By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Over the past few days, the United States' strategy in the Muslim world has been paying high rewards, objectively foreboding even larger US plans.
Last week, a drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency killed al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, after the earlier elimination of the group's founder, Osama bin Laden, in May.
The announcement of the death of Rahman, who is of Libyan origin, occurred as rebel forces were taking Tripoli, with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on the run.
These successes have many implications in various parts of the
Muslim world. In Libya, rebels supported by Western forces proved at long last able to topple the Gaddafi regime. In this way, the West managed to prove that it did not have to be bogged down in a long fight of resistance.
Meanwhile, food scarcity and high inflation didn't totally disrupt Egypt, as was feared some months ago. Although Egypt is far from stable now, people in Cairo can look forward to some months of relative tranquility as the weather cools down, more food is brought in, and domestic tensions are more under control. From now until next March or April, Egypt could have a chance to get into economically better shape for the next hot summer.
In Syria, the anti-regime forces are gaining momentum, and there is news that larger groups of people are adding strength and posing an even greater challenge to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It is possible that Turkey could intervene in the country in the same fashion that France and Britain stepped into the Libyan fray. Even the vague possibility of Turkish intervention in Syria is putting further pressure on the regime to find some kind of political compromise with the rebels.
The real aim from the Western point of view in Syria is not to have a functioning democracy there, something extremely hard to accomplish given tribal tensions. The goal should be to disengage Syria from its alliance with Iran and then leave the pro-Iranian Hezbollah forces in Lebanon without military assistance from Iran and Syria.
In Pakistan non-Western witnesses report that the killing of bin Laden has lifted the spirits of the common people in the main cities. People who had left the streets, hotels, and restaurants for fear of attacks, bombings, and shootings by al-Qaeda have come back feeling more secure. Attacks and bombings are not waning, but witnesses claim there is a different atmosphere, where people feel Al Qaeda and their supporters are no longer invincible.
The Pakistani army, or at least a part of it, is feeling under siege by the Americans, who evidently don't trust it. But this sense of insecurity in the country's strongest structure paradoxically is not bringing down the country; there is little expectation that crisis in the Pakistani army, will break down into a feud between diverse and competing regions.
This apparently leads to some very difficult questions for Pakistan. If the strongest structure of the country feels insecure while the rest of society doesn't feel the political strain, it means that the army should reform itself because it is unable to provide for the overall security of its own country.
In Pakistan, there is a knot of enormous contradictions. The army, which should bring security to the country, has been doing so by supporting the Kashmiri rebels, who carry on a fight deemed essential to the identity of Pakistan – the liberation of Indian-controlled Kashmir. However, these same rebels, aided by the Pakistani army, which in turn is supported by the US, are also assisting the al-Qaeda forces in the fight against the new pro-American Afghani regime. Similarly some Pakistani leaders view Afghanistan as an outpost of Indian expansionism. In this way, Pakistan feels squeezed by India on the east and a pro-Indian government in the north.
The vision held by the military was once shared by the people. However, the al-Qaeda forces were similarly mistrusting of the Pakistani army in Pakistan and tried to impose their de facto political control over parts of Pakistani territory by terrorizing the population. It seems that the killing of bin Laden has started breaking this deadlock, and it could help the Pakistani military to find a different role in line with the interest of safety for the Pakistani population.
This could go hand in hand with finding a new broad political solution with India to the Kashmiri issue - something that could de facto help to bring peace to the whole region.
All this can be quite difficult to achieve from Libya to Syria to Pakistan, and many things could go wrong. However, the present American strategy is quite different from that of the George W Bush administration. Basically, the idea is to keep American intervention light and to have other countries take the lead in a war of attrition. In Libya, it was Britain and France; in Syria, it could possibly be Turkey; and in Pakistan, it might be a part of the Pakistani establishment in the army and India. In this way, America could reaffirm its international political clout while cutting expenses and risks.
If something goes wrong in any of these areas, the Americans will not have to be the first to put the pieces together since there will be other countries working de facto as a security buffer.
This brings back the centrality of the main force of the Cold War covert operations, the work of the Central Intelligence Agency in place of military action whose costs - as the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions have attested - can drain American coffers. If this strategy works, one can surmise that in a few months there could be new activity in Iran, and the Jasmine uprising could start in Tehran in a few weeks or months.
With Tehran, there is obviously much more at stake than in Libya and Syria. Iran is a much larger country, it is sitting on more oil and gas reserves, and it can stop the flow of oil from the state of Ormuz, thus brining havoc to the world's entire energy system. However, what we have seen in recent months proves that this is not impossible although it remains very difficult. The ultimate goal, unlike with Libya, could not to bring down the Ayatollah regime, but simply to cook Tehran on a slow fire.
