Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘US’

Syria: Russia opens a window of opportunity?

In the fog of claim and counter claim over the real target of Russian air strikes in Syria one thing is clear: Russia’s direct intervention is intensifying the war and that means even more civilian deaths and more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe.

It’s estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million forced to flee in more than four years of fighting.

So you’d think another foreign power intervening is the last thing Syria needs.

But, depending how others respond, President Putin may have opened a window of opportunity to move towards a political settlement of this confused and confusing conflict.

Russia has joined a growing list of foreign players backing different sides in what is now a four-sided battle between the Syrian government, so called moderate rebels, the Kurds and Islamist insurgents.

Fighting alongside President Assad are Iran, its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and now Russia, who’ve sent forces to help prop up a Syrian army short of troops.

Then there are the air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and now France, which joined the fight the same week as the Russians. They are attacking Islamic State, which controls a fair chunk of Syria as well as neighbouring Iraq.

These US-led air strikes are supposed to help the moderate rebels and Kurds, who are fighting IS as well as Assad’s forces.

IS itself originated over the border in Iraq and is estimated to have recruited up to 30,000 foreign fighters from all over the world.

As well as all these international players stoking the flames, the war has dragged on into its fifth year because there’s no international consensus on how to end it.

What began as civil war also quickly became a proxy war between Iran, which is Assad’s key backer, and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia, which saw an opportunity to remove Tehran’s long-standing ally from power.

Along the way, the varied anti-Assad rebel groups picked up different sponsors with different agendas. In addition to those backed by the Saudis, some were supported by Qatar, some by Turkey, others by the US.

UN efforts to broker a peace deal have been undermined from the start by the failure of the US and Russia to agree on President Assad’s future.

Washington and its western allies made the mistake of assuming Assad wouldn’t last long, so very early on they insisted he could have no role in a settlement.

When he didn’t fall, it left the western powers with little room to manoeuvre between an embarrassing climb-down over Assad or continued, if half-hearted, backing for the rebels.

Despite some signs he may now be prepared to agree a transitional role for the Syrian leader, President Obama can’t yet bring himself to eat the necessary humble pie.

So how could Russia’s intervention open the way to talks?

Moscow says it has entered the war to support the Syrian government’s fight against Islamist terrorists and says its objective is the same as Washington’s.

Except as things stand it isn’t – unless Putin and Obama can break the deadlock over the future of Assad.

Clear strategic thinking is required in Washington and other western capitals.

They need to decide whether their priority is the defeat of Islamic State or getting rid of Assad. Given they decided not to intervene militarily against the Syrian leader but did so against IS, it is safe to assume the defeat of the latter is more important to them. So it’s time policy matched priorities.

In his speech to the UN, Putin offered a grand coalition against IS and this was followed by the first Russian air strikes.

It seems those strikes were aimed at other rebel groups fighting Assad as well as IS. But despite this, the US-led coalition should test Moscow’s proposal and try to forge that grand coalition.

If the war is to be ended and Syria put back together, the international supporters of both Assad and the rebels, especially the Iranians and the Saudis, need to come together and put real pressure on them to stop fighting and start talking.

The UN has its mediation team led by Steffan de Mistura in place to broker negotiations. The legal basis for international involvement is sound too given the Responsibility to Protect can be invoked following the Syrian state’s failure to protect its own citizens and indeed its indiscriminate attacks on many of them.

Alongside the diplomacy, this international coalition would need to agree to isolate IS and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front and focus their military efforts on reducing the areas under their control.

Of course all this is easier said than done.

It means Washington and Moscow engaging constructively rather than scoring points off each other in the court of international public opinion. Crucially it also means the US needs to agree to sit down at the same table as Iran, as well as Russia, and bring a reluctant Saudi Arabia along too.

It may not work. International pressure may not be enough to stop the fighting, but it can’t make matters any worse than they are now.

The Americans clearly don’t trust the Russians, but Washington needs to agree to Assad’s long-term fate going on the back burner, overcome its reluctance to give Putin a boost and put the interests of the Syrian people and regional stability first.

China’s big parade: evidence of expansionist threat or a normal great power?

For the first time ever, China has held a military parade, complete with its most modern missiles and watched over by 30 visiting Heads of State, to mark the defeat of Japan in 1945.

