ISSN 2330-717X

Middle East Changing Dynamics: Strategic Perspectives On Power Play Of US, Russia and China

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By Dr Subhash Kapila

The Middle East Region in terms of strategic rivalry between leading global players has witnessed at least three significant phases in the last sixty-five years. During the Cold War it was the arena of Superpower confrontation between the United States and the Former Soviet Union. In the Post-Cold War era of the 1990s and up to midd-2000s the United States had an undisputed predominance over the Middle East along with its global predominance.

By 2005, Russia under then President Putin in a resurgent bid to re-establish its strategic foothold in the region made strategic forays in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Qatar and most significantly in Saudi Arabia.

China with its growing Comprehensive National Power at about the same time too established substantive strategic relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran. China had overriding stakes in the Middle East not only restricted to energy security but also strategic stakes related to its aspirations for global power status.

This is the strategic picture obtaining till recently and now promises to change with the political revolution that has taken place in Egypt and its underlying portents that it may spread in the rest of the Arab World.

The suddenness of the political revolution in Egypt is nothing new. The Middle East has historically thrown up such strategic and political events which were not anticipated or correctly read by policy establishments and intelligence set-ups of the leading Powers which are significant stakeholders in this Region.

The Iranian Revolution 1979 did not engulf the wider Middle East as Iran was not only a non-Arab State but also a Shia State. Furthermore, any ripple effect of the Iranian Revolution was and would have been brutally suppressed by the authoritarian regimes that flourished in the Arab World and closely tied to the United States.

The Egypt Revolution 2011 has taken place in the most powerful Arab State of the Middle East and is proving to be an energizer and model for similar political upheavals in the wider Arab World and the Middle East too. The world has changed and so also the political environment in the Middle East where the undisputed rule of authoritarian and monarchial despotic regimes of the Middle East can no longer continue unchallenged.

The Middle East power dynamics have additionally changed with Turkey as the mainstay of US security architecture loosening its ties with the United States and Israel and moving closer to Iran and Syria. Iran could not be tamed by the United States for the last three decades and continues to trouble US strategic planners. And in this sort of Middle East security environment, Russia and China are waiting in the wings to exploit any openings so ensuing to further their strategic interests.

The changing dynamics underway in the Middle East dictate a review of the strategic power play that is likely to take shape in view of the sizeable stakes that the United States, Russia and China have in the Middle East.

This Paper intends to analyze the following perspectives in the Middle East:

  • United States: Strategic & Political Challenges in Changing Dynamics of Middle East
  • Russia’s Strategic Stakes Currently in Middle East
  • China: The Strategic Dilemma in the Middle East
  • United States, Russia & China Power play in Changing Dynamics of Middle East: Perspectives

United States: Strategic & Political Challenges in Changing Dynamics of Middle East

United States core strategic interests in the Middle East determined its strategic and political policy formulations and these notably were (1) Security of Israel (2) Control of of the sizeable oil and energy resources of the Middle East. (3) Securing the oil sea lanes and strategic chokepoints through which these lifelines pass (4) Prevent the rise of any regional Power hostile to the United States and its allies in the region or to control the energy resources.

In pursuance of these core strategic interests, the United States forged strategic partnerships with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia the Gulf Sheikhdoms and Sudan. Israel was the United States strategic pivot in the region.

All of the above United States Arab allies are threatened with political upheaval today following the Egypt Revolution 2011. The political upheaval process is already underway despite last minute sops to the people by the despotic regimes. Their political existence is fragile as United States strategic and political leverages that ensured the perpetuation of such despotic regimes, stands diluted with a perceived decline of US power.

Strategic factors predominated United States policy formulations and relationships so far in the region with political considerations immaterial and subsumed as long as friendly despotic regimes were in place which could facilitate the furtherance of US strategic interests.

But with changing political complexion in the Middle East which would be more likely to be less discerning and less sensitive to US strategic interests, the challenge for the United States would now call for complete transformation of its policy approaches. Deft political handling of Arab democratic regimes that may be in the offing now would be an American imperative.

The Arab countries may now be more tempted to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia which after 9/11 has resorted to a “Hedging Strategy’ against the United States by establishing strategic partnerships with China and the United States.

Strategic ambivalence of new Arab regimes which most likely would come into power would challenge the basic fundamentals of US existing policy postulations in the Middle East and the existing US security architecture in the region.

It is debatable whether US backed military transitional regimes like the one put in place in Egypt awaiting democratic elections could provide stability and continuance of safeguarding of US strategic interests.

In the wake of Egypt Revolution 2011 and the tempest repeating in other Arab countries as already underway, the United States would stand seriously challenged in forging new security and political relationships with new Arab emerging regimes.

The above task gets that much more difficult for the United States when the strategic ambivalence of United States with two former major allies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Turkey is taken into account.

The United States would be hard pressed to find answers for its policies to ensure security of Israel.

Russia’s Strategic Stakes Currently in the Middle East

Russia unlike the United States and China is not dependant on the Middle East for its energy security as it has sizeable energy resources of its own and in fact underwrites the energy security of European countries and elsewhere. Hence in terms of core strategic interests in the Middle East, these do not revolve around energy security or defense of sea lanes along which oil exports flow.

During the Post Cold War era, Russia could only count on Iran on its side in the Middle East. Today Russia has made strategic inroads and can count on Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two leading Middle East nations. With Saudi Arabia it has developed strong political ties and defense ties in terms of signing a US $ 2 billion arms deal. Turkey as a result of change in foreign policy directions has established strong ties in terms of oil pipelines transit arrangements.