The next step after Iran could be of course China. Here we are speaking of a double jump: we don't know if, when, or how a Jasmine Revolution could take hold in Iran. Therefore, it is even more difficult to think of a Jasmine Revolution in China, where people are scared of chaos and largely satisfied with what the government has given them over the past 30 years - much better living conditions and far greater freedom than during Maoist times.
However, it is not impossible to conceive that some internal opposition forces could be leveraged to make Iran's leadership tense and Chinese leadership nervous. And just the idea of de facto bringing China and Iran closer together in the eyes of the international community could help feed more domestic tension in and around China.
The result might not be the toppling of the Iranian regime or the Chinese government, but it could be enough to put Tehran or Beijing on the defensive. The result of this could be to make the Chinese government more oppressive internally or to spur it to start political reforms inside the country.
Either result is good for America. If China begins political reforms, America can claim that it has managed to push for this change. If China becomes more oppressive, then it is perhaps even better as China would become the new Grand Enemy Americans wished to have after the fall of the Soviet Union, and China might become the lightning rod for all of America's and the world's troubles.
In all cases, the Obama administration could score many international successes, which if kept on track could help to reestablish American global authority. This would not seal Obama's re-election. In the early 90s, President George H W Bush brilliantly managed to disintegrate the Soviet Union and defeat Saddam Hussein in Iraq, establishing the essential role of America in the events. Yet, he failed to win re-election because the economy did not perform well.
For Obama, it could be the same. Still, for the moment, we can just say that at least half of American policy is working, and if the economy doesn't unravel in the coming months, there could be a new American order in the world in 2012.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
By Jian Junbo
LONDON - With Libyan rebels taking over Tripoli and authoritarian leader Muammar Gaddafi on the run, the rebellion aided by North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led air strikes to overthrow the Gaddafi regime will come to the end soon. Now reconstruction is an urgent practical issue on the agenda for the Libyan people and international society.
China, an active player in Libya's economic affairs, had to evacuate some 35,000 Chinese nationals - workers, managers, engineers, traders and tourists - leaving dozens of projects unattended after civil war broke out in February. It has made it plain that it is ready to return "to play an active role in future reconstruction", as Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Chaoxu put it on August 24, under the United Nations' lead.
All this shows that the world's second-largest economy may be
willing to take a bigger role in international affairs and that in the particular case of Libya, Beijing hopes to recover and expand economic interests.
According to China's Ministry of Commerce, before the civil war started, 75 Chinese enterprises including 13 large state-owned enterprises were involved in 50 large projects in Libya worth at least US$18.8 billion and covering property, railways, crude oil services and telecommunications.
China urged Libya to protect its investments after an official at a rebel-run oil facility warned that Chinese and Russian oil companies could lose out after Gaddafi's ouster. If acted on, the warning from Abdeljalil Mayouf, an information manager at AGOCO, would be a headache for China, the world's second-biggest oil consumer, which last year obtained 3% of its imported crude from Libya, Reuters said in a report.
"We hope that after a return to stability, Libya will continue to protect the interests and rights of Chinese investors and we hope to continue investment and economic cooperation with Libya," Wen Zhongliang, deputy head of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce's trade department, said in response to questions about the threat. "China's investment in Libya, especially its oil investment, is one aspect of mutual economic cooperation between China and Libya," Wen said at a press conference in Beijing.
China, as well as Russia, Brazil India and South Africa, did not support North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strikes aimed at defeating Gaddafi nor did they provide military aid to the rebels. Criticizing NATO for intervening in Libya's internal affairs, Beijing has also kept a deaf ear to the rebels' appeals to be recognized as the legitimate authority in Libya.
Even if, as some predicts, NATO air strikes against Gaddafi loyalists translate to a bigger reconstruction role, Libya cannot afford to overlook China. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed an international conference on Libya's reconstruction would be held in Paris on September 1, to which China, as well as Russia and Brazil, have been invited. France led the NATO action.
Xie Yajing, commercial counselor of the Commerce Ministry's department of west Asian and African affairs, said on August 30 that Chinese companies had vast opportunities to cash in on post-war reconstruction of Libya, but should wait until after the political situation became stable and clear.
"It is true that some Chinese companies are considering exploring opportunities or resuming their business in Libya, but the time is far from ripe, as there are still short-term risks," she was reported as saying by China Daily.
