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The Beijing Olympics and China’s evolving foreign policy 14, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Foreign Policies.
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A recent article in Foreign Affairs suggests that China is modifying its foreign policy. “Over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies towards pariah states” the authors claim. They then proceed to make a very convincing case almost to the contrary of this statement. Indeed, their evidence at best suggests that China is improving its foreign policy image, without substantial changes in the nuts and bolts. Furthermore, what their ample and well researched evidence suggests to me is that Beijing is being as pragmatic as ever in the pursuit of its foreign policy.

China’s dealings with pariah states are well known. It has intimate relations with despotic North Korea, racist Zimbabwe, genocidal Sudan and terrorist-propagating Iran, to name but a few. The article, however, suggests that there is evidence that in recent times China has been playing a much more forceful hand towards these states, especially when they have fallen under international pressure. They cite many instances of China’s apparent change of foreign policy in recent years.

Regarding North Korea, amongst various other Chinese policies, the authors praise Beijing’s crucial role in forcing North Korea to the negotiating table in 2003. The singing of the UNSC resolution 1696 demanding Iranian suspension of their Uranium enrichment programme is seen – rightly – as a change in step by China. The important role of various Chinese ministers and special envoys in getting Sudan to accept foreign troops in Darfur is also a worthy argument, auguring towards a potential change in Chinese foreign policy. Also, the authors suggest that there has been a distinct cooling in Sino-Zimbabwean relations, despite the lack of significant international pressure, suggesting that China might have proceeded with this change in policy for internal reasons i.e. their overall change in foreign policy.

However, as the authors point out themselves, at every stage of these apparent changes, there were wholly pragmatic reasons for the Chinese to do so. The authors, however, do not fully appreciate explore this reasoning. In the example of Zimbabwe, with the economy plummeting and inflation rising as they have been for some time now, any Chinese investment was simply not seeing any real return. Thus, the cooling of relations between these countries is not, I would suggest, primarily because of Chinese human rights concerns, but simply motivated by basic economics: why would they invest heavily in a country with either poor or no return? The examples of Sudan and Iran can be explained by China’s increased vulnerability to international pressure, for the next year at least. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that the Olympics has for China. Whilst there are a significant number of people in the UK who are generally apathetic or even hostile to the London 2012 Olympics, people in China tend see this as an opportunity to extol China’s virtues after its century of humiliation. Indeed, as for back as 2003 there were Olympic t-shirts abounding in the markets of every Chinese town and Chinese people, when they stopped you in the street to talk (a daily occurrence), would frequently chat about the Olympics. It really is taking on a different level of importance in China. Thus, any notion that it might be branded the Genocide Olympics is a serious political concern for China. It genuinely seems likely that China would modify its international politics to some degree in order attempt to preempt or assuage the most vociferous anti-China voices and protect their Olympics from ridicule, protests and marginalisation.

These are only hypotheses. However, these are the simplest and to my mind the best explanation for China’s minor changes in foreign policy in recent years. They are an ultimately rational and pragmatic actor. When the benefits of interaction outweigh international displeasure, then China will ignore international displeasure and trade with the countries in question. However, if and when this calculation shifts – as it has done when the Beijing Olympics are considered – so does the Chinese position.

 
 

Cartoons from the media 9, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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al hayat, london, 7.2.08

Al Hayat, London. 7.02.08

Breaking news – UAE don’t want Iran to get the bomb 8, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in French IR, Iran, Middle East.
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The Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashed Al Maktoum has revealed that the UAE are opposed to Iran having nuclear weapons. One might suppose that asking France to set up a military base in Abu Dhabi, facing the Straits of Hormuz and Iran, would be a hint, but still, in international politics, I suppose one can never be too clear.

Al-Siyassa, Kuwait (8.02.08)

If only… 7, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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If only The Times of London read my blog more frequently, then they wouldn’t have had to have waited an extra two days to ‘break’ the story about the Saudi woman arrested in Starbucks for having a coffee with a work colleague. Alas…

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article3321637.ece

Cartoons from the media 7, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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The same caveat applies:

These cartoons are emphatically not meant as some kind of political statement on my behalf and neither are they here to offend. They are simply what I have come across on a day to day basis and thought others might find them amusing/thought provoking/telling/meaningful etc.

