The Buzz

Unveiled: China's New Naval Base in the South China Sea

The Buzz

Recent reports talk about China’s possible establishment of a “fourth” naval fleet with jurisdiction over the Indian Ocean region (IOR), joining the existing North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet, and South Sea Fleet.

This mysterious fourth fleet will supposedly be based on Hainan Island—even though the island falls under the jurisdiction of the South Sea Fleet and is some distance away from the IOR. For that reason, many see a prospective Chinese fleet covering the IOR to be either entirely speculative or, at best, a hollow force existing in name only.

One should certainly be wary of overstating China’s military capabilities or, indeed, ambitions. Taking a worst-case view of a Chinese naval fleet in the IOR could overshadow more modest but also more plausible concerns about other possible roles for a fourth fleet based out of Hainan Island.

The island faces the South China Sea (SCS), over which Beijing has proffered expansive historical claims, such as the famous nine-dash line which encompasses nearly all of this maritime zone. Maritime incidents between China and its neighbors, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, are increasingly frequent.

The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) is undoubtedly moving to buttress its presence on the island. On Yalong Bay near the island’s southeastern tip, China’s recently constructed Longpo naval base is a deep-water port complete with submarine piers, an underground submarine facility with tunnel access, and a demagnetizing facility to reduce the magnetic residuals on ship hulls.

This new nuclear submarine base is expected to be serve as a home for the PLAN’s new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). It also features long piers designed for surface combatants, making it a multi-purpose base. The PLAN has an existing base at Yulin, situated just west of Longpo and designed to service PLAN’s conventional submarines. Facilities for surface ships and construction of new piers have also been reported there.

The Hainan complex underpins the PLAN’s rapidly growing South Sea Fleet. Once the least important of China’s three fleets, the South Sea Fleet has since become the primary recipient of China’s more advanced naval warships, including the Shang-class nuclear attack submarine, conventional submarines (Kilo-, Song- and Yuan-class), the above-mentioned Jin-class SSBN, and a dozen of China’s more advanced guided-missile destroyers and frigates and three new amphibious warfare ships, bringing its total to 29 major surface combatants.

Moreover, according to John Patch (PDF), China’s fast-attack Houbei-class missile catamarans are also primarily based with the East Sea and South Sea Fleets. Those small, cheap vessels might have limited range and defensive capabilities but they have an impressive anti-surface warfare capability, each being armed with eight long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.

The South Sea Fleet may be based out of Zhanjiang on the Chinese mainland. But, given the new submarine and surface warship facilities on the Hainan naval complex, it’s clear the island plays an increasingly important role in its fleet operations. On one hand, it can be seen as a potential SSBN bastion for the undersea leg of China’s nuclear deterrent—in which attack submarines, fast-attack ships, and a surface fleet heavy with both anti-ship and air-defence capabilities would be geared towards providing a protective cover for its Jin-class SSBNs against potential anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets.

On the other hand, this naval build-up could be construed in more offensive terms; less about protecting SSBNs and more about magnifying the country’s sea control. While allowing for greater power projection in the IOR, they’re more likely geared for operations in strategically vital locations like the dispute-laden SCS. Attack submarines provide a particularly formidable capability against both submarines and surface ships, while guided-missile destroyers/frigates could provide protection for China’s fleet of missile catamarans and amphibious warships.

Such a possibility puts a worrisome light to recent revelations about land reclamation and construction on numerous reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands. Reports indicate a possible airstrip and anti-aircraft tower being constructed, which could strengthen China’s capacity to operate around these disputed islands. That would be especially true if some of those facilities are capable of providing logistical support for the short-range Houbei catamarans, thereby eliminating one of the key weaknesses of this “thoroughbred ship-killer.”

It’s difficult to determine which interpretation of China’s naval activities is correct, and it’s possible (and likely) that both approaches are being pursued simultaneously. China would, after all, need protective cover for its SSBNs for its bastion strategy to succeed, requiring a capacity for sea control equally usable against other maritime claimants in the South China Sea. Indeed, an SSBN bastion near Hainan Island logically places a premium on China’s capacity to control the surrounding “near sea.”

Rather than being distracted by an unsubstantiated red herring, like a putative fourth PLAN fleet over the Indian Ocean, attention needs to be rightly placed on these more immediate and concrete developments. To do otherwise wouldn’t only be detrimental from a security perspective, but strategically foolish as well.