The decision to mount this display in the first place, and the way it was staged, tell us quite a bit about what Beijing intends to do with the new kit it showed off.

Many headlines in the West – whose leaders largely stayed away – framed the parade as an aggressive show of force. And there are loud voices among US military officials, commentators and politicians accusing Beijing of modernising its armed forces for nefarious purposes – namely territorial expansion.

Some of China’s neighbours, especially Japan and the Philippines which both dispute ownership of islands and atolls with China also level this charge.

They point to China’s rapidly increasing spending on its military and its more assertive approach to territorial disputes in the past five years as evidence.

In the past few months, they have focused criticism on Beijing’s island building programme in the South China Sea where small islands and atolls have been expanded and some equipped with airstrips capable of handling military aircraft.

But is this evidence of expansionism?

President Xi Jinping used his speech at the parade to try to reassure onlookers, announcing a 300,000 cut in the number of troops and insisting his is a peace-loving country.

While it’s true China’s defence spending has been rising at unprecedented rates, Beijing’s budget is still dwarfed by Washington’s, both in dollar terms and as a proportion of GDP.

Also, Beijing is not the first country to indulge in “island building” in the South China Sea, other claimants were at it before the Chinese, even if the scale of what Beijing has been doing is much larger.

At a recent conference dinner, I was at the same table as a well-known hawkish American commentator. The conversation turned to the South China Sea and the assumption behind most of the talk was China is an old-fashioned expansionist power which the US and its allies have to put in its place.

When I ventured the opinion that perhaps Beijing did not fit that mould, I was literally scoffed at.

But if you compare American and Chinese history there is a big difference – in both motivation and approach.

One of the messages President Xi is sending with the September 3rd parade is that China will stand up for itself and never again allow itself to be invaded and intimidated.

It’s easy for non-Chinese to forget how the country was invaded, first by the British who seized Hong Kong in the Opium war of 1839-42 and culminating in the full-scale Japanese assault of 1937 with its accompanying atrocities and the death of up to 20 million Chinese. What is called “the century of humiliation” in China.

The territorial claims Beijing makes today are also based on its interpretation of history, rather than a future scheme to conquer its neighbours.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea are nearer Taiwan than Japan and were taken by force by Tokyo during war with China in the 1890s. China argues they should have been returned after 1945 under the Potsdam Declaration.

Instead the US kept them, using the islands as firing ranges until 1972 when it returned them to Japan which by that time had become a close American ally.

The Chinese also argue their claims in the South China Sea are historical, although these are a lot vaguer than those in the East China Sea.

Compare that with the United States.

It grew from the original thirteen colonies on the East Coast to include Hawaii, 2,400 miles from the West Coast.

The justification for this expansion – much of which was achieved by military conquest – wasn’t history. It was the nineteenth century idea of Manifest Destiny – that despite the presence of indigenous peoples, Americans had a God-given right to take the land they wanted.

It was a powerful, unequivocally expansionist ideology.

Washington has never really looked back and today its military bases have spread to at least 74 countries and its navy patrols the world’s seaways unhindered.

It routinely sends spy planes and ships right up to the territorial waters of other countries, including of course China. When others do the same to the US – and Chinese ships were sighted off Alaska at the same time it was parading military hardware through Tiananmen Square – the Americans don’t exactly welcome it.

The modernisation of China’s armed forces and its assertion of its maritime claims can be seen as normal business for a large country with an economy dependent on oil imports which have to pass through the South China Sea.

To its east, there’s no doubt Beijing is also trying to develop the military capability to prevent US forces from intervening to stop it retaking Taiwan – if it ever judges its attempt at gradual, peaceful reunification has failed. Although, Beijing sees this as completing its historic mission to win back all the territory lost in the recent past.

This doesn’t mean a rising China isn’t capable of aggression.

It does mean its territorial ambitions are probably much more limited than some seem to fear and Washington’s ever were.

Yemen: proxy war and war by proxy

There’s more than one nasty war going on in the Arab world.

Iraq and Syria get most of the headlines in western media given the current focus on the threat from Islamic State to European and American interests and citizens, as well as the direct involvement of western military forces in the campaign against IS.

