NEW DELHI —
Defence ministers of India and China met in the Russian capital as the two sides try to resolve rising tensions along their disputed border in the eastern Ladakh region, where a June clash killed 20 Indian soldiers.
Neither side gave details of the meeting Friday between India’s Rajnath Singh and China’s Gen. Wei Fenghe. It was the first high-level contact between the two sides since the standoff erupted months ago in the Karakorum mountains.
The ministers met on the sidelines of a gathering of the defence chiefs of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The body comprises China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Krgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
“Peace and security in the region demands a climate of trust, non-aggression, peaceful resolution of differences and respect for international rules,” Singh said at the meeting.
Wei told Singh the sides should “cool down” the situation and “maintain peace and tranquility,” the Chinese Ministry of Defence said on its website. However, it said responsibility for the tension “lies completely with India.”
“Not one inch of Chinese territory can be lost,” the Ministry of Defence said.
The disputed 3,500-kilometre (2,175-mile) border between the world’s two most populous countries stretches from the Ladakh region in the north to the Indian state of Sikkim. The latest standoff is over portions of a pristine landscape that boasts the world’s highest landing strip and a glacier that feeds one of the largest irrigation systems in the world.
Both sides accuse the other of provocative behaviour including crossing into each other’s territory this week, and both have vowed to protect their territorial integrity.
India’s army chief, Gen. M.M. Naravane, visited the region Thursday and Friday and met with soldiers deployed in difficult terrain above 4,300 metres (14,000 feet), the Indian Ministry of Defence said.
India said its soldiers thwarted movements by China’s military last weekend. China accused Indian troops of crossing established lines of control.
The two nations fought a border war in 1962 that spilled into Ladakh and ended in an uneasy truce. Since then, troops have guarded the undefined border area, occasionally brawling. They have agreed not to attack each other with firearms.
Rival soldiers brawled in May and in June fought with clubs, stones and fists, leaving 20 Indian soldiers dead. China reported no casualties.
Both sides have pledged to safeguard their territory but also try to end the standoff, which has dramatically changed the India-China relationship. Several rounds of military and diplomatic talks on the crisis have been unsuccessful.
This story has been corrected to remove reference to Chinese casualties.
Turkey flatly dismissed a US State Department objection to a recent Istanbul meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and two leaders of the militant group Hamas, whom the State Department has designated as “global terrorists”. The move will further strain relations in NATO and ratchet-up the already “fever pitch” tensions in the Aegean.
Instead, the Turkish Foreign Ministry called on the United States to use its regional influence for a “balanced policy” that will help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of “serving Israel’s interests”.
The United States strongly objected to Erdogan’s hosting of the two Hamas leaders on August 22, according to a statement issued by the State Department on August 25. The Turkish snub followed the same day.
“Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and EU and both officials hosted by President Erdogan are Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The U.S. Rewards for Justice Program is seeking information about one of the individuals for his involvement in multiple terrorist attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings,” the State Department’s statement said, before adding, “President Erdogan’s continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza. We continue to raise our concerns about the Turkish government’s relationship with Hamas at the highest levels. This is the second time President Erdogan has welcomed Hamas’ leadership to Turkey this year, with the first meeting occurring February 1.”
Dismissing the statement, Turkey’s foreign ministry said that it considers the US “Declaring the legitimate representative of Hamas, who came to power after winning democratic elections in Gaza and is an important reality of the region, as a terrorist will not be of any contribution to efforts for peace and stability in the region.”
This is more of Ankara’s posturing, as it is vying to be seen as the protector of Palestinian interests after the UAE and Israel reached a landmark agreement early this month to establish diplomatic relations, a senior Western analyst told New Europe.
The latest war of words between Washington and Ankara comes amid a conflict that appears to be waiting to happen in the Eastern Mediterranean and amid fresh negotiations between Ankara and Moscow over the purchases of a second battery of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.
Ankara has already bought an S-400 battery for $2.5 billion in 2017 and installed it in 2019. The decision was a major snub of Turkey’s NATO allies who said the Russian hardware was incompatible with NATO anti-aircraft systems and its integration into Turkey air defense would enable Russian experts to study how to counter NATO gear and electronics. This prompted the US to threaten sanctions against Turkey and remove it from its F-35 Lightning II jet program in July.