(Click to enlarge)

On Israel, Palestine and International Law.

Tishreen, Syria 29/01/08

On Israel, the Arabs and the Palestinians

The picture improves in Saudi Arabia.

Al Watan, Saudi Arabia 4.2.08

The picture in Iraq improves

Tajikistan pin their colours to the Chinese mast 6, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China.
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The Tajik government has spoken out vehemently against Taiwan’s planned referendum on UN membership. Here are excerpts of the statement released by the foreign ministry:

“Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China…Tajikistan adheres to the one-China policy, and supports China’s efforts to pursue peaceful reunification and safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity…and it is also opposed to Taiwan’s attempt to join any international and regional organizations, to which only sovereign states are entitled.”

Quite strong stuff. Who will take a bet that Tajikistan have just or are about to seek/receive Chinese investment or aid in some way shape or form? Anyone….

 

Reform in Saudi Arabia?? 5, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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In recent weeks I have written about the apparent trend in Saudi Arabia of slowly relaxing their draconian anti-female laws. A change in the law forbidding women staying alone in hotel rooms and the formation of the Kingdom’s first women’s charity augured well. However, it appears as if it is just that – an apparent trend – and not an actual one. The Arab News interviews a women who was arrested for having a coffee in a public place – Starbucks, by the way – with a man who was not her husband. She was arrested, put in jail, denied the right to call her husband, and forced to sign a pre-written confession before her husband, who found about her imprisonment vicariously, could pull some strings to get her released.

She was arrested by the Saudi religious police who enforce so-called morality laws in the Kingdom. They arrived – in their USA built GMC suburban, by the way – and hauled her off as well as the Syrian business partner she was having a drink with. He, incidentally, has yet to be released.

Time will tell if despicable instances like this are the last throws of the retrograde and draconian Saudi religious police. One can only hope so. However, their place in society is firmly rooted and intertwined with the very formation of Saudi Arabia itself. From the very birth of the Saudi Kingdom, the Wahabbi religious authorities provided the al Saud’s with the religious legitimacy to create, expand, consolidate and maintain the Kingdom, whilst in return, the al Saud’s provided al Wahhab’s followers the mechanisms of the state with which to propagate their version of Islam, both at home and abroad. Thus, there is going to be no swift extrication of Saudi society from the clutches of the religious lobby who’s interest is historically and practically based in maintaining their grip on Saudi society as a whole.

http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=106499&d=5&m=2&y=2008

 

The engine of China’s soft power boom 4, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Soft Power.
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The Taipei Times ran a story today complaining about the pervasiveness and effectiveness of Beijing’s Confucius Institutes. These are a relatively recent foray for China. These centres appear to be run along similar lines to Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe Institute. This is to say that they are there to promote their home country where ever they may be. This is done in many ways. Activities can arrange from arranging music concerts, literary events, organising language classes to disseminating educational material about the home country.

The nameless official in the Taiwanese government claims that “they [the institutes] are controlled by the Chinese government and aim to use education and culture to gain international influence and promote the viewpoints of the Beijing government.” This is as good a definition of soft power as you can get. Indeed, as I have argued before, China have been significantly investing in this aspect of power in recent years. These Confucius Institutes are but one successful aspect of this. It is unsurprising that Taipei are not happy about their number and effectiveness – both Taipei and Beijing essentially propagate a one-China policy with each seeing itself as the rightful leader of the country.  It is of course possible that China are using such institutions as some kind of ‘front’ for underhand espionage (indeed, they have shown no qualms whatsoever about stealing from other governments in the past) but this does not seem that likely. However, the official is not even inferring this – merely that China are promoting their culture – hardly the greatest of crimes. Indeed, the world will be a much safer place if China continue down this path of expanding their soft power and forgo the hard power route of coercion and threats.

