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Tale of the Tape: Comparing Chinese and American Strategies in Asia

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What does President Obama hope to achieve during his trip to Beijing for the APEC summit? How does he assess his ability to accomplish his China agenda?

There is no shortage of issues to discuss with Xi Jinping.   The two countries ostensibly share concerns about an unstable nuclear North Korea, Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, and the failing old order in the Middle East. But little progress has been made.  While Xi talks about a “new-type of great power relationship,” he seems to mean the U.S. should come to China as a supplicant, as National Security Advisor Rice did recently, asking for China’s help on the Middle East—now of equal importance to Beijing and Washington.  

The presidential visit comes at a perilous time for Sino-American relations. Washington has not adequately answered China’s continued aggression toward Japan and Southeast Asian nations. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army is continuing to harass the U.S. military operating in Asian seas.

U.S. Asia policy is not progressing because both Washington and Beijing are now overestimating China’s rise and underestimating the sustainability of American power.  This is a dangerous trend in perceptions with some grounding in reality. From Washington’s perspective, the Sino-American relationship will be unproductive if both sides think the balance of power now favors China.

Better policy outcomes require a reassessment of the balance of power that goes beyond straight counts of military forces and capabilities.  Trends in the military balance must be viewed in the context of each country’s preferred approach to the region as well as an accounting of the internal political obstacles hindering each side’s strategy.   The key questions are: What is each country trying to accomplish? What is each country’s strategy?  How well is each side implementing its strategy and what are the obstacles in the way of the outcomes for each country?

Competing Strategic Visions: America’s Strategy

Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has pursued a strategy of primacy.  Successive U.S. presidents have found that a “preponderance of power” best served its Asian interests, which have included:

1.  Defending the U.S. homeland far forward. In the post-Pacific war period, the U.S. created what used to be called the “defense perimeter,” now referred to as the First Island Chain.  The forward U.S. defense posture begins along the island chains and territories from Korea through Japan and the Ryukus, and the Luzon Strait down through the Philippines;

2.  Preserving a favorable balance of power in Eurasia, so that no power can dominate the continent;

3.  Ensuring free military and commercial access to maritime and continental Asia;

4. Maintaining and continuing to refine the liberal international order consistent with the “U.S. way of life,” as the framers of the U.S. Cold War strategy put it;

5. Supporting a network of allies who assist in reinforcing that order.

America’s grand strategy of primacy has been a success. It has tamed security competitions between historic Asian rivals and created the conditions for economic growth and peaceful transitions to democracy throughout Asia.  Countries that had the capacity to develop nuclear weapons were persuaded not to do so.  Asia’s rising wealth and power is not a coincidence.  Rather it is the result of wise decisions by Asian elites, the hard work of Asians to better their lives, and U.S. primacy.  It is no wonder that successive presidents have stuck with primacy.  

The Military Structure of Primacy

U.S. primacy in Asia has required a forward basing posture for combat aircraft, large numbers of SSN and SSBN submarines, and carrier strike-groups to project power in Asia.   These assets provide a continual deterrent against conflict. U.S. “boomer” submarines, armed with ICBMs, lurk underwater ready to act should the U.S. face an existential threat. Carrier strike groups serve as highly visible symbols of U.S power to deter would-be aggressors.  Depending upon the global security situation, the Navy can have up to five carriers strike groups base in Japan and along the U.S. Pacific coast.

These air-sea forces allow the U.S. to control the commons when necessary. [1] The ability to take command of the air, sea, and space has allowed the U.S. military to summon overwhelming force anywhere and anytime it needs.  For the U.S. to continue to be the prime player in Asia, it must retain the ability to command Asia’s commons.  This requires that alliances are maintained, new partnerships are cemented and the “infrastructure” of command— the tankers, airlift, and large surface ships necessary for the quick deployment of U.S. forces—is modernized and ready.

China’s Strategy

As China’s wealth and power increase, its influence and ambitions in the Asia-Pacific expand.  The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) march towards achieving regional hegemony is driven by the CCP’s paramount goal of maintaining its grip on power.  That does not mean an inward turn, as many misinterpret.  While Beijing faces  “internal” challenges such an increasingly dynamic and wealthy populace, and a restive empire that includes Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, keeping a grip on power requires far more:  

1. Ensuring that the world remains “safe” for autocracies.  At the very least it must stop any attempts by the U.S. to press for Chinese liberalization, and prevent the formation of democratic groupings in Asia;

2. Pursuing national rejuvenation.  The CCP argues that it is the vanguard of the Chinese project to regain prime status atop the political hierarchy in Asia, and reverse the “century of national humiliation” that it endured.  The CCP pours salt on this national wound in order to bolster its case to the Chinese public for a continued monopoly on power;

3. Continuing China’s economic growth, which now means defending China’s growing international economic interests. The PRC’s coastal areas house a large percentage of the country’s manufacturing and financial sectors.   Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the removal of a major threat to China’s land border, the PLA has been freed up to extend China’s southeastern maritime perimeter. The PRC wants greater maritime strategic depth, as well as an outlet into the Pacific and Indian oceans in order to protect its far-flung economic interests.

