Iran-US tensions: Why Tokyo and New Delhi should arbitrate (But will they?)

After the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities

Iran’s ties with the rest of the world, especially Washington, have witnessed some interesting developments in recent weeks. While there was a possibility of a thaw between Washington and Tehran after the G7 Summit (held in August 2019 at Biarritz, France) with both sides making the right noises.

Tensions between both countries have risen yet again after two oil facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais, of Saudi Aramco (a Saudi state-run company) were attacked by drones and missiles on September 14, 2019. The Houthis of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Saudis and the US blamed Iran. US President Donald Trump warned of retaliatory action against Iran (the US also sent troops to the Gulf to prevent further escalation), while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the attack as an ‘act of war’.

Iranian reactions to US statements

If one were to look at Iranian reactions to US statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview on September 19, stated that if the US or Saudi Arabia launched a military attack on Iran, in retaliation for the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities, he did not rule out an ‘all out war’. Zarif did say that Iran wanted to avoid conflict and was willing to engage with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

On September 22, the anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned against the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, saying that this would lead only to more apprehensions and insecurities. The Iranian President also stated that Tehran had extended its hand of friendship towards countries in the region for maintenance of security in the Gulf, as well as the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Zarif made a much more measured statement, arguing that Tehran wanted to make September 22 a day of peace not war. Referring to Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, he stated that this act, which received support of global powers, has been one of the reasons for turmoil in the region. Hours before Rouhani’s speech, Zarif, in an interview with the American media company CNN, stated that Iran was ready for a re-negotiated deal, provided Donald Trump lifted economic sanctions. The Foreign Minister made a telling remark:

We continue to leave the door open for diplomacy. In the meantime, our campaign for economic pressure will continue.

Rouhani had expressed his openness towards meeting Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Hours before his speech, one of his spokespersons stated that Tehran was willing to give commitments with regard to not expanding its nuclear program, provided the US lifted sanctions. During his speech, Rouhani made it clear that while he was willing to engage with the US, he would not do so under any sort of pressure, and Tehran would only engage with Washington if the US-imposed economic sanctions are removed. Rouhani dubbed these sanctions as economic terrorism.

Statement (and remarks) issued by France, the UK, and Germany with regard to the attack on Saudi’s oil facilities

What was significant, however, was the statement issued on September 23 by the UK, Germany, and France that Tehran was responsible for the attack on the oil facilities run by Aramco. The three countries, which have been firmly backing greater engagement with Iran, and have been so far critical of Trump’s approach, in a statement held that Iran was responsible for the attacks, and that these could lead to greater conflict in the region. The statement issued by the three countries did make the point that these countries supported the Iran and P5+1 nuclear agreement/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), asking Tehran to comply with the deal and adhere to the commitments.

Significantly, British PM Boris Johnson spoke in favor of Trump renegotiating the JCPOA, while French President Emmanuel Macron stated, in a conversation with reporters, that he was not ‘married to the JCPOA’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while speaking in favor of talks between Tehran and Washington, stated that Tehran’s conditionality of sanctions being lifted before talks take place was unrealistic.

Why France’s statement was especially surprising

Statements made by Macron came as a surprise, given that he has played a pivotal role in keeping the JCPOA intact and differed with Trump’s approach towards Tehran. Apart from fervently supporting the JCPOA, the UK, Germany, and France had also set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to circumvent sanctions from Iran. This move had been criticized by senior officials of the Trump Administration, including Mike Pence, John Bolton, and Pompeo.

Macron also attempted to organize a meeting between Zarif and G7 Ministers on the sidelines of the G7 Summit held at Biarritz (the French President did meet Zarif, with G7 leaders giving him a go ahead to negotiate with Iran). A statement made by Trump, where he stated that he was willing to meet with Rouhani and described Iran as a country of great potential, raised hopes of possible engagement with Iran. Trump in his usual style did put forward conditionalities, and did state that he was not party to a joint statement by G7 on Iran.

It would be pertinent to point out that Macron even attempted a meeting between Rouhani and Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting, though this did not work out. The French President did meet with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. A tweet by the Iranian representative to the UN stated that apart from bilateral relations, Macron and Rouhani discussed ways in which the JCPOA could be saved.

Trump’s approach towards Iran: Back to square one?

