The insoluble Syrian problem: Only wrong answers?

The insoluble Syrian problem: Only wrong answers?

Written by Ian Bond, 29 September 2015

Syria is the origin of many of Europe’s current security problems. Four years after the war there started, the West has no strategy for ending it; but neither does anyone else, including Russia.

It is understandable that Western leaders who have failed to end the war in Syria over the last four years should now be clutching at straws. They still need to clutch at the right straws, however. There are more ways to make things worse in Syria (and neighbouring countries) than to make them better. The EU needs to re-examine what it is doing, and have achievable objectives rather than lofty aspirations; and it should understand that all the other players in the conflict have their own objectives, most of which are incompatible with the West's.

As world heads of government meet in New York for the UN General Assembly’s annual session, Europe's refugee crisis has given the EU a new incentive to search for peace in Syria. Though British prime minister David Cameron was wrong to imply recently that the EU should stop taking in Syrian refugees and instead wait for a peace deal, he is right to think that the flood of refugees from the region cannot be stemmed unless the conflict in Syria ends. The problem is that neither he nor anyone else has a plan for that.

In March 2015 the EU's Foreign Affairs Council endorsed 'Elements for an EU regional Strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as the Daesh  threat'. (Daesh is the Arabic abbreviation for the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) terror group). The overall objectives of the strategy were "to counter the threat posed by Daesh and other terrorist groups to regional and international stability, and simultaneously to create the conditions for an inclusive political transition in Syria and Iraq as well as in refugee-hosting countries in the region, while alleviating the human suffering caused by the ongoing violence and displacement".

Taking these three points in turn, the West and its regional allies have been conducting an air campaign against Daesh for more than a year now. While there have been some successes (Kurdish groups drove them out of Kobane, near the Turkish border, with the help of coalition airstrikes), Daesh has also advanced in some areas, taking the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. Local forces cannot defeat them decisively without help.

The chaos that followed Western interventions in Iraq and Libya has made the British and American governments cautious about stepping up their involvement in the Syrian conflict. But without those two countries, it is inconceivable that any Western-led coalition would send big enough forces for long enough to destroy Daesh militarily and then to create a stable framework for political progress. The EU therefore needs to set itself more realistic goals for combating Daesh.

One area to focus on is limiting the flow of foreign fighters to Daesh and al Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra. A UN expert panel suggested in March 2015 that in total there were more than 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Apart from stepping up intelligence and border co-operation in Europe to prevent Europeans joining jihadist fighters, the EU should do more with source and transit countries. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King's College London assessed in January 2015 that between 3,800 and 7,000 of the foreign fighters came from three countries: Russia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. In addition, the British government says that thousands of foreign fighters have used Turkey as a transit route for joining jihadist groups.

The question is whether the EU can help or persuade any of these countries to stop the flow. Research by the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta strongly suggests that the FSB (Russian security service) created a 'green channel' to enable jihadists to leave areas in Russia where they were fighting the Russian state and to travel instead to Syria, presumably on the basis that they were less of a threat to Russia as long as they were fighting (and dying) in Syria.

Saudi Arabia has cracked down on the Daesh threat within the kingdom, but its own religious ideology and the economic and social pressures caused by low oil prices (including youth unemployment of almost 30 per cent) suggest that it will remain a source of willing ‘martyrs’ in Syria. Saudi individuals also continue to finance various jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, including Daesh. The West has long been reluctant to criticise Saudi Arabia’s export of wahhabist fundamentalism, but it needs to make clear that Western support for Riyadh cannot be unconditional: the Saudis have to do a better job of cutting off the human and financial jihadi pipeline to Syria and Iraq.

Tunisia's democratic government may be a more promising partner. The EU has started a dialogue with Tunisia on security and counter-terrorism, and has agreed to help the government develop an anti-radicalisation strategy which would prevent the recruitment and manage the return of foreign fighters. Work on this strategy should be pushed forward urgently, and the EU should then commit funds and personnel to support implementation: reducing radicalisation in Tunisia would address both the terrorist threat to European interests in the country, and the role of Tunisian jihadists elsewhere.

