The EU’s strategic neighbourhood stretches from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus, and the Western Balkans through the MENA region. Towards all of the countries in its vicinity, the EU adopts its customary approach of conditionality, hoping (and expecting) that the lure of trade and/or accession will strengthen the rule of law and human rights in the countries involved. The effectiveness of this strategy has declined in recent years, since the political elites in the EU’s neighbourhood are no longer convinced that joining the EU is possible in the near future, or indeed that EU membership remains the attractive prospect that it once was. This has opened the way for a more assertive presence by third players, which include several countries belonging to the BRICS group, but also Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar.
This chapter examines the security implications of the BRICS challenge to the EU’s comfortable position as the ‘only game in town’, both economically and politically. Is the BRICS’ alignment mainly a ‘power-multiplier’ for the national interests of individual BRICS members, or does it offer a real alternative to the liberal Western order for countries that used to be squarely in the EU’s strategic orbit? This chapter focuses on the policies of the three BRICS members with a global strategic vision: China; Russia; and (to a lesser extent) India. (Brazil and South Africa are important players in their own region, with limited – and at times no – influence in the areas surrounding the EU.) The chapter concludes with some reflections on the need for the EU to develop a more pronounced and sophisticated strategy to balance, and at times even counter, the BRICS’ influence in the EU’s backyard. Such a strategic overhaul is long overdue and – luckily – gradually gaining some support and modest momentum. We have to acknowledge that the rise of the BRICS has become a key argument for a more cohesive and integrated EU, but that the EU has no ideas and no policies to go beyond its existing strategic partnerships with all five BRICS members.
As Pascal Bruckner recently argued: ‘What […] should we say about the great imperial groups constituted by Russia and China, which are neither friends nor enemies […]? Their size forbids us to mount a frontal attack on them; their police practices forbid us to treat them indulgently. They are simultaneously partners and threats’. It is this ambiguity that seems to paralyze the EU, making the rifts and fissures within the EU on how to deal with the BRICS group larger and more profound than the differences between the individual BRICS states.
Richard Youngs has argued that the EU’s approach towards the MENA region is based upon ‘voluntary inclusion rather than imposed coercion, of shared power and partnership rather than subjugation and hard-power tutelage’. This approach draws from the EU’s experience in Central Europe in the 1990s, and is now repeated in a very different regional context. The EU offers three incentives to the countries in its direct vicinity: money; markets; and mobility (the well-known ‘three Ms’). Another ‘M’ can be added for the Western Balkans, where full EU membership remains a remote prospect, but is at least on the cards. The draw of the EU’s ‘empire by invitation’ has diminished because of the economic and financial crisis that still bogs down most of Europe and now is even escalating in a possible ‘Grexit’ (Greece leaving the eurozone, and possibly the EU) and a ‘Brexit’ (the UK is set to have a so-called ‘in/out’ referendum by as early as 2016). The important point to make and emphasize is that the EU’s relative weakness (vis-à-vis the BRICS and other emerging economies), combined with the EU’s inward-looking disposition, offers third players new opportunities to strengthen ties with traditional European allies.
China’s strategy towards the MENA region is guided mostly by its huge and growing energy needs. In 2013, China became the Persian Gulf’s main oil client, surpassing the US. Until now, China has not been politically engaged in the MENA region, and it has kept a low profile in its relations with the Arab League states and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This neutral, hands-off policy is, however, bound to change for two reasons. First, oil exports from the Middle East to China could double by 2035 (according to projections from the International Energy Agency). Second, the development of China’s New Silk Road initiative will develop trade routes through the MENA region, which is bound to result in a more Sino-centric world. Although China’s interests in the MENA region remain concentrated on the energy sector, China’s financial engagement (mainly through investment in urban and transport infrastructure) has boomed over the past decade. This has made China a valued and dependable partner for almost all of the countries in the region. Beijing is ‘looking for the middle in the Middle East’, which means that it takes a neutral, pragmatic and generally non-interventionist position on all of the big issues of the region, including the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, Syria and Iran. Countries in the MENA region understand that they will play a major role in China’s New Silk Road strategy, which will build a modern grid of oil pipelines and roads from Asia to the Middle East and beyond. As Abbas Varij Kazemi and Xiangming Chen argue:
[T]he ancient Silk Road serves as a modern-day political lens for how the Middle East and China see each other’s development. Given their shared ancient civilizations, strong traditional values, collectivist cultures, patriarchal social systems and centralized political systems, do some Middle Eastern countries view China’s model and road of development as more appealing?
The answer seems an unqualified ‘yes’.