To further deepen the rift, the Kremlin and Erdogan’s government signed a contract for a second delivery of S-400s to Turkey, Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport said on August 23.
The S-400 missile system is considered the most advanced of its kind in Russia, capable of destroying targets at a distance of up to 400 kilometers and a height of up to 30 kilometers.
Turkey is the first member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to purchase an air defense missile system from Russia. Ankara’s stubbornness and its blatant ignoring of NATO’s rules and guidelines are seen as a serious affront by most members. This will help many NATO members make up their minds to jump to Greece’s aid should the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean evolve into a full-fledged confrontation.
The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, who just visited Athens and Ankara in a shuttle diplomacy move that was aimed at defusing the tensions and to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, warned on August 25 that “The current situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is … playing with fire, and any spark – however small – could lead to a disaster,” Maas said after meeting with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias.
Though Greece and Turkey are two NATO allies, they are historically bitter rivals with a mutual animosity that dates back centuries. The two are pitted against one another over energy resources, both claiming exploration and exploitation rights in the Mediterranean and both have launched rival navy drills in close proximity of each other. Their militaries are on high alert and both countries have deployed warships to shadow each other.
The dispute has in drawn in the European Union, with Maas saying that Germany, and the whole of the EU, will stand by Greece “in firm solidarity”.
Cyprus’ Defense Ministry said warplanes and navy ships from France, Italy, Greece, and Cyprus would be holding air and sea military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean starting on August 26. France and Greece will deploy both aircraft and warships as part of the drills, while Cyprus will activate its air defense system to test its capabilities.
Ankara seems to be overstretching its capabilities and is hell-bent on making fresh enemies by the day, a senior analyst told New Europe. The Turks are now involved militarily against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq and are providing active combat support to anti-Syrian government forces in Idlib. Erdogan also has his military involved in ongoing operations in Libya and now the Mediterranean, and is now stepping on everybody’s toes in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, parts of North Africa, and even as far as Afghanistan.
All of this suits Moscow just fine, for the moment, the analyst warned. It will continue to be that way until the time and price are right for the Kremlin to play a constructive role. At that moment Ankara finds itself alone and overstretched.
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The US Army is set to pull out of three military bases in Iraq as it scales back operations amid escalating tensions with Baghdad and Iran.
Troops will withdraw from al-Qaim and two smaller bases as part of a move to reduce the US presence in the country and safeguard military personnel.
A formal handover of the bases and military equipment to coalition forces is expected to take place this week.
It comes against a backdrop of intensified rocket attacks on foreign troops that has been blamed on Iranian-backed militias. The US also plans to withdraw from Qayara Airfield West, known as Q-West, and Kirkuk, but will retain five outposts in Iraq. A coalition statement said: “As a result of the success of Iraqi security forces in their fight against Isis [Islamic State], the coalition is re-positioning troops from a few smaller bases.
“These bases remain under Iraqi control and we will continue our advising partnership for the permanent defeat of Daesh [Islamic State] from other Iraqi military bases.”
The pullout from al-Qaim would remove the only US outpost on the border between Syria and Iraq with the area now controlled by Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces and Iraqi troops. The town was one of the first in the country to fall to Islamic State in 2014 but was reclaimed by Iraqi soldiers in November 2017. The move comes amid worsening relations with both Tehran and Iraq after a US contractor was killed in a rocket attack in December. The US retaliated by launching a drone strike in Baghdad on the Iranian elite forces general Qasem Soleimani, killing him and Iraqi militia leader Mahdi al-Muhandis on January 3 in a strike that brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of conflict.
The killings led to a vote by Iraq’s parliament to expel all foreign troops from the country amid worsening relations between US and their coalition partner.
Last Wednesday two Americans and British Royal Army Medical Corps medic L-cpl Brodie Gillon were killed in a multiple rocket attack on the Taji airbase, near Baghdad. A second wave of 33 rockets hit on Saturday injuring dozens more. Iraqi media today reported a fresh attack on a base that hosts foreign troops, Basmaya camp, south of Baghdad, which has been a key coalition training base since 2015.
It also emerged US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi to do more to protect coalition troops in the wake of the attacks. He warned that the US would defend itself if attacked in the region, and later tweeted: “These actions will not be tolerated and the groups responsible must be held accountable by the government of Iraq.”