The removal of John Bolton, a known Iran hawk, as National Security Adviser also raised hopes with regard to US engagement with Iran. In fact, Bolton’s approach vis-à-vis Iran was cited as one of the main reasons for growing differences between Bolton and Trump.

The attacks on the oil facilities have made Trump more aggressive

The attack on Saudi facilities however acted as a spoiler, and has given Trump the opportunity to act aggressively and put more pressure on France, Germany, and the UK to adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, and while Iran has warned of retaliations in case there is any sort of military action, US cyber attacks on Iran can not be ruled out. At the UNGA, Trump attacked Iran by saying it is a security threat to ‘peace-loving nations’. The US President also said that there was no chance of lifting sanctions as long as Tehran’s ‘menacing’ behavior continued.

With the UK, Germany, and France also backing US claims with regard to Iran being responsible for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Trump has become further emboldened.

Role of countries like Japan and India

While the reactions of European countries and the UK are important, one country, which has been very cautious in its reaction, has been Japan. Japan’s Defence Minister Toro Kono, in fact, stated that ‘We are not aware of any information that points to Iran’.

Japan has close economic ties with Iran. Earlier, Shinzo Abe had made efforts to intervene between Iran and the US. Abe, who visited Iran in June 2019, met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stating that it was a major step toward peace. The Japanese PM had also sought the release of US citizens detained by Iran.

Interestingly, Brian Hook, US Special Envoy to Iran, while alluding to Japan, China, and other Asian countries, stated that countries must not shy away from unequivocally acknowledging that Iran was responsible for the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. Hook gave the example of the UK, France, and Germany. He also sought Asian participation, especially Japan and South Korea, in Washington’s maritime initiative to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

It would be important to point out that Japan, which has close economic ties with Iran, has already started looking at other sources of oil given the situation in the Middle East.

It is not just Japan. Even India would not like escalation of conflict with Iran, though so far it has stayed out. While New Delhi is looking to various sources for its oil needs (during Modi’s recent visit, one of the issues high on the agenda was closer energy ties with the US), the Chabahar Port, in which New Delhi has invested, is of strategic importance. Some recent statements from the Iranian side suggest a growing impatience with New Delhi, not merely due to toeing the US line with regard to the importation of oil from Iran (India had stopped buying oil from Iran, after the US removed the temporary waiver which it had given), but also slow progress on the Chabahar Port.

During the G7 Summit, Macron had urged the US to allow India to import oil from Iran, while Modi, during his meeting with Trump, also is supposed to have raised the Iran issue. While India has not made any statement with regard to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Iran days after the attack (a number of issues, such as the progress of the Chabahar Port, and issues pertaining to trilateral connectivity between India, Afghanistan, and Iran, were discussed). The Indian PM also met with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. Both of them are supposed to have discussed issues of bilateral and regional importance.

Conclusion

It is time that countries which have close ties with the US and robust economic engagement with Iran find common ground, rather than speaking in different voices. While at the G7 meeting, there was an opportunity for the same, but this was short lived. This is essential, not just for economic and strategic purposes, but also to ensure that Iran does not become totally dependent upon China. Beijing’s recent commitments of investing over $400 billion in Iran are a clear indicator of the point that, as a result of economic isolation, Tehran is left with limited options, and is tilting towards Beijing.

China has not just made important commitments in oil and infrastructure projects, but Beijing will also be stationing its troops to protect it’s investments in the oil sector. It is not just European countries (Germany, France and the UK) but countries like Japan and India, which should be wary of the growing proximity between Tehran and Beijing. New Delhi and Tokyo would be advised to work in tandem, to get both Washington and Iran to moderate their stance. While this is no mean task, given Trump’s unpredictability it is absolutely imperative.

Nightcap

  1. The Second Earl of Liverpool SJD Green, Law & Liberty
  2. Multilateralism is cooperative, not imperial Ankit Panda, Diplomat
  3. Should we worry about deplatforming? Arnold Kling, askblog
  4. Eating someone Lori Marino, Aeon

Southeast Asia, China, and Trumpian foreign policy in 2019

A survey titled, ‘State of Southeast Asia: 2019’ conducted by the ASEAN Studies Centre (between November 18 and December 5, 2018 and released on January 7, 2019) at the think-tank Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute came up with some interesting findings. The sample size of the survey was over 1,000 and consisted of policy makers, academics, business persons, and members of civil society from the region.

