Alec Cadzow: How China meddles in the Middle East

23 Feb

Alec Cadzow is Researcher to Dr Andrew Murrison MP. He previously worked for a consultancy in Jordan and specialised in Middle Eastern history at St Andrews University before that.

With Russia invading Ukraine, Indo-Pacific watchers have been debating the parallels with China’s eyeing up of Taiwan.

Indeed, Chinese meddling in the internal affairs of another country struck close to home last month, with the case of ‘Beijing Barry’ Gardiner.

As the UK formulates its China strategy to complement the tilt to the Indo-Pacific, it’s useful to look at examples of China’s efforts to intervene and gain influence elsewhere – here using the Middle East as a case study.

China’s interventionist non-interventionism

China cultivates an image of itself as a superpower which has achieved its status by taking a different route from the West’s path of liberalisation. This is a rebuke of the Whiggish narrative that liberalism (the rule of law and checks on life, liberty, and property) begets ‘progress’ – a narrative that many of Britain’s first diplomats to the east espoused.

China instead empathises with Middle Eastern autocracies – for, Victorian gunboat diplomacy was not only deployed during the Opium Wars, but also against Persians and Egyptians.

As a result, China speaks of non-interventionism. As Wang Yi, its Foreign Minister, said last year: China is “keen to work together with Arab and other regional countries to champion the policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs”.

But this narrative is flawed:

First, China’s argument that the answer to regional tumult lies in economic development is contradicted by the demands of protesters during the so-called Arab Spring – ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’.

Second, China is interfering. Mediation efforts have increased, with China’s five-point plan for security and stability being one example of China’s intent to amass chips in the game.

It has also used its economic leverage to persuade Muslim countries to refute the West’s assessments of human rights abuses amounting, possibly, to genocide in Xinjiang. The region’s silence on the issue has been deafening and, in Egypt, Uighurs have even deported back to China. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between the latter two countries even included the clause that ‘Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’.

It’s evident from the above and other statements – such as, “the two sides [China and the Arab states] should hold in-depth exchange on the views of governing philosophies” – that China intends to buttress authoritarian regimes, creating a network of tributary states that share common repressive structures.

China’s ‘zero enemies’ policy

Historically, as Kim Roosevelt, the CIA operative, surmised: ‘any power that has hoped to extend its domination over continents has learned that the domination of the Middle East is an essential step. And any power trying to resist continental expansion by another has learned in turn that the Middle East must be protected at all costs.’

China is conscious of this history, and iportrays itself as avoiding the zero-sum great power games of the past. Yi said on a recent visit that “the Middle East was a highland of brilliant civilizations in human history. Yet, due to protracted conflicts and turmoil in the more recent history, the region descended into a security lowland.

After all, the Middle East belongs to the people of the region. For the region to emerge from chaos and enjoy stability, it must break free from the shadows of big-power geopolitical rivalry and independently explore development paths suited to its regional realities.” Again, we can see the thinly veiled reference to western intervention – and its implied failures – with China offering a third, supposedly neutral, way.

China’s ostensible non-intervention in the Middle East is part of a careful ‘zero enemies’ policy. In a region where there are multiple opposing camps – between state and non-state actors, pro- and anti-Iran camps, Islamist and anti-Islamist supporters – China navigates by dealing with any and everyone.

Western media outlets have claimed that China has taken Iran’s Axis of Resistance side in one of these intra-regional conflicts. Evidence posited is Iran and China’s 25-year deal, signed last year and now entering ‘implementation phases’, which the New York Times claimed is worth $400 billion (this dubious figure seems to have come from a pro-Iran media outlet and is not present in the leaked agreement).

The reality is that China is siding with the traditionally western-backed status quo powers – a tacit recognition of US hegemony. The Iran-China deal is a continuation of China and Iran’s 2016 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership – the same status of deal accorded to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt.

In 2019, China imported 17 per cent of its oil from Saudi Arabia, around 10 per cent from Iraq and only 3 per cent from Iran. This shows that Donald Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions on Iran worked: they prevented China from purchasing its oil – indicated by the 87 per cent reduction in Beijing’s purchases of Iranian crude from 2019-2020 (i.e., before and after the policy was implemented).

China’s trade with the US – despite a trade war – is worth $558 billion in total goods traded. Compare this to the $10 billion of trade done in the first five months of 2019 (which dropped to $6.4 billion in 2020) between Iran and China. China’s national oil company was even expelled from FDI-desperate Iran for not fulfilling contractual obligations.

