The Buzz

America's Greatest Foreign Policy Challenge Today: China

The Buzz

 'Who lost China?' is perhaps the most dreaded question of modern American foreign policy. It reveals the historical dilemma that haunts Washington today: The rise of China will inevitably challenge America's longstanding presence in Asia; it doesn't matter whether American interests actively help or hinder China's rise, this outcome seems inexorable.

As Hugh White warns, elite opinion in Washington appears to be swinging back to a harder-edged conclusion that abetting China's economic expansion has brought America a problem of its own making. A parallel bout of angst is troubling former Kremlinologists: why have the West's relations with Russia become so terrible? Did Western policies help or harm? Could it have been otherwise?

These questions of course reflect an ancient anxiety over the two great powers. China and Russia are mighty, independent sovereigns with un-Western worldviews, and they always have been. As Andrew Browne recently wrote, it is "bogus" to imagine that China (or Russia) were ever "America's to lose."

That may sound nihilistic, but he's right.

A constructivist view would emphazise the importance of personalities. The leaders of great powers do make a difference to the course of events.

Almost a decade ago Edward Lucas foresaw that "the men who rule Russia" were never going to accommodate with a liberal West. "Once a Chekhist, always a Chekhist" goes the saying about the congenitally suspicious ex-KGBsiloviki (hard-men). Ironically, Vladimir Putin once looked like an accidental appointment, a bland "compromise" apparatchik with a safe pair of hands to succeed the tottering Boris Yeltsin. Looking at China today, it is hard not also to wonder if it would be different if, say, Li Keqiang's tuanpai faction in 2012 had been powerful enough to hoist him to the top job, instead of settling on the more 'neutral' candidate, Xi Jinping?

Probably not, thinks Jonathan Holslag, who has become a reluctant realist of the 'offensive' variety:

...whatever Chinese leaders claimed in terms of their grand strategy for peace in Asia, these policies can only work if China effectively builds a new empire... [and] that makes China almost pre-programmed to crush the existing liberal order as soon as it has the means to do so.

His melancholy new book, echoing John Mearsheimer and Aaron Friedberg, concludes that "Asia is in for another tragedy of great power politics, but it is not China's tragedy alone." With that last clause he emphasizes that China is not specifically to blame; it is simply pursuing rational ends, to which others naturally will react. Even if China were democratic rather than authoritarian, it might make little difference. The realist tragedy is that "we know how the story ends, we do not like it, but we are seldom able to change it."

So rather than describing history by the whims of powerful leaders, or through ideological conflict, the realist view is a structural one.

Barring truly unexpected events, great powers typically act consistently to maximize their security, and therefore their power. In fact, the central argument of Holslag's book is this: "for all the policy changes, China's interests have changed remarkably little." He marvels at the adeptness of Chinese diplomacy, by turns threatening and pleading, magnifying small concessions while patiently hardening its own valued claims, "gaining power without too much resistance." He documents more than six decades of Chinese action conducted, sometimes brutally but usually delicately, around its consistent central aim to make the world safe for the newly restored Sinosphere.

Holslag splendidly describes China's ideal political, military and economic order in Asia, and it does not make easy reading for China's neighbors: they are either subsumed into China's project or marginalized from it. China's industries lead the world, its globe-spanning middle classes speed on bullet-trains through a verdant homeland of country estates. It controls all the Western Pacific, and from the Himalayas it looks down upon south and central Asia "having urbanized without industries... slithering from one political crisis to the next." Holslag is especially scathing about the weak reform performance of India, a nation that was China's equal not long ago. In his China-dream scenario "Russia's fate is obvious" too: as a resource colony. Japan retires into irrelevance.

But of course these countries get a vote. It's possible things might not work out so beautifully for China. As Edward Luttwak has argued, others will – indeed must, by "logic of strategy" – react by balancing. Holslag foresees a bipolar Asia as a real possibility, with the Sinosphere surrounded by a rimland of littoral states in loose alliance.

If so, the organizing architect will be Washington. Perhaps the Americans are slowly awakening to this prospect, forced to completely modify their self-image as Asia's unique protector, and forced to recalibrate their relationships and ambitions in the region. This would mark a seminal change in US foreign policy. By contrast, Chinese eyes have been on their prize without blinking. Their objectives have been constant all along.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

The Story of the 21st Century: China's Challenge to Pax Americana

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The United States has sought to maintain its strategic and economic supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, but traditional diplomatic tools and displays of military strength are having less of a deterrent effect on China's expansion in the region. China is accelerating its challenge to Pax Americana, the post-World War II international order shaped by the United States, and is pushing the boundaries of its security presence in the region by contesting the sovereignty of several ASEAN member states through territorial claims and provocative behavior. China is also reshaping the economic architecture of the Asia-Pacific to bolster Chinese influence through creation of new financial mechanisms such as the Silk Road Fund and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China is no longer taking a back seat to Pax Americana, and the United States should seize opportunities that maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

US security interests in the South China Sea are challenged by Chinese encroachment. The sovereignty of several ASEAN states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has been threatened by China's illegal fishing and energy exploration in their exclusive economic zones, and the broader maritime region has been destabilized by China's "nine-dash line" claim to nearly the entire South China Sea. The most recent threat comes from land reclamation efforts in the Spratly Islands, where, in the last year alone, China has built six islands where none previously existed to expand military power-projection capabilities and to support, with military assets, its fishing fleet and oil and natural-gas exploration.