It would be fair to say that some of the findings of the survey were along expected lines. Some of the key points highlighted are as follows:

According to the survey, China’s economic clout and influence in South East Asia is steadily rising, and it is miles ahead of other competitors. Even in the strategic domain, Washington’s influence pales in comparison to that of Beijing’s. As far as economic influence in South East Asia is concerned, a staggering 73 percent of respondents subscribed to the view that China does not have much competition. A strong reiteration of this point is the level of bilateral trade between China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which comfortable surpassed $500 billion in 2017. After China, it is not the US, but ASEAN which has maximum economic clout in the region. If one were to look at the strategic and political sphere, 45% of respondents opined that China is the most influential player in South East Asia, followed by the US at 30 percent.

Second, China’s increasing influence does not imply that it is popular in South East Asia. In fact, a large percentage of the respondents expressed the opinion that China’s lack of integration with global institutions is not a very positive omen. South East Asian nations also have clear reservations with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 50% of respondents believed that the project would increase ASEAN countries dependence upon China, and there were serious apprehensions, with one third of respondents raising question marks with regard to the transparency of the project. A small percentage of respondents (16%) also felt that the BRI was bound to fail. Many ASEAN countries have been alluding to some of the shortcomings of the BRI, of course none was as vocal as Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohammad. In the survey, respondents from Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines expressed the view that their countries should be cautious with regard to the BRI. Interestingly, even respondents from Cambodia, a country where China has made significant inroads, Japan is the most trusted country and not China.

Third, US isolationism, especially under Trump, has led to an increasing disillusionment with Washington DC in the region. The current administration has been aggressive on China, and it has sought to take forward former US President Barack Obama’s vision of ‘Pivot to Asia’ in the form of the Indo-Pacific Narrative. Senior voices within the Trump Administration, including current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been trying to give a push to the Indo-Pacific Narrative and reaching out to South East Asian Countries. In July for instance, while addressing the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Pompeo said that the US was going to invest $113 million in new U.S. initiatives in areas like the digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo also stated that these funds were a ‘down payment on a new era in U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’. Pompeo’s address was followed by a visit to South East Asia (Singapore and Indonesia), where he met with leaders from a number of ASEAN countries.

On December 31, 2018, the US also signed the ARIA (Asia Reassurance Initiative Act), which sought to outline increased US economic and security involvement in the Indo-Pacific region. ARIA has flagged US concerns with regard to China’s expansionist tendencies in South East Asia. Other key strategic issues, such as nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula, have also been highlighted.

The Trump Administration has also earmarked $1.5 billion for a variety of programs in East and South East Asia.

Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) led to a lot of disappointment in the region, with allies like Singapore putting forward their views. Speaking at the ANZ Forum in November 2018, Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Thong stated:

…It is still a superpower but it has become less benign and generous. Its unilateral actions in many areas have hurt allies, friends and rivals alike […] America First is diminishing the global stature, moral leadership and influence of the US.

This view was also echoed by a number of experts who commented on the finding of the survey.

The Former Singapore PM also made the point that Asia needed to recalibrate its policies in order to adjust to the new world order.

ASEAN

What is clearly evident is that ASEAN needs to build a new vision which is in sync with the changing geopolitical situation. While Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad, by scrapping Chinese projects and referring to a new sort of colonialism emerging out of China’s BRI project, has taken an important step in this direction, it remains to be seen whether other countries in the region can also play their role in helping ASEAN weave its own narrative. For a long time now, countries have been dependent upon both the US and China, and have thought in terms of choices, but there has never really been a concerted effort to create an independent narrative.

What ASEAN actually needs is a narrative where it does not shy away from taking an independent stance, and where it is also willing to take a stand on issues of global relevance. One such issue is the Rohingya Issue. Apart from Malaysia and Indonesia, none of the other members of ASEAN has taken a clear stand. In the past, many ASEAN countries thought that they could refrain from commenting on contentious issues. Respondents to the survey felt that ASEAN states should be more involved in the Rohingya Issue.

The United States and other countries which are wary of Chinese influence should come up with a feasible alternative. So far, while members of the Trump Administration have repeatedly raised the red flag with regard to China’s hegemonic tendencies, and predatory economics as has been discussed earlier, it has not made the required commitment. While the Trump Administration has not been able to pose a serious challenge to Beijing, it remains to be seen if the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act is effective.

