Good News and Bad News
SCMP December 1, 2013
The past week has seen two events with major long-term consequences for the world; one positive, the other equally negative. First, the good news. The preliminary accord between Iran and major powers, not least the United States, may just be the beginning of a long, torturous process. But it does show a recognition by the US that a workable relationship with Iran is essential for any hope of stability in the Middle East, a region whose religious and ethnic quarrels spill over into Russia and China, among others.
Significantly, the only two countries upset by America's acceptance of the need for dialogue with Tehran have been those uncomfortable allies-by-default, Zionist Israel and Wahabist Saudi Arabia, the tails that for so long have wagged the American dog in the Middle East.
They are now protesting that this represents a US retreat from the region, as though larger and older central Asian countries such as Turkey and Iran were less important than Israel, a state created by Western imperialism, and Saudi Arabia, a socially backward tribal assemblage using oil wealth to promote medieval religious practices throughout the Muslim world. Imagine Saudi Arabia with oil at US$40 a barrel!
Recognition that Iran, a civilisation and state as old as China, has as much right to nuclear power - or weapons - as its neighbours should have come long ago. But such was the animosity between Iran and the US after the Islamic revolution of 1978 that the West encouraged Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, just as it sponsored Islamist insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and has ever since been reaping the consequences.
The possibility of any US-Iran rapprochement - even though the US needed Tehran's help in Iraq and Afghanistan - during the presidency of the moderate Mohammad Khatami was ruled out by the crude simplicities of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney era. Then it was ruled out by the moronic rhetoric and empty threats of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, enraging the West and providing nuclear-armed Israel with cover for its illegal expansion into Palestinian territory.
It is too early to say "three cheers" to the tentative accord. US congressional ignorance and susceptibility to ethnic and religious lobbies may provide stumbling blocks. President Hassan Rowhani may be checked by the Revolutionary Guard and other forces in Iran.
As the nuclear issue has become the immediate focus of Iran, it must be dealt with. Only then can there be some gradual movement to finding common ground with Iran on the need to reverse the drift towards the large- scale breakdown of the state system in the region in the face of Sunni-Shia, Arab-Persian, Turk-Kurd and other conflicts. These are tearing apart Syria, prevent a stable government in Iraq and could threaten the oil-rich Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, where religious conflicts lurk close to the surface. Looking at the region, it is quite likely that, in 20 years, only Iran and Turkey will have the borders they enjoy today. The rest of the region is still struggling with the legacy of the final collapse of the Ottoman empire. So the nuclear accord is the first good news for a long time.
The bad news was without question China's massive expansion of its air zone. At one level, this means little. It has no standing in international law or treaties, and can and will be ignored by many, not least the US and Japan. But it is another example of how China has been unilaterally laying claim to hegemony over waters, and now sky, far from its own shores and close to the territorial waters of others. To make Japan the target of this move obviously goes down well with nationalistic circles in the military and among a public fed versions of history which assume hegemony. But it has left even the South Koreans, currently drumming up their own anti-Japan rhetoric, upset. China's unilateral demarcation line goes close to the territorial waters off Jeju, the large Korean island which lies off the peninsula but 400 kilometres from the coast of China.
The attitudes which China is applying in the East China Sea could equally be applied in the Yellow Sea, impacting North as well as South Korea and almost the whole South China Sea, claiming jurisdiction close to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. China may see itself as only having an issue with Japan - and by extension the US. Neighbours may see it as continuing the expansion of the Chinese empire during the Qing dynasty - the incorporation of Manchuria, Taiwan, Xinjiang and part of Mongolia.
Two years ago, China alarmed its Southeast Asian neighbours with its aggressive moves in the South China Sea. It has since shown a more co-operative face to all except the Philippines, and bought time and smiles with trade and investment. But the latest demonstration of its will has not gone unnoticed, strengthening Japan's resolve to be a regional friend - contrary to many Chinese and Western illusions. Japan is not hated in much of Southeast Asia, where its 1941 victories ended European empires. It can only reinforce America's "pivot" to Asia and intensify India's search for eastern allies.
China has drawn some very specific lines on the map from which it cannot now retreat without loss of face beyond Beijing's capability.