China has therefore fudged a position which is symbolically supportive of Iran, but in reality, dependent on sanction-free western-backed countries. This might seem a clever middle way for now, as Saudi-aligned countries recognise the dichotomy and see their coffers fill at the expense of Iran; however, the sustainability of this policy will be called into question if (as expected) the US relaxes certain sanctions on Iran as it re-joins the JCPOA. In such an event, China’s policy of neutrality would be called into question, as its structural impediments to implementing the 25-year deal are removed.

Implications for policy-makers

Policy makers in Westminster have ‘lived experience’ of China’s political interference. This should be considered as we look at China’s conduct elsewhere in the world, for whilst it claims to be non-interventionist, the reality is different. Western governments should not be afraid to call this out.

Western policy makers should also be conscious of the leverage they hold. The US and the West still have influence in the Middle East – as demonstrated by the attachment which China has towards western-backed powers. China is not yet ready and cannot afford to supplant the US, and this contributes to the case for the US staying active in the region, and the UK supporting this effort.

Garvan Walshe: Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia

5 Aug

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

As in Belarus and Hong Kong, democratic freedoms are under attack in Tunisia. But 10 years after its revolution, the powers that be are weaker, and strong foreign support for Tunisians’ freedoms can tip the balance.

“I will not become a dictator” insisted Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, as he shut down parliament, put the army on the streets and stopped Al Jazeera broadcasting.

Not since Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in military uniform in the summer of 2013, denying that the events which would make him president were a coup, or when Jeremy Corbyn said he was “present but not involved” at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, has North African denial been so implausible.

Tunisia is the last survivor of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a decade on, its democracy is looking shaky. Ten years of fractious politics haven’t yielded the economic progress freedom was supposed to bring. The pandemic, and the disruption of the vital tourist industry it produced, has made things worse.

Tunisia is supposed to have a political system where power is shared between parliament and the president, but last week the president, a former academic who doesn’t belong to any political party, invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to suspend parliament for 30 days. But while the constitution allows periods of emergency presidential rule, they are conditional on the parliament being in session to keep an eye on him.

A constitutional court would have reaffirmed this, but one hasn’t been set up yet. In its absence, Saied, despite being a former professor of constitutional law, just used the security forces under his command for a power grab. Though he likened himself to de Gaulle, it would be fairer to compare him to Cromwell dismissing the Rump.

Nonetheless, unlike Sisi’s in Egypt, Saied’s coup looks far from a foregone conclusion. Elected with 72 per cent of the vote in 2019, Saied’s approval ratings have fallen to around 40 per cent, and it’s best to describe him as the single most popular figure in a crowded field.

The successor pparty to the old regime, known as the Free Destourians, heads the polls with around 30 per cent support, followed by the genuinely moderate post-Islamist Ennahda, with 20 per cent. Various left-wing and secularist groups, and Islamist groups make up the rest.

This contrasts with Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were extreme, saw democracy as a means to an end, and against whom the Army was the only force in society capable of standing up to them. Unable to win on their own, Ennahda, who now describe themselves in as “Muslim Democrats” in conscious analogy with Angela Merkel’s CDU, have become moderate (a hardline faction split off to form its own “Dignity” party). Though Saied can argue that his opponents are dysfunctional, there is no threat of an Islamist takeover in Tunisia.

Islamist weakness has been reflected in the US position, with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, insisting that Tunisia return to the “democratic path.” The US may also be motivated by concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the country, which is only 200 miles from Sicily.

The Foreign Office has so far been rather more perfunctory, issuing a statement so anodyne it is worthy of the department’s caricature in Yes, Prime Minister. There is a need to get a grip on the situation, and the Foreign Secretary should use the opportunity to lead.

Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia. It has been heavily involved in the democratic transition since 2011, supporting civil society, offering practical assistance and considerable sums of aid. Unlike France it is not burdened by colonial baggage there. And it has an opportunity to outflank the EU which is hampered by the requirement for unanimity in foreign affairs. The UK has an opportunity to convene a response by the world’s democracies.

The most important task is the resolution of the constitutional crisis and a return to the normal democratic process.

In the first instance, the army should be taken off the streets, and journalists be allowed to report openly. Parliament should be reconvened (after all that is what the Tunisian constitution requires even during an emergency), and the parliamentarians that have been arrested freed immediately.

In the medium term, agreement is needed on a constitutional court, and measures to ensure full international observation of future Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure their legitimacy.