But there’s also a war going on in Yemen, which since neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies intervened in March has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis as Saudi forces have imposed a tight blockade on much of the country.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened when the complex on-going Yemeni civil war appeared to shift decisively against the government of President Hadi and in favour of Houthi rebels – Shi’ites seen as close to Iran.

The fighting appears to have escalated with Houthi forces being driven out of the strategically important port of Aden and a nearby airbase (which the US has used in the past to carry out drone strikes on al-Qaeda and its allies in Yemen and the region – told you it was complicated).

Reliable press reports suggest what seems to have turned the tables on the Houthis is the recent arrival of ground troops – both regular and special forces -from the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia has also been funding Sunni rebel groups in Syria against President Assad, while Iran – rather than Russia – has been the main source of foreign support for the beleaguered Syrian government.

This aspect of the Syrian conflict is very much an old-fashioned proxy war and it has added greatly to the complexity and destructiveness of what is also a civil war.

The parallels with Yemen are clear. Though unlike Syria, Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia and so direct intervention is a practical option.

To Sunni Saudi eyes, the Shia Houthis are like the Syrian government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. They are apostates and allies of Riyadh’s great Shia rival for influence in Middle East – Iran.

But the Saudis are not freelancing. Its coalition’s intervention has the full backing of the United States, which is supplying arms and intelligence.

The US Navy has also been deployed off Yemen to prevent Iranian ships docking, citing suspicions they may be carrying arms for the Houthis.

So for Washington, Yemen is more like war by proxy against Iran.

In this way it resembles some of the conflicts of the Cold War where the US backed one side and the Soviet Union another.

What is also striking is the absence of any talk of “humanitarian intervention”.

There have been “humanitarian pauses” in Yemen where the two sides have agreed to (frequently broken) ceasefires to allow delivery of aid to civilians by the UN and NGOs.

But there has been no hiding that the intervention in Yemen is part of a good old-fashioned, geo-political power struggle.

Saudi Arabia moved when it thought its side was losing.

Perhaps after the debacle of Libya where the Responsibility to Protect was invoked and NATO, endorsed by the UN Security Council, intervened leading to the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi and the country’s collapse into its current anarchic state, there is a realisation the humanitarian rhetoric just doesn’t wash any more.

Also, since Libya there’s been Syria.

If anything has demonstrated that the era of Sierra Leone and Kosovo in the late 1990s where western intervention in local conflicts was justified on moral grounds has passed, it is the international response to the Syrian conflict.

Instead of trying to help end an escalating civil war, the US, its western and Turkish allies took sides early against President Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia.

Despite this though, there has been a reluctance to get directly involved in the battle against Assad. Instead, the US has used its diplomatic muscle to try to undermine his government’s international legitimacy and support his non-Islamist opponents, as well as ill-fated efforts to train so-called moderate rebels.

For their part, Moscow and Tehran have propped Damascus up with arms – and in Iran’s case with money and military advisors.

In all this, the humanitarian interests of Syrian civilians have seemingly counted for a lot less than the struggle over the fate of President Assad.

The UN-led aid operation to help those forced to flee their homes has been chronically underfunded and most western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees – helping to drive the surge in migrants trying to get into the EU by any means.

So as the World continues its transition from one dominated by the US to one where there are competing centres of power prepared to back different sides in conflicts – and stymie UN action when their interests are directly involved – we can expect to become more familiar with proxy wars and wars by proxy like the one in Yemen.

PS

I was going to write about the EU migrant crisis this week but could not have said anything more poignant than my friend and former colleague, Robin Lustig. You can read his blog here.

Iran nuclear talks: at the Rubicon

Most eyes seem to be focussed on Brussels and the clock counting down to the impending deadline on June 30th to avoid a Greek default and possible exit from the Euro.

But there is another clock – this one in Vienna – that should be holding our attention too.

The Iran nuclear talks also have until the last day of June – this coming Tuesday – to reach a final deal on the how the framework agreement reached in early April will be implemented and verified.

The talks have made more progress than sceptics expected when they began in earnest after the election of President Rouhani two years ago. The framework deal envisages Iran restraining its ability to develop nuclear weapons for ten to fifteen years in exchange for the suspension of economic sanctions imposed both unilaterally by the US and its western allies and the United Nations over the past decade that have hit the Iranian economy badly.

