By Narayanappa Janardhan, for the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
The United States' political and security policy continues apace in the Middle East, but its weaknesses are becoming more apparent after the recent attacks on the oil facilities of its most important regional ally.
As the battle intensifies between the United States' "maximum pressure" and Iran's "maximum resistance," two interconnected trends stand out: Washington's diminished credibility and deterrence value in a region that has a U.S.-centric security system; and the increased security vulnerability for the Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It may be time for Gulf Arab states to recalibrate their security arrangements to reflect these changing realities. One such formulation could be an Asian-led collective security architecture that brings together principal regional and extra-regional players, including the United States.
Even though the Gulf Cooperation Council is no longer a homogeneous bloc, there is increasing evidence of its members' willingness to explore alternative security arrangements. While no other international actor can replace the United States in the short term, Asian countries — which are the region's main economic partners at present — could potentially play a role in the medium to long term.
Gulf Arab countries have increasingly had to choose between their traditional security guarantor and their disagreements with many aspects of U.S. policy since the turn of the century. Washington's interventions and policies in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Iran, among others, did not serve the interests of, and often were not coordinated with, the Gulf Arab countries.
With the United States no longer dependent on the region's oil and the economic power center shifting from the West to the East over the last two decades, the Gulf Arab countries have expanded their engagement with a host of Asian countries and even Russia. Analysts began to comment on this "omni balancing" more than a decade ago, noting that the region's security ties with the United States were (and are) no longer exclusive, which is the "real strategic shift occurring in the region."
Simultaneously, several Asian countries — which have been riding piggyback on the U.S. naval presence in the region's waters — are also waking up to a new realization. Amid Washington's calls to end the "free riders" practice, they feel that their long-term interests would not allow them to remain dependent on the United States for the security of their energy supply chain. This has given them another reason to expand their military capabilities, especially their navies. For example, the number of naval vessels commissioned in Chinese shipyards between 2015 and 2017 was double that of U.S. shipyards. And, the Indian navy's fleet is geared to increase by nearly 50 percent by 2027. These may be useful to expand their roles in the Gulf.
In such a milieu, the rationale for an Asian security role in the region is based on the following premises:
- There is no military solution to the Gulf Arab-Iran row, with or without the United States, and diplomacy is the only way forward.
- The United States cannot alone broker regional peace because of its historical baggage with Iran.
- The economic success of many Asian countries depends on the free flow of energy from the Gulf, and, thus, how Gulf tensions pan out. As a result, Gulf Arab-Asia ties have to move from a commercial transactional to strategic security relationship.
- The economic stakes for many Asian countries with both the Gulf Arab states and Iran and Asia's expanding regional political-security imprint make them potentially more effective facilitators of peace between the Gulf Arab states and Iran.
As early as 2004, this shift was evident with Saudi Arabia, among others, saying that guarantees for the region's security cannot be provided "even by the only superpower in the world" and that the Gulf requires security guarantees "provided by the collective will of the international community."
Striving to diversify and achieve a strategic balance, Oman has allowed port access to all major stakeholders — China, India, the United States and the United Kingdom.
China is steadily increasing its security presence in the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which connects China to Europe and Africa via the Middle East.
Chinese, Indian and Japanese leaders, among others, have visited countries on either side of the Gulf in the last few years and tried linking the economic and security dynamics. While these countries do not encourage military action against Iran, they are also equally concerned about the security of the Gulf Arab countries and a possible threat to the global oil market.
China is among the top trading partners of the Gulf Arab countries and sources about 35 percent of its oil requirements from them, but it also describes Iran as a "comprehensive strategic partner." Further, as part of the "economic" Belt and Road Initiative, which connects China to Europe and Africa via the Middle East, China is steadily increasing its security presence. The establishment in 2017 of a naval base in Djibouti, across the Bab el-Mandeb, will influence China's interest in establishing other overseas bases in the future.
Perhaps the best indication of China quietly extending its security presence is the revelation that 31 Chinese naval fleets escorted 6,600 ships between 2008 and 2018 as part of international counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. Of these, 3,400 were foreign vessels.
India's joint statements with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia refer to "strategic" partnerships to promote regional peace, reconciliation and stability. In fact, the United Arab Emirates and India signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2017, which facilitated their first joint naval exercises in 2018. And Saudi Arabia and India institutionalized their bilateral dialogue, announcing the creation of a Strategic Partnership Council in February.
Moreover, Japan ventured in June to ease U.S.-Iranian tensions. Although the endeavor wasn't successful, such diplomatic efforts could become common in the future. Japan is also increasingly working with other countries, especially India, to boost its military presence in the Indian Ocean region, which has raised concerns in China.
Days after the attack on its oil facilities, Riyadh requested that Seoul help bolster the kingdom's air defense system. Even Russia has been trying to sell its S-400 air defense missiles to Saudi Arabia. And Pakistan just announced that Washington had asked it to explore the possibility of promoting U.S.-Iran talks.
The Gulf Arab countries would feel more secure if new security arrangements include the United States rather than being under the umbrella of just Asian powers, which maintain good ties with Iran.
Another interesting development is the recent international coalition to protect oil shipping. In addition to some of the Gulf Arab countries, India, China, South Korea, the United States and the United Kingdom, among others, have deployed ships to protect their interests, which could be a precursor to the envisaged collective security system.
Gulf Arab countries have also resorted to direct military engagement in Yemen and Libya, for example, to achieve stability in the region, even if they have not produced the intended results of ending the conflicts or installing friendlier governments. After being security consumers for a long time, the Gulf Arab countries have already acted as security providers for some actors in various theaters of conflict in the Middle East and Africa.
This, however, does not suggest that it is the end of the road for Washington in the region's security scenario. On the contrary, the Gulf Arab countries would feel more secure if new security arrangements include the United States rather than being under the umbrella of just Asian powers, which maintain good ties with Iran. The better long-term alternative for the Gulf might be, therefore, a collective security architecture led by Asia, which has greater economic-security interests in the region. This alternative also offers the United States a dignified exit strategy that is in sync with the "America first" policy of the current administration. It ensures Washington's continued and cost-effective relevance in the region, without being the only one responsible for the security of the Gulf.
But, while Asian cooperation on soft security issues such as anti-piracy and anti-terror cooperation is easy to realize, joint efforts on hard security issues that involve guarantees against perceived external threats are bound to be beset with challenges. This is due to the lack of consensus on shared strategic perceptions and a trust deficit among players involved in the mix, including Asian countries.
Since its formation in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council has been preoccupied with security concerns. Yet, the region's security is no better than it was nearly four decades ago. Amid this security obsession, the Gulf Arab countries could positively consider alternative arrangements that achieve a strategic balance among its stakeholders and guarantee a better regional security environment. This would strengthen the case for an Asian-led collective security architecture.
Narayanappa Janardhan is a senior research fellow at the Gulf-Asia Program at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy.