West Asia From East Asia
Shanghai is about as distant a place to have an academic conference on West Asia (Middle East for non-Asians). But with the United States suddenly unnerving many of its allies in the Persian Gulf – at least the Sunni ones. Also the Arab Spring happened, the Islamic State came out of nowhere and the third revolution to shake up the region was fracking.
Many West Asian states are suddenly wondering if the emerging powers of Asia, mostly China but some even throw India into the arena, need to be brought into the picture. And this conference, organized by the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and the Pentagon’s North East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, was about all the players taking a temperature of what this could mean.
The Chinese and Indians, broadly, had similar views about West Asia and the Arab-Persian world in general. Namely, that both countries had large economic interests, medium-sized security concerns and the hair on their backs rose at the idea of involving themselves in the most chaotic and violent part of the world.
The Arab and Iranian participants looked to Beijing as the most likely new external player of the region. Its GDP was five times India’s. Its economic clout was second to none. “We are the number one trading partner of the 22 Arab countries,” said a Chinese scholar. And for Iran as well. The Chinese navy had shown an ability to maintain a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea. However, going by the expertise in the region shown by the Chinese scholars, Beijing’s
understanding of West Asian affairs remained shallowed. The Chinese struggled to understand the ancient hatreds, religious passions and hard-nosed realpolitik that were driving the region to the brink.
One thing was pretty obvious: the brushfire war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is leaving so much of the Arab world in flames won’t be finishing any time soon. Neither side believes it can afford to loose. Neither side believes it is loosing. Neither side is looking for a political settlement. West Asia’s Game of Thrones is in its umpteenth season and showing no signs of coming to a close.
The Iranians, much enthused at developments in Yemen, look to the battlefront for solace. The Islamic State has been stalled in Iraq. The Assad regime, though it has shown more resilience than expected, is struggling to survive. And now Yemen’s strife is drawing the Saudis into one of those mountain fastnesses full of armed, bearded men that normally spell doom for invading forces.
The Gulf Arabs take another view. The see Iran stretched economically. The falling price of oil and gas is emptying Teheran’s coffers. Assad is living on dole provided by the Iraqi government because Iran can’t afford him, claimed one Arab scholar. Iran’s gross economic inefficiencies will also come into play.
If both sides believe they will win, neither side will see much point in negotiations. Fight on, as they say.
The strongest advocates for a greater Chinese role in the Persian Gulf were the Iranians. While the Iranian representatives spoke of their hope for a nuclear settlement with the West, some were clearly skeptical. I had heard a senior US diplomat who had recently left the State Department saying he saw the deal as having a 50:50 chance of success. The Iranians are also convinced that Israelis and Saudis have too much influence on Washington.
By openly wooing Beijing, one sensed, Tehran may have hoped this would pressure on the US. However, Iran had other reasons to look to China. Iran, lacking LNG facilities and its only active pipelines going to Turkmenistan, is desperate to find an outlet for its huge gas reserves. The answer would be a west-oriented pipeline into China – and kind of hoped Beijing had such a pipeline in its vague plans as part of Xi Jinping’s grand but vague One Belt, One Road scheme. Tehran saw China’s influence with Pakistan as a counter to Saudi say over Rawalpindi.
SYRIA IS THE KEY
All the West Asians agreed that Syria was the most dangerous cancer in their region. The ever-shifting civil war is a near microcosm of the larger region – and so long as it is not resolved one way or the other it will be a terrible, bloody proxy war for all the regional players.
Not that you could find any Arab or Iranian agreement on what exactly was happening in Syria. The Iranians admitted that the Assad government was bad, but insisted that they had to support it to keep the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusra, at bay. Arabs noted that the Assad government was itself tacitly helping the Islamic. State in an attempt to keep the secular Free Syrian Army rebels in check. “There is little or no fighting between Assad’s forces and the Islamic State,” said one Arab-American scholar.
Tehran’s narrative right now is that the main threat facing West Asia, the West and civilization as a whole is Wahhabiism, the regressive fundamentalist Islamicist creed of Saudi Arabia. China, the US, India and pretty much anyone else should join Iran in tackling this menace.
But things aren’t that simple. India sees the Taliban and the Pakistani-based militants as more troublesome than the Islamic State. China is more concerned about its Uighur separatists. Neither of their respective concerns have a direct convergence with Wahhabiism.
One Arab noted that Iran had itself flirted with Wahhabi groups between 2001-04. They had also flirted with the conservative Muslim Brotherhood – until the two sides went their separate ways over Syria. Not a big deal ultimately. In West Asia, political alliances break and reform at an alarming rate.
“Our number one security threat is no longer the United States. It is extremism,” the Iranians kept saying.
Which takes it all back to Washington.
The truth remains that the US is alone capable of doing the heavy lifting in the region. And people understand “Everyone hates the US in the region,” marveled one Chines, “but no one wants the US to leave.” With Chinese, let alone Indian, ability to intervene limited, both side would still prefer to free-rid on the US no matter how often the US blunders.
The American participants protested that claims of US military decline and disinterest are overblown. The US is bombing Yemen, the Islamic State and so on. Which is true, but there is little grand strategy on how to solve the bigger problems.
Some of the Chinese speculated about getting together with India and discussing West Asia together. But it was idle chitchat: the Chinese nation still sees itself as a quantum level or two higher than India. There preference was to work with the US or regional powers. “The regional powers don’t really know how to work things properly,” admitted an Iranian.
Said one Arab ruefully, “We need external players who are prepared to engage with the local countries, but not intervene.” At present, there is no such animal.