After initially waving anyone willing to fight against Assad through the Turkish border, Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently been doing more to control the border. Turkey and the EU should have a shared interest in ensuring that Daesh cannot use Turkish territory to smuggle in weapons and fighters, or to smuggle out oil from Iraq and Syria to fund its 'caliphate'. Turkey has long lobbied for a ‘safe zone’ and a no-fly area on the Syrian side of the border, to be maintained by Western forces. Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu repeated the message in a letter to EU leaders before the EU's emergency summit on the refugee crisis, on September 23rd. A safe zone is an unrealistic goal as long as Europeans – and Americans – are unwilling to fly air defence missions in Syrian airspace or put forces on the ground to defend one; but the EU could offer Turkey other forms of assistance with border control.

Clearly, Europe has failed to create "the conditions for an inclusive political transition in Syria and Iraq as well as in refugee-hosting countries in the region". The EU has to decide how President Bashar al Assad fits into any transition. His regime has been responsible for far more deaths and displacement than any of its opponents, including Daesh. In October 2011 the EU Foreign Affairs Council stated that Assad "must step aside to allow a political transition to take place". But Europe is now wavering: German chancellor Angela Merkel thinks Assad should be included in peace talks; David Cameron thinks Assad could have a role in a transitional government, but should then step down. As long as the West lacks the will to force Assad from power, however, he will have a seat at any negotiating table, just as war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic were at the Dayton peace conference which ended the Bosnian war; and his fate will depend on the outcome of the negotiations.

With or without Assad, political progress (as the March 2015 EU strategy recognised) is "heavily dependent...on the willingness of national and regional players to act in accordance with the stated objectives". Unfortunately, none of the influential players share the EU's objectives. The Syrian government is not interested in political transition, and nor are its backers in Tehran and Moscow. Iran and Saudi Arabia seem happy to carry on fighting a proxy war in Syria and Iraq whatever the cost to the local populations. Neither Daesh nor Jabhat al-Nusra are interested in inclusivity – both are Sunni sectarian organisations. For the Turkish government, weakening Kurdish forces for internal Turkish reasons is more important than helping them to defeat Daesh in northern Iraq and Syria.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker in the conflict. Assad and Putin are spinning a seductive tale in which they and the West share an interest in defeating terrorism in Syria, so all well-intentioned countries should now be on the same side: this was the message of Putin’s speech to the UN General Assembly on September 28th. In reality, Assad played an important role in strengthening Islamist radicals at the expense of the moderate opposition, and IHS Janes showed in December 2014 that the Syrian armed forces and Daesh fought other rebel groups more often than they fought each other. The Syrian government and Daesh have even worked together on oil sales, according to the EU.

Putin himself has two aims: first, he wants to keep Assad in power, regardless of how many more Syrians die in the process, thereby keeping Russia’s bridgehead in the Middle East and frustrating (as he sees it) an American plot against his ally. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier could not have been more wrong, therefore, when he "strongly welcomed...the growing military engagement of Russia in the region": the most likely result of Russia's intervention will be more fighting and an even greater flow of refugees to Europe. The Russian military will solve neither Syria's problems nor the West's.
Second, Putin wants to use Russia’s supposed help in the fight against terrorism to persuade the West to drop its Ukraine-related sanctions against Moscow. The West should not fall for this ploy: if Putin wants sanctions lifted, he needs to get out of Crimea and stop interfering in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine should not be sacrificed for the promise of Russian support in Syria.

If progress towards a political solution remains out of reach, that leaves the EU's final objective, "alleviating the human suffering caused by the ongoing violence and displacement". This is the objective most directly relevant to tackling the refugee crisis; it is the area in which regional players are least likely to try to obstruct European action; and it is the problem which a big injection of EU (and other countries’) assistance would do most to address.

