16 June 2014

Taliban flush with cash, U.N. warns

Praveen Swami
June 2014 

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AP In this April 13, 2013 photo, Afghan farmers harvest raw opium on a poppy field in the village of Bawri, outside of Lashkar Gah, Helmand, southern Afghanistan.
New Delhi fears surge in Islamist insurgency’s revenues could mean enhanced aid for Indian jihadists training with it in Afghanistan

Even as the United States prepares to withdraw most of its combat troops from Afghanistan, a new United Nations report has warned the Taliban insurgency is flush with funds, and added that the “past year has been a bumper year for Taliban revenues, boosted by booming narcotics income, revenue from corruption and extortion, and increasingly drawing on revenue from the illegal exploitation of natural resources”.

Intelligence officials in New Delhi told The Hindu the report underlined growing concerns that a resurgent Taliban could provide logistics and finances for Indian jihadists known to be with it.

BCIM Economic Corridor: Prospects and Issues

Brig (Retd) Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

One of the cornerstones of India’s strategy has been to develop India economically and technologically. Another facet of India’s policy has been to seek partnerships on the strategic, economic and technological fronts to widen its policy and development options in order to safeguard its interests. The strategy adopted to meet these policy objectives is to restore our traditional links and integrate India with its immediate and extended neighborhood besides responding positively to the imperatives of globalization. This translates into an Indian vision of being well connected to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian Region and beyond on the western flank and to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and beyond on the eastern flank through a network of multi-modal transport corridors.

These networks would facilitate trade, exchange of energy through oil and gas pipelines, promotion of tourism and increase of communication links leading to what can be termed as a zone of co-prosperity. Towards this end, a number of regional and sub regional initiatives have been undertaken by India to improve connectivity, promote economic and technical cooperation, enhance people to people relations and usher in peace and prosperity.

Therefore, India is involved in a number of regional and sub-regional initiatives and frameworks. BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) framework is one such initiative which has recently been given a push both by India and China.

However, there are also other groupings like Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which is one such initiative for sub regional integration. Further, India also has a Trilateral Dialogue with Myanmar and Thailand addressing the same issues. There is also a Ganga –Mekong Initiative to link countries of Mekong Basin (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) with India. All these are in addition to the major regional organisation in South East Asia i.e. ASEAN.

Similarly, China has also been involved in a number of regional groupings i.e Greater Mekong Sub-region initiative that was founded in Yunnan in 1992.

A QUESTION OF PRIORITY - India must take care in giving smaller neighbours their due

Harsh V. Pant

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, has embarked on a two-day visit from June 15 to Bhutan, his first destination abroad after assuming office, underscoring the importance India attaches to its ties with Bhutan, the prime minister of which, Tshering Tobgay, was among the leaders from the neighbouring countries to attend the new government’s swearing-in on May 26.

It is a tribute to the ham-handed manner in which Indian foreign policy is managed that even India’s relations with Bhutan had seemed in trouble in the last few years. The withdrawal of subsidies to Bhutan on petroleum products in the midst of its 2013 elections was merely a manifestation of how poorly conceived and executed India’s policies had become, completely disconnected from any strategic thinking. Of course, after the elections there was widespread hype in the Indian media that with the coming to power in Thimpu of the former opposition People’s Democratic Party, with its emphasis on strong ties with India, all would be well once again. Trouble in Delhi-Bhutan ties is only beginning to emerge and this process will be accelerated by the onset of real democracy and competitive politics in the Himalayan kingdom. India will need to play its cards with great finesse if it wants to maintain its special relationship with Bhutan.

The king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, was the chief guest at the 2013 Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi eight years after his father graced the occasion. As it turned out, however, he was not the first choice of the Indian government. New Delhi wanted the sultan of Oman to be the chief guest but such are the mysterious ways of the great Indian bureaucracy that even a routine invitation to the head of a state was goofed up. Even though this was clearly a major debacle, New Delhi quickly tried to salvage this situation by turning to its old friend in Bhutan for damage control. He agreed to act as a replacement. Although the Bhutanese king was received with due pomp and ceremony in New Delhi, the cavalier attitude of India towards its smaller neighbours did not go unnoticed.

Bhutan remains the only resolutely pro-India country in South Asia today. At a time when India is rapidly ceding strategic space to China in its vicinity, it should be cultivating its immediate neighbours with greater sensitivity. As it is, Bhutan has signalled that it does not want to remain the only country in India’s neighbourhood without official ties with Beijing. The previous Bhutanese prime minister, Jigme Thinley, made overtures to Beijing, meeting the Chinese premier on the sidelines of the United Nations conference on sustainable development at Rio de Janeiro in 2012 in an attempt to lobby for Bhutan’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations security council. He also reportedly raised the issue of establishing diplomatic ties between the two nations though this was later denied by Thimpu. China’s economic engagement with Bhutan is also likely to grow in the future especially as China’s infrastructure development leads to greater connectivities between the two nations.

Pakistani Air Force Airstrikes Reportedly Kill 100 Militants in Waziristan

June 15, 2014

Airstrikes in NW Pakistan kill about 100 militants

Pakistani men mourn over the lifeless body, bottom right, of a provincial lawmaker Handery Masieh at a local hospital in Quetta, Pakistan, Saturday, June 14, 2014. A guard for a provincial Christian lawmaker shot and killed the legislator during a meeting Saturday in southwest Pakistan, police said. Government spokesman Jan Mohammad Buledi said the guard fled after the attack and police were trying to arrest him. “We do not know why the guard killed Handery Masieh, and everything will be clear when we arrest him,” he told reporters. (AP Photo/Arshad Butt) 

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani military jets pounded militant hideouts in the northwestern tribal region bordering Afghanistan early Sunday morning, officials said, killing as many as 100 militants in the second strike on the region since a deadly attack on the Karachi airport a week ago.

The Pakistani government has been under pressure to combat the resilient insurgency that has plagued the country for years after the shocking attack on the country’s busiest airport that left 36 people dead, including 10 assailants. Government efforts that started months ago to negotiate with the militants appeared to be going nowhere and the airport violence has made negotiations even less likely to succeed.

Pakistani air force jets targeted eight militant hideouts in the North Waziristan tribal area, two intelligence officials said. Many of the dead were believed to be Uzbeks and other foreign fighters, they said.