The problem for China is that with increased economic and financial engagement comes greater political responsibility. Although Beijing is reluctant to take sides in the many conflicts in the Middle East, recent (civil) wars in Libya and Syria have shown that China, too, has to take more overt political positions and use the available economic levers to further its political and security interests. Instability in the MENA region undermines China’s quest for energy security, and the rising threat of Islamic extremism and Jihadism also affects China’s domestic stability (mainly in its Muslim Xinjiang region). The fact that economic power engenders political power and responsibility is logical and hardly new – it explains US hegemony after the Second World War. It also explains the EU’s crumbling sway over developments in the Southern Mediterranean. For now, the EU is keen to involve China in finding multilateral solutions to MENA crises. Although this seems to be the best (and probably also only) way forward, it remains unclear whether the security interests of China and the EU are sufficiently congruent to foster a true strategic partnership.
Russia’s interests in the MENA region are diverse, ranging from energy security, capping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – mainly in Iran – and conventional arms exports and halting the rise of radical (mainly Sunni) Islam. Interestingly, Russia has been keen to maintain its (more or less) good ties with a wide variety of MENA regimes, ranging from Assad in Syria and the mullahs in Iran, to traditional Western allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the GCC states, as well as Egypt, Morocco and even the Kurdish Regional Government. Like China, Russia feels vindicated in its belief that the 2011 Arab Spring would result in instability, rather than sustainable democratic reform. Moscow considered Western support for the Arab Spring movements as outside interference that was aimed at toppling traditional Russian allies, replacing them with democratic and (hence potentially) Western-oriented regimes. Russia also feared (and still fears) the rise of radical Islam in the MENA region, which will negatively impact upon stability in the North Caucasus. Russia’s interests and politico–security agenda in the MENA region are therefore conservative, opposing democratization and supporting authoritarian regimes (as long as they are not Sunni, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia), but unlike China, Russia lacks the economic and financial levers to back up its interests.
Russia tries to overcome its economic weakness by exploiting the traditional tactic of military support and arms exports to gain a legitimate entrance, influence and status. MENA states have ample access to a booming global arms market, which include Western defence industries. Still, Russian military presence in the Mediterranean is growing, and now includes naval bases in Syria and Cyprus [see Box 2: The BRICS’ Impact on Greece and Cyprus].
Box 2 The BRICS’ Impact on Greece and Cyprus
The banking crises in Cyprus and Greece show that the BRICS’ growing economic and financial power can put Western institutions under considerable pressure. While negotiating a bailout package with the European Union, the Cypriot government announced that loans from Moscow or Beijing were also being considered. Cypriot President Demetris Christofias claimed that the Russians were ‘good friends [who] take care of Cyprus’. He recalled Russia’s €2.5 billion loan to Cyprus (in 2011), ostensibly given ‘without anything in exchange’. The Cypriot government also raised the possibility of turning to China. In an effort to strengthen relations with Beijing, Cypriot Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Neoklis Sylikiotis and Chairman of the Cyprus Popular Bank Michalis Sarris paid a joint visit to Beijing to discuss the possibility of a Chinese loan.Read more...
Interestingly, Cyprus – which is, of course, an EU member state – has sought Russian (military) support in its quarrels with (NATO member) Turkey over gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean. This is part of Russia’s scheme to restore its status as a great power, capable of preventing a Western-dominated geopolitical order, and if needs be by military means. This Clingendael Report has already quoted Niall Ferguson, who observed that because of Russia’s own energy reserves, Moscow has no vested interest in stability in the Middle East. In reality, however, Russia’s at times radical rhetoric does not match its rather conservative approach towards the MENA region. Moscow may aim to annoy and thwart the West where it can, but overall has few economic, political and military tools at its disposal to wreak havoc. Since China’s strategy is equally guided by conservatism, the EU is faced with considerable pressure to maintain the status quo in a region still bogged down by autocracy.
The role and influence of India, Brazil and South Africa in the MENA region is modest. Brazil is strengthening its economic presence in Africa and is becoming an aid donor, promoting democracy and human rights (much like the EU). South Africa’s emphasis on South–South cooperation includes the MENA region, but does not offer it a special position. India’s strategy towards the MENA region is mainly motivated by economic interests and ensuring the safety of the large Indian diaspora, mainly in the Gulf region. The Middle East and the Gulf states have become India’s main trading partners over the past decade, which explains why Delhi was reluctant to support the popular uprisings during the Arab Spring. India has also remained on the sidelines during the UNSC votes on Syria and Libya, where it abstained (in both cases, along with Brazil).