UN agencies are running out of money to support refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. And the camps themselves are not a long-term solution to a long-term problem. Given the bleak prospects for a political settlement, both the West and the countries of the Middle East need to do more than simply accommodate and feed these millions of people; they need to provide them with sustainable livelihoods, education and other tools to ensure that they do not become permanently marginalised minorities. Resettling larger numbers of Syrian refugees in the prosperous West rather than in fragile states like Jordan and Lebanon will have to be part of the solution.
It is depressing to admit that after four and a half years of war and 250,000 deaths, there is no path to peace in sight. Whatever Putin said in New York, peace will not come to Syria because Russia has joined the fight, or because the rest of the world has given up trying to remove Assad; it will come when all the combatants are dead or tired of war. Meanwhile, if Europe is unwilling to bribe or coerce the parties to the negotiating table, its best course is to concentrate on helping their victims.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.

Judy Asks: Should the West work with Russia on Syria?

Russia and Syria

Judy Asks: Should the West work with Russia on Syria?

Written by Ian Bond, 16 September 2015
From Carnegie Europe

The Undiplomats: Right-wing populists and their foreign policies

The Undiplomats: Right-wing populists and their foreign policies

The Undiplomats: Right-wing populists and their foreign policies

Written by Yehuda Ben-Hur Levy, 21 August 2015

Issue 103 - 2015

Bulletin issue 103 August/September 2015

Issue 103 August/September, 2015

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Greek foreign policy: The next ruin?

Greek foreign policy: The next ruin?

Greek foreign policy: The next ruin?

Written by Ian Bond, Rem Korteweg, 27 July 2015

The economic consequences of Greece leaving the eurozone would be serious for the Greek people and the rest of the EU. The foreign policy implications could be equally bad. Russia policy aside, the Syriza-led coalition has been part of the European mainstream. If a post-Grexit Greece lurched from left-wing populist to right-wing nationalist government, its foreign policy could be an even bigger problem for Europe.

The EU and Greece have finally agreed on a bail-out deal. But, as Christian Odendahl and John Springford have written recently (‘The Greek bailout deal resolves nothing’, July 13th), its flaws are so serious that it is likely to fail eventually. Before EU leaders steel themselves to expel Greece from the eurozone, they should think about Greece’s geopolitical importance (and not just its flirtation with Russia).

According to Thanos Dokos, of the ELIAMEP think-tank, the last few Greek governments ignored foreign policy because they were overwhelmed by the economic crisis; the current government, by contrast, has re-engaged in a number of important areas. As long as Greece stays in the eurozone, Dokos sees Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as the politician most likely to lead Greece, in a continued coalition with the right-wing populist Independent Greeks.

Opinion polls show that support for Independent Greeks and the extreme right ‘Golden Dawn’ combined is currently around 10 per cent. But if Greece leaves the eurozone, people might conclude that having tried mainstream parties and left-wing populists, their last hope lay with a coalition involving the extreme right ‘Golden Dawn’. Foreign as well as domestic policy would be affected. Here are seven issues to watch.

The first is migration. In the first six months of 2015, more than 70,000 refugees arrived in Greece. The country is struggling to cope. The Greek defence minister (and founder of the Independent Greeks), Panos Kammenos, threatened in March that Greece would "flood Europe with migrants" if its EU partners forced it out of the euro. If his position were strengthened post-Grexit, he would be better placed to carry out his threat.

The second issue is Turkey. Syriza has cautiously tried to improve relations with Ankara. While Kammenos’ rhetoric has been strongly anti-Turkish, he has not interfered with overall policy towards Turkey. But a successor government could involve both Independent Greeks and other extreme rightists. They might see confrontation with Turkey as a way to consolidate their popular support.

The third issue, and closely related to the second, is Cyprus. Syriza is ideologically remote from the current centre-right Cypriot government, but supports a Cyprus settlement including the withdrawal of Turkish forces. As a guarantor power, Greek support is essential for any agreement. Should relations with Turkey deteriorate, the prospects for a deal would recede.

The fourth is energy security. Greece could become an important transit country for gas reaching Europe via Turkey. The trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP) from Azerbaijan to the Greek-Turkish border and the trans-Adriatic pipeline (TAP) from there to Italy are already under construction. Syriza also supports the planned ‘Turk Stream’ pipeline from Russia via Turkey to Greece and the Balkans. ‘Turk Stream’ could challenge the viability of TAP, and would increase Gazprom’s already large share of South-Eastern European markets. After Grexit, a cash-strapped Greek government could be torn between the economic attraction of transit fees from Gazprom and the political fear of increasing its dependence on gas imports via Turkey.