One of those killed was Abu Abdul Rehman al-Maani, who is believed to have helped orchestrate the five-hour airport siege last Sunday, said two other officials. Uzbek fighters and the Pakistani Taliban both claimed responsibility for the attack on Jinnah International Airport, and the Pakistani Taliban said the two had worked together to carry it out, marking a disturbing increase of militant groups working together.

When the jets struck, the militants had been gathered to discuss a deadline given by authorities for militants to leave the area, said two of the Pakistani officials.

All the officials did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The information could not be independently verified. The tribal areas are remote, dangerous and difficult for journalists to access.

Sunday’s airstrike was the second against militants in the northwest. On Tuesday, Pakistani military jets targeted nine hideouts in the Tirah Valley, where the military said 25 suspected militants were killed, but the information could not be independently verified. The area is part of a lawless terrain along the Afghan border that is home to a mix of local militants and al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s claim of responsibility for the airport attack marked a rare instance of the group striking within Pakistan. The militant group was formed in 1991 to overthrow the Uzbek government and install an Islamic caliphate there but later expanded that goal to include all of Central Asia. The organization is believed to be based in North Waziristan and from there have attacked U.S. and NATO targets in Afghanistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected last year in part for promising to end the years of militant violence through negotiations instead of military operations. But only one round of direct talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban has taken place and efforts have floundered in recent weeks. Now the question is whether Sharif will authorize a much more aggressive military operation against the militants.

Obama’s Iraq Mosul has fallen, and al Qaeda is on the march towards Baghdad

JUN 2014

Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, has long been hard for the central government to control because of its combustible mix of Arabs and Kurds. The first time I visited Mosul was in August 2003 when a tenuous calm was maintained by the 101st Airborne Division. Its commander, a then-obscure two-star general named David Petraeus, had on his own initiative opened the Syrian border to trade, struck deals with Syria and Turkey to provide badly needed electricity, restored telephone service, and held elections to elect local leaders. Along the way he also managed to kill Saddam Hussein’s poisonous offspring Uday and Qusay.


This kept militants at bay, but they returned with a vengeance after the 101st pulled out in 2004, to be replaced by a smaller American unit whose officers were less attuned to the demands of civic action. Mosul became a hotbed of Saddamist and Islamist militants, as I saw for myself in February 2008 when, during another visit, the U.S. Army convoy in which I was riding was hit by a “complex ambush”: The Humvee in front of mine hit a bomb concealed in a big puddle, and insurgents opened machine gun fire from the left. Luckily no one in our unit was hurt, but a bystander had his arm sliced off by a flying piece of the Humvee’s engine.

Mosul was the last major city to be pacified by the successful “surge.” It took until at least 2010 before it was secure. But now that achievement has been undone. Black-clad fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as Al Qaeda in Iraq has rebranded itself, stormed into Mosul last week and seized control. Dispirited Iraqi soldiers ran away rather than fight. Many were so eager to escape that their discarded uniforms littered the streets. ISIS freed more than 2,000 of its fighters from prisons and seized copious stocks of money, ammunition, and weapons—many of the latter provided by the United States to Iraqi forces.

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This was only the latest and most alarming advance for this extremist group, which has risen out of its grave to display dismaying strength in recent years. In January, ISIS seized Fallujah and holds it still—a loss that, like Mosul, is particularly painful to American veterans who sacrificed so much to wrest control of those cities from militants. Following up on their success in Mosul, ISIS fighters advanced south to seize, at least temporarily, Tikrit, Saddam -Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery, which supplies Baghdad with much of its electricity. Their next targets are certain to be Baqubah and Baghdad. In the capital, ISIS has already inflicted devastating casualties with a series of car bombings. Iraq Body Count calculates that some 9,500 people were killed in Iraq last year, the highest total since 2008. Worse is surely yet to come as Shiite militant organizations such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah respond to Sunni atrocities with atrocities of their own.

'No Exit' for us: How Karachiites are Sartre's characters in real

The people of Karachi can see doors outisde their personal prisons, but none lead anywhere, or to any hope. —Photo by Reuters 

Suffering does not always entail visible pain.

In Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”, the characters are condemned not to the fire and brimstone of an expected hell, but rather to the company of each other.

Two women and one man are condemned to spend eternity in a living room, a hot and stifling one, where there are no mirrors and no means of ever escaping. To see themselves they have only their reflection in the eyes of the others.

Their terror is not physical but existential, and it's crushing; it grits the reader’s teeth and presents to them, the unseen barriers of a prison with no bars. Isolation and the dependence it necessitates toward those closest can be its own frightening curse.

It is just such a thrall that has descended upon Karachi.

Unlike the condemned of Sartre’s No Exit; the city’s new terror is also existential. The lanes and alleys of the city are bursting over with its literal carnage, its falling corpses and ubiquitous guns, its showering bullets and rising smoke — all a dismal parade of peril.

Much like the only escape in 'No Exit' opens into a hallway of more doors and dead ends, the metropolis is stuck in a damning political isolation, its variety of woes not able to move the hearts and minds of those doling out resources in Islamabad.

For the people of Karachi, it is an unwanted sentencing of seclusion; they can see terror burning in the eyes of those around them but can never escape it.

Of course, all of this can be ignored by the terror-hardened, by the experts of averting eyes, shifting glances, distracting themselves by a retreat into an ever narrower realm. In the play and in our very own city, the architecture of existential terror comes from an interplay of the seen and unseen. What cannot be seen, what exists behind doors and inside hearts is a far more threatening chokehold.

Fareed Zakaria: Who lost Iraq? The Iraqis did, with an assist from George W. Bush

June 2014

The battle between Islam's two major branches began centuries ago and is threatening Iraq's path to a stable democracy today. The Post's senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung explains. (Davin Coburn and Kate M. Tobey / The Washington Post)

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and editor at large of Time magazine.

It is becoming increasingly likely that Iraq has reached a turning point. The forces hostile to the government have grown stronger, better equipped and more organized. And having now secured arms, ammunition and hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from their takeover of Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — they will build on these strengths. Inevitably, in Washington, the question has surfaced: Who lost Iraq? 