In the longer term, reforms are needed in Tunisia’s army, intelligence services and police, to ensure oversight by all elements of Tunisia’s political system, as is normal in presidential democracies. They may be under the command of the president, but need to be subject to laws enacted by the parliament compliance with which is monitored by parliament and enforced by the judiciary.

Finally, priority should be given to Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country is still extremely poor, despite reasonable levels of education, a large French-speaking population and a geographical location extremely close to the European market. A good investment climate and the rule of law should put it in a position to leapfrog its neighbours in Algeria and Morocco. Further aid needs to be made conditional on progress towards a stable, and free, political and business environment.

The only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab revolutions needs our help. Unlike in Hong Kong and Belarus, autocratic forces lack a powerful patron. Unlike in Egypt, choice isn’t between authoritarianism and Islamism. And unlike in Lebanon, the country has not been overtaken by sectarian dysfunction. We can make a difference in Tunisia. It would be unforgivable to take our eye off the ball.

Bim Afolami: The Olympic model of spotting and developing talent should be applied to academia

26 Jul

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Olympics begins, I have a giddy sense of excitement. The coverage is the BBC at its best. I start to care about events you barely knew existed (Men’s 10m Air pistol anyone?), and cheer on each British athlete with immense fervour.

There is something magical about the Olympics. It isn’t just the hype. It is the stories behind each and every champion. There is something special about the sacrifices they have made, spending their teenage years in a mixture of holiday training camps in addition to the relentless grind before and after school, and seeing all of that effort culminate in competing at the very highest level.

We rightly applaud and celebrate them, and we also praise their highly focused coaches and families who have helped develop their extraordinary single-minded focus on achievement from a young age.

After the failure of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, during which Team GB only won one gold medal, finishing 36th in the medal table – below Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan – it prompted a period of furious self-flagellation in the media and serious soul searching among administrators.

Due to the brilliant decision of John Major as Prime Minister to introduce the National Lottery, this provided the funds for the “World Class Performance Programme” to start diverting funds into elite sport. It allowed athletes to devote themselves entirely to their training, paying their living costs and delivering a wide range of support services, from physiotherapy to sports science and nutrition.

Extra funds were also invested in greatly improved facilities across a range of different fields. The talent development programmes that made sure promising athletes were funnelled into their best sport at a younger age. All of this work has led to Team GB hugely improving its performance at Olympic Games, finishing 4th overall in Beijing 2008, 3rd in London 2012, and 2nd in Rio 2016.

Why do we think about academic and intellectual achievement so differently? Why do we regard the selection of children for academic ability and potential so anathema, yet ruthless and narrow selection for sporting prowess is regarded as rightly necessary to develop the leading stars of the future?

We need to focus on developing our brightest and most talented people, in a range of different fields, from a young age – and do this irrespective of their social background. As the Prime Minister often says, talent is evenly distributed in this country, but opportunity is not. We need to rediscover meritocracy in Britain.

The truth is that in order to do so, one is confronted by a difficult problem. How to discover and develop talented children in the population at large when the ladder of opportunity has so many rungs missing? And how do you give the best possible opportunities to such children once you have discovered them?

Adrian Wooldridge, Managing Editor of the Economist, in his new book The Aristocracy of Talent argues that the way to do this is to revive two ideas that were at the heart of the meritocratic movement until the “progressive” reforms of the 1960s: IQ testing and academic selection.

We know the arguments about the 11 plus – the Left argues that dividing the country between sheep and goats at 11, on the basis of one test at a very young age, does immense harm to those who failed in the process; the Right retorting that it gave unique life chances to bright working class children who were identified early and given life changing opportunities.

The best way forward is to learn from the failures and successes of the past. We don’t need a national 11 plus in the old style. We need more of a variegated school system that has lots of different types of schools from technical schools to music schools and arts schools, but which also makes room for highly academic schools in the state sector.

We have already provided the material for this with school academies – Brampton Manor Academy, for example, is situated in Newham, East London, with one in five children eligible for free school meals. The sixth form is highly selective (on the basis of GCSE grades), and it cultivates a highly academic atmosphere, with intensive Oxbridge training as well as a host of extracurricular subjects. Last year it won 55 places at Oxbridge – their method is working.

The Government could push this revolution further by allowing academies to select at 11 – not with an 11 plus, but with IQ tests developed precisely to avoid being susceptible to intensive tutoring that is all too common in preparation for that exam. This would not just be for the typical “academic” subjects.

For example, we should turbocharge the intake for our university technical colleges (which start at 13-14 years old) by scouring the country and actively selecting children with special aptitude in technical, engineering and design skills. These are the children who will go on to build our future high tech manufacturing capacity, or develop the sort of innovative ideas that will help us achieve Net Zero by 2050.

