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Time and Tide Wait for No Man | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A US Navy handout photo shows ships breaking formation during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) in May 2013. (AFP Photo/US Navy/MC2 Terah L. Mollise)

This May 21, 2013 US Navy handout photo shows ships breaking formation during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 2013. Source: AFP Photo/US Navy/MC2 Terah L. Mollise

This May 21, 2013 US Navy handout photo shows ships breaking formation during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 2013. Source: AFP Photo/US Navy/MC2 Terah L. Mollise

The geopolitical waves that roil across history have many origins and characteristics. There is the rise and fall of civilizations over generations, usually falling due to malaise and complacency. The best-documented examples of these ocean rollers are the waves that have coursed from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other and back again over the last three millennia.

Different, and more destructive, are the deliberate attempts by one nation or alliance to subdue another. Since the Treaty of Westphalia, this has mostly been not by overt force of arms (with numerous exceptions!), but rather by political and economic maneuvering. The latter does often include the positioning of military forces (or the conclusion of military alliances) abroad, but the main aim, and indeed tool, is economic. Numerous examples of this are visible on the world map today—the US is the most obvious, operating across the globe, but in Africa, the tussle for influence can be seen between South Africa, a rising BRICS power, and the former colonial power of France. The rising South Africa is trying to gain influence ever further north, pushing into the traditional sphere of “Francafrique,” hoping to supplant France’s self-appointed role as policeman of Africa with an African policeman. Turkey, too, is pushing its influence—and its Islamic capitalist model—along North and East Africa, and into the Central Asian Republics, with trade and aid.

The other major location where such a tussle is going on is the Arabian Peninsula, in particular the choke-points of the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden—with an unusual variation. Over a period of a decade or so in the 1960s, the US replaced the UK as the hegemon. Nowhere was this more clearly visible than by the supplanting of HMS Juffair in Bahrain with the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fleet—in the same buildings. Yet now, with the “Pivot” to Asia, the US has begun to concentrate its energy and forces on (East) Asia. This risks leaving a geopolitical vacuum—and nature abhors a vaccuum. The West has looked to find a means of back-filling this void.

While China is seeking to push out to the First, Second (and possibly Third) Island chains, it is also projecting West, along the main sea lanes, constructing a chain of pearls—or refurbishing those which once adorned the British Imperial regalia. China would argue that it is refurbishing the chain of pearls it established under Cheng Ho. Indeed, it recently—mischievously—intimated on that basis that the Falklands belonged neither to Argentina nor to the UK, but to China! Whatever the PR of the issue, Chinese economic power (and military support) is clearly moving westward.

Intriguingly, the UK and France have both recently announced their intentions to return East of Suez. This, while burnishing their own faded credentials, is in part an augmentation to the rebalancing US. It is unlikely that many of the reducing European forces and assets will be permanently based in the Gulf, but rather a headquarters and logistic support framework will be established, to allow rapid build-up of forces should an aggressor loom. Russia, more concentrated now in Syria, is also attempting to take advantage of a perceived US change of focus, and is maintaining a presence on the periphery, probably with a view to re-establishing a more concrete regional presence later.

Neither is China the only rising power (however assertive that Peaceful Rise has become) to be pushing into the region. Just as China seems to regard the South China Sea as denoting ownership (and Iran the Gulf), India seems to have taken the term Indian Ocean to heart. In an amazing substitution of the British Empire, India asserts potential hegemony wherever Raj currency was once coin—encompassing the Indian Ocean rim, and including the Gulf. Whether India’s hard and soft power (in particular the Hindu nationalists’ attitudes towards Muslims) can match its geopolitical aspirations remains to be seen, as does its ability to counter China’s increasingly assertive rise.

Occasionally, there is combat by proxy, in which one nation tries to undo the others’ client by sponsoring rebel/terrorist movements (depending on who describes the actors) to overthrow the regime. The archetypal example of this is the US sponsorship of the Contras in Colombia, as the International Court of Justice found in Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua, but other examples exist: forty years ago, the USA used Israel as a guinea pig against the USSR’s Syria, testing weapons systems against a full conflict in northwest Europe. (While for completely different—and mutually exclusive—geo-strategic reasons, the same shadow-boxing is clearly back in force, with Russia backing Syria, and the West and aligned Arab governments backing the rebels.)

Such combat by proxy has hardly spared the Middle East: For the last generation, Iran has operated via Hezbollah (and other militant Shi’ite Islamist groups) to combat the US either directly, or indirectly through Israel, both in the region and abroad. (Just like Israel used the South Lebanon Army against the PLO and Lebanese Shi’ite groups.) Iran also uses the specter of Shi’a Islamism projected onto Shi’ite Arab nationalists to unsettle domestic regimes—sometimes in combination with proxy violence. Thus, Iran has cast—and the governments have acquiesced—the unrest in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia (and, to a lesser extent, in Zaydi Upper Yemen) as insurgent Twelver Shi’a Islamism, rather than the protest at state policy. Such psychological force-multiplication comes straight from the pages of Sun Tzu, and provides a completely different version of the “ghost soldier” more frequently found in the Middle East.

“May you live in interesting times” runs the old Chinese curse. Interesting they are, whether they are cursed has yet to be revealed. But one thing is sure: the currents of geopolitics will continue to ebb and flow.