Hezbollah). The Middle East is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all monotheistic religions that grew from the same tradition. Religion plays a large part in the rhythm of daily life, not only through prayer and study, but also in determining the end of the work week.

To date, China has concluded partnerships agreements with 15 Middle Eastern countries. It participates in anti-piracy and maritime security missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and has conducted large-scale operations to rescue its nationals from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. It has increased its mediation efforts in crises such as those in Syria and Yemen – albeit cautiously so; was instrumental in persuading Tehran to sign the Iran nuclear deal; and appointed two special envoys to Middle Eastern countries in conflict. Moreover, China’s establishment of its first overseas military base, in Djibouti, as well as the probable militarisation of the Pakistani port of Gwadar, contributes to the growth of the country’s military presence near crucial maritime chokepoints: the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb. Finally, China has supplied arms to several Middle Eastern countries, albeit on a small scale.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin sought on Saturday to reassure allies in the Middle East that President Joe Biden’s administration was committed to the region despite Washington increasingly turning its attention towards countering China. It was unclear how much impact Austin’s speech would have impressed allies in the Middle East since it is not backed by any announcements of further deployments of military hardware or a new base or new weapon sales in the region.

Gulf Arab states, heavily reliant on the US military umbrella, have expressed uncertainty about Biden’s focus on the region, especially after the hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its hesitant stances on Yemen’s Houthis.

The region is closely watching efforts to revive a global-powers nuclear pact with Iran. In a speech in Bahrain during a trip to the Gulf, Austin acknowledged concern in the region and globally that the United States was solely focused on China’s challenge. “Let’s be clear: America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure,” Austin said.

He added that the United States was committed to countering Iran, even as Washington works to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. “We remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue. But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure,” Austin said.

The Pentagon Chief said that the United States would be coming to the indirect negotiations on reviving the Iran deal on November 29 in good faith at Vienna. “But Iran’s actions in recent months have not been encouraging – especially because of the expansion of their nuclear programme,” he added. Gulf Arab states have asked to be included in the negotiations, and for any deal to address what they call ‘Iran’s ballistic missile programme’, and destabilising behaviour in the region. The power balance in the region will get changed if Iran gets nuclear capabilities.

Under Biden, US military officials are looking at a wider reshuffling of forces from the Mideast to other areas, though it still maintains a large presence at bases across the region. Austin hinted at that in his remarks, saying: “Our potential punch includes what our friends can contribute and what we have prepositioned and what we can rapidly flow in.” like Trump, Biden may also like nations to ‘pay for their own security.’

“Our friends and foes both know that the United States can deploy overwhelming force at the time and place of our choosing,” Austin said. Experts remain skeptical of US resolve towards the Middle East. “There’s dismay that the United States is on its way out the door. I’m not sure messaging addresses that sense of impending American abandonment,” said Jon Alterman of the Washington CSIS think tank. A senior US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Austin was not expected to make any new commitments in the region on the trip.

Saudi Arabia, one of Washington’s closest regional allies, has been frustrated by the approach of Biden’s White House, which has pressed Riyadh to improve its human rights record and end the war in Yemen. Iran’s answer to this has been more missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia by its Houthi allies in Yemen.

Former Saudi intelligence Chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, attending the Manama security forum, welcomed verbal assurances but said “demonstrative actions are equally important”. He cited the need to prevent Yemen’s Iran – aligned Houthis from obtaining arms. Washington is pressing Riyadh vis-à-vis KSA to lift a coalition blockade on Houthi-held areas, a condition from the group for ceasefire talks.

Austin was set to visit Saudi Arabia in September but the trip was postponed at the last minute. He will not be visiting Riyadh on this trip. Pentagon Chief seeks to reassure concerned ME allies

It was unclear how much impact Austin’s speech would have with Washington’s allies in the Middle East, since it was not backed by any announcements of further deployments of troops or new weapon sales in the region. Gulf Arab states, have expressed uncertainty about Biden’s focus on the region, especially after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Let’s be clear: America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure,” Austin said. While a number of US administrations have tried to move the focus away from the Middle East and towards the Pacific, Biden in August ended the longest US war, in Afghanistan.