David S. McDonough is research manager and senior editor at the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) Institute in Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CDA Institute. This article originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist, here.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe

TopicsSecurity

Punishing Russia: The Dangers of the 'Mariupol Test'

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Frustrated by European reluctance to arm Ukraine, two prominent former U.S. officials—Hans Binnendijk, formerly senior director for defense policy at the U.S. National Security Council, and John Herbst, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006—recently called in a New York Times piece for the imposition of what they have labeled “the Mariupol Test.” They argue that if and when the rebels move on the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, the West must punish Moscow and its minions by giving Kiev the military wherewithal to expel Russian forces from its territory, doubling down on sanctions and, perhaps most seriously of all, “suspending Russia from the Brussels-based Swift financial-messaging system,” a measure that, they assert, “could cripple the already reeling Russian economy.”

Mariupol lies on the land approaches to the isthmus linking Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland. If the rebels did capture the city, Russia would win an unofficial land route to a piece of real estate that, a year after its annexation, it’s still having trouble supplying. According to Binnendijk and Herbst, however, Mariupol would be just the beginning of a longer campaign by the Kremlin to reassemble the tsarist-era Novorossiya “one slender slice at a time,” taking Russia’s informal border back to where it lay from the end of the eighteenth century to the 1917 revolution: all the way to Odessa and the Russian-sponsored enclave of Transnistria.

If we conclude that the Kremlin’s aim is indeed a massive, if informal, increase of Russian power across the upper western arc of the Black Sea that would return Russian influence to the doorstep of the Balkans—then it’s possible to indulge the former officials’ twitching fingers. But, since dropping Novorossiya into an interview last April, Russian president Vladimir Putin has studiously avoided the term. And he pointedly refused to recognize Novorossiya’s Crimea-style referenda and declaration of independence last year.

(Recommended: The Ukraine Crisis' Scary New Twist: The Drive for Mariupol)

Instead, what the Russians have repeatedly said they want in Ukraine is regional autonomy for the Donbas, protection of the linguistic and cultural rights of Russian speakers across Ukraine, federalization of the country’s presently highly centralized political structure, and official acceptance of Ukraine’s formal neutrality, including a permanent commitment by NATO not to invite Kiev into the alliance. As Fiona Hill has recently argued, Putin doesn’t want to restore the Russian empire or the Soviet Union: what he wants is the revival of Russia’s prestige as a great power, including other powers’ respect for the primacy of its political interests in and longstanding historical and cultural ties with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

That doesn’t mean Mariupol isn’t a military objective for the separatists or the Kremlin. Nor can we be sure whether, having secured Mariupol, Russia won’t then turn its attention towards Odessa. But the Kremlin’s options are constrained by Russia’s parlous fiscal and financial situation. That, along with the mounting public discontent provoked by sharp inflation, ought to serve to keep Russia focused on the achievable in the Donbas and to discourage it from enlarging the zone of the conflict.

Any attempt on Mariupol, therefore, would probably have more to do with strengthening Moscow’s hand in pursuit of its more “limited” political aims than with spreading a neotsarist dominion across the Black Sea. (Certainly Turkey, Hungary and Slovakia all seem unfazed.) And that points to two things. The first is the relative weakness of Russia’s position; notwithstanding the Ukrainian army’s lackluster performance, Russia’s political aims in Ukraine far exceed its ability to coerce either Kiev or the West into accepting them. The second is each side’s mutually divergent views on what the Minsk Agreement means.

(Recommended: Why the West Should Be Ashamed about Ukraine)

In the West, many have interpreted the agreement as implying Russia’s capitulation. The Guardian recently quoted the new president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, former prime minister of Poland, as saying that:

The Minsk agreement makes sense only if fully implemented. Partial implementation would be very risky for Ukraine….First, we need full implementation including full control of Ukraine’s borders.

The problem is that Minsk ties control of the border to Kiev’s prior delivery of constitutional “special status” for Donetsk and Lugansk—something hardline Ukrainian nationalists in the Rada adamantly oppose. For Russia, Minsk is thus a step towards the creation of those conditions—genuine autonomy in the Donbas—which it considers preliminary to achieving the rest of its political goals in Ukraine.