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2008/01/31/2003399603 

Iran complain about France’s colonial outpost in the UAE 3, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in French IR, Iran, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Iran has made a formal complaint to the French Ambassador in Tehran about France’s recent announcement that they will soon set up a military base in the UAE. Tehran accuse the French of adopting an ‘unfriendly position’ towards Iran by agreeing to station troops across the Persian Gulf, and – for once – Iran do seen to have a logical case. Indeed, it is somewhat difficult to see what the French are actually getting out of running this base in the UAE. There appear to be few – if any – tangible returns for them. France do have significant historical links with the Emirates so perhaps they are defending their influence there with the acquisition of the base. However, it seems somewhat unlikely that the French would go to the significant trouble of setting up and manning a base in the Persian Gulf just for ‘old time’s sake’. Thus, the French appear to have acquired this base solely as a badge of international prestige, promoting the (erroneous) notion that they are still a ‘world’ power who can influence actors in a contested and crucial corner of the world.

As far as Iran is concerned, having a new foreign and somewhat hostile power (with a significant and brutal colonial history) barely 250km from their mainland is a disturbing prospect. This can surely only reinforce Iran’s feelings of isolation vis-à-vis the Western world. Whilst the analogy of the Cuban Missile Crisis does not fit exactly* to this situation, it is nevertheless somewhat instructive in terms of explaining the reaction of a state to the stationing of an unfriendly military presence close to home soil. To put this another way – how happy would France be if Iran suddenly set up a military base a couple of hundred kilometres from Marseilles under some flimsy pretext, seemingly with the sole aim of pressurising French actions?

Iran’s angry reaction is not only understandable but just. Whilst France would not (I can only imagine) engage in reckless military activities in the Straits, their presence alone in the area is simply one more complicating and pressurising factor that an already potentially combustible region could really do without.

* Whilst France are a nuclear power, surely they will not base their missiles in the UAE base? Thus, one of the key dynamics of the Cuban Missile Crisis is not there, at least until (if) Iran acquire their own weapons. Additionally, the level hostility between France and Iran is significantly lower than it was between America and the USSR/Cuba at the time of the crisis.

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/02/03/45105.html

 

Further signs of an Iranian regional rapprochement 1, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Foreign Policies, Iran, Middle East.
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It was suggested in an article earlier this week (‘Iran Threatens Reprisals’ 30th January) that Iran appeared to be softening its stance towards its regional neighbours. In that particular case it was Iran apparently relinquishing its previously asserted aim that countries which harboured US bases would themselves be attacked if the US launched an attack against Iran from those bases. Thus, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain – all with large US bases – would have been pleased to hear such an apparent change in policy, even if Iran retaliating against their countries was an unlikely prospect.

Additionally, in the past few months, there have been various signs of Iran edging towards a formal rapprochement with Egypt, which lends more and more credibility to the thesis suggesting that Iran are seeking to lower intra-regional tensions.

Iran broke off relations with Egypt after their involvement in the Camp David peace accords in 1978, during which Egypt negotiated with Israel. Iran saw this as a sign of betrayal and the two countries’ relations were further damaged for the coming decades when Anwar Sadat granted the deposed Shah of Iran refuge following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In the last few months, however, there have been a number of ministerial meetings signalling a thaw in relations. In December 2007, Ali Larjani the Iranian National Security Chief met with President Mubarak for discussions. This past week the speaker of the Iranian Parliament Gholam Ali Adel visited Cairo for a two day meeting orchestrated by the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). This visit followed quickly on the heels of Iran’s Director General for foreign policy for the Middle Eastern and North African affairs, who was in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the Palestinian refugee situation with Egypt’s foreign minister. Indeed, the very next day the Iranian foreign minister announced that Iran and Egypt are close to re-establishing diplomatic links.

Iran, therefore, are mending their fences in the region, not only with Egypt but with other countries such as Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Mecca and invitation to the GCC meeting in Doha are proof, if it were needed, that Iran’s policy shift is bearing fruit. Furthermore, Iran are seeking to make friends and influence people further a field in China and Central Asia. Hence their (as yet unsuccessful) lobbying to be included in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The ultimate goal of these foreign policy forays is to offset American and European attempts to isolate Iran and they seem to be doing a good job at it so far. This means that any American and European attempts to pressure Iran need to take into account these constantly evolving international relationships. Any kind of blanket or insufficiently nuanced strategy could well backfire in the long run. Indeed, according to Harvard political scientist Samantha Power, current US policies do not appear to have such as level of flexibility and understanding. One can only hope that, assuming the Bush administration is not going to revamp its policies in its twilight months, the new American administration, which ever it may be, can bring with them fresh but educated ideas of how to interact with Iran.