Whenever the United States has asked this question — as it did with China in the 1950s or Vietnam in the 1970s — the most important point to remember is: The local rulers did. The Chinese nationalists and the South Vietnamese government were corrupt, inefficient and weak, unable to be inclusive and unwilling to fight with the dedication of their opponents. The same story is true of Iraq, only much more so. The first answer to the question is: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost Iraq

The prime minister and his ruling party have behaved like thugs, excluding the Sunnis from power, using the army, police forces and militias to terrorize their opponents. The insurgency the Maliki government faces today was utterly predictable because, in fact, it happened before. From 2003 onward, Iraq faced a Sunni insurgency that was finally tamped down by Gen. David Petraeus, who said explicitly at the time that the core element of his strategy was political, bringing Sunni tribes and militias into the fold. The surge’s success, he often noted, bought time for a real power-sharing deal in Iraq that would bring the Sunnis into the structure of the government. 

Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem

June 2014

Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem 
U.S. drones and fighters won’t solve the problem: The problem is the Iraqi government. 

When the jihadis took over the city of Mosul and began their march towards Baghdad, Washington was of course shocked. But officials, legislators, and policy experts in that fair city should not have been shocked. What happened in Iraq was history as usual. The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart. That’s what’s happening in Iraq now. 

And before the U.S. government starts to do the next dumb thing again, namely provide fighter aircraft and drone attacks and heaven knows what else, it should stop and think for a change. If America comes to the rescue of this Iraqi government, then this Iraqi government, like so many of the others we’ve fought and died for, will do nothing. It will simply assume that we’ll take over, that we’ll do the job. And when things go wrong, and they certainly will, this cherished government that we’re helping will blame only America. Don’t think for a moment it will be otherwise. Don’t think for a moment that the generals and hawks who want to dispatch American fighters and drones to the rescue know any better today than they’ve known for 50 years. 

Sure, I’m in favor of helping governments against these militant, crazy and dangerous jihadis. But first and foremost and lastly, it’s got to be their fight, not ours. As soon as the burden falls on the United States, our “best friends” do little or nothing and we lose. If they start fighting hard, and we’ll know it when we see it, there will be no mistaking it. Then the military and other aid we provide will mean something. 

Just look at the situation in Iraq these past months. We helped the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to field an Iraqi army that was the 20th-largest in the world, with more than a quarter million soldiers and a million-man Iraqi security force including counter-terrorism troops and police. By psychedelic contrast, jihadi forces in Iraq probably number several thousand. 

F-35s, V-22s, And Samsung Tablets: Junior Marines Pioneer New Tech, Tactics

May 2014

A Marine F-35B in vertical landing mode.

For the valedictory wargame of the Marine Corps’s Infantry Officer Course, young second lieutenants launched an airborne raid on San Clemente Island off the California coast to try out new tactics and techniques with V-22s and F-35s. Their mission: fly in on V-22 Ospreys, wipe out simulated missile launch sites so US warships could move in, then march 14 miles overnight to seize a forward airfield for Marine Corps F-35B fighters. Their air support: not actual F-35s — the controversial stealth jet is still not fully operational — but a “CATBird” test aircraft, a modified airliner carrying all the real fighter’s sensors. Their ultimate weapon: Samsung tablets.

Frustrated with their standard-issue communications gear, the young Marines hadimprovised a wireless network using commercial devices. Marines on foot and Marines in the back of fast-flying V-22s could exchange intelligence, rewrite plans, and receive reconnaissance data from the simulated F-35. When ground units couldn’t transmit directly to each other because of terrain blocking the signal, they relayed the message via a V-22 flying overhead. When their backpackable 40-pound Wasp drones couldn’t send surveillance footage to the tablets, the Marines just took digital photos of the Wasp control screen and sent them to each other.
The raid on San Clemente was just one in a series of tactical and technological experiments being conducted by the Infantry Officer Course. This coming September, IOC plans to do another exercise in Yuma, Ariz. incorporating actual F-35s — flown by the same Marine Corps squadron tasked to bring the jet to its “initial operational capability” next year.

After spending 18 years and $80 billion to develop the F-35 fighter, the US military now has to figure out how to use it in real-world operations. At the cutting edge of this effort are not generals, admirals, or defense industry experts, but a small group of young Marines. The most senior is a few years shy of 40, and the majority are recently commissioned second lieutenants in their early 20s. It’s a perfect example of how small-scale, bottom-up innovation — with some timely assistance from the top — just might savethe world’s biggest military bureaucracy from itself.

Battlefield WiFi is the key to getting the most out of the F-35′s sophisticated sensors — indeed, to the future force as a whole — and that’s an arena in which a generation raised on iPhones has an advantage. So last year, when the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who’s now the Infantry Officer Corps director, Maj. Scott Cuomo, ran into technical troubles with his first experiments networking ground and air forces together, he handed the problem to his students.

“I’m almost 37,” Cuomo said self-deprecatingly. “These are guys 12, 13, 14 years younger than me.”

Cuomo and company have done most of their work so far with the V-22 Osprey, pioneering both technologies and tactics. “Ten years ago,” bragged Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle, “the pundits said you can’t fast-rope out of a V-22, there’s too much downwash. These lieutenants didn’t know it, so they did it.” Cuomo was in fact the third man out of the first aircraft, preceded by two 220-pound Marines using their bulk to anchor the line against the blast from the V-22′s rotors.

It was that early 2013 exercise that brought the young Marines to the attention of Schmidle, at that time the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation, and the three-star general promised a very surprised Maj. Cuomo to get him whatever he needed for future experiments. That’s how they got a mock F-35 to plug into their battle network for the March raid on San Clemente Island.

Networking ground troops with F-35s is a big deal, and not just for Marines. The Air Forceand Navy are also buying the fighters, a planned 2,443 across all three services, and one of F-35′s missions — replacing the vaunted but aging A-10 Warthog – will be to strike targets just ahead of Marines and Army soldiers on the ground. If the fast-moving, high-flying F-35 is supposed to provide the same precise firepower as the low-and-slow A-10, let alone reams of reconnaissance data, it needs a direct connection to the foot troops calling for close air support. And while the Army and Air Force are working together much less dysfunctionally than ever before, the Marines are still the only service that has both foot troops and fighter jets. That puts them in prime position to thrash out how F-35s and infantry can work together.

“Everything in the Marine Corps has to go down to the ground maneuver commanders….That’s the whole reason marine aviation exists to begin with,” Schmidle told the Association of the US Navy recently. “I’d like to link everything together from our F-35s to the V-22s to all of our helicopters” and down to ground forces.