The bad news, then, for those looking forward to a complete Russian backdown is that only old-fashioned diplomacy, however unpalatable, can bring an end to the war. The good news is that the conservatism of Russia’s political culture, that has seen it risk economic meltdown for the sake of defending what many in the West consider to be a nineteenth-century vision of its national interests, means that it is also open to the kinds of compromises that lay at the heart of old-style, Concert-of-Europe diplomacy. Not for nothing is the Kremlin celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary this year of the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

The human cost of an attack on Mariupol would be tragic. But Mariupol won’t change Russia’s fundamental aims; and getting sucked into a proxy war with Moscow over it won’t help the West negotiate a lasting political deal with the Kremlin that returns peace and stability to the whole of eastern Ukraine.

The only thing worse than trying to bludgeon Russia into defeat in eastern Ukraine and failing might be bludgeoning it into defeat and succeeding. If Putin did fall, nationalistic Russians would be unlikely to entrust their country to a liberal constructivist leader. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that he’s willing to try diplomacy with Assad. He should do the same, just as belatedly, with Putin.

Matthew Dal Santo is a Danish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen. Image courtesy of Flickr user CSIS. This article originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist, here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

TopicsSecurity

America Is 'Rooting' for China

The Buzz

The United States is “rooting” for China’s continued rise, a senior Obama administration official reaffirmed last week.

In a recent speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, gave a sweeping overview of U.S. policy towards Northeast Asia.

“Throughout the remainder of the Obama Administration,” Sherman told the think tank audience, “Northeast Asia will continue to be a major focus of U.S. foreign policy.”

That’s because, Sherman said, the Obama administration knows that international peace and prosperity increasingly hinges on this region.  “Events in East Asia will inarguably affect the future of us all,” she said.

Indeed, having recently traveled to the region herself, Sherman said she “returned with a strong sense that we are at a pivotal moment; amid chronic dangers, there are also opportunities for the region to reduce tensions and became one of the globe’s sturdiest platforms for international prosperity and peace.”

China will be crucial to whatever trajectory Northeast Asia takes in the coming decades. As a result, Sherman dismissed the “suspicion in some quarters that because of our differences, America is rooting against China.” Instead, “the reality is that the United States very much wants China to be stable and prosperous.”

Sherman noted that this is not motivated by altruism but rather by a cold-eyed assessment of America’s national interest. “Certainly there is no shortage of global problems,” the U.S. and China can work to address, Sherman said during the address, noting the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and China’s stepped up efforts in Afghanistan as examples. She later noted, “We all have an interest in developing rules of the road for cyber security.”

While these global problems are important, Sherman focused the bulk of her remarks on China’s own region: Northeast Asia. “China is not the only country in East Asia that has been rising,” Sherman noted, pointing out that Japan and South Korea have also enjoyed remarkable progress since WWII.

Still, despite the remarkable progress and prosperity the region has enjoyed, it is not without its issues.  To begin with, there’s North Korea, a country Sherman herself negotiated with during her stint in the Clinton administration. Sherman argued that North Korea hopes to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies in the region, and sees hopes to follow Pakistan’s trajectory in terms of forcing the world to accept its nuclear status. Neither is going to happen, Sherman proclaimed.

Beyond North Korea, there are deep and persistent tensions between China, Japan and South Korea over historical and territorial issues. For example, tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have risen in recent years, and China and South Korea remain sensitive to changes in Japan’s defense policy.

Sherman dismissed the view of some that “the past limits future possibilities for cooperation,” holding out hope for a brighter future. But peace and prosperity can only be earned with cooperation and collective will.

In wrapping up her remarks, Sherman stated: “Ultimately, the most important issue is whether the nations of East Asia act in accordance with basic principles of openness, the non-violent settlement of disputes, and respect for the rule of law.” America is working with the countries in the region to achieve that vision.

Ju-Yeong June Shin is a senior at Seoul National University. She is currently interning with the China and Pacific Team at the Center for the National Interest.

TopicsDiplomacy

China and America's Coming Battle for Southeast Asia

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has declared its intent to establish a fully integrated Community that extends across the economic, political, security and social realms by the end of 2015. Such a regional arrangement would, for the first time, provide the countries of Southeast Asia with a single regime of intergovernmental collaboration that can be used to draft, implement and refine joint policies and courses of action. That would greatly facilitate future proactive planning and aid the development of comprehensive and codified forms of supranational cooperation and governance.