The fifth concerns the Western Balkans. Greek banks are active in places like Albania and Serbia, and although their status as separate legal entities there should shield them from the worst impact of Greece’s financial woes, their fragility could still cause economic problems. Politically, if Syriza fell from power, the slow normalisation of relations between Greece and Kosovo could be derailed by a more nationalist, pro-Orthodox government. Such a government would be even less likely than the present one to make progress on the issue of Macedonia’s name, which is the main obstacle to that country joining the EU and NATO.

The sixth issue involves security and defence. Greece has traditionally spent a higher percentage of its GDP on defence than any other European ally, primarily to protect itself from Turkey rather than to join EU or NATO missions. Whether it stays in the eurozone or not, it will have to cut defence spending. But a more nationalist government may care less about NATO’s defence priorities, and more about standing up to Turkey – and prioritise accordingly.

The seventh issue is Greece’s relationship with Russia. Both Syriza and Independent Greeks have unhealthily close relations with Putin’s Russia – contributing to Athens’ poor relations with Central Europeans who feel threatened by Moscow. So far, despite public objections to EU sanctions, Greece has approved their renewal; but that might change if Greece were pushed out of the eurozone and offered a financial lifeline by Russia. The problem for the Central Europeans is that the most likely alternative to Syriza is no better: both Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn are Russophile.

The EU may not be able to prevent Greece from falling out of the euro. But its leaders should think hard about the foreign policy consequences of a weak and alienated Greece. The Syriza government may be an annoying negotiating partner, but its foreign policy may be the best on offer.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy and Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

The four horsemen circling the European Council summit

EU Council summit

The four horsemen circling the European Council summit

Written by Rem Korteweg, 24 June 2015

Simultaneous crises are the new normal. Europe’s leaders must confront a quartet of challenges if they want to prevent the European Union falling apart.

Four horsemen will be circling around this week’s European Council. They represent four crises that threaten the EU: ‘Grexit’; the Mediterranean migration crisis; Russian aggression; and Britain’s threat to leave if the club is not reformed. Any of these issues could dominate the European Council’s agenda: each could alter the fundamental character of the Union. While none of them is particularly new – Greece's economic and financial woes have troubled the EU for six years – they are circling together and affecting each other.

‘Grexit’ looms first. The risk of a Greek default and possible exit from the eurozone is the most acute of the four crises.  Over the past several months, Greece’s creditors and the government of Alexis Tsipras have played a dangerous game of chicken. As a deadline approaches for Greece to repay the IMF €1.6 billion, it seems Greece may give in. An emergency summit on Monday brought renewed hope for a deal, as Greece offered more cuts to pensions and higher taxes. Tsipras now faces an uphill battle in the European Council to convince sceptical creditors like Germany and Finland, or fellow debtors like Spain and Portugal. For a deal to stick, the Greek leader must persuade sceptical members of his own party that he is not caving in to demands from Brussels. But even if a deal is clinched, as CER’s Christian Odendahl recently pointed out, a lasting solution to Greece’s economic problems will remain elusive. And so, despite the brinkmanship of the past weeks, even if Europe’s leaders hammer out an accord with Greece they may simply buy more time rather than remove the risk of Grexit.

Russia hovers over the ‘Grexit’ talks too. Should Greece leave the eurozone, it will need to attract credit, loans and investment from elsewhere, and Russia has shown an interest. This has strengthened Tsipras’ hand in the negotiations with Brussels. On Friday June 19th, the day after the Eurogroup failed to reach a Greek bailout agreement, Tsipras flew to Saint Petersburg for a meeting with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Alexei Miller, the head of Gazprom. The Greek leader signed a preliminary agreement to build a $2 billion pipeline across Greece, as part of Gazprom’s ‘Turkish stream’ project. The agreement is non-binding, but pokes a finger at the Commission’s plans to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian gas imports. Tsipras’ flirtation with Moscow, at a time of high stakes negotiations with Brussels, has raised eyebrows. An increasingly Russia-friendly Greece would make it more difficult for the EU to maintain a unified position against Russian assertive behaviour in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, people continue to die on a daily basis in Ukraine’s ongoing conflict, though at less alarming rates than before. The ‘Minsk-II’ ceasefire is flawed, but most European governments are unwilling to give up on it. They think Russian help is needed elsewhere, such as the Iran nuclear talks and the Syrian civil war. As long as the fighting does not escalate dramatically, European leaders will not step up pressure on Russia to change its behaviour. Some leaders worry about the impact of sanctions on business (though statistics show the effect is limited), and argue that the current lull warrants a thaw in relations with Moscow. While France has cancelled the controversial sale of the Mistral amphibious ships, three European oil and gas companies have recently struck new commercial deals in Russia.