That’s the mission where Cuomo and his young Marines have taken point. So how are they doing it?
Infantry Officer Course Marines use Samsung tablets to coordinate operations from the back of a V-22.

From Flying Blind To Real-Time IntelA

Maj. Cuomo has led the Infantry Officer Course in four major airborne experiments since March 2013. In that time the Marines have progressed from flying almost blind to sharing data among ground troops, V-22s, drones, and the mock F-35, with real F-35s intended to join in this September.

In March 2013, the IOC Marines staged their first V-22 raid, flying from Quantico to Parris Island. Cuomo found the aircraft’s speed and range impressive – but it outstripped the Marines’ command-and-control capabilities. “While flying, we couldn’t communicate at all,” Cuomo said. “You take off with a certain set of information, you land with the same information.”

That meant the Marines’ intelligence was two hours out of date when they landed. Even after landing, they had to lug around 43 pounds of unreliable communications gear to share data — intermittently — with higher headquarters. Meanwhile, the “enemy” forces had a system they could fit, literally, in the palms of their hands. “We basically gave them iPhones and said, ‘have at it,’” Cuomo recalled. “They ran circles around us.”

Long-range aircraft without long-range communications aren’t much use. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Cuomo had fought with “reinforcements three minutes away,” he told me. But the Marines don’t plan to fight that way in the future. To the contrary, increasing threats from long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) will keep Navy ships further out to sea, which meant Marines will have to fly further just to reach the shoreline: in the worst case, 300 to 400 miles.

Cuomo had planned V-22 raids over such distances while off the shore of Libya with the USS Bataan amphibious ready group in 2011, but never executed them. “I was a little disappointed,” he said. “I don’t think we had employed the V-22 to the maximum extent possible.” The desire to explore those capabilities led his experiments at the Infantry Officer Course.

So after a second mock raid flying from Quantico to Florida in August 2013 — intended to test the V-22 in tropical conditions — Cuomo got Lt. Gen. Schmidle’s support for a much more ambitious exercise. “He was like, ‘You want to go over 1,000 miles, at night, and, fast rope into an urban area to simulate rescuing an ambassador?’”

“Yes, general,” Cuomo replied.

“You’re serious?”

“Yes, sir.

“Well,” Schmidle said, “this is definitely different.”

In December, 2013, the thousand-mile raid took off from the Marine training center at 29 Palms, Calif. and flew four hours to Fort Hood, Texas. “We learned a ton,” Cuomo said. In stark contrast to the earlier exercises, “we were able to communicate from aircraft to aircraft, to include sending pictures back and forth,” exchanging intelligence updates, and rewriting the attack plan in flight. They even received imagery from a Harrier jet sent ahead to reconnoiter the target area. In the future, that role would be played by the F-35.

Web of containment tightens on China

By Richard Javad Heydarian 

MANILA - The Philippines and Vietnam, confronted with an increasingly assertive China, are putting aside past rivalries and inching closer to becoming full-fledged brothers in arms in the South China Sea. 

In a symbolic gesture of the budding alliance, Philippine and Vietnamese troops on Sunday played sports and drank beer together on the disputed Southwest Cay island (claimed by Hanoi, Manila and Beijing). More significantly, Hanoi seems increasingly likely to follow Manila's lead in internationalizing its disputes with

China through legal appeal to an international arbitration tribunal, a move China has strongly criticized and resisted. 
On the sidelines of the recently concluded World Economic Forum on East Asia in Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung vowed to forge a "strategic partnership", with a focus on enhanced maritime interoperability and defense cooperation. 
Throughout the Vietnamese premier's three-day working visit to Manila in late May, the two leaders laid down the building blocks for a more robust bilateral relationship, just as the two Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members face a simultaneous spike in their territorial tiffs with China. 
"We face common challenges as maritime nations and as brothers in ASEAN," Aquino said after meeting Dung in Manila, underscoring his country's growing interest in reaching out to like-minded countries in the region. "In defense and security, we discussed how we can enhance confidence-building, our defense capabilities and interoperability in addressing security challenges." 

Dung, in a striking departure from Vietnam's traditionally low-key, diplomatic language towards China, said: "More than ever before, ASEAN and the international community need to continue raising a strong voice in protesting against [China's territorial assertiveness], securing a strict observance of the international law and peace, stability in the region and the world. 

"In East Sea, China has undertaken many activities that violate the international law. [China's action] constitutes a serious threat to peace and maritime safety, security and freedom of navigation in the East Sea." 

Vietnam is grappling with a deepening crisis over China's decision to dispatch HYSY981 - a US$1 billion state-of-the-art deep-water oil rig owned by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) - into Hanoi's 200-nautical-miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China. 

Despite recognizing China's superior naval capabilities, Vietnamese authorities have nonetheless sought to stand up to their powerful neighbor by dispatching their own maritime forces to the contested area, leading to a series of low-intensity clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese fishing and naval vessels. 

From a domestic perspective, the Vietnamese government knows that it can't afford to look soft on such sensitive territorial issues but must also control rising anti-China sentiment to avoid diplomatic and economic repercussions. Recent anti-China protests in Vietnam related to the placement of the CNOOC drilling rig grew into extensive destruction of property owned foreign companies believed by protestors to be China-owned and the exodus of thousands of Chinese citizens to neighboring countries. 

Death toll figures have varied, with some international media putting the figure over 20. Beijing responded by evacuating a number of its nationals by sea while social media were rife with rumors China was bolstering troops along the two countries' northern border, the site of a short-lived but bloody war in 1979. According to reports, Beijing has also stepped up its economic sanctions against Hanoi by barring state-owned Chinese companies from bidding fresh contracts in Vietnam. Authorities in Hanoi will be forced to brace for a potentially significant economic fallout given China's status as one of the top trading and investment partners of Vietnam. 

Beijing maintains that commercial rather than strategic reasons underpinned the deployment of the oil rig, which is apparently building on prior energy exploratory studies conducted in the area. China has announced that it will keep the oil rig in the area until mid-August, a position that has provoked outrage in Hanoi. 

Vietnam has since accused China of flagrantly violating agreed-upon bilateral and international agreements in the South China Sea, including a non-binding 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DoC) for the maritime area signed by China and ASEAN members. 