Back in April, the two sides – Iran and the P5+1 i.e. the US, China, Russia, France and Britain plus Germany – agreed that by June 30th they would agree the technical details of how Tehran would cap its programme, how that would be verified and how the sanctions would be lifted, including how they would be re-imposed in the event of a breach by Tehran.

The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, who have been the key drivers of the talks arrive in Vienna tomorrow to add their weight to the final push to overcome the remaining hurdles

According to media reports these include a demand Tehran open up its non-nuclear military sites, including its missile production facilities, to inspection, and an American idea – unlikely to get Moscow’s approval – for the mechanism for re-introducing sanctions to by-pass the UN Security Council where of course Russia and China have a veto.

Both the US and Iran seem to genuinely want to do a deal, but not at any price.

There have been hints the talks, like those for the framework deal, could continue a few days past their deadline, but the possibility of failure is real and the cost of that in a region already beset by open conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – all of which are partly driven by a proxy war between Shia Iran and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia – and the simmering tension between Israel and the Palestinians could be exorbitant.

President Obama has taken a high stakes gamble to try to reach a diplomatic solution to the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme. But in so doing he has stoked up already heightened/exaggerated (delete as appropriate) fears in the US over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme – despite US intelligence concluding an attempt to develop nuclear weapons ended over a decade ago.

So if the talks fail, the political pressure on the Obama Administration from both Republicans and Democrats – watch presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton – to take alternative “tough” action will mount.

And if it is the demands of the western countries at the table that are seen to be the main cause of breakdown, Russia and China may break ranks preventing further constructive action by the UN.

This would increase the pressure on the White House still further by narrowing its options, especially its ability to emphasise the need for building consensus for a unified international response before taking unilateral action.

Then there is Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, recently re-elected and heading a new right-wing coalition, is a possible wildcard. He has made no secret of his intention to take pre-emptive action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which would challenge Tel Aviv’s own arsenal.

Military strategists debate whether Israel has the capability to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities effectively without support from the US. But Tehran would undoubtedly respond, either directly or via its allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, so even an abortive Israeli attack would have unpredictable consequences in a region already wracked by war.

Talk of a widespread conflagration in the Middle East has such a long pedigree the danger now is a complacent attitude that things there will not get much worse.

But with the US moving towards a policy of confronting growing Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, if the Iran talks fail there will be voices inside the White House arguing it would be dangerous to risk escalation with Tehran as well, so it would be best to restrain Israel and stick to sanctions.

Ukraine – the crisis that hasn’t gone away

In case you had forgotten about it, the Ukraine conflict and the rift between Russia and the West are set to return to the headlines in the coming weeks.

A recent upsurge in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces with their associated nationalist militia along with the looming deadline for renewal of EU sanctions on Russia guarantee the conflict will be taking column inches from the on-going battles in different parts of the Middle East and the tensions in the South China Sea.

Overall, the conflict has been in stalemate for the past few months.

But February’s Minsk 2 agreement between Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris which called for a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, prisoner releases and constitutional reform in Ukraine is now under increasing strain after rebels tried to push into territory west of their Donetsk stronghold.

The insurgents continue to receive support from Russia – both supplies and manpower. The status of the fighters may be disputed, with Moscow calling them volunteers and Kiev claiming Russian regulars are also involved, but there is no doubt Russia shows no sign of withdrawing its backing.

For its part, Kiev continues to get western backing – with American and British forces training Ukrainian troops and the EU and US maintaining their sanctions on Russia.

The sanctions have increased the pressure on the Russian economy, which has been hard hit by the fall in oil prices, but they have not had any appreciable impact on Moscow’s approach to the conflict.

Russia has returned the favour with bans on food imports from the EU and increased air and naval probing along some NATO states’ borders.

At this week’s G7 summit in Germany, there was agreement to maintain sanctions on Russia until Moscow ends its backing for the rebels, which makes it almost inevitable the EU will renew its sanctions before they expire at the end of next month despite some members showing interest in getting back to business as usual with Russia.

In Washington, there is growing pressure for the US to tighten its sanctions and start supplying weapons to Kiev – something the Europeans have opposed in the past as they believe the only difference it would make would be a worsening of the fighting.