For now, however, the EU remains politically unified: most of the sanctions have been extended until January 2016, while those specific sanctions linked to the annexation of Crimea have been rolled over for a year. That unity may not endure, however. Regardless of what happens in the Donbass, by the end of the year, investigators will have published their official findings into the shooting down of flight MH17, which killed 298 people. One potential finding of the report could point to Russian complicity, either in delivering the missile system, or in the chain of command that led to the missile’s firing. European leaders will then need to decide whether to punish this crime or do nothing. A push for new sanctions could strain today’s delicate unity on Russia, while inaction would be a sign of weakness and an insult to the victims. The creation of an international tribunal to persecute the culprits may offer a sensible, but unsatisfying, middle road.

The desire to avoid ruffling Russian feathers means that Ukraine will not figure prominently at the European Council meeting either. But that is a mistake. Ukraine needs money: earlier this year Kyiv said that it required some $40 billion over the next five years, to avoid economic collapse, but with the economy continuing to deteriorate that sum now looks inadequate. As Charles Grant and Ian Bond have highlighted, some of that money is coming from the IMF, and some may eventually come via debt restructuring, but most of the money will need to come from the EU and the US. If Ukraine’s economy collapses, the ensuing political chaos would threaten the pro-Western leadership in Kyiv, handing Vladimir Putin the victory he has not been able to achieve through military force.

The third horseman circling is the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. In the first six months of 2015, 1,868 migrants have died trying to cross from North Africa. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), some 114,000 migrants have reached Europe, mostly landing in Greece and Italy. In summer the weather is calmest and crossings increase, so both numbers are likely to rise. In response, the EU is trying to look tough. On June 22nd, it launched an Italian-led mission to monitor the maritime movements of smugglers. A subsequent stage of the operation would see European navies board and seize migrant ships, including in Libyan waters. Diplomats in New York are currently drafting the necessary United Nations mandate. The EU also wants the permission to destroy ships used by traffickers, although this is not likely to get international or Libyan support.

None of these measures will solve the migration crisis. The EU should take a broad approach, in terms of geography and reach. It will not be enough to track smugglers’ movements at sea, although it is a start. Gathering accurate intelligence on smuggling networks requires a presence on land or a credible Libyan counterpart with which to co-operate. And a focus on Libya makes sense at first, but smugglers could soon exploit the route of least resistance by shifting their activities to other parts of the North African coast. Many migrants are Syrian refugees, but a solution to Syria’s civil war remains out of reach. The EU must also review its development and humanitarian policies in transit countries like Libya, and in source countries across the African continent. A humanitarian tragedy cannot be reduced to a mere security challenge.

The tough debate in the European Council will, however, be less about the military mission or the EU’s foreign policy response, and more about migration’s ramifications within the EU. In May, the European Commission proposed a quota system, which would alleviate the burden on countries such as Italy and Greece, and redistribute 40,000 asylum seekers across the EU. Many, including the Central and Eastern European countries, object to this mandatory system. Under quotas, they would receive many more migrants than would otherwise be expected to make their way to them. Northern member-states also object because they ultimately feel these asylum seekers should be processed in southern Europe. Italy feels abandoned by the rest of the EU and has threatened to give migrants temporary visas so they can travel to other member-states. France has retorted that this might trigger the re-imposition of French border controls. The Schengen border code allows temporary border controls in exceptional circumstances, such as in the event of a serious threat to the internal security of a member-state. But in this case its invocation would not be the result of an acute threat to internal security, but of the breakdown of European solidarity. All this could cause a serious Schengen crisis, and draw into question one of the foundations of the EU – the free movement of people.