The main aim of those changes is to better situate ASEAN to achieve its core goal of “centrality”—a term coined to emphasize how internal cohesion can be leveraged to both advance economic progress and manage the Association’s relations with external partners.

One external variable that’s likely to bear heavily on the trajectory of the proposed ASEAN community is the influence of an increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC). The country is now the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific and its ties with the Association have grown substantially over the past 25 years. Both factors imbue Beijing with a real potential to sway the future course of ASEAN integration.

(Recommended: Red Alert: The South China Sea's New Danger Zone)

In economic terms, the PRC’s overall impact is likely to be largely positive. Since the signing of a strategic partnership agreement in 2003, bilateral fiscal and commerce relations have boomed and over the past decade the two-way flow of goods and services has increased more than six-fold—topping $400 million in 2013. The growth and prosperity of ASEAN and China will be highly contingent on further expanding that mutually beneficial economic partnership, something the two sides no doubt fully appreciate.

In the political and security realm, there’s far less certainty in ASEAN perceptions of China. This is especially true with regards to the PRC’s strategic intentions in Southeast Asia. Concerns that anti-access/area denial platforms may be used to restrict access in the South China Sea or to institute a regional order that’s determined in Beijing could encourage ASEAN’s littoral states to look to Washington—rather than the Association itself—as the ultimate guarantor of national and wider defense in this part of the world.

(Recommended: Most Chinese Say Their Military Can Crush America in Battle)

Beijing’s soft power is also relevant for ASEAN’s social and cultural integration, although the extent of that influence is difficult to determine. On the one hand, China’s official emphasis on peaceful development and shared Asian values would seem to fit well with ASEAN’s own commitment to stability and unity. On the other, the PRC’s effort to position itself diplomatically as a non-threatening power has fallen foul of a central administration that in many ways lacks self-awareness—something that’s been especially true with regards to its uncompromising stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

To be successful, the ASEAN Community will also require considerable backing from the U.S.—the other major power in Southeast Asia.

Washington has three main reasons to support the development of an ASEAN Community. First, economic integration will help to enhance growing and significant bilateral trade and investment ties. Second, promoting a more multilateral approach to security cooperation would directly contribute to burden sharing. Third, a fully integrated ASEAN would help to balance China and India, assure access to critical shipping lanes in the South China Sea and bring greater symmetry to important East Asian forums that involve American representatives.

(Recommended: How Powerful Is America's Military Really?)

There are several ways that the U.S. could help to support the institutional development of the ASEAN Community. Economically, it could deepen regional integration and buttress trade liberalization by expanding the Association’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On the political and security front, the U.S. could provide input to the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting’s current deliberations by suggesting joint endeavours that support military interoperability. Finally, American soft power could be employed to promote programs that are designed to fully engage civil society across ASEAN.

Although the PRC and U.S. are both in a position to influence the process of ASEAN integration, ultimately it will be up to the Association itself to cement internal cohesion, achieve centrality and thereby remain a relevant player in the emerging Asian order. In this respect uncertainties remain, as in many ways the bloc’s member states continue to follow the age-old principles of unanimity, non-interference and informality that have traditionally shaped the manner by which they act and conducts business.

Now in its sixties, ASEAN sits at a critical juncture that could see it either occupying the driver’s seat in future regional cooperation or being marginalised as a relic of the past.

Peter Chalk is an adjunct senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation in the US. This post complements his ASPI Strategy paper published today called ASEAN ascending: achieving “centrality” in the emerging Asian order. This article originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist, here.

Image: Flickr/#PACOM

TopicsSecurity

ISIS' Role Model: Pol Pot's 'Genocidal' Khmer Rouge

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In an excellent exploratory piece by Graeme Woods in The Atlantic this month, he notes in passing the similarities between ISIS and the Khmer Rouge. It’s a worthy comparison – further highlighted by ISIS’ destruction of antiquities as reported last week – and something that merits a deeper look.

In the 1960s and 70s, communism was arguably the Western world’s equivalent to today’s global battle with Islamic jihad. Its scourge and spread in the midst of the Cold War kept U.S. and European policymakers awake at night. One of the groups that emerged under the broad guise of communism was the Khmer Rouge.