Turkey has signed an agreement with Libya’s internationally recognised government on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea that could affect oil and gas exploration of other countries and heighten geopolitical tensions in the volatile region.
Ankara reportedly announced the accord and a deal on expanded security and military cooperation on 28 November.
Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company CEO Charles Ellinas told New Europe on 29 November that the immediate impact of the Libya-Turkey agreement is on the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Greece and Egypt.
Both Greece and Egypt, but also Cyprus, have already strongly condemned this as not being in agreement with international law, blatantly ignoring the rights of islands. Cairo dismissed the deal between Ankara and Tripoli as “illegal” and Athens said the accord is “completely unacceptable” because it ignored the presence of the Greek island of Crete between the coasts of Turkey and Libya and summoned Turkish Ambassador Burak Ozugergin to the Greek Foreign Ministry, Greece’s Kathimerini newspaper reported.
Cyprus’ Foreign Ministry on 29 November also condemned the deal. “Such a delimitation, if done, would constitute a serious violation of international law,” an announcement said, CyprusMail reported. “It would be contrary to the recognised principle of the convention on the law of the sea and the rights of islands’ EEZ,” it added. “With the distortion of the law of the sea and the counterfeiting of geography – Turkey will gain no footing in the Eastern Mediterranean,” it concluded.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed that with the memorandum of understanding on the “delimitation of maritime jurisdictions Turkey is protecting “rights deriving from international law.” Reuters quoted him as saying that such accords could be agreed with other countries if differences could be overcome and that Ankara was in favour of “fair sharing” of resources, including off Cyprus.
Constantinos Filis, director of research at Institute of International Relations, told New Europe on 29 November Turkey’s illegal acts do not have legal repercussions. “Ankara’s attempt to agree with an unstable regime, which represents only part of Libya and therefore any deal it signs is uncertain, is a result of its isolation particularly from energy developments. Given that Turkey cannot agree with any other regional actor not only in the delimitation of the continental shelve or EEZ but also on how to stabilize the region and make it prosperous, it is left with no option but to approach a semi-rogue regime in order to showcase its regional power,” he said, adding that the message it wants to send is that any agreement or plan, including energy projects, cannot be fulfilled without Ankara’s consent.
Ellinas said the Libya-Turkey agreement indirectly affects Cyprus as well, as Turkey uses the same justification to delineate its ‘EEZ’ in the Mediterranean. “In effect, this ignores the entitlement of islands, including Cyprus and Crete, to an EEZ. Turkey defines its ‘EEZ’ to be coextensive with its continental shelf, based the relative lengths of adjacent coastlines, which completely disadvantages islands. It is a ‘unique’ interpretation not shared by any other country and not in accordance to the United Nations UNCLOS treaty, ratified by 167 countries but not Turkey,” Ellinas said.
He argued that Ankara appears to be picking and choosing, as it has used UNLOS principles to delineate its ‘EEZ’ in the Black Sea but does not accept them in the Mediterranean. “That may be challengeable under customary international law,” the Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company CEO said.
“In all likelihood Turkey is doing this, as well as through its aggressive actions in carrying out exploration and drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ, in order to establish a position of strength from which eventually to enter into negotiations. But also as a reaction to the growing cooperation among almost all the other countries bordering the East Med. Turkey’s claims have no internationally recognised legal basis,” Ellinas said.
According to Filis, it is not clear whether there is an agreement – rather, it seems to be a preliminary step of expressing their intention to sign an agreement in the future. “But the most dangerous repercussion might be Turkey’s attempt to use it as a basis for projecting its supposed sovereign right to proceed with seismic activities in the area between Rhodes and Crete, especially in the southeastern part of the matter, thus confirming its strategic interest for the triangle between Crete, Kastellorizo and Cyprus,” he said.
Asked what could be the US and EU reaction to this agreement and how does it affect geopolitics in the region, Ellinas said both Washington and Brussels, and all other neighbouring countries in the East Med, recognise Cyprus’ and other countries’ rights to their EEZs declared in accordance to UNCLOS. He explained that as UNCLOS is not legally enforceable against a state that declines to sign and ratify it, the way to resolve this may eventually be through negotiations or arbitration on the basis of internationally recognised law and not through aggressive actions as Turkey is now pursuing.