The end game to the Libyan revolt is unfolding. Gaddafi's wife, daughter and two of his sons were reported to have fled Libya for neighboring Algeria as the hunt for the ousted dictator continued. Pockets of resistance remained from forces loyal to Gaddafi, with fighting still particularly intense around the coastal city of Sirte, his home town.
According to the Ministry of Commerce, China does not have direct investments in Libya, only contract projects. The ministry said on August 24 it was conducting research into the possibility of restoring Chinese projects.
China has yet to officially recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya's legitimate government. Still, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on August 23 called on UN chief Ban Ki-moon to work with regional organizations such as the African Union and the Arab League to restore order.
In post-Gaddafi Libya, many observers think China inevitably will lose its economic interests as enterprises of Western countries that participated in the air strikes would monopolize reconstruction contracts.
But such view is unrealistic.
International relations are never governed by so-called "international friendship" but by "real interests". Many factors are in favor of China taking a share in the cake of Libya's reconstruction.
As in the case of Sudan, China takes a hedging policy toward Libya. While China has largely remained indifferent in the Libya crisis, it doesn't mean Beijing has shut its eyes and ears to what was happening or pretended that the crisis had nothing to do with China. When the result of the civil war was unpredictable, Beijing kept open to the warring Tripoli regime and rebels.
Beijing did not denounce the legitimacy of Gaddafi's regime and at the time invited its foreign minister to visit China. Yet at the same time, it also sent an envoy to contact the rebels. Zhang Zhiliang, the Chinese ambassador to Qatar, met the leader of the NTC in Doha in June. And on June 6, Li Lianhe, a Chinese diplomat to Egypt, inspected the humanitarian situation and the legacy of Chinese-funded institutions in Benghazi, and also met the NTC's chairman, Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil and other leaders.
This was followed the same month with a visit by Mahmoud Jibolile, the president of the NTC's executive board, to China to talk with Chinese leaders. Then in July, Chen Xiaodong, the director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Africa department, visited Benghazi for discussions with NTC leaders.
Beijing also reportedly sent humanitarian aid to the rebels via the China Red Cross. Undoubtedly, such a hedging policy at least makes it possible for Beijing to keep relations with Libya after regime change.
There is sure to be a cacophony of voices among opposition groups, said Yin Gang, an expert on the Arab world at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, as quoted by Reuters. Yin doubted whether remarks by a middle-ranking official of the rebel camp - that China would lose out in the reconstruction of Libya - represented the official position of the post-Gaddafi regime.
"This was one individual's opinion. I can say in four words: They would not dare; they would not dare change any contracts," said Yin. Chinese companies have relatively few investments in Libya, where Western companies were favored even under Gaddafi in recent years, he said.
China's top three state oil firms CNPC, SINOPEC Group and CNOOC all had engineering projects in Libya, but no oil production, according to Reuters, which added that China shipped in roughly 150,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Libya last year through UNIPEC, the trading arm of Asia's top refiner Sinopec Corp that holds the long-term supply contract. That amounted to about one tenth of Libya's crude exports.
Leaders of the new regime may be wiser to realize that Libya's reconstruction cannot be accomplished by Western countries alone. Since it relies on oil exports for revenue, Libya for its reconstruction cannot depend on engagement by just a few powers but needs instead to diversify its export markets.
The economy otherwise would be in danger of being unduly outside control. It is typical that a county dependent on resources exports, particularly to Western markets and their enterprises' investments, and therefore makes itself vulnerable to neo-colonialism.
Moreover, most Chinese economic activities in pre-war Libya were related to civilian projects. According to Commerce Ministry official Zhong Manying, until the civil war, Chinese projects in Libya were mainly in housing development, railway construction, oil services and communications.
That means China's engagement in Libya has mainly been in areas of infrastructure, in which China's cheap labor and comprehensive experiences make it more competent to be involved than Western countries. If Libya opens its infrastructure projects to international competition through fair tendering, China should have greater opportunities to win.
The rules of engagement in the "big power" game may also be favorable to China. Reconstruction of Libya now becomes an international affair in which all big powers are preparing to play a role.
It may not be a coincidence that Sarkozy paid a "sudden" brief visit to Beijing on August 25. He reportedly discussed the debt crisis in the euro region with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao. Behind the diplomatic vocabulary, this meant he has asked China to help stabilize the crisis in Europe. It is suspected that in exchange, he may have promised a role for China in Libya's reconstruction.
Taking part in Libya's reconstruction could mark the first step for China to play a more active role in international affairs. Hopefully, a rising China can take this good chance to demonstrate that it can be a "responsible player"....lol