The United States finds itself diplomatically conflicted when the sovereignty of an ASEAN state is threatened by China. The targeted country should stand up for itself, but it may not have the capacity or political will to act. However, if it does respond and is overly aggressive in doing so, it may elevate tensions to a point where US intervention may be required. The military and diplomatic costs of a US maritime intervention must be calibrated against the cost of an unanswered provocation that may embolden China and damage regional perceptions of US leadership. The United States has supported ASEAN's issuance of unified statements aimed at China that express "serious concerns over on-going developments in the South China Sea," but these statements have done little to alter Chinese actions thus far, and further thought by US policy makers is needed. 

China's aggressive actions have led ASEAN countries to seek protection by strengthening military ties with one another and with regional powers such as the United States and Japan. The Philippines and Vietnam have committed to strengthening military training and handling of maritime violations in the face of disputes with China in the South China Sea. The Philippines reengaged the US militarily by signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Vietnam struck a deal with Japan to receive six patrol boats in the wake of China's deployment of an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. Just last month. Indonesia and Japan agreed to establish a Maritime Forum under which Japan will bolster Indonesia's maritime safety capacity through efforts including financial assistance and port infrastructure development. This flurry of bilateral engagement reflects a shared concern among Pacific nations over the threat China poses to maritime security and a newfound willingness to work together to maintain peace and stability in the region.

The territorial disputes that encourage bilateral ties among some ASEAN nations can also be a source of division within ASEAN institutions, particularly for nations without claims in the South China Sea. The ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit are important multilateral venues for discussing security and political issues in Asia but are criticized for their lack of action. The United States has long grappled with how best to leverage ASEAN institutions to further its security goals, but there may be a new opportunity to capitalize on a joint maritime peacekeeping force proposed by the newly appointed ASEAN Chair. The force would unite ASEAN nations to address territorial disputes and could offer advantages over existing fora by more narrowly focusing on the maritime domain and by being operational and not merely aspirational. The commander of the US 7th Fleet has already pledged support should ASEAN organize and lead such an effort.

China recognizes that its provocations can be counterproductive and has balanced its approach and increased the attractiveness of its security concepts to ASEAN nations by packaging them with funds from the newly launched AIIB. The bank is China's attempt to change the way regional infrastructure is financed, and it challenges Western-influenced international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank. The AIIB's initial capital base of $100 billion is two-thirds as large as the ADB's, and its membership already includes 10 ASEAN members as well as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. The United States and Japan are absent. China has also announced a $40 billion endowment for regional infrastructure development called the Silk Road Fund that competes with the US-backed Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is financed at much lower levels (President Obama's FY16 budget request included $1.25 billion for the corporation). By influencing the financial and development infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific, China can maintain leverage over ASEAN states in need of such resources, even as its maritime provocations continue.

China seeks to dominate long-term strategic and economic trends in the Asia-Pacific, but the United States can challenge this and maintain a strong presence in the region with a strategy that clearly articulates the national interests it is willing to fight for and the consequences of violating those interests. Peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce are the US national interests in the South China Sea. China has undermined some, if not all, of these core interests, yet the US response has been muted for fear of getting pulled into skirmishes between China and its neighbors. The United States has often stated that it takes no position on "competing territorial claims over land features ... in the South China Sea," but in the long term interests of the United States, it may be prudent to strengthen support and defense of its Asia-Pacific allies that do take a position.

A more assertive strategy to defend America's allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific can be executed with manageable consequences. China and Japan both claim the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and President Obama recommitted to Japan's security a year ago by stating that Article 5 of the US-Japanese treaty of alliance "covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands." The meaning was clear: the United States will defend Japan, and although China rejected the statement there was no immediate repercussion beyond that criticism. There may be long-term repercussions, as China may use President Obama's commitment to Japan, and potentially to other allies in the region, to legitimize its military expansion and land reclamation efforts, but China's territorial appetite predates the president's recent comments-China's claims will continue until its national interests are no longer served, either because of consequences imposed by the US and China's neighbors, or because China achieves its goals.

Administration officials believe that a US presence provides stability and contributes to a security environment that avoids escalation and conflict in the South China Sea, but China's provocations have escalated unchallenged and without consequence, suggesting that modified US action is needed. Perhaps new security treaties with US partners in the region will deter China and help protect their sovereignty. The defense cooperation agreement signed by the United States and the Philippines last year allows US military assets to rotate through Filipino facilities to respond to natural disasters and to other unspecified emergencies, and taking this relationship a step further might be worth exploring. Vietnam's relations with the United States have warmed in recent years due in large part to China's provocations, and while deeper cooperation will take time, the United States should exploit this moment to strengthen ties with Vietnam and other partners in the region.