That leads to the fourth issue, which although not a crisis (yet) will preoccupy European leaders for the coming year. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, will outline his EU reform agenda at the summit meeting. He hopes to get results before an in-out referendum on EU membership, which may well take place in autumn 2016.

Among other things, Cameron wants to cut EU migrants’ access to benefits (particularly those going to people in work), in the hope that this would deter people from coming to the UK. This puts him on a collision course with several member-states, including Germany and Poland, which point out that this would violate EU treaty articles banning discrimination on grounds of nationality. The other member-states are very reluctant to open up the treaties to accommodate British reforms. They fear that one or other member-state would grab the opportunity to make special demands themselves. In some countries, like France, Ireland and the Netherlands, treaty change would trigger risky referendums. Cameron’s dilemma, however, is that a lot of Conservative backbenchers will not support his effort to keep Britain in the EU unless he achieves radical change.

Other British ideas may go down better in Europe, such as strengthening the EU’s ‘competitiveness’ by trimming cumbersome regulation, negotiating free-trade agreements and deepening the single market. The forthcoming European Council gives Cameron a platform to launch his renegotiation campaign, though for now he will avoid going into the details of what he wants. The secretariat of the Council of Ministers will be tasked with taking forward the detailed work, together with British officials. Cameron will find it hard to convince his European colleagues that they need to change EU policies and institutions in order to help him. As Charles Grant wrote recently, member-states fear that Eurosceptic backbenchers will push Cameron into demanding reforms that are unobtainable. The fewer allies Cameron has in the Europe, the tougher the negotiations will be, and the more the ‘British question’ will become an irritant in European politics.

The EU’s leaders will find it hard to tame these four horsemen. No country can afford to pick and choose which of these issues to take seriously and which not. All four are dangerous, and they all require a coherent European response. The four horsemen threaten the EU precisely because they raise issues that can only be solved if governments prioritise a European solution over narrow national agendas. If a European answer cannot be found, the horsemen will continue to promote chaos, instability and mutual recrimination within the EU.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

CER/demosEUROPA forum on 'A dangerous neighbourhood: Europe's foreign policy agenda'

CER/demosEUROPA forum 2015

CER/demosEUROPA forum on 'A dangerous neighbourhood: Europe's foreign policy agenda'

28 May 2015 - 29 May 2015

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Don't mention Beijing: The EU and Asia's maritime security

Don't mention Beijing: The EU and Asia's maritime security

Don't mention Beijing: The EU and Asia's maritime security

Written by Rem Korteweg, 27 May 2015

The security challenges facing EU member-states and south-east Asian countries are strikingly similar. Both regions have difficulties with their neighbours: assertive Chinese claims in the South China Sea are a less dramatic version of Russia's annexation of Crimea; refugees in boats and illegal migration are creating humanitarian and security challenges, and piracy threatens sea-borne commerce. More co-operation between the EU and ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) on maritime security could help both of them, but it could especially contribute to south-east Asian security.   

Mention maritime security at an ASEAN meeting and the conversation quickly turns to China and the South China Sea. Five of its six littoral states are members of ASEAN. But China claims 80 per cent of the South China Sea, including its islands, rocks and reefs and the natural resources it contains. That does not go down well in the region. The most recent spat arose when satellite photos showed China reclaiming land, erecting infrastructure and even building a runway on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef. These semi-submerged reefs are part of the Spratly island group, some or all of which is claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and China. In this tangled mess of maritime disputes, China’s construction work creates new brick-and-mortar facts and further weakens prospects for international dispute settlement. On April 28th, increasingly alarmed by Chinese moves, ASEAN's ten member-states adopted an uncharacteristically unified position, saying that the land reclamations "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea." South-east Asian officials next expect China to declare an air-defence zone over a major part of the South China Sea, in a further step to bring the sea under de facto Chinese control. Not surprisingly, all littoral states have been investing in submarines, ships or other capabilities as part of a naval arms race.