In the event that the US does take this course, expect to hear more accusations from American officials that Moscow has returned to its old expansionist ways and breached the post 1945 consensus that European borders should not be changed by force.

But, as I wrote in March last year, the fact that NATO military action Serbia in 1999 led nine years later to major western powers engineering and recognising the secession of Kosovo had already effectively breached the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

As for Moscow, its loud condemnation of the western support for Kosovo secession looks less principled following its stance on Ukraine and support for Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So once you strip away the hypocritical political and moralistic rhetoric, you are left with an old-fashioned power play where the West – without really knowing President Putin’s true objective – seeks to deny Russia a strategic victory in Ukraine and – in the absence of the rebels being able to carve out an economically or strategically viable territory – Moscow seems happy to keep its neighbour destabilised to prevent it restoring its economy to a semblance of health or eventually joining the EU and NATO.

All in all it is a nasty deadlock that is set to continue for the foreseeable future with the people of south-eastern Ukraine continuing to pay the price.

 

 

On global leadership – or the lack thereof

The world’s major powers are failing when it comes to providing global leadership.

That was the refrain running through this week’s annual Chatham House London Conference where the US, China, Russia and the UK came in for varying degrees of criticism from panellists and participants.

To the apparent surprise and irritation of some Americans present, there were constant references to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and how damaging it had been, not just to the Iraqi victims, but also to the global order and the legitimacy of the US as a global leader.

I was not sure why this should have come as a surprise at a conference dedicated to discussing the crisis in global order and challenges to a rules-based international system, but there you are.

Many Americans may want to draw a line under it and move on, but despite the twelve years that have passed since the invasion, the consequences are still unfolding. Other countries committing acts of aggression use it to justify their own actions and in the region itself the political and military challenge of ISIS amply demonstrates how it remains at the root of contemporary events.

There was also criticism of the Obama Administration for overcompensating for Iraq and failing to provide leadership when it is needed– leading some to complain Washington can’t win and to cite the “damned if you, damned if you don’t” syndrome.

Russia also came in for castigation with Moscow characterised as having gone rogue in the international system. American and European participants made constant passing references to “Russian aggression” and there was no doubt whose side they are on in the Ukraine conflict.

The criticism of Britain was of a gentler sort with many wondering whether London is disengaging from the world as it debates its future in – or out of – the European Union and cuts its defence budget to such an extent the US government, in the words of the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has started openly lobbying London to boost its military spending.

Then there is China. The Chinese panellists were pushed on several occasions by Japanese and other participants to justify Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea where tensions have risen in recent weeks following the US decision to challenge China’s territorial claims by sailing and flying close to the artificial islands China has been constructing in disputed waters.

What stood out was the way the Chinese responded.

Ambassador Wu Jianmin robustly defended his country’s conduct in the South China Sea by pointing out freedom of navigation is essential for China as well as other countries given how much if its trade passes through it. He said the installations being created would also serve a humanitarian purpose for disaster relief operations and pointed out that other countries had started building artificial islands before China without attracting any criticism, so, he asked, why is Beijing being singled out.

But Ambassador Wu was also on a mission to explain what his government calls its “win-win” approach to international relations. He pointed to the newly established and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB, which the US unsuccessfully tried to persuade its allies not to join, as an example of this approach. He emphasised how Chinese investment abroad benefits both China and countries where it is investing. And indeed a World Bank official, Dr Vera Songwe, endorsed this argument by pointing to Africa where Chinese infrastructure investment has helped the continent grow and become more integrated into the global economy.

Responding to complaints that China’s extraordinary economic growth and its re-emergence as a great power had taken advantage of the rules-based international system put in place by the US in the wake of the Second World War – the term “free-rider” was used – Professor Wu Xinbo argued that China is now providing international public goods, such as the AIIB.

He was sitting next to Professor Joe Nye who was arguing the US will remain the predominant power in the world for the foreseeable future and will not be overtaken by China, and at one point it seemed the two were almost competing to show which country does the most for the international community.

A far cry from Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy maxim of “keep a low profile and try to accomplish something”.