Military Strategy of the Aspiring Hegemon: Coercion and Counter-intervention

The CCP military strategy for regional hegemony has been the deployment of coercive combat power and counter-intervention (also known as A2/AD) capabilities in maritime East Asia.

U.S. military campaigns during the 1990s and early 2000s played a profound role in shaping the PLA’s regional security strategy.  In the two Gulf wars, the U.S. military displayed its unmatched precision strike regime.  The U.S. could deploy massive force to the region on its own timeline, because the U.S. military commanded the commons and American forces gained access to the states bordering Iraq through effective diplomacy.

During the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the CCP was horrified by its inability to contest the U.S.’s offshore military presence.  President Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier groups off of Taiwan’s coasts in what must have been a haunting reminder of Western powers’ 19th century gunboat diplomacy against China.

Later in 1999 Chinese military officials warily observed the U.S. launch a 78-day air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic from carriers and land-bases.  

The CCP realized that, even as it carried out a long-term naval modernization plan, it also needed to develop counter-intervention capabilities to prevent the U.S. from repeating its actions in the Gulf and the Balkans off of China’s seaboard.

The PLA has created contested zones in its “near seas,” allowing it to deny the U.S. access to the parts of the commons closest to China.  The PLA can now threaten the U.S’s logistical supply lines and the use of bases in Japan.  It can also contest space and cyberspace.  China’s military build-up includes a precision guided-missile force, undersea warfare, integrated air defense, counter-space and cyber capabilities, and bombers and aircraft that could deliver additional firepower against U.S. and allied assets.

Learning from the past two decades of U.S. wars, this military strategy is meant to exact a serious cost on U.S. military forces attempting to project power in the first island chain or the mainland.   For example, in the event of conflict, carrier strike groups, the iconic symbol of U.S. power projection, could face swarms of Chinese hypersonic cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles (or what are called in the press “carrier-killers”), and packs of diesel electric submarines.  The PLA air force’s increasingly modern aircraft provides China with additional range in striking U.S. bases and carrier groups. This strategy has undermined the foundations of U.S. primacy.

China’s same “counter-intervention” forces are also employed for a regional coercion strategy.  The CCP’s main target for possible military action remains Taiwan.  Its own precision strike regime – cruise and ballistic missiles launched from land, air and sea knit together with an increasingly sophisticated C4ISR system – could inflict the kind of pain on the island that NATO forces exacted on Serbian forces in Kosovo. The China that bemoans the gunboat diplomacy once practiced by the Western powers is now employing the same strategy against its neighbors.

Assessing the Balance: Command of the Commons Vs. Aspiring Hegemony

The military strategy supporting China’s bid for regional hegemony is now well developed.  The PLA can contest U.S. command of the commons and deliver a decisive first strike against U.S. forward bases and surface ships with missile salvos and air sorties. Following a first strike, China may be able to consolidate a defense perimeter in the first island chain, daring the U.S. to fight its way back in.  Within that perimeter, China can use coercive force against its neighbors to achieve desired military objectives, such as the unification of Taiwan or the seizure of disputed maritime territory.    

In a global context, the U.S. military clearly possesses greater capabilities. But total military power outside the context of specific political goals misses the point. Since the U.S has global interests, its military strategy in Asia relies upon command of the commons to mobilize forces into theater across long air and oceanic expanses. China has raised the costs of this strategy.  

Primacy Challenged: The U.S. Response

China’s challenge to American primacy in Asia prompted the U.S. to move additional forces into the Pacific and strengthen its alliances in the early parts of last decade. In 2011, the U.S. announced the continuation of this long-standing process to bolster its military posture in the Pacific.  With much fanfare, the Obama Administration placed its own imprimatur on this process as the “pivot” or also called the rebalance.

Building upon the upgraded Japan alliance that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush began, a trilateral security relationship among Japan, Australia, and the U.S., a closer security partnership with Taiwan, and force reposting in South Korea, the administration announced several additional military cooperation initiatives.  The U.S. plans to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia and encourage Australia to participate in an Asia missile ballistic shield it is developing with Japan.

The U.S. will station four U.S. littoral combat ships (LCS) in Singapore on a rotational basis. Additionally, the U.S. and the Philippines may expand the U.S. military presence in the country.  The building blocks are now in place for a tighter network of alliances and partnerships in the region, which is key to continued U.S. primacy.