A regressive and genocidal regime, the Khmer Rouge seized upon the anger of Cambodians following a brutal U.S. bombing campaign. That campaign, from 1965 to 1973, flew 230,516 sorties and dropped 2,756,941 tons of ordnance on Cambodia (more than the Allies dropped during the entirety of World War Two). The bombing campaign, of which over 10 percent was on indiscriminate sites, was aimed at destroying mobile Viet Cong bases in eastern Cambodia. The environment of anger that the campaign fermented gave way to a coup d’état in 1970, followed by the Khmer Rouge seizing power in April 1975.

As a 2006 paper by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan noted, “despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous volatile insurgency.” Just as in the case of Cambodia, that heterogeneity in Syria and Iraq has given way to a calcified homogenous and territorially-bound group.

In one of their first acts, the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh and forced the capital’s residents on a long and deadly march into the countryside to work rice fields. Torture and execution were central to their brutal grip on power. As Kiernan explains, Cambodians “quickly learnt that any display of knowledge or skill, if ‘contaminated’ by foreign influence, was folly.”

At the forefront of the Khmer Rouge’s ranks were thousands of indoctrinated youth who were to usher in “Year Zero.” At the base of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime was a mix of ideological agrarian socialist utopianism and a desire to reinstate the glory years of the 12th Century Khmer Empire. Pol Pot, a self-proclaimed leader, found an opportune moment in the Cold War, playing the great powers and capitalizing on public discontent, to build his ranks then seize and maintain power. His genocidal reign was short but destructive.

There’s much similarity to be gleaned from Pol Pot’s genocidal regime that parallels with ISIS today.

Aside from obvious similarities that will be noted from the above, both groups subscribe to the destruction of a collective memory in place of a favored revisionist other. In effect, both are anti-progress. Reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” concept is the recent footage of ISIS destroying ancient artefacts in Mosul and Nimrud (despite having profited greatly from the smuggling of other antiquities).

Anti-progress movements (whether religious or ideologically driven) are nothing revolutionary. The very nature of progress gives birth to counter-movements – the Luddites, for example, destroyed machinery during the 19th Century Industrial Revolution. These groups thrive in periods of change, such as the incredible social and technological upheaval that has marked this new century.

Anyone who has walked Cambodia’s Killing Fields or S-21 prison should need little reminding of the urgency for action against genocidal groups. In the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge’s power, an estimated 1.7 million people died. That number, among the most conservative of estimates, equated to 21 percent of the population. The long tail of that civil war lasted until 1998. Yet, unlike Pol Pot’s Cambodia, which financially ran itself into the ground, ISIS has riches and resources far beyond.

Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy's Asia Program in Sweden. This piece originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.

TopicsSecurity

Sorry, America: India Won't Go to War with China

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In his latest contribution to our debate, Shashank Joshi raised some excellent points against my skeptical view of the emerging India-U.S. strategic partnership. But I'm still unpersuaded.

To explain why, it helps to step back and clarify the question we are debating here. It is not whether strategic relations between Delhi and Washington have grown closer in recent years, because clearly they have. It is what these closer relations mean for the geo-political contest between America and China.

India's position is clearly important to this contest. Many Americans, and many of America's friends in Asia, have long believed that India's growing wealth and power will be vital in helping America counterbalance China's growing strategic weight, and resist China's challenge to U.S. regional leadership.

Indeed, the belief many people have that India will play this role is central to their confidence that America can and will preserve the status quo against China's challenge. It is therefore important to decide whether the progress we have seen in U.S.-India relations justifies that confidence.

I have argued that in a geopolitical contest of the kind we see unfolding between America and China today, India's relations with America will only make a difference to the extent that India is seen to be willing to support America in a U.S.-China conflict.

That is because who wins the contest between the American and Chinese visions of Asia's future order ultimately depends on which is seen to be more willing to fight for their vision. Each power wants the other to believe that it will go to war to impose its vision, and hopes that, if all else fails, this will persuade the other to back off.

This way of describing what is happening will surprise those who think that this kind of old-fashioned power politics disappeared after 1989, but it seems to me the only way to understand events in Asia today. In fact, power politics never went away; people simply started to think that America was the only power that was indulging in it. It has been taken for granted that America will fight to support its vision of regional order, but that no one would be willing to oppose them. Now China is proving that false. We can no longer assume that China isn’t any more determined to change the current order than America is to preserve it.