We have also come a long way from a decade ago when the then US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, called on China – in somewhat patronising language – to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

The consensus among conference participants seemed to be that despite current turbulence in the South China Sea, Beijing does not want to undermine the established global order, but it does want to be accorded its due weight in that order.

This means the US and the Europeans will have to accede to such things as greater Chinese clout in international bodies such as the IMF. If they don’t, the former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd pointed out, China’s creation of the AIIB shows Beijing will go round the system if it thinks it is being blocked.

So paradoxically, if the rules-based system with the UN and the growing canon of international conventions and law at its heart is to be maintained and strengthened, the leadership required of the US at this point is to truly accept it is no longer the paramount leader.

The key to a stable world is for the West to make good on its rhetoric and make room at the top table for China – and other emerging powers such as India and Brazil – or we could well be in for a bleak beggar-thy-neighbour future.

US set to escalate tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea

If reports this week are anything to go by, the US is sending strong signals it is about to take a more aggressive approach to China in the South China Sea – and if it does send its warships and aircraft to challenge China’s maritime claims, it can only mean at best a deterioration in relations and at worst a dangerous escalation of tension with Beijing.

It is probably no coincidence these media reports came just before US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrives in China for talks with his team promising a tough line over Beijing’s actions in the Sea, though Kerry can also expect intense questioning over his country’s intentions there.

In the past few years, China has upped the assertion of its extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea – defined by the “nine-dash line” first established by Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist state in 1947.

Beijing has historical claims to some of the islands and with the growth of the Chinese economy it needs to guarantee the security of its energy imports from the Middle East through the Sea and also has the means to do so as it can afford to build up its navy, coast guard and air force.

This has led to confrontation with the Philippines and Vietnam, which lay claim to some of the same islands and coral reefs.

Since President Obama initiated his pivot – or rebalancing – to Asia in 2011, the focus has seemed to be on ensuring strengthened US economic integration in the world’s most dynamic region with Washington concentrating on expanding and sealing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

So far the pivot has had a relatively modest military component with plans to establish a base for marines in Australia and the recent agreement to deepen defence cooperation with Japan.

But we have also seen opportunistic diplomatic and military support for Manila and Hanoi who – in what is something of a diplomatic setback to China – have looked to Washington for help in their disputes with Beijing.

These American moves, added to the exclusion of China from the proposed TPP, have led many in China to suspect the US of trying to contain Beijing – much as the US had confronted the Soviet Union with its containment policy during the Cold War.

So if the US does now adopt a more aggressive policy by using its own ships and aircraft to directly challenge Beijing’s claims by sailing or flying right up to the twelve mile nautical limit around Chinese controlled islands, this will confirm those suspicions and strengthen the hand of those Chinese policy-makers who advocate a tougher approach to Washington.

The reports that the US is “considering” using its own military to challenge China’s claims follows a plethora of reports in the media that Beijing is building artificial islands on coral reefs to support airfields and docks in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

Importantly, under international maritime law territorial claims can be based on the area around islands but not coral reefs, which are submerged much of the time.

The apparent leaking by the Pentagon of its strategic thinking may in itself be intended to deter China, but if it is, then judging by Beijing’s reaction so far it has been counterproductive.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday: “China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, (and) avoid taking any risky and provocative actions…”

So how will China respond if US does more than say it is considering taking action?

If Beijing’s approach to its dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a guide, you can expect to see Chinese ships and aircraft intercepting their American counterparts which will increase the chances of an accidental clash – it has happened before when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off Hainan in 2001 killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to land in China where it was dismantled for its secrets before being returned in boxes.

But this is 14 years later and Beijing’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping is much more prepared to assert what they see as China’s key interests – added to which China’s military capabilities are much greater than they were then.

So the Americans would be playing a dangerous game. It is also a puzzling one given the recent US push to improve military to military communication and understanding with Beijing.

With the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine pulling the US back into the regions it was hoping to disengage from, the Obama Administration has struggled to maintain its focus on Asia and how to engage with China. But it now seems the hawks may be winning the argument in Washington, in which case the legacy of Obama’s Asia Pivot may end up being escalating confrontation with Beijing.

US Israel relations: bump in the road or terminal decline?

On the face of it relations between Israel and US have not been this bad since the Suez crisis of 1956 when President Eisenhower opposed the Israeli invasion of Egypt.