For Europe the main concern is that trade disruptions resulting from tensions in the South China Sea affect European companies and consumers. The EU is ASEAN's second largest trading partner; the largest source of foreign direct investment, and main development aid donor. The EU has concluded, or is negotiating, free-trade agreements with nearly all ASEAN members. Thus, Europe shares south-east Asia's interest in maritime security.

That security is not only jeopardised by Chinese assertiveness; boatloads of migrants from Bangladesh and refugees from Myanmar pose a challenge to the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities. European states are also grappling with the migration issue. In April, the European Council held an emergency meeting after more than 800 migrants died when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean. The European Commission now wants to disrupt the smuggling networks. Some ASEAN governments, controversially, opt to turn the boats around, leaving the refugees to face uncertainty and peril. The symmetry of the threat posed by illegal migration, and the diversity of their responses, should convince the EU and ASEAN at least to share their experiences of approaches that work.

Piracy is another area where the two regions share interests. Since 2008 European navies have co-ordinated a multinational anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa, to which some Asian navies have contributed, including those of Singapore and Malaysia. In the Straits of Malacca, since 2004, four littoral states have organised a patrol with aircraft and naval vessels to increase security in the strategic waterway. Both operations have had success, as piracy rates have dropped, although the threat remains and the two organisations should share lessons learnt.

ASEAN's main geopolitical challenge, however, is the rise of China. The organisation is too divided and weak to balance China's growing influence. Individual states, such as Thailand, the Philippines and increasingly Vietnam, look to Washington for help. Simultaneously, these and other governments express concern at being caught in the middle of a Sino-American 'great power' clash. Stronger relations with the EU could offer a way for south-east Asian states to hedge; to avoid being overly dependent on either Washington or Beijing. In a region of intense geopolitical competition, the EU is welcomed as a non-threatening party that promotes multilateral, not zero-sum, solutions.  Meanwhile Europe, reluctant to play the part of America’s junior partner but increasingly aware of its economic and security interests in Asia, is slowly finding its voice.

In 2013, the EU and ASEAN set up a high-level dialogue focused on maritime security. This dialogue could eventually contribute to resolving South China Sea disputes by encouraging ASEAN to act coherently on maritime issues, although this is not its official objective. For now, the question of how to handle China is too controversial for ASEAN. And so, the EU and ASEAN talk about a response to China's actions, without actually mentioning the big neighbour: after all, many of the things ASEAN could do to counter piracy, illegal migration or smuggling would also improve the region's ability to monitor, respond to and possibly discourage Chinese moves in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The EU should offer its support and expertise on maritime security – drawing on its own experiences. By focusing on issues like people smuggling or piracy, Europe's involvement in south-east Asian security affairs will increase; it will build trust between the two organisations, and, by making maritime security about more than just China, it will invite the involvement of all members of ASEAN, not just those who have problems with Beijing.

As part of its dialogue with ASEAN, the EU should launch practical and political initiatives. On the practical side, resolving technical issues related to data sharing and analysis between coast guards and other regional agencies would improve maritime awareness. The EU could also help ASEAN member-states identify shortfalls in their maritime assets and develop ways to resolve them. On the operational side, the EU and ASEAN should organise joint exercises and training, for instance in the field of search and rescue operations. European navies, coast guards and Frontex – the EU’s border agency – should share experiences (whether positive or negative) from Operation Triton, the EU’s border security mission in the Mediterranean. The EU could give advice on how to organise civil-military missions with a group of 28 diverse member-states. At the political level, the EU should help ASEAN develop common norms for policing its maritime zone. This could result in a code of conduct that respects international maritime law and the freedom of navigation. This would help countries in the region to defuse tensions and avoid misunderstandings.

These measures will not easily change the security dynamic in the region, but they would better equip south-east Asian nations to respond to maritime challenges. They may be designed to address non-traditional security issues like piracy or illegal migration, but a more coherent and capable ASEAN would also offer the best chance of deterring risky Chinese manoeuvres. Sometimes it is best to pretend that the elephant is not in the room.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Отношения России с Западом: движение есть, прорыва - нет


Отношения России с Западом: движение есть, прорыва - нет

By Ian Bond, 27 May 2015
From BBC

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