Russia also has good ties with Egypt, Jordan and Qatar The point to note is that Russia today enjoys good relations with all Middle East countries which form the spider web of security relationships designed to ensure the safety of US core strategic interests in the Middle East.

Russia also has close ties of defense collaboration in modification of Russian origin military hardware and joint production of equipment like UAVs

But the larger Russian stake in the Middle East today is to control global prices of oil in conjunction with Saudi Arabia basically, and natural gas prices with Qatar. This provides substantial strategic leverages to Russia in the power games in the Middle East.

China: The Strategic Dilemma in the Middle East

After the United States, China faces major strategic dilemmas in the Middle East. China’s strategic interests in the Middle East are of recent origin as China has no record of historical ties with Arab nations. Also during the Cold War, China did not figure in the strategic calculus of Arab and Middle East nations.

China in a way can be termed as ‘an irresponsible external actor’ in that it introduced intermediate range ballistic nuclear capable missile, first in Saudi Arabia and then to Iran.

Both these developments were patently anti-US in design and spurred a missiles race in the Middle East.

China currently has high stakes in the Middle East in relation to its energy security with an overwhelming dependency on Saudi Arabia.

Like the United States, China was happy to deal with authoritarian and monarchial regimes in the Middle East. It was highly unqualified to bother about democracy and human rights as the United States was periodically prone to preach Arab nations. In fact China was strongly inclined to support the continuance in power of President Mubarak in Egypt in the recent political upheaval.

China however has two strategic dilemmas in the Middle East. In the intra-regional power tussle for regional preeminence China finds itself ranged behind two powerful rivals, namely, Saudi Arabia and Iran. China cannot afford to lose Saudi Arabia with its sizeable dependence on it oil supplies. China counts heavily on Iran for support in its Central Asian policies and also as a convenient strategic pressure point against the United States.

It is not without reason that China has held out more strongly in favor of Iran against the United States, more than even Russia.

China’s second strategic dilemma is that despite its rising military power, China still is incapable of projecting power in the Middle East and that robs it of significant strategic and political leverages in the power play in the Middle East.

So of all the three global players involved in the Middle East power play, China still finds itself inadequate to play the power game in a manner that it significantly reinforces its global power status.

The oft repeated argument that China has successfully leveraged its ‘soft power’ strength in the Middle East is rather weak because in the ultimate analysis ‘soft power’ unless backed by ‘hard power’ in a region does not lead to strength in strategic power play.

United States, Russia & China Power play in Middle East Changing Dynamics: Perspectives

The power play in the Middle East of these three leading powers in the global strategic calculus necessarily at the macro-level has to take into account their inter-se power play at the global level and in other regions. Perspectives can only be gained from such a lateral analysis.

The United States-Russia relationship may not be all that strategically positive, chiefly because the US policy establishment still suffers from Cold War fixations. Two successive US Presidents have emphasized the need to reset US-Russia relations. European countries too have strongly advocated grant of ‘partnership status’ to Russia in NATO. Russia has cooperated with the United States and the West on a number of crucial issues. Russia cannot be said to have adopted adversarial postures or resorted to brinkmanship against the United States.

United States-China relations despite the rhetoric that flows from Washington and Beijing are highly distrustful and can rightly said to be in an adversarial mode. The US National Military Strategy 2011 document both in direct references and in implied messages between the lines, amply illustrates that China figures as the prime military threat to the United States. China over the last two years more noticeably, has adopted adversarial military postures against the United States in East Asia besides resorting to sabre-rattling and dangerous brinkmanship.

The United States as the predominant power in the Middle East so far and whose predominance may get diluted by coming political upheavals likely to erupt in the Middle East, would obviously be forced to look for strategic partners to keep the Middle East stabilized. Between Russia and China, Russia would be a stronger and stable partner for the United States in the Middle East and Greater Middle East.

The United States needs to recognize that China would prefer that the United States gets once again bogged down in the Middle East and get diverted from East Asia security and strategy. The United States had recently reverted back to East Asia with a vengeance as the Chinese would like to believe.

In China’s strategic calculations the Middle East provides a strong “strategic counter-pressure point” against the United States in relation to diluting US reassertion of its strategic superiority in East Asia.

Within the Middle East while China may have made headway in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Russia comparatively has a wider strategic embrace of the Middle East as a whole and incorporating the Northern Tier of Turkey, Syria, Israel and even Iran.

The United States has a good chance to retrieve its original strategic preponderance in the Middle East with two caveats, The first is that the United States impelled by current Middle East political dynamics moves to being on “The Right Side of History” .and transforms its existing strategic and political policy formulations,

The second caveat is that the United States alone cannot single-handedly shoulder the task of stability and security of the Middle East or other regions. This again stands stressed in the US National Military Strategy 2011 Document. As I have repeatedly stressed in my writings that the United States has to co-opt Russia for global security and the Middle East is the central pivot for the start of that strategy.

Concluding Observations

After nearly twenty years the Middle East is in a defining moment of political ferment, which if not deftly handled by the United States may vitally affect the continued effective strategic embedment of the United States in the region.

Should the United States take the Middle East for granted, it runs the risk of getting diverted from its prime focus on the China Threat building up in East Asia against the United States and its allies there.

In the Middle East, the United States and Russia have good chances of arriving at some strategic convergences to promote Middle East security and stability. To that end the changing strategic dynamics in the Middle East suggest that a substantial ‘reset of strategic and political policy buttons” by the United States in its approaches to Russia is an imperative to jointly collaborate in ensuring Middle East peace and security.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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