On Monday, China responded by telling the United Nations that Vietnam was the aggressor in the month-long stand-off over the oil rig. In a position paper presented to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, China detailed what it claimed was Vietnam's "illegal disruption" of the "routine" activities of an offshore drilling platform.

The paper claimed that as of June 7 Vietnamese vessels had rammed China ships precisely 1,416 times. While China presented its case to the global body, consistent with its resistance to multilateral mediation on issues it considers bilateral, it did not seek a UN resolution to the dispute. 

Legal challenge

Vietnam has not yet responded to the paper's claims and assertions. Some in Hanoi believe China will leverage the claims to keep HYSY981, which was first deployed in May, in the contested area beyond August. The paper also stated that "these waters will never become Vietnam's EEZ and continental shelf no matter which principle is applied in the delimitation". 

That hard rhetoric is driving Hanoi to rethink its earlier reluctance to take China before a third-party arbitration panel over its territorial claims. In this regard, the Philippines could serve as a role model. Last year, Manila filed an arbitration case against China before a United Nations special arbitral tribunal court in The Hague. Dung recently indicated he may do the same. 

So far, China has flatly rejected the Philippines arbitration efforts, while analysts have noted the tribunal lacks an enforcement mechanism to make any decision truly binding. Beijing has until December 15 to decide on whether it will file a counter-argument in The Hague, something US diplomats have encourage Beijing to do. 

The main challenge for Vietnam now is to locate appropriate arbitration bodies to file its long list of complaints against China, which date back to when the country was divided into separate northern and southern states; the Philippines has recently offered legal advice in this regard. 

Against this uncertain legal backdrop, the Philippines and Vietnam are deepening their strategic ties, including through stronger coast guard and naval forces cooperation, intelligence-sharing in the realm of maritime security, diplomatic coordination within ASEAN and other international bodies, and sustained consultation in crafting legal responses to China's territorial maneuvering in the South China Sea. 

The two countries' navies recently agreed to extend cooperation in disputed areas, while a Vietnamese guided missile cruiser is scheduled to visit Manila in the weeks ahead, according to a Reuters report. 

The joint moves threaten to heighten tensions. Beijing recently confirmed allegations first made by Philippine authorities that China has been engaged in construction and reclamation activities on the Johnson South Reef, a contested feature that falls deep within the Philippines' EEZ in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea. Filipino authorities also claim that China has been engaged in similar activities in the area, as Beijing allegedly plans for constructing an "artificial island" on the Fiery Cross Reef, which could serve as a military base for broader operations

across the South China Sea, namely the prospective imposition of an air defense identification zone. 

Philippine authorities contend that these actions constitute clear violations of the 2002 DoC, which explicitly discourages claimant states from unilaterally altering the status quo. 

"Whatever construction China carries out on the reef is a matter entirely within the scope of China's sovereignty," Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunyin said in response to protests by Philippine authorities. "I don't know what particular intentions the Philippines have in caring so much about this." 
Yet the ongoing disputes have slowly but surely transformed into a genuinely internationalized issue, despite China's insistence that they are principally bilateral issues to be resolved among disputing parties with minimum, if any, third-party involvement. 

A lengthening list of Pacific powers and others with interests in freedom of navigation and stable trade flows through the disputed waters are stepping up initiatives to counter China's and bolster the Philippines' and Vietnam's positions. 

At a workshop held on May 28 in Singapore and organized by the leading Indian think-tank Center for Asia Strategic Studies, maritime specialists from across the Asia-Pacific region, with the notable exception of China and Vietnam, agreed upon the necessity to ensure the swift conclusion of a legally binding Code of Conduct to govern the behavior of claimant states in the South China Sea, the strict observance of the DoC by China and other parties, and the necessity for broader participation of other Pacific powers such as the United States, Japan, Australia, India, and South Korea in facilitating the resolution of a brewing conflict in the maritime area. 

Shortly after, during the 13th staging of The Shangri-La Dialogue held on May 30-June , organized by the influential British International Institute for Strategic Studies, representatives from Japan and the US highlighted growing international concern over China's territorial assertiveness in the Western Pacific. 

"Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain," declared the gathering's keynote speaker, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has pushed for an increase in Japanese defense spending, a relaxation of self-imposed restrictions on arms exports, and, above all, the concept of "collective self-defense", which could pave the way for a greater Japanese role in maintaining freedom of navigation across sea lines of communications such as the South China Sea. 

"We take no position on competing territorial claims [in the South China Sea]," US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, while at the same time reiterating Washington's growing alarm over China's territorial assertiveness in international waters. "But we firmly oppose any nation's use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert these claims." 

Widening alliances

In a rejoinder, China's top representative at the meeting Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of staff of the Chinese military, lashed out at the American and Japanese representatives, describing Hagel's remarks as "excessive beyond ... imagination, [which were] suffused with hegemonism ... threats and intimidation." 

Meanwhile, the emergence of a new nationalist government in India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, could pave the way for a more pro-active Indian foreign policy in East Asia, which has become a major trading and investment partner of New Delhi. 

Anticipating growing tensions in the South China Sea, Australia has deepened its naval interoperability with the US, with a growing focus on joint operations aimed at countering any threats to freedom of navigation in international waters. South Korea, in turn, has emerged as a leading defense partner of Manila, which is purchasing, among other things, 12 FA-50 fighter jets from South Korea. 

Indonesia, the largest country in ASEAN, has also moved closer to the Philippines, with the two countries recently signing a new maritime agreement which effectively ends two decades of border disputes vis-a-vis their overlapping claims in the Mindanao and Celebes Seas. 

During their high-profile meeting in Manila on May 23, Aquino and outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono vowed to pursue a deeper strategic partnership. Both leaders recognized that the region faces an unprecedented set of challenges to maritime security, which could, in turn, undermine historical gains in economic integration and conflict-prevention in Southeast Asia. 

In recent months, Indonesia has openly rejected China's "nine-dash-line" map doctrine, which serves as the basis of Beijing's claim to over 90% of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea. Echoing Manila and Hanoi, Jakarta has recently called for the resolution of the disputes in accordance with international law and relevant regional principles. 

Indonesia has increasingly assumed the dual (and conflicting) role of simultaneously acting as a mediator between China and Southeast Asian claimant states as well as a de facto party to the ongoing disputes by arguing China's nine-dash-line map overlaps with Indonesia's Riau province, which crucially covers the hydrocarbon-rich Natuna chain of islands. 