That is why India's role in this contest depends on how far it appears willing and able to materially support the U.S. in a conflict with China. In a game played for these stakes, nothing less counts for much.

As I read him, Shashank makes two key points about this question.

One is that, while India might not be willing to send combat forces to fight alongside America's in a coalition against China, it would provide other, non-combat support such as basing and refuelling facilities. That sounds like what the diplomats call “all support short of actual help.” It would do very little either practically or symbolically to bolster America's position against China, and certainly much less than American boosters of the relationship expect.

His second key point is that perhaps India would be willing to provide America with more substantial support if it saw really fundamental issues of regional order at stake in a U.S.-China conflict. He cites the example of the wide support given to America in opposing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by countries who saw basic questions of international order being tested there.

I agree with Shashank that very important issues for India would be at stake in a U.S.-China clash. But deciding to support America against China would be much harder than joining the coalition against Iraq. In every way China is both a much more valuable partner and a much more dangerous adversary. The key question for India, and for America's other friends in Asia, is what would have to be at stake for them to make that decision?

So it boils down to this: would India go to war with China to help America preserve the current order based on U.S. primacy? If the answer is no, then I don't think the new warmth between America and India matters much to the future of Asia, and America's position in Asia is rather weaker than most people assume.

Hugh White is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.

Image: Wikimedia/U.S. Air Force photo by SMSGT THOMAS MENEGUIN

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Most Chinese Say Their Military Can Crush America in Battle

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The vast majority of Chinese citizens believe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could seize islands in the East and South China Seas, even if the U.S. military were to intervene in the conflicts.

No less than 87 percent of respondents said that the Chinese military already possessed the capability to take back the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from Japan, according to a recent public opinion poll. When asked whether they still believed the PLA could achieve this objective if the U.S. intervened in the conflict, 74 percent said yes.

The numbers were much the same for the South China Sea. When asked whether they believed the PLA could militarily take back disputed islands in the South China Sea, 85.6 percent of respondents said that China’s military could achieve this objective. Even if the U.S. military intervened on behalf of the Southeast Asian nations, about 73 percent of respondents said they still believed the Chinese military would prevail.

(Recommended: How Powerful Is America's Military Really?)

These were just some of the results of a recent survey published by Andrew Chubb and the Perth USAsia Centre (h/t ASPI’s The Strategist), entitled: “Exploring China’s ‘Maritime Consciousness’ Public Opinion on the South and East China Sea Disputes.” The poll, which was the first in what will be an annual poll on Chinese views of the island disputes, was based on phone interviews conducted with 1,413 adult residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Changsha and Chengdu.

Despite the confidence in their country’s military’s capabilities, a slight majority of respondents said they did not want to go to war over disputed islands in either the South or East China Seas. When asked whether it was in China’s national interest to use military force to take back the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but Beijing also claims, 55.5 percent of respondents said that it was not. Just over 33 percent disagreed while the rest were unsure or didn’t answer.

(Recommended: Exposed: China's Super Strategy to Crush America in a War)

Fifty-four percent of respondents agreed that it was not in China’s interest to use military force to take back disputed islands in the South China Sea, compared to 33.5 percent who disagreed. The rest were unsure or did not answer.

The survey participants also didn’t rank the island disputes as particularly important compared with many domestic issues. When the pollsters presented participants with a list of nine issues and asked them to choose the five most important, around 51 percent of respondents selected “island issues with neighboring countries” as one of their choices. Corruption, rich-poor disparity, food and drug safety, moral issues and environmental pollution all ranked higher. Notably, however, the island disputes ranked considerably higher than reunification with Taiwan, which only 22 percent of respondents selected as among their top five issues.

The overwhelming belief that the PLA would prevail in a conflict with the United States in the East or South China Seas could make it easier for Chinese leaders to gain support for aggressive policies. At the same time, it could very well make Party leaders more weary of actually initiating a conflict, given the domestic repercussions for them if China is defeated.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest.

Image: Flickr/sjrankin

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

No End in Sight: Syria's Wicked Civil War Rages On

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With over 200,000 Syrians killed, tens of thousands missing or in detention camps, millions displaced, and a generation of Syrians growing up stateless in refugee camps in the region, the world watches as the fourth year of a civil war passes that has left over 80 percent of the country without electricity and a majority of the country’s towns decimated.