Before Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered his address to Congress in Washington at the invitation of the Republicans, National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, said his intervention in American partisan politics would be destructive of relations and other senior US government figures have openly criticised him.

Mr Netanyahu is using his speech to criticise the US approach to the nuclear talks with Iran which are coming to a crunch with a deadline of the end of March for an agreement and signs of progress is being made.

For the Israeli leader a deal with Iran which allows Tehran to retain any nuclear technology seems to be a red line. He believes Iran wants to destroy Israel and is developing nuclear weapons, although intelligence leaks this week indicate his own spy agency doesn’t see it this way.

The US on the other hand seems willing to accept a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme in return for safeguards it will not be used to make weapons. Something Iran is entitled to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Back in 1956, Israeli reasoning was not that different. The government of the time regarded President Nasser as bent on the destruction of Israel and decided to attack Egypt before Cairo was able to build up its armed forces.

The French and their British allies wanted to reverse General Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal and secure control of the strategic link to their colonial and commercial interests further east. So they had common cause with Israel and sent troops to take control of the Canal by force – ostensibly to secure international access.

In Washington, President Eisenhower saw things differently. The US wanted stability in the Middle East as it was becoming increasingly dependent on oil imports from the region. The Cold War was also intensifying and the Americans wanted to prevent Egypt, the key Arab power, from going over to the Soviet camp.

So, not only did the US condemn the invasion, it took active diplomatic and economic measures which forced Tel Aviv – as well as the British and French – to withdraw their troops from Egyptian territory.

As history shows, relations between the US and Israel recovered and Israel has gone on to become the largest recipient of American aid of any country since 1945. The US has also spent a lot of diplomatic capital over the years wielding its veto – or the threat of it – at the UN to protect Israel from international censure over its military action against Palestinian groups and continued occupation of land captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Of course there have been ups and downs since Suez – notably under the first President Bush who had a frosty relationship with another Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, when Mr Bush wanted to get the peace process moving.

So will relations recover this time?

Mr Netanyahu’s visit is controversial because he is involving himself in partisan American politics by giving succour to Republicans opposed to Mr Obama’s approach to Iran. But it is also contentious because Mr Netanyahu is in the middle of an election campaign and the Obama Administration says the US has a long-standing policy of not hosting foreign leaders so close to polling day.

Relations between Washington and Tel Aviv have been on a downward trajectory ever since President Obama launched his ill-fated attempt to revive the peace process in his first term by calling for a freeze in Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories.

Back in 2010, Mr Netanyahu went as far as attempting to humiliate a visiting Vice-President, Joe Biden, by announcing the expansion of settlement housing in occupied East Jerusalem while Mr Biden was still in town.

Mr Netanyahu has also repeatedly tried to outflank the White House by appealing for support from the US Congress, despite the danger of a backlash from Americans who could see it as interference in their internal affairs. Before now, he has worked with both Democrat and Republican supporters of Israel, but this time he accepted the invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and a substantial number of Democrats have said they will boycott next Tuesday’s speech.

However, Mr Obama will not be president in two years’ time and Mr Netanyahu may also have passed from the stage by then, so the likelihood is relations will improve again whatever happens in the Iran nuclear talks.

Although polling evidence in recent years suggests younger voters in US, including Jewish Americans, are less supportive of Israel than their parents’ generation, Washington’s support for Israel is based on solid foundations.

The much cited influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups, like AIPAC, is one reason American politicians will continue to push any US government to support Tel Aviv. And although the US shale revolution has made Americans much less dependent on Middle East oil imports, Washington still sees Israel as an important ally in an unstable region.

But most importantly, there is a strong ideological and emotional basis for the relationship.

When Americans look at Israel many see a reflection of their own national myth – a democratic state built by a hardworking people who migrated in the hope of creating a new country and society for themselves.

Given this deep well spring, it is difficult to envisage any US President turning his back on Israel.

It is also instructive that in spite of the antipathy between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, Washington has kept its financial and military support to Tel Aviv going, even in the face of international criticism of Israel’s military actions, such as last summer’s Gaza conflict which cost the lives of around 2,200 Palestinians and 71 Israelis.

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