This type of alliance-building appears reminiscent of the Cold War era that pitted the United States and the Soviet Union against one another. There is little appetite for a return to this bipolarity, but China is no longer rising peacefully or complacently. The United States must recognize the new Asia-Pacific reality, defend its national interests, and protect the sovereignty of its allies and partners in the region. Otherwise, a Sino-centric system may replace Pax Americana and what it represents.

Eric Weiner ( is an Analyst with Banyan Analytics. This article was originally posted on the website of Banyan Analytics and CSIS PACNET Newsletter here.

TopicsChina RegionsAsia

Does Obama Care What Iran Wants in Iraq?

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Marina Shalabi and Ian Duff, two researchers at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have done some interesting spadework on the history of how the U.S. Director of National Intelligence’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment represents Iran and its proxies. While assessments from 2013 and earlier “[call] out Iran’s hegemonic goals” and explicitly identify Iran as a sponsor of terrorism, the last two “shifted away from Tehran's efforts to expand its regional hegemony and toward describing Iran as a protector of oppressed Shiites that seeks to reduce sectarian violence.” Shalabi and Duff offer a number of examples of this shift—consider this quote from the 2013 report:

In its efforts to spread influence abroad and undermine the United States and our allies, Iran is trying to exploit the fighting and unrest in the Arab world...Iran's efforts to secure regional hegemony, however, have achieved limited results, and the fall of the Asad regime in Syria would be a major strategic loss for Tehran.

Contrast that with this, from 2014:

Tehran, which strives for a stable Shia-led, pro-Iran government in Baghdad, is concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Tehran is probably struggling to find the balance between protecting Shia equities in Iraq and avoiding overt actions that would precipitate greater anti-Shia violence.

The current assessments aren’t particularly sanguine about the impact of Iran’s efforts—consider this, also from 2014:

We assess that Iran's perceived responsibility to protect and empower Shia communities will increasingly trump its desire to avoid sectarian violence. Hence, Iran's actions will likely do more to fuel rather than dampen increasing sectarianism.

The current reports have an important strength: they offer a subtler and more detailed account of what Iranian leaders intend to do in the short and medium term. That’s useful for American decisionmakers. What’s really missing is a long-term account of Iranian goals, their consequences for U.S. interests in the region, and a grand strategic U.S. policy approach that takes all that into account. The latter point is outside the responsibility of the Director of National Intelligence, but the broader Obama administration must answer on all three. Where does Iran see itself in ten years? In twenty, in thirty? Does it want to be a kind of regional empire, and if so, what does that entail? Are its neighbors strong enough to prevent that? Are we? If Iranian influence grows, will some of its current rivals be forced to take a more accommodating position toward Tehran, or will they rise up in confrontation? How does all this interlock with the danger of nuclear proliferation? Can Iran be a partner in stability? Is it an implacable foe? Answers to bigger questions like these need to be the main drivers of our approach to the region, even though near-term crises like the Islamic State group and the collapse of the Iraqi army will necessarily dominate day-to-day policy.

A nearsighted approach can keep the administration from getting nailed in press conferences, but it won’t necessarily lead to the best long-term outcomes. These are momentous days in Iraq—the changes happening at the ground levels of the Iraqi regime will likely reshape its approach for a very long time, with implications for America’s role in the region. We don’t have much evidence that long-term dynamics are impacting the administration’s thinking. They might not be in Tehran, either, which can certainly be read as acting as much from desperation as from aspiration. But the consequence of this mutual muddling through has so far been an increase in Iran’s influence over what’s left of Iraq, and it’s not clear that Team Obama has a vision of what sustained impact this may have on U.S. interests.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsIranIntelligence RegionsIranIraq

Hedging against Failure: Time to Play the Iranian Opposition Card

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American nuclear negotiators believe they have achieved a breakthrough with their Iranian counterparts; some analysts agree, while others see many red flags and warn against an overly optimistic rush to celebration. It is too soon to determine whether this ultimately will have been a true turning point, but what is certain is that movement appears possible in U.S. – Iranian relations, for the first time in a long time.

Will a nuclear deal actually be signed, and will the resultant agreement ultimately be seen as an example of Iran outwitting and outmaneuvering the West, obtaining sanctions relief while still pressing forward with its nuclear ambitions?

Or will a slender beginning of cooperation and compromise grow into something more enduring? The outcome is not a foregone conclusion; rather, it is interactive, and much will depend on the further specific actions taken by the United States.

Rather than resting prematurely on the laurels of its still-tenuous deal, the U.S. administration must now seek ways to shape and optimize the outcome, regardless of what the possible unstated intentions of the Iranian regime may or may not be.

The key component in obtaining, keeping hold of and further expanding an actual breakthrough, is a hitherto neglected variable, the Iranian opposition. From independent but influential bloggers and intellectuals to a prosperous business elite with a sentimental attachment to the days of the monarchy, from activists with experience in sequential popular mini-uprisings and sustained mass demonstrations to the members of the controversial cadre-organization MeK, the Iranian opposition comprises an unparalleled base of potential civil society engagement. If the opening provided by advancing nuclear talks is to be positive and sustainable, a social and political opening will need to follow, and that in turn will have to achieved and developed by Iranian pro-democracy forces.