Syria’s cultural heritage, notably in Aleppo, has been decimated. Regional government sources calculate the costs of rebuilding Syria to exceed one hundred billion dollars. The effects of this regional conflict increasingly strain Syria’s neighbors’ financially, politically, and socially. While much coverage has focused on Iraq and Daesh’s surge, Lebanon is in a tenuous balance with militants operating in the state, sectarian fighting, and over a million Syrian refugees..

At the same time, the larger diplomatic process is dead--with no definable way forward to bridge the gap, on the one hand, between the increasingly confident President Assad who has expressed his own renewed confidence about winning this four years old conflict and his growing number of opponents. on the other. Syria’s opposition has been pulverized.

What’s more, groups such as Daesh and Al Nusra have consolidated their control over strategic parts of north and eastern Syria and oppose any peace process. While UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura has attempted to broker local cease fires (“freezes”), these efforts have failed so far to make any tangible changes on the ground and arguably, at times, tend to benefit Damascus more so than its opponents.

Outside states, involved in the civil war, also are severely divided over what type of political solution should occur in Syria. Sparring over other global crises, Moscow and Washington remain deeply divided. Against Washington’s interests, Ankara is more focused on overthrowing Assad and containing the Kurds than a sustainable solution to its neighbor’s strife.

The GCC and Iran remain fundamentally divided over Syria. While the U.S. has increased its training of armed opposition on the ground to counter-Daesh, the Obama administration has been wary to get further involved in Syria’s long civil war with no clear path forward on a political process and an absence of partners to work with on the ground.

The situation on the ground, then. has left the possibility of a peace process that might be concluded before the next anniversary between President Assad and the opposition a vain hope. More likely is a protracted civil war in the region that will further pull Syria’s neighbors into its vortex. Washington and its regional allies will need to identify new strategies to manage the potentially decades long conflict’s impact on their strategic interests and address critically the humanitarian cost of this civil war. Such efforts will require enhanced cooperation to contain this civil war. Failing to do so will only leave the region and Washington ever more vulnerable to these growing costs.

Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D is a Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia/Bo yaser

TopicsSecurity

Stop Exploiting Ferguson

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The shooting of two officers in Ferguson early Thursday morning will further inflame relations between the public and law enforcement in Ferguson. The shooting comes a little over a week after the Justice Department released a report accusing the Ferguson police department of blatant racial bias and a day after Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced his resignation from the department, effective March 19.

St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar said in a press conference Thursday morning, “I don't know who did the shooting, to be honest with you right now, but somehow they were embedded in that group of folks.” However, some protesters at the scene, including self-proclaimed activist DeRay McKesson, maintain that the shooter was not among the crowd and was actually hundreds of feet away, perhaps atop a hill.

While these may seem like nothing more than premature conflicting witness statements, these two differing accounts mean a lot—a whole lot—especially in Ferguson. McKesson, a twenty-nine-year-old Teach for America and Bowdoin alum and founder of the Ferguson Protester Newsletter, is black. Chief Belmar, an Arkansas State and FBI National Academy alum, is white. It seems that the stage is set for yet another perfect storm in Ferguson.

After all, the Michael Brown case and subsequent protests created an even starker divide in Ferguson between the low-income predominantly black communities and the predominantly white local police force. And there have been many opportunists and interventionists who have taken advantage of this cleaving.

In August, TNI’s John Allen Gay highlighted the various outsiders who traveled to Ferguson apparently to instigate fighting and promote their own respective political agendas. Some of these instigators were also called out by locals in Ferguson. What were (or are) the true motives of these outsiders who intentionally riled up locals? It’s hard to say for sure.

But there is one thing that could be said.

Any such outsiders are not doing the citizens of Ferguson any favors. In fact, anyone that openly and strongly encourages those in Ferguson’s black community to protest is not acting in those citizens’ best interest. That is not to say that anyone who encourages and endorses the protesters has malicious intent and wishes to watch Ferguson fall apart. It does mean, however, that anyone who does this fails to recognize how damaging such instigation can be.

Why? Two reasons. First, this instigation produces nationwide images of a Ferguson full of looters and rioters reinforce the stereotypical views of “angry black protesters” that some on the police force (and others in America) may have. Second, it directly harms Ferguson’s economy and infrastructure.