It is also important for Washington, and other countries, not to look at Chinese involvement from a zero-sum approach. Perhaps it is time to adopt a more pragmatic and far sighted approach. If Japan and China can work together in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as other important infrastructural initiatives in South East Asia, and India and China can work together in capacity-building projects in Afghanistan, the possibility of US and China finding common ground in South East Asia should not be totally ruled out. Amidst all the bilateral tensions, recent conversation between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and statements emanating from both sides are encouraging.

Conclusion

An isolationist Washington DC and a hegemonic Beijing are certainly not good news, not just for ASEAN, but for other regions as well. The survey has outlined some of the key challenges for ASEAN, but it is time now to look for solutions. Hopefully, countries within the region will shape an effective narrative, and be less dependent upon the outside world. The survey is important in highlighting some broad trends but policy makers in Washington as well as South East Asia need to come up with some pragmatic solutions to ensure that Beijing does not have a free run.

How the United States can woo Africa away from China

On December 13, 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, highlighted the key aims and objectives of ‘Prosper Africa,’ which shall probably be announced at a later date. The emphasis of this policy, according to Bolton, would be on countering China’s exploitative economics unleashed by the Belt and Road Initiative, which leads to accumulation of massive debts and has been dubbed as ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. A report published by the Centre for Global Development (CGD) (2018) examined this phenomenon while looking at instances from Asia as well as Africa.

During the course of his speech, Bolton launched a scathing attack on China for its approach towards Africa. Said the American NSA:

bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.

Bolton, apart from attacking China, accused Russia of trying to buy votes at the United Nations through the sale of arms and energy.

Bolton also alluded to the need for US financial assistance to Africa being more efficient, so as to ensure effective utilization of American tax payer money.

The BUILD

It would be pertinent to point out that the Trump administration, while realizing increasing Chinese influence in Africa, set up the US IDFC (International Development Finance Corporation), which will facilitate US financing for infrastructural projects in emerging market economies (with an emphasis on Africa). IDFC has been allocated a substantial budget — $60 billion. In October 2018, Trump had signed the BUILD (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) because he, along with many members of the administration, felt that the OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) was not working effectively and had failed to further US economic and strategic interests. Here it would be pertinent to mention that a number of US policy makers, as well as members of the strategic community, had been arguing for a fresh US policy towards Africa.

Two key features of IDFC which distinguish it from OPIC are, firstly, deals and loans can be provided in the local currency so as to defend investors from currency exchange risk. Second, investments in infrastructure projects in emerging markets can be made in debt and equity.

There is absolutely no doubt that some African countries have very high debts. Members of the Trump administration, including Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had also raised the red flag with regard to the pitfalls of China’s unsustainable economic policies and the ‘Debt Trap’.

According to Jubilee Debt Campaign, the total debt of Africa is well over $400 billion. Nearly 20 percent of external debt is owed to China. Three countries which face a serious threat of debt distress are Zambia, Republic of Congo, and Djibouti. The CGD report had also flagged the precarious economic situation of certain African countries such as Djibouti and Ethiopia.

US policy makers need to keep in mind a few points:

Firstly, Beijing has also made efforts to send out a message that BRI is not exploitative in nature, and that China was willing to address the concerns of African countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping, while delivering his key note address at the China-Africa Summit in September 2018, laid emphasis on the need for projects being beneficial for both sides, and expressed his country’s openness to course correction where necessary. While committing $60 billion assistance for Africa, the Chinese President laid emphasis on the need for a ‘win-win’ for both sides.

African countries themselves have not taken kindly to US references to debt caused as a result of China. While Bolton stated that Zambia’s debt is to the tune of $6 billion, an aide to the Zambian President contradicted the US NSA, stating that Zambia’s debt was a little over $3 billion.

At the China Zhejiang-Ethiopia Trade and Investment Symposium held in November 2018, Ethiopian State Minister of Foreign Affairs Aklilu Hailemichae made the point that Chinese investments in Ethiopia have helped in creating jobs and that the relationship between China and Ethiopia has been based on ‘mutual respect’. The Minister also expressed the view that Ethiopia would also benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative.