Air-Sea Battle: The Operational Concept for Primacy?

The U.S. military is beginning to respond to China’s coercive and counter-intervention strategy. The February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) made overcoming area-denial an essential part of U.S. strategy. In August 2011, CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenhert and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton formed the Air-Sea Battle office at the DOD in order to develop the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept, which requires close cooperation between the Air force and Navy to “overcome the challenges posed by emerging threats to access like ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced submarines and fighters, electronic warfare and mines.”

The basic idea behind the ASB concept is to foster greater air-sea cooperation, allowing the U.S. military to operate in China’s contested zones, and regain the ability to command the commons.  The surface fleet will be equipped with countermeasures against cruise and ballistic missiles. U.S. stealth fighter-bombers will be able to thin out precision-guided strikes by targeting command and control nodes and air bases. ASB requires the development of more long-range bombing capabilities, harden forward bases to withstand missile salvos, and continue investment in advanced SSNs.

ASB is a means to bolster a grand strategy of primacy.  If implemented, U.S. forces will be able to operate in contested zones, and still bring overwhelming power to bear on Chinese forces.  A peacetime presence is just as important, as it acts as a formidable deterrent.  The more U.S. equipment, airman, soldiers, sailors and marines that are deployed forward in Asia, the riskier it becomes for China to attack allies and friends.

Absent from the current debate about how to retain U.S. primacy, is the future of U.S. nuclear forces.  The uncomfortable fact is that deterrence, reassurance and war fighting all require a nuclear strategy accompanying conventional forces. China must be reminded that U.S. has provided nuclear guarantees to its allies, that attacks on carriers would kill thousands of Americans and that what China calls the second island chain—a potential Chinese outer defense perimeter—includes U.S. territory.

The U.S. must remember that its preferred military strategy includes attacks on mainland-based forces and that China also is a nuclear power with mobile missile launchers and SSBN submarines capable of providing a secure second-strike.  It follows that a U.S. strategy of primacy requires nuclear primacy – an upgrading of U.S nuclear forces in very close coordination with allies on nuclear issues.   It also follows that alongside such moves the Sino-American military relationship must move beyond the niceties of “building confidence” and discuss issues of escalation control and crisis stability.

Obstacles to the US Strategy: Funding Primacy

The “rebalance” to Asia is a resource intensive endeavor. Yet the U.S. military is faced with deep budget cuts.  That leaves a dangerous gap between U.S. military’s resources and stated objectives.

Sequestration-level budgets threaten to hollow out the U.S. Navy, which traditionally provides a lion’s share of the power projection needed to sustain U.S. primacy. According to the National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 QDR, the navy is on “a budgetary path to 260 ships or less” under current defense spending levels. By comparison, various internal naval reviews have stated that an effective fleet should field between 323 and 346 vessels.

Admiral Greenert is attempting to reorganize his service in line with the administration’s “pivot,” but sequestration has handcuffed his efforts.  The Navy had planned to increase its Pacific Fleet from 50 ships to about 65 ships by 2019. However, the Navy has admitted that this plan is untenable under sequestration-level budgets.  The service is left with a grim choice. It can under-resource U.S. forces in Asia, or cannibalize its other fleets to boost the number of ships deployed to the Pacific.  With Putin’s Russia on the move, ISIS threatening to take over Iraq, and China’s aggression in maritime East Asia, neither option is tenable.

Obstacles to a Strategy of Regional Hegemony

The CCP faces three main roadblocks to its own strategic vision. First, China must confront the inherent instability of its political-economic system. China’s investment-based, export-led growth strategy is coming to an end.  But, the CCP is failing to implement comprehensive reforms that would help move it toward a consumption-driven economy. Second, China has grown increasingly dependent on overseas economic interests, and it wants to secure its maritime supply lines.  If the U.S. successfully responds to China’s regional coercive strategy and China’s economy continues to slow, the CCP will face very tough choices about what kind of military it can afford. Third, the CCP must deal with a host of internal challenges to its legitimacy, including from its restive empire.

The Future of Chinese Growth and China’ Maritime Interests

China’s current seven or eight percent annual growth is unsustainable  The Chinese economy has depended on large-scale investment and exports.  Today, global demand is stagnant, China is highly indebted and investment is drying up.  China’s needs a new model of consumption led growth but has not implemented the liberal reforms required to restructure its economy. Without badly needed reform, China risks slipping into the middle-income trap.

The IMF recently reported that China has passed the U.S. as the world’s largest economy on the basis of purchasing parity.  But for purposes of assessing the balance of power these numbers are useless.  GDP is a picture of yearly production, including wasteful production.

A better measure of economic size is comparative wealth.  Credit Suisse just released an updated comparison of private wealth: American private wealth stands at $83 trillion dollars compared to China’s $21 trillion.  Even when public debt is factored in, the U.S. remains around $40 trillion wealthier than China.  It is that wealth that can be translated into national power.