Similar patterns of policy behaviour by the BRICS members are discernible in other regions adjacent to the EU, such as the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. Ever since China obtained (in 2009) a 35-year concession period from Athens to operate two shipping terminals in the Greek port of Piraeus, the EU has woken up to China’s assertive and highly successful entry into the Western Balkans. This does not, however, make China a key player in the region yet. But China’s attraction is on the rise, for the same reasons that the ‘Beijing Model’ has appeal in Africa and other developing regions: China’s immense market; its lack of political conditionality; and its willingness to invest in energy and infrastructure projects. China is increasing its economic and trade ties with Serbia, as well as with Macedonia and Montenegro. As Loïc Poulain argues: ‘Because money and influence are closely intertwined, Beijing’s sizeable investments in South-Eastern Europe are as much about financial returns as they are about leverage’. It is little surprise, therefore, that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up military cooperation in the region, and has deepened its ties with all of the countries of the Western Balkans, apart from Kosovo (which China does not recognize). Politically, this means that Serbia is usually not willing to join EU declarations condemning China’s human rights record; in return, China supports Serbia in its stand over Kosovo. The EU-brokered deal between Serbia and Kosovo of August 2015 is unlikely to alter this dynamic.
Along similar lines, Russia’s ties with Serbia go beyond a shared (Russian Orthodox) religion, and now centre on the region’s key role as a transit route for the South Stream pipeline, connecting Russia’s eastern gas fields to Central and Western Europe. Since South Stream will circumvent Ukraine and link Russia closer to several key (Balkan) states (most notably Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Austria and Croatia), the project carries major geostrategic significance. Serbia is keeping its options open vis-à-vis Russia, including by becoming a permanent observer in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and by signing (in November 2013) a bilateral agreement on military cooperation with Moscow. Russia is also raising its profile as a regional trading partner, particularly in Serbia and the Republika Srpska (in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Although Russia’s ambitions in the region remain unclear, recent experiences in Ukraine indicate that the ‘Western Balkans are treated by Moscow as a proxy playground in a wider geopolitical competition with the EU and the US’.
Interestingly – and, arguably, worryingly – this geostrategic playground now also includes two EU member states that have proven economically vulnerable and politically susceptible to Russian and Chinese influence. In June 2015, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with BRICS Bank (now the NDB) representatives to negotiate a multi-billion US dollar loan. Under pressure from the EU to agree with another package of austerity measures, Greece felt obliged to look for alternatives, including China. Greece has already signed a deal with Russia to create a joint enterprise for the construction of the so-called Turkish Stream pipeline, which will run across Greek territory. A possible Greek exit from the eurozone, the so-called ‘Grexit’, will also have major geostrategic implications. James Stavridis goes as far as arguing that ‘[i]f Moscow were to assist Athens economically, even marginally, this would further distance Greece from Western Europe. Another likely friend and partner would be Serbia, which has its own troubles with various EU Balkan members. Ultimately, it is not impossible to contemplate Greece departing the European Union or even NATO’. A similar scenario lies ready for Cyprus.
Russia and China (as well as the Gulf states) are exploiting the ongoing EU crisis for their own strategic purposes. This is hardly surprising, and we have to acknowledge that the EU did exactly the same after the end of the Cold War, when it took advantage of Russia’s economic and political weakness to appropriate the remnants of a collapsed Soviet Empire. It is against this historical backdrop that the contemporary geostrategic tussle over Eastern Europe (and the Caucasus) should be examined. The EU’s European Commission is now reviewing the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), a process that should be completed by autumn 2015. Most likely, the EU will aim for differentiation among the ENP member states, giving each country the opportunity to develop strong trade and political ties with the EU. Notably, the EU aims to avoid Russia’s narrative of a geopolitical struggle, but to reframe it as a matter of international law and the sovereign decision of each Eastern European country to decide upon its own destiny.
The effectiveness of the EU’s approach remains to be seen. The EU’s discourse highlighting national self-determination may resonate well with the ‘sovereignty hawks’ among the BRICS, but, as James Sherr has aptly remarked:
While Russia formally respects the sovereignty of its erstwhile republics, it also reserves the right to define the content of that sovereignty and their territorial integrity. Essentially, Putin’s Russia has revived the Tsarist and Soviet view that sovereignty is a contingent factor depending on power, culture and historical norms, not an absolute and unconditional principle of world politics.
The call for sovereign democracy, like the BRICS’ penchant for multilateralism, seem little more than an opportunistic tactic, and not a deeply felt commitment. Jonathan Holslag has labelled this approach ‘lucrative multilateralism’, implying that members only use the BRICS setting if it suits them.
Although the BRICS nations as a collective entity play no major role in Eastern Europe, it is clear that Russia uses this forum (together with the G20) as a geopolitical jimmy to open up the Western front of economic and financial sanctions, and political isolation. China seems happy to oblige, but also has a strong interest in avoiding escalation of the Western–Russian stand-off. China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ plans (also known as the New Silk Road) will benefit greatly from stable European economic and political conditions; a new Cold War would not serve Beijing’s interests at all. This suggests that China’s conservative streak is something that the EU (and the West in general) must cherish. Within the BRICS framework, China can manage and even put a lid on Russia’s rhetorical belligerence. This is clearly in the Western strategic interest and should be the basis for a more mature EU strategy towards the BRICS and its individual members.