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POLITICS: Sep 11 Attacks Scramble Global Geopolitics

Analysis - Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 30 2001 (IPS) - The global geopolitical chessboard has been scrambled in ways that virtually no one could have imagined before the Sep. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The deadly explosions and fires also set off a virtual firestorm of international diplomacy, as governments manoeuvred to get on Washington’s good side in a way that maximised their own interests.

Among the more unlikely developments since the attacks:

– U.S. military forces have been invited to set up shop in Central Asia, Russia’s backyard, with Moscow’s acquiescence if not encouragement. Some analysts are even talking about a possible Russian bid to join NATO.

– In the biggest expansion of Japan’s military role since World War Two, Tokyo has agreed to send warships into the Indian Ocean, to provide logistical and other support for U.S. aircraft carriers, despite local controversy.

– Britain, Washington’s closest ally, sent its foreign minister to Tehran to line up support for U.S. war plans. This was the highest- level British visit to Iran since the 1979 revolution.

– After wooing India as its strategic ally in South Asia in its first eight months in office, the George W. Bush administration is now putting together a massive international bailout for New Delhi’s nemesis, Pakistan, which also could soon resume military ties with Washington, after an 11-year estrangement.

– After spending months resisting cease-fire talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finally authorised his foreign minister to sit down with Palestinian President Yassir Arafat, in what is seen as only the start of a major U.S. effort to force the two sides to get serious about peace talks.

– For the first time in more than a decade, the United States and China have identified a common enemy and are now exchanging intelligence.

From France to the Philippines (which is said to be considering offering U.S. access to its old naval base at Subic Bay), from Malaysia to Mexico (whose hopes for freer a freer U.S. border have been badly set back), and from Israel to Indonesia (whose military also may benefit from renewed U.S. attention after a two-year break), governments are jockeying for advantage as Washington prepares its riposte.

Some nations are more affected than others.

With Washington’s attention focused on its prime suspect, Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organisation and the Taliban regime that shielded it, those countries feeling the strongest blast at the moment lie in the vicinity of Afghanistan, which, like the rubble of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, can be seen as “Ground Zero” both for U.S. diplomacy and the military moves surrounding it.

This is why India, so ardently courted by the Bush administration as a strategic ally against China before Sep. 11, suddenly became a secondary priority in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

With a 2,300-km border with Afghanistan, as well as the best intelligence on both the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s hideouts, Pakistan’s support is considered far more important here than anything India could bring to the table. This assessment has provoked exasperation in New Delhi, which, expressed its eagerness to join Washington’s “war against terrorism” even before fire fighters had extinguished the flames at the Pentagon crash site Sep. 12.

To the north, U.S. planners have secured access to bases in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the president of which, Islam Karimov, has wanted Washington to establish a military presence there, presumably to act as a counterweight to Moscow, since at least 1998, according to a top U.S. general.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin has acquiesced in Karimov’s as-yet unofficial offer changes the strategic equation in Central Asia dramatically. While Putin may have been making a virtue of necessity, some analysts see it as a major decision with enormous geopolitical implications.

China, the Bush administration’s biggest bogeyman before Sep. 11, has not objected to Uzbekistan’s courtship of Washington despite long-standing fears of encirclement. Furthermore, Beijing has said scarcely a word about Japan’s unprecedented deployment in support of U.S. warships after spending much of the summer loudly decrying U.S. efforts to fortify and extend its military alliance with Tokyo.

In that case, too, the suggestion is that Beijing is looking for a way to cooperate with the United States as part of a longer-term strategy to avoid a clash in East Asia, particularly over Taiwan. If the two countries can work together against terrorism as a common enemy, forces in Washington who have tried to depict China as a strategic rival will become less credible.

The Middle East – and the Arab world in general – also is a central player in the drama that opened Sep. 11, which is why Israel now finds itself under steadily growing pressure to reach a ceasefire and begin negotiations with the Palestinians.

Just as his father during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis felt it essential to line up Arab states behind him, so the current President Bush, who has publicly and repeatedly pledged that his war is not directed against Islam or Arabs, must reduce, to the greatest extent possible, Arab frustration over U.S. backing for Israel. This has been the consistent message of virtually all of Washington’s Arab allies – from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

This is now well understood in Israel itself, despite Sharon’s efforts to paint Arafat with the same brush as bin Laden. “This is a different world entirely,” Sharon’s Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said last week. “The relative value of Arab countries to the Americans has only increased since Sep. 11.”

While these shifts in the geo-political landscape have major implications, none is necessarily permanent or irreversible, for three main reasons. First, Washington’s priorities may change. Second, none of the deals is being made without demands from emerging allies for something in return and it remains to be seen whether Washington will be able or willing to meet their price. Third, the authoritarian governments with which Washington now deals may be unable to keep up their end of the bargain amidst popular backlash at home.

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