‘Defence diplomacy’

On Christmas Eve the Ministry of ‘Defence’ announced that a Royal Navy warship, HMS Trent, would be deployed to Guyana in South America. Sky News described the ship as one used for ‘defence diplomacy’ (tinyurl.com/cysxnpyf).

What, then, was the diplomacy that required the deployment of a gunboat in support? The one-word answer is ‘oil’. The Harvard International Review (27 September) noted:

‘In 2015, the oil giant Exxon Mobil discovered 11 billion barrels of oil off the coast of the small Latin American country. The discovery promises to change Guyana forever, catapulting the country and its people to new heights of power and wealth. Oil already generates US$1 billion in revenues annually for the government and will produce an estimated US$7.5 billion by 2040. By these forecasts, Guyana—the impoverished, rainforest-covered country of just 800,000 people—will become the fourth largest offshore oil producer in the world.’

The discovery was off the coast of a part of Guyana which has been the object of a territorial dispute with its neighbour, Venezuela, since the middle of the 19th century when Guyana was part of the British Empire. In 1899 an international court of arbitration awarded the disputed area to Britain. It’s an area comprising some 75 percent of present-day Guyana. Venezuela never accepted the decision, alleging that it was rigged, but didn’t insist too much in pursuing its claim until now.

On 3 December the Venezuelan government, under Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, held a referendum throughout the country about whether or not to reject the 1899 ruling and to incorporate the area as a new province. The result was a huge majority for, but on a low turnout, and the government duly established the new province, on paper.

Venezuela, much as it would like to acquire control of the new oilfield, is unlikely to try to actually annex the disputed area. The referendum had more to do with the presidential elections later this year and as a way of trying to win votes for Maduro by beating the nationalist drum. In any event, it is not the land, mainly tropical forest with a few gold mines, that Venezuela really would like so much as the territorial waters off the area’s coast where the oil is. Diplomatic talks have begun, with the US and Britain backing Guyana. Hence the dispatch of the Royal Navy warship to carry out its role in ‘defence diplomacy’.

Diplomacy is not a matter of working out what is the fair solution to a dispute between states. An important factor affecting the outcome is the relative strength of the two sides. In relations between states might is right. Venezuela may be stronger than Guyana and so could seize the land it claims. But Guyana is backed by the US and Britain, because they don’t want a state with a nationalist anti-American government to control the new oilfield (they want a friendly state to) or to extend its territory (in fact they have been working to overthrow the government there), and Venezuela is in no position to take them on any more than it was to challenge the British Empire in 1899.

The cannons roar

In another part of the world another Royal Navy warship, HMS Diamond, has also been engaged in ‘defence diplomacy,’ in the Red Sea. In fact it actually used its weapons. As the Royal Navy’s website boasted on 19 December:

‘Diamond’s actions in the small hours of Saturday morning is the first time a Type 45’s Sea Viper missile has been used in action and the first such shootdown by the Royal Navy since the 1990-91 Gulf War’.

The British Minister of War, Grant Schapps, later threatened more ‘direct action’ than shooting down a few drones (Daily Telegraph, 1 January). On 11 January Britain carried out this threat by joining the US by bombing Yemen, escalating the war in the region.

What is going on in the Red Sea is an aspect of the question of who controls the Persian Gulf, its oilfields and the trade route out of it. In 1980 President Carter laid down the Carter Doctrine that: ‘Gulf oil reserves were of vital interest to the US and the US would therefore be justified in preventing outside domination of the region by military intervention’. This was invoked against Iraq in 1991 and in 2003. Now the threat is from Iran, with the US relying on Israel to counter this. Indeed Israel has already bombed Iran on a number of occasions.

Israel is currently engaged in a war of revenge against the Hamas administration in Gaza. The West supports this because Hamas is an enemy of Israel, its asset in the region, only cynically advising Israel not too kill too many Gazans.

Iran and its allies and proxies see the Gaza war as a chance to weaken Israel as the West’s asset. The pro-Iran government of Yemen has been attacking ships bound for Israel or owned by Israeli capitalists. This has led major shipping companies to re-route their ships round Africa, with serious consequences for international trade.

As the Royal Navy’s website explained:

‘An estimated 23,000 merchant vessels pass through the Bab-al-Mandeb choke point – with Suez the gateway to the Middle East and beyond for shipping from Europe… and for Europe from shipping from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Vice-Admiral Brad Cooper, the US officer commanding the Combined Maritime Forces from their headquarters in Bahrain, underlined that safe passage of the Red Sea was “crucial for the world economy”. He continued: “More than 10% of global trade transits the waters anchored by two globally strategic waterways – the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab-al-Mandeb. Regionally, it has even greater impact, channelling trade across more than half the globe, ranging from Europe to Asia.”’

HMS Diamond’s commanding officer was quoted as saying: ‘The Royal Navy has always been committed to the protection of maritime trade’. By force if necessary. In this case in the context of the wider conflict of economic interest in the Middle East between the West and Iran over who controls oil in the Gulf and the trade route out of it.


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