China's rising territorial assertiveness is inspiring a flexible, albeit tightening, network of strategic partners across the Asia-Pacific region aimed at countering Beijing's territorial ambitions. While the Philippines and Vietnam are primarily concerned with defending their own territorial claims in the South China Sea, Pacific powers such as the US, Japan, Australia, India, and South Korea are mainly concerned with broader freedom of navigation issues. But even as this loose network expands and strengthens, it's still not clear if China will respond to the challenge by rollbacking or intensifying its expansive claims. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at jrheydarian@gmail.com. 

(Copyright 2014 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.) 

The Karachi airport attack

Al Qaeda-allied Pakistani Taliban militants stormed the airport in Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest and most-populous city, late on Sunday night, beginning a multi-hour siege that left at least 28 people dead and the Pakistani government’s attempts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban in tatters. The assault may finally push the Pakistani government into launching a major military offensive in terrorist-infested North Waziristan, a move that would be the biggest disruption to al Qaeda in the region in years.

A Well-Coordinated Assault

Ten heavily-armed fighters from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Taliban umbrella group in Pakistan, entered Karachi’s airport campus through an entrance serving the airport’sold terminal, now a cargo and VIP facility. Divided into two five-man teams, the fighters carried small arms, RPGs, grenades and suicide bomb vests. Pakistani officials say the terrorists attempted to fight their way onto the runway to destroy and hijack planes, and to take hostages in the main terminal. While security forces succeeded in preventing the militants from doing so, the running gunfight and then siege resulted in the deaths of over 18 civilians and security personnel. Army commandos finally arrived on scene and surrounded and killed all ten assailants, some of whom detonated their suicide bomb vests once cornered.

A TTP spokesman took credit for the attack on Monday morning, calling it revenge for Pakistani military attacks on the group in the tribal areas and the death of the its leader in a CIA drone strike in November 2013. He promised more such attacks in the future. The well-plannedassault should put to rest speculation among analysts that the recent split of a major faction from the group earlier this month would have any impact on the larger movement’s fighting effectiveness. It will also likely be the coup de grace in a protracted, fruitless series of peace talks between the Pakistani government and the TTP.

Preparing for an Offensive

A silver lining in the whole affair may be that the headline-grabbing siege may finally give the government the ammunition it needs to publicly sell a major military offensive in North Waziristan, a key al Qaeda and TTP stronghold in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The government squandered the momentum it had earlier this year, for what then seemed like an imminent operation, when it decided to launch a last-ditch parley with the militants. The government has been reluctant to take on the operation, fearing the political ramifications of a TTP backlash across the country, but the high-profile and emasculating assault will make it more difficult for the prime minister to ignore the army, which has been straining at the bit, and an angered public.

Preparations for an assault into North Waziristan already appear to be in their final stages—a major militant faction in the region renounced a long-standing peace deal with government and called in its fighters to cease operations across the border in Afghanistan, claiming that the government was preparing to launch an offensive in its area of control and that all hands were needed for defense at home. The local population has also seen the writing on the wall and begun fleeing for safety. Both local and foreign fighters are reportedly leaving the area, some hiding among internally displaced persons.

The First Disruption in Years

While an assault on the TTP’s main stronghold in North Waziristan may not be enough to defeat it, it would be a major blow to the group which has operated from the region unmolested for years. Al Qaeda, for whom the TTP is a key enabler and facilitator, has taken advantage of the TTP’s recent resurgence in Pakistan to rebuild its own strength. The only factor keeping al Qaeda in Pakistan off-balance in the past few years was the heavy tempo of U.S. drone strikes on its havens. There has not been a strike inside Pakistan for nearly six months now, however.

If the Pakistani military finally launches a major ground offensive, al Qaeda, the TTP and the larger militant milieu that takes advantage of the governance black hole in the region may be forced onto the defensive and, at the very least, suffer dislocation from a key haven and significant disruption to their operations. If the U.S. government’s (over)enthusiastic claimsthat al Qaeda in Pakistan has been defeated are to finally ring true, it needs to hope the Pakistanis follow through on North Waziristan.

Is the Chinese Regime Changing its Policy Toward Christianity?

It appears to be. And its hostility is only likely to increase as the regime turns to forces such as nationalism to legitimate itself in the face of an inevitable slowdown in China’s rate of growth.

On May 30, 2014, The New York Times published a story by Ian Johnson about what seems to be a concerted government effort to clamp down on Christian churches in Wenzhou, the city with the highest percentage of Christians in China. It has long been known that there are regional differences in official attitudes toward religion, not always reflecting the views of the central government. It is conceivable that the events in Wenzhou could be a relatively local matter. But at any rate one aspect of the story makes one wonder: The provincial head of the Communist party who initiated the anti-Christian measures, Xiao Baolong, is a close ally of Xi Jinping, the president of China since March 2013. The president is not known for a liberal outlook. Do the events in Wenzhou reflect or foreshadow a policy change on the national level? It is too early to tell, but it is worth reflecting on the implications if there is a policy change emanating from Beijing.

Wenzhou is a city in southeast China. It has 9 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area (I suppose this makes it a medium-size city in Chinese terms). The climate is good all year long, because it is located in a hilly area with fresh breezes. It has long been known for having a successful class of entrepreneurs, many of whom have moved to other parts of the country and to the overseas Chinese diaspora. The economic market reforms began with a government-sponsored experiment in Wenzhou. The city now contains 130,000 private enterprises, four of them listed among China’s 500 top firms. Intense Protestant missionary activity, most of it from America and Britain, began there in the late nineteenth century. Wenzhou now has the largest percentage of Christians in the country—estimated at 15%. No wonder it has been called a “Christian Jerusalem”! What is particularly interesting is that the Christian community, most of it Protestant, has a large number of successful business people, known locally as “boss Christians”. Some of them expressed the opinion in a study that Protestantism would become the majority religion in China, and that this would not only be good for the economy but would help China become a great power (a prospect they welcomed). Until now, there have been relaxed relations between the Christian churches and the local power structure (state and party).