With this, a baffling gap in our knowledge about Iran becomes evident.

Over the past decades, experts have mostly focused on trying to puzzle out the convoluted power structures of the Iranian regime—president, Supreme Leader, Pasdaran and so forth—and before and after each election, analyzing the various new leading personalities in order to place them on the hardliner vs. moderate scale.

All the while, the Iranian citizenry has stood up a sustained, determined resistance to the oppressive rule of the clerical regime. Through everything from the low-level mass civil disobedience manifested by the thousands of satellite dishes hidden under laundry lines on rooftops to pull the signals of forbidden television and international news programs into Iranian living rooms, to the dramatic 2009 and 2010 Where is My Vote movement protesting the manipulation of election results, to the journalists languishing in Evin Prison, to the hardcore activists persisting in the face of the jailing, torture and execution of dozens of their comrades, the Iranian public has tried and tried again to rid itself of its theocracy.

In this they have shown impressive courage and persistence, with some of the groups and movements enduring under harsh and seemingly hopeless circumstances since the days of the revolution against the Shah. We have had ample time and opportunity to familiarize ourselves with them, but have remained focused instead on the regime – or, whenever we became particularly frustrated, on military ways to overturn that regime.

Consequently, we now know very little about this potential ace in the deck. What do they, respectively, stand for? How influential are they? What kinds of action can they muster? What sort of help would they need, in order to become a more effective force if a social and political opening indeed occurs?

Time and again, these are questions we fail to ask, or ask too late, or rush to judgment about – and the sequential disasters of the Arab Spring, the “liberation” of Libya (into an ungoverned territory), the “Syrian opposition” (and its heavy component of anti-Western thugs and pro-ISIS extremists) are the direct result of this willful blind spot.

It is a mistake we should not repeat versus Iran. If there is a true opening, it needs to be maximized. If the door appears to be closing again, we need some feet on the ground to hold it open. And this needs to be accomplished judiciously, with sophistication and nuance – not so provocatively as to scare off the regime, but not so timidly as to imply that they can assume a take-it-or-leave it stance, or play us for naïve.

In this emergent opportunity, it makes no sense to ignore one of the most significant added weights that we can throw onto the scales to tip the balance in favor of a positive result. And last not least, if this turns out to have been Islamic Republic smoke and mirrors, we will need an alternative set of counterparts and new options.

Dr. Cheryl Benard is the Director of Metis Analytics, a Washington-based research organization and co-author of Breaking the Stalemate – The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, Zola Books, New York 2015.

Image: Wikimedia/Mangostar

TopicsCivil Society RegionsMiddle East

Watch Out, China: India Is Launching New Stealth Destroyer

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India will launch the lead vessel of its new class of super advanced, stealth destroyers on Saturday, according to numerous local media reports.

This week a number of Indian publications reported that the Indian Navy plans to launch the INS Visakhapatnam in Mumbai this weekend. The ship will be the first of four Visakhapatnam-class stealth destroyers that India is building as part of Project 15B. These vessels will serve as the follow-ons to the three Kolkata-class guided missile destroyers.

As India’s largest destroyer, INS Visakhapatnam and its sister ships will be a boon to India’s naval power projection capabilities.

“At 7,300 tonnes, Visakhapatnam will be the largest destroyer commissioned in the country and will be equipped with the Israeli Multi Function Surveillance Threat Alert Radar (MF-STAR) which will provide targeting information to 32 Barak 8 long-range surface to air missiles onboard the warship,” NDTV reported. India is co-developing the Barak 8 missile with Israel.

(Recommended: Does India Still Fear China's Growing Military?

The same outlet also noted that each Visakhapatnam destroyer will boast 16 long range Brahmos anti-ship missiles, the supersonic anti-ship missile that Delhi developed in cooperation with Russia.

Visakhapatnam-class destroyers have a number of other advantages over their predecessors as well. For example, while both classes are equipped with the AK-630 close-in anti-missile gun system the newer class will have a 127 mm main gun. By contrast, the INS Kolkata and its sister ships only have a 76mm Super Rapid Gun Mount (SRGM).

(Recommended: 5 Indian Weapons of War China Should Fear)

Similarly, a senior Indian naval official explained to India’s Economic Times, unlike the Kolkata-class, the Visakhapatnam-class destroyers will have a full-fledged Total Atmosphere Control System (TAC). This will give it a greater ability to operate in WMD environments.

“The TAC system provides you with the capability of operating in a fall-out region, be it a nuclear, chemical or biological almost endlessly...because the complete air being taken inside is through nuclear, biological and chemical filters except in the machinery compartment," Rear Admiral A K Saxena, Director General (Naval Design) told the Economic Times.

