By Prabasi Nepali
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had talks with foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia and its three Arab allies (Egypt, Bahrain, UAE/United Arab Emirates) in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah last Wednesday over how to end the over one month conflict with Qatar (all states members of the Gulf Cooperation Council/GCC). Previously, he had signed a US-Qatari accord on curtailing terrorism financing, but Qatar’s new antagonists took a hard-line approach and said that it fell short of allaying their concerns. They were of the opinion that any resolution of the impasse would have to address all of the key issues demanded by them. Tillerson, therefore, returned empty-handed to Kuwait (also a GCC member), the mediator between the feuding Gulf countries.
The four countries – goaded on by Saudi Arabia – had imposed sanctions on Qatar on June 5 – blocking all land, sea and air routes on their respective territories, accusing it of financing extremist Islamist groups and making common cause with the Gulf Arab states’ arch-foe, Iran (also the next-door neighbour of all across the Gulf, and with which Qatar shares a rich natural gas field). Doha categorically denies those accusations. Adding spice to the situation is that all four states and Qatar are all US allies, and that the US maintains a strategically important base in Qatar. Turkey, a NATO member is also building an air-base in Qatar, but the four states demand that this be cancelled.
Tillerson met the foreign ministers to try to end the worst dispute in decades among the US-allied Gulf Arab states. He also met separately with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to discuss cooperation in combating terrorism and its financing. The crown prince who calls the shots in his own country and is trying to emerge as the ‘strong man’ in the region said: “We’re happy to see this continuous cooperation between us and (to) even strengthen it and increase it further without limits.” The fact is that US President Donald Trump initially encouraged Saudi Arabia to take a hard line. Without palpable US pressure, now the four states continue to insist on the fulfillment of their original 13 wide-ranging demands they had earlier submitted to Qatar, the world’s biggest producer of liquefied natural gas, as a condition for removing the sanctions – some of which are asking the impossible! Tillerson thus wrapped up a four-day mission to the Gulf with little sign of progress in resolving the diplomatic crisis.
The French are now attempting to resolve the diplomatic stalemate with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain heading to the region at the weekend to try “to recreate confidence, create an interest of all parties to engage in de-escalation.” The tenor of the exercise: “We must find a way out.” Le Drain’s visit followed similar trips made by his counterparts from Germany and Britain in recent weeks – without any favourable outcome. He called on Qatar’s neighbours to immediately lift punitive measures impacting thousands of people in the Gulf: “France is calling for these measures to be lifted, especially ones that affect the (Qatari) population, specifically measures that impact bi-national families that have been separated.”
Le Drain was speaking to reporters in Qatar alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who said he welcomed mediation efforts and possible negotiations so long as they are founded on respect for his country’s sovereignty. Despite the blockade by the “Arab Quartet”, life has not been impacted significantly in Qatar. The government has stepped in to help pay additional costs of shipping and has looked to its allies, like Turkey, for food imports. In such a tense situation, how could it possibly agree to expel Turkish troops stationed here – one of the key demands of the Arab Quartet. It is not budging from its hard-line position dictated by the Saudi Crown Prince. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Relations Anwar al-Gargish wrote on Twitter: “We are heading toward a long estrangement,” adding menacingly: “The reality is we are far from a political solution that changes Qatar’s course. In light of that, nothing will change and we must look to a different mode in relations.” No word at all about the Quartet itself stepping back from its own intemperate demands. It is now about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman pushing his hard-nosed realpolitik in the region – to the detriment of all!
Now, a “Washington Post” report has unequivocally shown that the UAE was involved in an alleged hack of Qatar’s state news agency in late May that helped spark a diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf.
Sino-Indian Friction in the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan Triangle:
Last Saturday, the semi-autonomous newspaper “The Rising Nepal” published an article on: “Resolving Tensions At Doko-La”. The place refers to Dhoka-La near the tri-junction of Sikkim/India, Bhutan and Tibet/China where there is a military build-up between India and China. China is building a strategic military highway nearby in the disputed plateau of Doklam (nominally in Bhutan, but claimed by China). There are some inaccuracies in the write-up which must be corrected in order to dispel an erroneous picture of the overall security situation.
The writers – Dr. Umesh K. Bhattarai (a scholar of strategic studies) and Arun Thakuri (a political analyst) – correctly state that Bhutan and China have not established diplomatic relations, although sharing a common Himalayan border. However, they maintain “The dispute (over Doklam) can be resolved even without such relations between Bhutan and China”. They ignore the history of China directly negotiating border settlements with all its other neighbours, and India’s dominating role in the region.
According to “The Times of India” (July 10, 2017), apparently basing their assessment on Indian security experts, China is trying to stir up a “political confusion” in Bhutan ahead of the kingdom’s general election due next year. It quotes Rajesh Kharat, a Bhutan expert and chair of the Centre of South Asian Studies at India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, explaining why China insists on establishing diplomatic relations with Bhutan and entering into direct negotiations: “It is a matter of prestige for the Chinese because Bhutan is the only country in China’s neighbourhood, with the possible exception of Taiwan, that does not have diplomatic relations with it.” However, Kharat himself draws a very strange conclusion: “Besides, China cannot complete its encirclement of India without having full-fledged diplomatic relations with Bhutan.” Ipso facto, India must do everything to stop this from happening! It also illustrates how Indian bureaucrats, intellectuals and media persons view Nepal’s own role – as part of China’s encirclement policy vis-à-vis India!
Bhattarai/Thakuri also maintain that “the Indo-China border dispute had surfaced long ago, and it was settled in 1890.” The fact is that this is historically untenable. British India (and even India itself) has not signed any border agreement with China. In 1914 British India, Tibet (at a time when it had asserted its autonomy) and Kuomintang China ‘paraphased’ (or initialed) an agreement, but this was never subsequently ‘officially signed’ or even ratified, and has, therefore, no basis in international law. The writers also claim that the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh/Kashmir came under Chinese control after the Sino-Indian border war of 1962. Long before this, the Chinese had built a strategic mountain road through the plateau linking the two Chinese provinces of Tibet and Sinkiang, with India completely in the dark. When the existence of the road became known, Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru was so confounded that he sought to defend the government’s utter lack of knowledge of the road or complete absence from the plateau by saying in parliament that ‘there not even a blade of grass grows’ [!]
Diplomatic Solution to Persian Gulf Conflict?
By Prabasi Nepali