Christianity in China has exploded in numbers in recent decades. The phrase “Christianity fever” was used to describe this. I generally rely on two demographers of religion, Todd Johnson and Brian Grim. In their book The World’s Religions in Figures (2013), they estimate the total number of Christians in China at 67 million (about 5% of the country’s population). There are other estimates, the highest, by the World Christian Data Base (an Evangelical outfit), at 108 million (about 8%). This may be wishful thinking. Official Chinese government figures are much lower (possibly wishful thinking too, as is typical of all statistics released by authoritarian governments). Johnson and Grim estimate that the total of Protestants is 58 million (4.3 of the country’s population), with Catholics far behind at 9 million (0.7%). I would think that the Protestants are mainly Evangelical, many of them Pentecostal/charismatic. All these estimates include both churches that have been officially registered by the government, and those that have not. The distinction is important: The latter category of Christians (often referred to as belonging to “underground” or “house” churches—rather a misnomer, as some of them are very much “above ground” and worshipping in large buildings). However, even if tolerated by local authorities, the members of unregistered churches are very hard to count. I would therefore guess that totals of Christians including both categories are under-estimated.

Just what happened in Wenzhou? And what does it mean beyond that charming little town of nine million people?

Protestant Christians, with all the funds raised by themselves (between three and five million dollars), had built a cathedral-sized church (with the spire 180 feet high, topped by an enormous cross). The Sanjiang (“Three Rivers”) Church) was erected on a hillside. It could be seen from far away. Finished in 2013, it had quickly become a landmark of the city and a powerful symbol of the Christian presence. That prominent presence was resented by some adherents of other religions, at least partly because they wanted to build sanctuaries of their own and competed with the Christians for suitable building spaces in the hilly environment. The construction had been approved by the provincial religious affairs bureau (these government agencies exist all over China). Thus Sanjiang was an officially registered church, not a so-called “underground church” (the usual targets of government repression).

This made what followed surprising and all the more shocking. In October 2013, not long after the edifice was erected, Xia Baolong, the provincial party leader, visited the area and took note of the big cross. He was not amused. He ordered the cross to be taken down. The order was followed by a threat that the entire church would be demolished unless the cross was removed. According to the Times story, other churches “dotted the landscape”. Some of them also had crosses on the roof (even if not of Sanjiang’s dimension). All of them received the same order and threat. This unexpected massive government action was officially explained as due to violations of zoning regulations and/or threats to building safety. This pretense was unmasked by an intrepid bit of investigative journalism by the Times (“all the news that’s fit to print”, even in a far-away corner of China), which managed to get hold of a confidential memo of the provincial party, informing cadres of a new policy. The memo stated that the government intends to regulate “excessive religious sites” (crosses were explicitly mentioned, not Buddhist or other non-Christian symbols) and “overly popular religious activities”. In other words, Christianity will only be tolerated if it is delivered in unmarked brown envelopes.

The Sanjiang congregation refused to obey the order, saying that their faith demanded that the cross be kept in place. Worse in the party’s perspective, Christians from Sanjiang and other churches demonstrated against the order in public. This stand was supported by national Christian and human rights organizations. Attempts to negotiate with local authorities failed to resolve the issue. On April 28, 2014, bulldozers demolished the entire church. I don’t know whether there were any further developments around the issue. There was indeed another news item concerning Wenzhou: A forty-year old woman from the city won first prize in a US body-building competition. I doubt whether stunned Christians contemplating the pile of rubble that used to be their church were comforted by this news.

One can put the question about the future of church/state relations in China in a larger political frame. Xi Jinping became president in March 2013. There has been much speculation about the course he is likely to take in both domestic and foreign policy. One year is not enough time for a confident prognosis, but a few things we do know so far. Xi has made clear that he will not reverse the economic market reforms (he has gone after Maoists in the party who favor a return to socialism). But he also made clear that he is not interested in political reforms. In other words, he will not make the Soviet “mistake” of combiningperestroika with glasnost; in this he reflects what is likely to be the predominant view in the Chinese Communist party. Xi has also presided over a much more aggressive international stance, building up the armed forces, asserting great-power ambitions by provocative actions in China’s neighborhood (notably against Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines), and most importantly countering US interests in the United Nations and elsewhere (usually in in concert with Russia).

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees freedom of religion—“within the framework of normal religious activity”. “Normal” here probably means nothing that spills over from worship into the broader society; it definitely means nothing that in any way challenges the power of the party and the state. I think that the official attitude toward religion has little if anything to do with Marxism, but a lot with Confucianism: Most of religion is a lot of superstition and it can be subversive of social order. If one cannot eradicate it, one must contain it—basically, a policy of disease controlIf one cannot eradicate it, one must contain it—basically, a policy of disease control. Presiding over this containment strategy is the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA).


A stroll through the stores in Tehran reveals the omnipresence of China-made consumer goods. State-owned China Railway Construction Corporation completed the Mecca monorail project in Saudi Arabia in November 2010, just in time to accommodate the 2.8 million people who arrived for Hajj. The agreement between China and Iran to build a railway line from Tehran to the Iraqi border is part of an overall plan to link the Middle East to China through Central Asia1 (see Map 1). Despite China’s great need to import a lot of oil from the Middle East, the latter is not generally seen as a major and familiar territory as other regions for China’s growing global presence and influence. That China has spread its ties to the Middle East beyond oil reinforces two important issues. One is that China’s global rise and power must be understood regionally and locally. The other is to see China’s distinctive footprints in the Middle East in comparison to other regions and countries.2
Oil is where we start. Relative to other aspects of the China-Middle East relationship, oil is more critical. This is also true of China’s strong efforts to engage with regions such as Central Asia to buy enough oil at reasonable prices. Fuelled by its sustained rapid economic growth over the past three decades, China has become the world’s largest energy consumer in less than 20 years and accounts for almost 20% of the world’s total energy consumption today. Its booming economy requires China to import more than half of the oil it needs. China’s crude oil imports rose from 4.8 million barrels per day (bbl/d or pbd) in 2010 to 5.1 million bbl/d in 2011, and to 6 million bbl/d in May 2012. Looking forward, China’s energy demand is expected to expand 75% by 2040 and double the consumption of United States (see Figure 1). According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), China may import about 75% of the crude oil it will consume by 2035 (Fazilov and Chen, p.38).2
Oil Dependence

Despite China’s attempt to look for alternative energy sources in different parts of the world such as Central Asia, its dependence on Middle Eastern oil has risen over time. The Middle East is currently the largest exporter of crude oil to China (see Figure 2 ). The share of oil imported by China from the Middle East was 48% in 1990, 49% in 2005, and 51% in 2011. It is expected that China’s crude oil imports from the Middle East will reach 70% by 2020 and continue to grow until 2035, according to the International Energy Agency. Saudi Arabia is China’s largest energy supplier with about one million barrels per day, accounting for 20% of China’s crude oil imports. Not far behind Angola is another important Middle Eastern country, Iran, which contributes to about 10% of China’s overall oil imports. However, it is worth pointing out that given China’s somewhat reluctant support for UN sanctions against Iran (more on this later), its oil exports to China declined by 74% from 2009 to 2010, down from a peak of 16% of China’s oil imports in 2009,3 when Iran was the second largest external source of oil for China.