The new destroyer class will also enhance the Indian Navy’s ability to achieve information dominance. As NDTV noted:

Central to the Visakhapatnam is network-centric layout.mShe is equipped with a Ship Data Network (SDN), an Automatic Power Management System and a Combat Management System. Essentially, all information critical for the operation of the warship during all operations is available to key officers through the SDN which the Navy describes as a data information highway.

After being launched this Sunday, INS Visakhapatnam will undergo an extensive test and trial period before being delivered to the Indian Navy sometime in 2018. The other three Visakhapatnam-class destroyers will follow in two-year intervals.

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War India Should Fear)

Approximately $469.4 million is earmarked for Project 15B. Around 65 percent of the project is indigenous, according to numerous Indian media outlets.

Zachary Keck is Managing Editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.   

Image: Wikimedia/Brehmemohan

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth Asia

Did Germany Secretly Fund Israel's Nuclear Weapons?

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The conservative German daily Die Welt, well-known for its unflinching support for Israel, recently published an article stating “with near certainty” that the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, helped finance Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s.

According to the Welt report, in 1961 West Germany agreed to loan $500 million to Israel over ten years. Although the official purpose of this funding was said to be the development of the Negev Desert— where Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor is located— it is widely suspected that the money was actually meant to finance Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

This agreement was reportedly hatched during a 1960 meeting between then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. Franz Josef Strauss, a former West German defense minister, previously claimed Ben Gurion and Adenauer discussed Israel’s nuclear weapons program during a meeting in Paris in 1961.

This top secret initiative was reportedly named “Aktion Geschäftsfreund,” which translates as “Operation Business Partner.” It bypassed both the Israeli cabinet and the German parliament, with the money being funneled through Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, a West German-government owned development bank.

The Welt report comes after former Israeli President Shimon Peres (who was the head of Israel’s nuclear-weapons program at the time of its inception in the 1950s) denied that funding for Israel’s nukes came from Germany earlier this month.

The Welt article dismissed this denial, however, arguing that when it comes to German-Israeli cooperation on nuclear weapons, secret-keeping is part of the game. (Indeed, the practice—or art, rather—of secret-keeping with regards to sensitive matters of defense should be expected of any regime, nuclear or otherwise.)

Israel first began constructing a nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert near a town called Dimona in the 1950s. U.S. intel revealed the existence of the Dimona reactor in 1960 (although the U.S. knew of the reactor much sooner, new archival releases show). This prompted a statement by Prime Minister Ben Gurion that the reactor was purely for non-military purposes. Hardly anyone in the international community believed this was its true function.

Peres has stated that $40 million of Israeli government funding was going toward the Dimona reactor, but that this was only half of the amount necessary to complete the project. This prompted questions about where the other half of the money was coming from. Peres’ statement, according to Welt, is the only one that indicated that international donors contributed funds to the program (although it has since been revealed that some private American citizens helped fund the program).

The suspicion that West Germany was involved in financing Dimona first emerged when Ben Gurion made a background comment to an Israeli newspaper that a confrontation with Adenauer’s government would disrupt the development of Israel’s nuclear deterrent, which was integral to Israel’s security and the prevention of future wars.  

Still, whatever the West German involvement was in Israel’s nuclear weapons acquisition, it is undeniable that France played the largest role of any foreign power. In 1957, following the Suez Crisis, Peres and representatives from France signed three confidential contracts that allowed France to establish a 24-megawatt heavy-water reactor in Israel, loan it 385 tonnes of natural uranium, work together with Israel on nuclear-weapons research and production and back the building of a processing plant for plutonium extraction. This came a year after Peres asked French defense minister Maurice Bourges-Maunoury: “What would you think if Israel were to establish its own potential for retaliation?”

Norway also provided Israel with 20 tons of heavy water, which was actually delivered by the United Kingdom.

Rebecca M. Miller is assistant editor and illustrator at The National Interest. You can find her on Twitter: @RebecMil.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Fact: America's Rebalance to Asia Has Some Serious Military Muscle

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Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s travels to Japan and South Korea last week—designed no doubt to highlight the continued U.S. commitment to the region—instead resurfaced concerns that the rebalance to Asia is no longer a priority for Washington. Skeptics worry that world events from Russian aggression in Ukraine, to the continued conflagrations across the Middle East, and negotiations with Iran will continue to challenge Washington’s ability to deploy what Carter referred to as the “next phase of our rebalance.” Debates over the defense budget back in Washington further stoke worries that the military side of the rebalance will remain more talk that action. While there may be other valid concerns about the rebalance (Is it focused sufficiently on Southeast AsiaOverly provocative toward China? Likely to be derailed entirely without the TPP?), concerns that the United States has not prioritized the rebalance do not stand up to the facts. A survey of actual U.S. military activity in the region helps differentiate facts from opinion.

That Secretary Carter visited Tokyo and Seoul so soon after stepping into the job reflects the priority the Pentagon places on the region. Between them, these two countries host over 80,000 U.S. military personnel and the majority of forward deployed assets in the Western Pacific (note: there are 65,000 U.S. troops stationed in Europe and roughly 35,000 currently deployed to the Middle East). In Tokyo, Secretary Carter’s visit was timed to coincide with the final revisions to the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, a bilateral priority given the dramatic regional geopolitical shifts since the guidelines were last revised in the late 1990s. His discussions with counterparts in Seoul did tiptoe around the U.S. proposed introduction of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, but highlighted the solidarity of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Beyond these recent steps, the Pentagon’s plans and movements have made Asia-Pacific a top priority since the earliest days of the rebalance. The Department of Defense is on track to position 60 percent of U.S. Air Force and Navy forces in the region by 2020 with 55 percent of the Navy’s 289 ships, including 60 percent of its submarine fleet, already based across Asia.

Marines are shifting from being primarily in Okinawa to having a presence in mainland Japan, Australia, Guam, and Hawaii. In Australia, a country now caught between closer security ties with Washington and economic connections to China, the U.S.-Australia Force Posture Agreement ensures both that 2,500 Marines rotate annually through Darwin for the next twenty-five years and that U.S. military and intelligence representation at Australian facilities continues.  As the U.S. Army withdraws troops from Afghanistan, it is re-focusing the efforts of more than 80,000 soldiers in Hawaii, Alaska, and Japan in support of its Pacific Pathways multilateral training and exercising initiatives in Asia and is sustaining its robust presence on the Korean peninsula.

Beyond such rebalancing of U.S. forces within the region, is the effort to ensure the newest cutting-edge technology finds its way into service in Asia before use elsewhere. The Pacific has seen the main deployment of the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the latest Virginia-class submarine, the principle basing for the advanced F-22 and (soon) the F-35, the introduction of the advanced P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, increased rotation of U.S. Air Force and Navy airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), and the replacement of the USS George Washington with the more capable Ronald Reagan.

In Japan, two additional Aegis ballistic missile defense-capable ships, joint high-speed vessels, and a second TPY-2 missile defense radar are being deployed. Additional submarines will rotate regularly to Guam as part of a new, higher volume presence. And in Singapore, a regular rotation of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) enhances the strong U.S.-Singapore security relationship.

Drawing from the Army’s foreign area officer program, the Navy inaugurated a similar initiative, ensuring that culturally astute officers can spend their careers in the Asia-Pacific. Military personnel will have the opportunity to link up multiple deployments in Asia, accumulating regional expertise and building lasting relationships with their counterparts in other nations. By the time these officers reach senior-level command positions, they should have a wealth of cultural and substantive experience—often to include regional language skills—that position them for success in their positions and in cooperation with Asian military leaders.

These moves provide opportunity for deeper, more meaningful military-to-military cooperation and substantive agreements with U.S. allies across the Asia-Pacific. In addition to the U.S.-Australia Framework Partnership Agreement, Washington also inked the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines, authorizing access by U.S. forces to predetermined locations across the islands.

Meanwhile, multilateral military exercises across Asia continue at a steady clip, ranging from the biannual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), which included over 22 U.S. allies and partners, including China last year, to the annual Cobra Gold exercise (the largest in the region), Southeast Asian Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT), Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT), and Operation Malabar, a bilateral U.S.-Indian exercise whose status was upgraded earlier this year.

There is a tendency in Washington circles to draw sweeping policy judgments (“The rebalance is fundamentally flawed! “The rebalance is dead!”) with few facts to back them up. Yet, even as crises in other regions vie for Washington’s attention and debates over the U.S. defense budget continue, a review of the actual U.S. military posture and activity in the Asia-Pacific, shows the strategy inaugurated by President Obama in 2011 remains—at least where the military is concerned— pretty much on course.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Defense in Depth here

Creative Commons 2.0. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

Game Changer: China Is Building First Air Strip in Contested Spratly Islands

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China has begun building its first air fields in the disputed Spratly Islands, new satellite imagery has revealed.

According to IHS Jane’s analysis of Airbus Defence and Space satellite imagery taken last month, China is building a new air strip on the Fiery Cross Reef, which is one of the reefs that Beijing has transformed into an island through its reclamation efforts. When completed, it will serve as China’s first air strip in the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

“The 23 March images show a paved section of runway 503 m by 53 m on the northeastern side of Fiery Cross Reef, which China began to turn into an island in late 2014. Paving and ground preparation of other sections of the runway has also begun further along the island. In addition, workers have paved about 400 m by 20 m of apron,” James Hardy, the author of the IHS Jane’s article, notes.

Hardy goes on to note that because of the reclamation efforts, Fiery Cross Reef is now capable of hosting an air strip of around 3,000 meters. This is well within the bounds of the People’s Liberation Army’s air strips on mainland China, which Hardy notes range anywhere from 2,700 meters to 4,000 meters at most, according to Hardy. Similarly, China is currently upgrading runway on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, lengthening it from 2,300 meters to 3,000 meters.

Nor is this all China has been up to in the Spratly Islands as of late. The same satellite imagery shows that China is continuing dredging work on Fiery Cross Reef, in order to build a harbor on the artificial island. Moreover, China’s reclamation efforts on Subi Reef continue unabated, with all signs suggesting that Beijing intends to also transform that reef into an island large enough to hold another 3,000-meter airway.

“Airbus imagery taken of Subi Reef – also in the Spratlys – on 6 February and 5 March shows land reclamation on this site too,” Hardy notes in the report. “The 6 February image shows three islands being created. By 5 March, at least nine dredgers are creating larger landmasses on the reef that if joined together could create enough land for another 3,000 m-long airstrip.”

All of these efforts will expand the PLA and Chinese Coast Guard’s ability to patrol the South China Sea. Beijing most likely intends to ultimately declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, much like it did in the East China Sea in November 2013.

The United States has repeatedly warned China against taking this course of action. For example, while in the Philippines in December 2013— just a month after China established its first ADIZ in the East China Sea— Secretary of State John Kerry said:

Today, I raised our deep concerns about China’s announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. I told the foreign secretary that the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it. The zone should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, and particularly over the South China Sea.

Since then there have been multiple unconfirmed reports that China does intend to establish more ADIZs, including in the South China Sea. However, Chinese officials have publicly denied that they have plans to establish a South China Sea ADIZ.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.


TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Face-Off in the South China Sea: Conflict or Compromise?

The Buzz

Since 2014, China has attracted tremendous regional and international attention through its land reclamation activities in some features of the Spratlys which it controls, namely Gaven Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Johnson South Reef and Fiery Cross. While many have criticisms and concerns, China feels this reclamation is necessary in order to keep up with others in the Spratlys who have earlier occupied features in the disputed Spratlys and built up military and civil facilities since.

Very little can be said against China’s reclamation activities from the perspective of UNCLOS. Article 60 provides coastal states exclusive right to construct, operate and use artificial islands, installations and structures in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Pending the maritime delimitation of the EEZ and the continental shelf in the South China Sea, land reclamation has been conducted within twelve nautical miles of the four mentioned features, an area which may be defined as within a state’s sovereignty in its territorial sea around these features. More importantly, the artificial islands, installations and structures would not interfere with the legal status of these features. Nevertheless, China may still be blamed for ignoring the duties of “due notice,” “appropriate publicity,” and “undertaking environmental impact assessments.”

But a legal justification does not address the political implications and strategic calculations in this messy portrait of the South China Sea. What puts China “morally on trial,” in addition to explicit criticism from other claimant states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, is overwhelming concern from the United States, which sees itself as a strategic ally of many countries in the region, a protector of the freedom of navigation, and a strategic competitor with China in the Asia-Pacific.

In the most recent report released by Center for New American Security, “Preserving the Rules: Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia”, Patrick Cronin proposes adopting cost-imposing measures to address China’s reclamation in the South China Sea. In this report, several recommendations are presented. These include: Further institutionalizing high-level military and civilian engagement with China; mobilizing regional and international opinion when states use coercion; mobilizing support for positive efforts to foster a rules-based order; building up maritime domain awareness; raising the non-military costs of coercion by moving forward with a binding code of conduct; building the naval capacity of friends and partners.

There are many important points that could be derived from the above statements. Though the United States has openly welcomed a rising China as a constructive competitor and a responsible stakeholder in the existing international order, the long standing territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea have put China in an awkward position in which it has to deal with the United States as an important stakeholder, in addition to its existing burden with other claimant states. Reclamation is not the only, or even the major driver, of the gradual tension in the disputed South China Sea. The divergent legal interpretations of “the legitimacy of military activities in the foreign EEZs” and the perception gap between the legal culture and the maritime dispute settlement mechanisms and what they imply for the South China Sea disputes are specific long-standing issues that need to be addressed by China and the United States. The land reclamation activities just add another keyword to this existing talk-show.

It is certainly not in China’s interest to be labeled a maritime coercer, nor in its interest to see formed a code of conduct that falls outside the framework of China-ASEAN centrality. An increasing U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, in the name of responding to maritime coercion, and an enhanced alliance between other claimant states and non-claimant states led by the United States in the name of taking cost-imposing measures does not line-up with China’s desire to solve the South China Sea issues through negotiations among the claimant states, be they bilateral or multilateral. What then is the best strategic choice for China?

At the February 2015 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the Foreign Minister of China spelled out the elements which China subscribes to in the conduct of its foreign policy: peace and not conflict, cooperation and not confrontation, justice and not hegemony and a win-win and not a zero-sum approach. However, these ideas are easier said than done. The Chinese believe firmly in the above statement and principles. But how to deliver this message to the international community is an important, but challenging task. China’s image has been jeopardized by an international public relations campaign in which China has not done well enough in comparison to other claimant states (states which could easily win the moral high ground as smaller and weaker nations) in the long-standing territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Tremendous legal and diplomatic efforts are needed to achieve China’s strategic goal.

China could unlock the impasse in the South China by using soft power and diplomacy. In 2011, China announced a China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund, with a first paid-up capital of three-billion RMB (about $478,785 USD), primarily to support marine scientific research, connectivity and navigational safety in the South China Sea. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to ASEAN that China would be willing to work together with ASEAN to build a “maritime silk road in the 21st century.” In 2014, China called for cooperation proposals from ASEAN states for the second round of competition for projects for the cooperation fund. China and ASEAN have also declared 2015 the “ASEAN-China Year of Maritime Cooperation.” There are two Chinese strategic considerations behind these concepts: to shape a new pattern of diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, and to create favorable conditions for better maritime cooperation, which in turn will create a benign environment so that China can build itself into a substantive maritime power.