“There’s dismay that the United States is on its way out the door. I’m not sure messaging addresses that sense of impending American abandonment,” said Jon Alterman of the Washington CSIS think-tank.

“Ultimately, our mission is to support diplomacy and to deter conflict and to defend the United States and our vital interests,” he said. “If we’re forced to turn back aggression, we will win and we will win decisively.”

China is constructing a military facility in UAE points to Beijing’s use of economic, and infrastructure projects for its strategic ends. Reports that the United States has prevailed on the United Arab Emirates to stop China from secretly constructing a military facility at an Abu Dhabi port should not come as a surprise. China’s growing interest in acquiring foreign military bases has been reported for more than a decade. Beijing opened its first foreign military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017. It is said to be building its second foreign military base at Ream, Cambodia. Washington, however, has not been successful in getting Cambodia to stop its development.

As the world’s second-largest economy, a great trading power with a rapidly growing navy, and a massive geopolitical ambition, China is bound to get, sooner than later, a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean that will profoundly alter India’s security environment. The recent US annual report on Chinese military power cites several countries that are being targeted by the People’s Liberation Army for military bases. While Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka are candidates from the Bay of Bengal, there are many places to the west of India including Namibia, Seychelles, Tanzania, and the UAE. Pakistan, is of course, in a category of its own. With long-standing and deep political and military ties to China, Pakistan is likely to emerge as the most important vehicle for Chinese naval power projection in the Indian Ocean, with significant implications for India’s military planning.

In the past, Communist China claimed that it was quite different from the West and had no interest in projecting power to distant seas or foreign military bases. China also actively campaigned against foreign military presence in Asia. As a defensive power in the second half of the 20th century, China’s priority was to fend off external threats to its sovereignty and consolidate its communist revolution.

China went about cautiously in establishing foreign bases. For one, Beijing knows the term “military base” is politically loaded and is careful to avoid using it. It understood that the military imperative for bases, so necessary for power projection, must be balanced against the inevitable politics of nationalist resentment in the host countries. Super nationalism is taking roots in most states. China’s focus, therefore, was on building dual-use facilities rather than explicit military bases on foreign soil. Djibouti has been an exception to this trend and welcomes foreign bases on its soil. Lacking any resources, Djibouti is simply leveraging its strategic location in the Horn of Africa.

China’s dual-use approach to gaining strategic access on distant shores benefited immensely from its expansive foreign port construction in the last two decades and the more recent Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific.

In Abu Dhabi, the Chinese contract was to build a civilian facility. But satellite imagery and other intelligence convinced US policymakers about China’s secret construction of a military facility. That is when the US formally took up the issue with the Government in the UAE, which is one of its major military partners in the Gulf. The picture is not different in the subcontinent, where China’s focus has been on developing structures that are formally civilian but amenable to PLA’s future use.

Even as it seeks military bases and facilities around the Indo-Pacific, China continues to campaign against US military presence in Asia and its strategic partnerships. Expanding its own military reach while trying to push America out of its front yard is part of the effort to establish Chinese primacy in Asia and its waters. China’s approach to the US is like its India strategy, seeking military access to the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean while undercutting Delhi’s strategic partnerships in the region.

Mao Zedong, who founded Communist China, saw the US military presence in Asia in the 1950s as part of the American effort to roll back its communist revolution. But Mao was quite happy to live with US military bases in Asia, as its relations with Soviet Union turned sour and ties with America improved. By the 1970s, China saw the value of US military presence in containing “Soviet social imperialism” and “latent Japanese militarism”. Today, as China’s military capabilities improve and its political ambitions rise, Beijing is trying to push America out of Asia once again.

From Portugal to Spain, Spain to France, France to England and from England to USA, the transition of power was smooth and real.

Time to switch power base to another nation.

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