During the course of the Forum of China-Africa cooperation in September 2018, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had also disagreed with the assertion that China was indulging in predatory economics and this was leading to a ‘New Colonialism,’ as had been argued Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad during his visit to China in August 2018.

Washington DC needs to understand the fact that Beijing will always have an advantage given the fact that there are no strings attached to it’s financial assistance. To overcome this, it needs to have a cohesive strategy, and play to its strengths. Significantly, the US was ahead of China in terms of FDI in Africa in 2017 (US was invested in 130 projects as of 2017, while China was invested in 54 projects). Apart from this, Africa has also benefited from the AGOA program (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act), which grants 40 African countries duty free access to over 6000 products.

Yet, under Trump, the US adopts a transactionalist approach even towards serious foreign policy issues (the latest example being the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria) and there is no continuity and consistency.

US can explore joint partnership with allies

In such a situation, it would be tough to counter China, unless it joins hands with Japan, which has also managed to make impressive inroads into Africa, in terms of investments, and has also been providing financial assistance, though it is more cautious than China and has been closely watching the region’s increasing debts. Japan and India are already seeking to work jointly for promoting growth and connectivity in Africa through the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor. The US is working with Japan and India for promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, and can work with both countries for bolstering the ‘Prosper Africa’ project.

Perhaps, Trump should pay heed to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ (who will be quitting in February 2019) advice where he has spoken about the relevance of US alliances for promoting its own strategic interests.

There are of course those who argue that US should find common ground with China for the development of Africa, and not adopt a ‘zero-sum’ approach. In the past both sides have sought to work jointly.

Conclusion

African countries will ultimately see their own interests, mere criticism of China’s economic policies, and the BRI project, and indirectly questioning the judgment of African countries, does not make for strategic thinking on the part of the US. The key is to provide a feasible alternative to China, along with other US allies, or to find common ground with Beijing. Expecting nuance and a long term vision from the Trump Administration, however, is a tall order.

American protectionism and Asian responses

On October 10, 2018, a senior Chinese diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism being promoted by US President Donald Trump.

It would be pertinent to point out that US had imposed tariffs estimated at $200 billion in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on $60 billion of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached $34.1 billion for the month of September (in August 2018, it was $31 billion). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact that Trump’s economic policies are not working.

Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and, given the fact that both are engines of economic growth, it is important for both to work together.

The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. Continue reading

Tokyo’s holistic approach to Africa needs to be applauded

A Ministerial meeting attended by representatives from 52 African nations was held ahead of the 7th Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD) to be held in Yokohama in August 2019.

TICAD (which is co-hosted by the Government of Japan, The UNDP, World Bank Group and African Union Commission) was launched over two decades ago, in 1993, with the main objective being to bring back global interest in Africa (a number of key geopolitical developments, such as the end of the Cold War, had resulted in the global community shifting its focus away from Africa).

In the past two decades, TICAD forum has played a key role in Africa’s development. In recent years, the government of Japan has contributed to Africa’s development in a number of important areas. In the phase between 2008-2013, for example, the Government of Japan built a number of elementary and middle schools, upgraded healthcare and medical facilities, and also provided drinking water to rural villages.

During the last TICAD event, in 2016, held at Nairobi (Kenya), Japanese PM Shinzo Abe had committed $30 billion in assistance over a period of three years for key areas such as infrastructure and health care.

Beijing would be closely observing the recent meeting for a number of reasons. Continue reading

The EU’s laudable Asia Connectivity Strategy

The European Union (EU) has put forward a plan for enhancing connectivity within Asia, and has been dubbed as the Asia Connectivity Strategy.

The EU does not want to give an impression that the Asia Connectivity Strategy (ACS) is a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet, senior officials of the EU, while commenting on the broad aims and objectives of the project, have categorically stated that the primary goal of the Asia Connectivity Strategy is enhancing connectivity (physical and digital) while also ensuring that local communities benefit from such a project, and that environmental and social norms are not flouted (this is a clear allusion to the shortcomings of the BRI). There are no clear details with regard to the budget, and other modalities of the project (EU member countries are likely to give a go ahead for this project, before the Asia-Europe Meeting in October 2018). The EU has categorically stated that it would like to ensure that the ACS is economically sustainable.

Other alternatives to BRI: the US

It is not just the EU, but also the US, along with Japan and Australia, which are trying to create an alternative vision to the BRI.

Continue reading