As suggested by the above multilateral proposals, despite potential challenges, there is great hope for China and ASEAN to solve their differences in the South China Sea in their preferred ways. But for China and the United States, it is a different story.  Although the United States has expressed concern with China’s current land reclamation policy, it will do nothing that will undermine its bilateral relations. Washington may, however, upgrade its regional offensive capabilities (presence, operations, force structure, building partner capacity) beyond the strategic pivot policy if China continues its current approach in the Spratlys.

In order to resolve this paradox, China and the United States have no choice but to engage each other and maintain regular consultations on how they can coexist with their respective core interests. After all, the Asia Pacific is big enough for both countries to share and exert their respective influence without constantly being at each other’s throats. While China’s rise stands a good chance of triggering a regional power shift, the United States needs to acknowledge China’s rise and its core interests. Similarly, China must respect the legitimate interests of the United States in the South China Sea, especially freedom of navigation in line with UNCLOS, which in any case is also in China’s common interest. What would work practically in the favor of both countries is to explore the fields of developing maritime cooperation between China and the United States. Joint efforts in anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden have provided one successful example. Providing search and rescue at sea and humanitarian assistance would be the areas for both countries to take a lead in this region with their naval capacity. It will be in China and the United States’ interests to initiate a regional mechanism in line with the safety and security of navigation, e.g. an Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) or a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in this region.

This piece first appeared in the CSIS project website Asia Maritime Project Initiative here

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

Arms Control and the Iran Agreement

The Buzz

Since the early April release of the Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program, commentators have been vocal and divided about its merits and demerits. I’m reluctant to rush to judgment about the deal. The negotiations remain a work in progress, and clarification of the key parameters before final signature at the end of June will have an important role in any assessment of its final value. Moreover, both the US and Iran have presented their own versions of the current level of agreement, which suggests the existing contest in public diplomacy is merely one more round where each is trying to cement the other’s feet in place on contentious points.

But I’d like to offer a few comments about the framework of the framework, as it were. First of all, it’s important to see the deal as an arms control measure, not as a disarmament measure. That’s an important distinction, since half the criticism leveled at the agreement is that it doesn’t lock Iran away from nuclear weapons forever. Arms control agreements codify and stabilize. They create durable expectations. They’re meant to manage a problem, rather than to solve it. That’s what we have here—which also explains why the agreement attracted its fair share of critics. Those deeply opposed to the possibility that Iran might ever have nuclear weapons don’t want the problem managed for a decade or so; they want it solved, even if they don’t have a perfect picture of how a solution might be achieved.

Second, if this is an arms control agreement, then the final agreement itself will bear a close reading. In arms control accords, every word matters. In the New START agreement, for example, one of the principal constraints falls on nuclear warheads deployed on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. The agreement says nothing about non-deployed strategic nuclear warheads, nothing about non-strategic warheads—whether deployed or not. The same rule about close reading applies to the Iranian agreement. The interim agreement shows an attempt to constrain Iran’s pathways to the development of fissile materials—whether by uranium enrichment or by plutonium production. So far, the broad parameters are promising, but the devil will be in the details still to be agreed. As the interim agreement itself notes, nothing is agreed until all is agreed.

Third, the agreement enshrines a new metric for arms control: a proliferation breakout timeline. That timeline—the time it would take Iran to acquire the fissile material for one nuclear weapon—is meant to be kept at one year for the next ten years. The metric’s essentially a by-product of the other technical constraints, but it does set a precedent that other future proliferators might be content to see applied to their own cases. The one-year timeline suggests that any breakout can be addressed by the international community, or at least its principal players, over that timeframe. The ten-year timeframe is not an exemption from Iran’s obligations under the NPT, but some worry that it implies an absorptive capacity within the international community in relation to a future nuclear-armed Iran.

Fourth, if this is an arms control measure and not a disarmament one, we should expect a degree of controversy about the agreement and its contents. One rule of arms control is that it’s most available when least needed. Since some constraints on the Iranian nuclear program are sorely needed, that in itself suggests concluding a final agreement won’t be simple. Arms control makes a virtue of half a loaf when the full loaf isn’t available. In the context of negotiations between two heavily nuclear-armed superpowers, half a loaf’s a good outcome. The virtue of half a loaf is going to be harder to sell in the context of proliferating powers. Treating nuclear proliferation as a management issue is more contentious.

Finally, US policy has long tended to treat each specific proliferation problem as unique. After all, nuclear proliferation comes along infrequently enough that there’s good reason to shape a response that addresses individual motivations. But that approach turns upon a broad acceptance across the US mainstream about the nature of the potential proliferator. I think we’re about to see, over coming months, whether such a level of agreement exists in relation to Iran.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist blog here

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East