While there have been many protesters who have voiced their dismay at watching the initially peaceful demonstrations devolve into violent, chaotic situations—such as this morning’s shooting and last year’s looting—unfortunately, for all the numerous peaceful protesters, there are bound to be some who become confrontational, especially where the issues of racial bias and use of force are concerned. And so Ferguson conjured up images of Los Angeles in 1992.

While it is too early to say much about the motives behind this morning’s shooting, it is my sincere hope that this time around, violence will not escalate further, and that someone with substantial public influence, prominence and visibility states that the last thing the citizens of Ferguson need is any outside agitators egging them on and promoting a mass social uprising against law enforcement.

Rebecca M. Miller is an assistant editor and illustrator at the National Interest. She tweets at @RebecMil.

Image: Flickr/ Phobia Films

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How Powerful Is America's Military Really?

The Buzz

Politicians are fond of telling Americans that they have the most powerful military in the history of mankind. However, they rarely can explain how they reached that conclusion.

As it turns out, despite the seemingly endless number of government and think-tank reports being published daily, there isn’t a single index measuring America’s military power. Until now, that is.

Last week, the Heritage Foundation released the first of what will be an annual report on America’s military might. The report, entitled 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength: Assessing America’s Ability to Provide for the Common Defense, is modeled on Heritage's widely successful Index of Economic Freedom.

The new index assesses America’s hard power, which is measured in terms of “capability or modernity, capacity for operations, and readiness,” against threats to vital U.S. interests. It also looks at “the ease or difficulty of operating in key regions based on existing alliances, regional political stability, the presence of U.S. military forces, and the condition of key infrastructure.”

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The conclusion of the report is not exactly comforting: namely, America only possesses “marginal” military strength to defend its vital interests in the current threat environment. “Overall, the Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is adequate to meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities,” the report states. “But it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two, near-simultaneous major regional contingencies,” as successive administrations of both political parties have used as their benchmark for military strength.

The Index also grades each of the services, as well as the Marines and America’s nuclear forces on a five-point scale based on their capacity, capability and readiness. Only the Air Force receives an above-average grade; it is assessed as “strong,” the second-highest ranking on the scale.

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The Index gives the rest of the other services and America’s nuclear arsenal the middle-of-the-pack “marginal” grade. The U.S. Army comes in at the lower end of this spectrum, owing primarily to its low state of readiness. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, exhibits a higher state of readiness but is lacking on the capability front. Capacity is the largest weakness of the Marines, according to the Index, which also gives poor marks to the modernization and readiness of America’s nuclear arsenal.

In assessing the current threat environment, the Index discounts “trouble-some states and non-state entities that lacked the physical ability to pose a meaningful threat to the vital interests of the U.S.” As such, only six threats are considered: Russia, Iran, Middle East terrorism, Af-Pak terrorism, China and North Korea.

All of these actors pose at least an “elevated” threat to vital U.S. interests, with Russia and China judged as especially problematic. As the report explains, “While all six threats have been quite problematic in their behavior and in their impact on their respective regions, Russia and China are particularly worrisome given the investments they are making in the rapid modernization and expansion of their offensive military capabilities.” China and Russia are listed as “high” threats to vital U.S. interests.

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So what kind of military force would be adequate to defend against these threats? The Index goes into great detail about the specific needs for each separate service, the Marine Corps and America’s nuclear arsenal. In doing so, the report not only discusses the force size and structure needed, but also delves into the conceptual role each service—and often times, specific forces—play in defending American interests.

The chapter on the Navy is a case in point. The report notes, for instance, that “the Navy is unusual relative to the other services in that its capacity requirements must meet two separate objectives.” The first of these is to maintain a forward presence around the world during peacetime. The second, of course, is to fight and win wars. “An accurate assessment of Navy capacity,” the report states, “takes into account both sets of requirement” when assessing the size and structure of the Navy.

The chapter proceeds to recommend having thirteen deployable carrier strike groups, thirteen carrier air wings and fifty amphibious ships. It then breaks down the purpose and components of each in terms that civilians can understand.

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In fact, one of the most refreshing aspects of the Index is that it avoids the type of jargon that is usually so prevalent in reports on U.S. hard power. In that sense, it is so simple, even a member of Congress could read it. With sequestration still threatening to erode America’s hard power, let’s hope all of them do.

Image: Flickr/ w4nd3rl0st (InspiredinDesMoines)

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