Wooldridge argues that, in addition to this, we could create a system of fully-funded national scholarships, awarded on the basis of a combination of IQ and social need, that would allow children to study at any school in the country – opportunities to be selected for this would happen continuously throughout secondary school, lest late developers be missed.

Private schools would be forced to open up a certain number of places to these students. These national merit scholars would be given free university education in return for agreeing to spend at least 10 years working in the public sector.

This would address the public sector’s growing problem with attracting high flyers, particularly in IT and tech. It would repair the fraying link between public service and intellectual excellence. As government and governing becomes ever more complex, and we demand more from our teachers and other public servants, we should try and ensure that more of the most academically able students are incentivised and trained for life in public service.

I know that real life is not the Olympics. Yet training and developing our most able young people for the future will not just be important for identifying hidden talent, but it will benefit all of our society. It is mad that the only type of selection that is verboten in the state sector is academic, when the wealthy can just pay for it.

Let’s rejuvenate the idea of meritocracy, and truly ensure that the most talented, from every background can get to the top. We might end up with better technical skills in industry, better civil servants, better teachers, and yes – much better politicians!

Garvan Walshe: This week’s Israel-Morocco deal. A consolation gift for Trump…and a strategic win for China.

17 Dec

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

Since the Second World War, the revision of frontiers, overriding the wishes both of the people who lived in the territories adjusted and their officially recognised governments has been frowned upon, for obvious reasons – as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost in 1991 when he invaded Kuwait (and as he also found out to his cost in 2003 – because revision of leaders could still happen, as long as frontiers were not disturbed).

Like all international norms, this non-revision of borders wasn’t universally upheld. Yet even when Russia annexed parts of Georgia or Ukraine, it went through the motions of holding sham elections to legitimate its land grab. The Trump Administration doesn’t feel the need to be bound by such hypocrisy – which Benjamin Netanyahu has tried, but never quite managed, to exploit fully.

His latest qualified victory has come in the form of Israel’s normalisation this week of relations with Morocco. Morocco has great cities, a large diaspora, one of the world’s major Jewish communities; it also controls territory significantly beyond its internationally recognised borders, and protects itself from insurgents by means of an long separation barrier.

Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, has now won this land for himself – in exchange for the diplomatic gesture of recognising Israel, something he probably wanted to do anyway, so as not to be left behind by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The territory in question is Western Sahara. It had been a Spanish colony for almost 90 years until the decaying Franco regime (which owes its origins to a military putsch that began in Spanish Morocco) decided it could no longer hold on, and offered the Saharawis a plebiscite.

As Franco lay dying in hospital, the then King of Morocco, King Hassan II, forced a Spanish regime that was now confronting a succession crisis to hand the territory over. The last thing Francoists wanted was to have the best units of their army occupied fighting a colonial war to defend territory they wanted to leave anyway, when these troops might be needed to quell an uprising in Spain.

The insurgency in question is led by the Polisario movement, originally backed by Algeria, which operates from the inland desert. The separation barrier referred to above has been constructed to prevent them infiltrating guerillas into the territory Morocco controls.

Morocco and Israel have pulled off a notable diplomatic coup in the Trump Administration’s twilight. Israel gets diplomatic recognition from another Arab country, and access to an important destination for foreign investment. Morocco gets recognition of territory, and Israel’s support in seeking to prevent an future American administration from changing its mind. There are legal consequences too: it should be easier to have Saharawi insurgents designated as terrorists, making it harder for them to raise funds.

This mutual recognition comes, however, with wider diplomatic costs. The West is now divided on Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The EU and UK (not to mention the UN) are opposed. So it is not obvious that Morocco, for whom relations with the nearby EU are far more important than with Israel or the United States, has made the best use of its diplomatic capital. That the agreement was made with a lame duck Trump administration won’t help win over a Biden team bent on restoring the international order.

This trade gives off the whiff of a nineteenth century-style carve-up. Other territories denied international recognition will have been made distinctly more nervous. Perhaps the most important of these is Taiwan. Though Trump will have been booted out of office before he can trade away American protection of Taiwan, Taipei is now a little less secure than it was.

Morocco did extremely well out of this Mohammed-Trump-Netanyahu deal. And Israel got something out of it. But the biggest long term winner will be Beijing, whose diplomats are doubtless already working to turn this egregious lame-duckery into a precedent for the next stage in China’s “peaceful rise.”