x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Small nations need friends more than new arms sales

The multiplying points of friction between America and China, the world's top two super powers, is bad news for the near and long-term security of the Gulf region.

It is never a good thing when the world's superpower and the runner-up find themselves at loggerheads, especially when smaller nations depend on the health of their relationship for their own stability. This is why the worsening tensions between the US and China come as bad news for the near and long-term security of the Gulf region. Although the two countries share the paramount goal of securing the flow of oil from the region and, by extension, a principled agreement on avoiding unnecessary conflicts, points of friction are multiplying, increasingly on matters pertinent to the Middle East.

There are several immediate factors behind deteriorating relations between the two countries, from Google's decision to stand firm against Chinese government censorship to the upcoming meeting between the US president Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. But it is fundamental differences on their global responsibilities that is causing this split. The US believes it must reconcile its hard interests and global role with self-proclaimed universal values, while China has a narrower, less politically intrusive and more cynical approach focused on its needs. Formerly, these two outlooks did not clash because of China's weakness and inward-looking priorities. But as China grows and reaches abroad to secure resources and markets, opportunities for friction increase.

Importantly, driven by its unrelenting hunger for oil, China's reluctance to impose sanctions on Iran to curtail its nuclear progress and inability to propose other diplomatic strategies beyond a preference for a peaceful, non-nuclear Middle East run counter to the perceived threat of a nuclear Iran, not only in the US but also in the region. The Gulf states will not speak up for fear of alienating an actor that is growing more powerful, is widely respected in the region, and will soon become their top oil importer, so they rely on surrogates to voice their angst. A few days ago, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned that China was isolating itself by opposing sanctions. However exaggerated and unbecoming that statement was, it reflected a concern about China's Middle East priorities that went beyond US interests.

Another seemingly distant episode also has relevance for the Gulf. In response to US arms sales to Taiwan worth $6.4 billion, China has publicly marked its discontent and announced broad retaliatory measures. Though the US has a "one-China" policy that favours a voluntary and peaceful reunification of mainland China and Taiwan, it is obligated by law to come to Taiwan's defence. China, oblivious to the majority of Taiwan's desire for autonomy, sees US support for Taiwan as interference in its internal affairs. This is why the Taiwan Strait is a flash point on a par with the Gulf and the Korean Peninsula, and another place where the US security role has a stabilising effect.

Indeed, there is a deep similarity between Taiwan and the small Gulf states. The example of Taiwan illustrates the challenges that small nations face in countering neighbouring great powers with ambitions ranging from political to territorial hegemony. All analogies are imperfect, but in a way China is to Taiwan what Saddam Hussein's Iraq was once to Kuwait, and what Iran has been and is to the small Gulf states: a massive, overbearing neighbour that can only be balanced through complex strategies of global interdependence and privileged relations with other great powers. Taiwan's strategic options are constrained by its lack of international recognition as other countries seek to stay on China's good side, but, ironically, its economic interdependence is greatest with China, which greatly reduces the risk of conflict.

Like China, Iran is never pleased when its neighbours acquire weaponry, allow foreign armies to establish bases or obtain security assurances. However, isolated Iran is not a giant like China, and the Gulf states have more instruments and resources to fend off its ambitions. In fact, their security policies are only one aspect of a broader, more ambitious grand strategy. The Gulf states may have limited economic links to Iran, but their priority is to diversify and deepen political, economic and cultural relations with faraway nations, many with limited military power, to build layers of goodwill and protection that will be useful in times of need.

This strategy is also motivated by the awareness of the complications entailed by absolute dependence on one security partner, the situation Taiwan finds itself in. Such vulnerability drastically limits a country's political flexibility and options, and makes its fortunes dependent on a single partner whose interests with other nations may compete and conflict with its obligations, real or perceived. The Gulf states don't want US Gulf policy to be a mere by-product of US-Iran relations, and they fear that the US will one day come to see Iran as a bigger strategic and economic prize.

The other side of the coin is also complex. How the US handles the current and future Taiwan crisis and whether it truly takes Taiwan's side in an eventual war with China will shape perceptions of its credibility as a security guarantor elsewhere. This is true for Japan and South Korea, but also for the Gulf states. However unlikely, for the moment, imagine the US refusing to sell missile defence systems to the Gulf states because of Iranian pressure. That would shatter Gulf trust in Washington, but there would be other partners to count on. That is the point of hedging strategies.

Of course, the US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation reminds everyone of the credibility of the US commitment, but it is also important to recognise that this military intervention was internationally sanctioned. This is why the Gulf states are at pains to convince the world that their stability and that of the Gulf is a global responsibility, not just an American interest. @Email:ehokayem@thenational.ae