While China’s heavy dependence on Middle Eastern oil is an established fact, less is known about China’s early efforts to establish broad energy ties with the Middle East. Back in 1983, before the Chinese economy really took off, the overseas construction arm of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) moved into the Kuwaiti market and later won an oil storage reconstruction project in 1995. Beijing also signed the Strategic Oil Cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1999, which laid the foundation for Saudi Arabia to become and remain China’s largest oil supplier. In exchange for stable crude supply, China has courted Saudi investment for expanding its refining capacity. One example is China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation’s (SINOPEC) meeting with Saudi Aramco to discuss a stake in a $1.2-billion refinery in the Chinese city of Qingdao. The two sides further joined hands in a $3.5-billion venture in Fujian province that included greater refinery capacity.4

China has maintained a friendly relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. A number of top Chinese leaders including Hu Jintao and the current president Xi Jinping have visited Saudi Arabia. And China has been dragging its feet on the UN sanctions against Iran. These diplomatic postures toward the Middle East conform to China’s pragmatic economic policies and interests in other energy- and commodity-rich regions.
Beyond Oil

If the story about the China-Middle East nexus begins and ends with the familiar story of oil dependence, it is less interesting for illustrating China’s global economic influence. As with other regions, China has rapidly expanded its economic ties with the Middle East through trade. From 2005 to 2009, China’s total trade volume with the Middle East rose 87%, to $100 billion and reached approximately $222 billion in 2012, according to China’s official statistics. This surge pushed China to surpass the United States as the top destination for the Middle East’s exports in 2010. China’s exports to the Middle East are primarily low-cost household goods that benefit the average Middle East consumer. An example is growing numbers of Egyptians being able to afford inexpensive Chinese cars. Also, residents in the Gaza Strip suffering from the Israeli blockade depend on cheap Chinese goods in their daily lives.1

China’s investment in the Middle East has picked up speed and grown tenfold, from $1 billion in 2005 to $11 billion in 2009. According to a tracker map of China’s global investment,5 its cumulative investment in Iran from 2005 to 2012 was estimated to be $18.6 billion, including $13.9 billion in energy sector, 2.1 billion in transportation, and 2.8 billion in metals. China invested around $13.6 billion in Saudi Arabia, with $5.2 billion in metals, $3.3 billion in energy, $2.2 billion in real estate, and the rest in transportation and other places. In Turkey, $4.3 billion of China’s $6.4 billion investment went into the energy sector. China became the largest foreign investor in both Iraq and Iran. As many African countries have done, Middle Eastern governments have brought Chinese contractors in to work on major infrastructure projects. Egypt has also partnered with China to develop its Suez special economic zone, a development strategy that China had used itself and promoted in Africa and the least developed parts of Southeast Asia like Laos (Chen and Stone).2 Despite China’s more varied investments in the Middle East, it remains concentrated in the energy sector (see Figure 3). This further establishes China’s significant dependence on the Middle East’s for energy resources, namely oil.

Of China’s expanding economic presence in the Middle East, a lot is anchored to and funneled through Dubai due to its strategic crossroad location between Europe and Asia as well as its role as a global financial, trade, and logistics centre. Total China-UAE trade is expected to rise from $21 billion in 2009 to over $40 billion in 2013, and to nearly $100 billion by 2015. According to Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC), around 2,300 Chinese companies had registered in Dubai by December 2011. Major Chinese banks have branches in Dubai including the biggest in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). Approximately 200,000 Chinese, primarily business expatriates, live in Dubai. About 70% of Chinese exports to the UAE are re-exported from Dubai to nearby destinations like Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafza) in Dubai hosts more than 170 major Chinese companies. Jafza-China trade stood at $11 billion in 2012, roughly 14% of the zone’s total trade of $82 billion.6 Dubai is also building a Chinatown, an 800-hectare project near Dubai International Airport costing $47 million. It includes a business district shaped like a dragon, a great wall, and a forbidden city. Once completed, the development is expected to accommodate 60,000 people and will claim to be the world’s largest Chinatown.

Once we factor in the non-oil related Chinese economic activities, China’s regional footprint becomes deeply visible and of significant importance. It also looks remarkably similar to the large and layered scope of China’s economic influence in other regions where China has moved beyond energy and commodities into other sectors such as urban and transport infrastructure (Chen and Myers).2 It is in the Middle East, however, that China’s growing role is tangled up with some country-specific geopolitical threads that are normally absent elsewhere.
The Iran Factor

While Saudi Arabia is critical to China as the latter’s largest oil supplier from the Middle East, much of China’s existing and expanding role in the region is linked to Iran and its larger geopolitical importance. China-Iran trade rose from $400 million in 1994 to $11 billion in 2008 and finally to $50 billion in 2012. Fifty percent of Iran’s total trade is now with China, Iran’s third largest trading partner. Since the early 1990s, China has been helping Iran build and rebuild infrastructure projects such as highways, subways, factories, dams, ports, airports, shipyards, and energy projects, some of which were severely damaged during the Iran-Iraq war. One of the few countries that have violated the US-led sanctions against Iran, China opposed tougher sanctions pushed by the United States to curtail Iran’s oil exports before the recently concluded nuclear deal in Geneva to ease overall sanctions. China’s reason for opposing the sanctions was that ‘the sanctions that will hurt the interests of a third party’,7 which refers to none other than China itself. Beginning in 2014, China is looking to raise crude oil imports from Iran that could cause more tension with the United States. In addition, China’s state-owned Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, which was sanctioned by Washington in early 2012 to supply gasoline to Iran, has begun talks with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) for a new contract.8