Page 2 of 2 Obama's Yemeni odyssey targets China
By M K Bhadrakumar
Islamism doesn't deter Israel at all. Saleh couldn't have been far off the mark
when he alleged last year that Israeli intelligence had been exposed as having
kept links with Yemeni Islamists. The point is, Yemeni Islamists are a highly
fragmented lot and no one is sure who owes what sort of allegiance to whom.
Israeli intelligence operates marvelously in such twilight zones when the
horizon is lacerated with the blood of the vanishing sun.
Israel will find a toehold in Yemen to be a god-sent gift insofar as it
registers its presence in the Arabian Peninsula. This is a dream come true for
Israel, whose effectiveness as a regional power has always been seriously
handicapped by its lack of access to the Persian Gulf region. The overarching
US military presence helps
Israel politically to consolidate its Yemeni chapter. Without doubt, Petraeus
is moving on Yemen in tandem with Israel (and Britain). But the "pro-West" Arab
states with their rentier mentality have no choice except to remain as mute
spectators on the sidelines.
Some among them may actually acquiesce with the Israeli security presence in
the region as a safer bet than the spread of the dangerous ideas of Shi'ite
empowerment emanating out of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. Also, at some stage,
Israeli intelligence will begin to infiltrate the extremist Sunni outfits in
Yemen, which are commonly known as affiliates of al-Qaeda. That is, if it
hasn't done that already. Any such link makes Israel an invaluable ally for the
US in its fight against al-Qaeda. In sum, infinite possibilities exist in the
paradigm that is taking shape in the Muslim world abutting into the strategic
It's all about China
Most important, however, for US global strategies will be the massive gain of
control of the port of Aden in Yemen. Britain can vouchsafe that Aden is the
gateway to Asia. Control of Aden and the Malacca Strait will put the US in an
unassailable position in the "great game" of the Indian Ocean. The sea lanes of
the Indian Ocean are literally the jugular veins of China's economy. By
controlling them, Washington sends a strong message to Beijing that any notions
by the latter that the US is a declining power in Asia would be nothing more
than an extravagant indulgence in fantasy.
In the Indian Ocean region, China is increasingly coming under pressure. India
is a natural ally of the US in the Indian Ocean region. Both disfavor any
significant Chinese naval presence. India is mediating a rapprochement between
Washington and Colombo that would help roll back Chinese influence in Sri
Lanka. The US has taken a u-turn in its Myanmar policy and is engaging the
regime there with the primary intent of eroding China's influence with the
military rulers. The Chinese strategy aimed at strengthening influence in Sri
Lanka and Myanmar so as to open a new transportation route towards the Middle
East, the Persian Gulf and Africa, where it has begun contesting traditional
Western economic dominance.
China is keen to whittle down its dependence on the Malacca Strait for its
commerce with Europe and West Asia. The US, on the contrary, is determined that
China remains vulnerable to the choke point between Indonesia and Malaysia.
An engrossing struggle is breaking out. The US is unhappy with China's efforts
to reach the warm waters of the Persian Gulf through the Central Asian region
and Pakistan. Slowly but steadily, Washington is tightening the noose around
the neck of the Pakistani elites - civilian and military - and forcing them to
make a strategic choice between the US and China. This will put those elites in
an unenviable dilemma. Like their Indian counterparts, they are inherently
"pro-Western" (even when they are "anti-American") and if the Chinese
connection is important for Islamabad, that is primarily because it balances
perceived Indian hegemony.
The existential questions with which the Pakistani elites are grappling are
apparent. They are seeking answers from Obama. Can Obama maintain a balanced
relationship vis-a-vis Pakistan and India? Or, will Obama lapse back to the
George W Bush era strategy of building up India as the pre-eminent power in the
Indian Ocean under whose shadow Pakistan will have to learn to live?
On the other hand, the Indian elites are in no compromising mood. Delhi was on
a roll during the Bush days. Now, after the initial misgivings about Obama's
political philosophy, Delhi is concluding that he is all but a clone of his
illustrious predecessor as regards the broad contours of the US's global
strategy - of which containment of China is a core template.
The comfort level is palpably rising in Delhi with regard to the Obama
presidency. Delhi takes the surge of the Israeli lobby in Washington as the
litmus test for the Obama presidency. The surge suits Delhi, since the Jewish
lobby was always a helpful ally in cultivating influence in the US Congress,
media and the rabble-rousing think-tankers as well as successive
administrations. And all this is happening at a time when the India-Israel
security relationship is gaining greater momentum.
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates is due to visit Delhi in the
coming days. The Obama administration is reportedly adopting an increasingly
accommodative attitude toward India's longstanding quest for "dual-use"
technology from the US. If so, a massive avenue of military cooperation is
about to open between the two countries, which will make India a serious
challenger to China's growing military prowess. It is a win-win situation as
the great Indian arms bazaar offers highly lucrative business for American
Clearly, a cozy three-way US-Israel-India alliance provides the underpinning
for all the maneuvering that is going on. It will have significance for the
security of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. Last
year, India formalized a naval presence in Oman.
All-in-all, terrorism experts are counting the trees and missing the wood when
they analyze the US foray into Yemen in the limited terms of hunting down
al-Qaeda. The hard reality is that Obama, whose main plank used to be "change",
has careened away and increasingly defaults to the global strategies of the
Bush era. The freshness of the Obama magic is dissipating. Traces of the
"revisionism" in his foreign policy orientation are beginning to surface. We
can see them already with regard to Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the
Israel-Palestine problem, Central Asia and towards China and Russia.
Arguably, this sort of "return of the native" by Obama was inevitable. For one
thing, he is but a creature of his circumstances. As someone put it
brilliantly, Obama's presidency is like driving a train rather than a car: a
train cannot be "steered", the driver can at best set its speed, but
ultimately, it must run on its tracks.
Besides, history has no instances of a declining world power meekly accepting
its destiny and walking into the sunset. The US cannot give up on its global
dominance without putting up a real fight. And the reality of all such
momentous struggles is that they cannot be fought piece-meal. You cannot fight
China without occupying Yemen.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.