If China faces slowing growth rates while lagging behind the U.S. in national wealth, then China will face real dilemmas it protecting its far-flung economic interests. In 2004, President Hu Jintao introduced the concept of “New Historic Missions” for the PLA. Since Hu’s policy announcement, the critical new mission is the defense of China’s sea lines of communication (SLOC). China is now a maritime trading nation, and its imports and exports—including increasing energy imports—must pass through critical chokepoints that it does not control, including the Straits of Malacca. China is growing its fleet of nuclear submarines and flowing them into the Indian Ocean. But to really project maritime power at longer distances China would have to make substantial investments in larger surface ships, global C4ISR, and logistical hubs and fueling stations along the Indian Ocean.  This could prove both too expensive, too risky, as China exposes itself to threats from terrorism, piracy and hostile nations, and too difficult to accomplish diplomatically, particularly if India resists. The CCP has a real problem with one pillar of its strategy—continued economic growth and defense of economic interests.

China’s Internal Unrest

The CCP continues to devote enormous resources to maintain internal stability. China’s heavy-handed tactics in Xinjiang have provoked further violence against China. Recent attacks include a market bombing and several knife attacks. Now China is at risk of further violence from jihadists returning from the ISIS campaign.

Regarding Tibet, China remains highly sensitive to other nation’s interactions with the exiled Dalai Lama, and Tibetans are resisting China’s imperial policies. Taiwan’s de facto independence continues to present a contradiction for Beijing’s “One China” principle.  Beijing reneged on its agreement to allow free 2017 elections in Hong Kong, sparking large-scale protests.  The CCP’s imperial control is more challenging. At the same time, middle class cynicism about corruption is growing and wealth is leaving China.  

Conclusions: What does the balance of power look like?

China has made great strides in its coercive regional strategy and its counter-intervention strategy. It is forcing a response by the United States to regain its primacy.  But the U.S. has not demonstrated the political wherewithal to resource its response.

However, China’s gains and the U.S. slow-footed response is not the whole story.  The CCP’s grand strategy also includes continued economic growth that is increasingly reliant upon maritime trade. Becoming a true maritime power is very expensive, and China faces hostile powers along its periphery. Finally, China’s main weakness is its tenuous political legitimacy. It is ruling over an increasingly restive empire with aspirational citizens demanding more liberty and justice. The CCP has to spend enormous resources on imperial control and domestic security.

The U.S. has structural advantages over China such as greater wealth and a system of partners and allies. But can the president lead a bipartisan coalition at home ready to translate the nation’s advantages into a well-resourced strategy that retains U.S. primacy?  The CCP would have a tough time competing with a U.S. that once again takes primacy in Asia seriously. Indeed, if Washington locks in a favorable balance of power it may even start to see some cooperation from Beijing.

[1] The article borrows from Barry Posen’s “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Primacy” (International Security, Summer 2003) and Dan Blumenthal’s “The U.S. Response to China’s Military Modernization,” published in Strategic Asia 2012-2013.

Dan Blumenthal is Director of Asian Studies and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Eddie Linczer is an Asian Studies Research Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Today is the U.S. Marine Corps’ 239th Birthday: 4 Big Challenges Ahead

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Today the United States Marine Corps celebrates its 239th birthday.  Marines and their families will remember the illustrious history of the Corps and renew their commitment to serve the nation, “In every clime and place.”  Marines will also reflect on the status of their beloved Corps.   The Marines’ mission in Helmand Province has just ended and General Joseph F. Dunford has taken his post as the thirty-sixth Commandant of the Marine Corps.

With the completion of the mission in Afghanistan and a new Commandant, many Marines and observers are asking, “What next?”  The months ahead promise to be busy as the Marine Corps addresses challenges on many fronts.  The most significant of these challenges are:

-Resource Uncertainty: Although the Bipartisan Budget Agreement provided some relief, the potential for a return to “full” sequestration is looming on the horizon.  In a time of fiscal austerity, the Marine Corps must carefully balance readiness, manpower and modernization.

-Reduced Structure vs. Operational Requirements: The Marine Corps is in the middle of a drawdown from a wartime strength of 202,000 to 182,000.  Events around the world (sustained instability in the Middle East, continued threats from violent Muslim extremists, strained relations with a resurgent Russia, a rising and increasingly confrontational China, Ebola in Africa) remind us there is no peace dividend as commitments in Afghanistan shrink.  The Marine Corps will continue to deploy traditional Marine Expeditionary Units and rotational units to the Western Pacific as a part of the unit deployment program (UDP) while concurrently deploying new Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) for crisis response to support USAFRICOM and USCENTCOM.  These commitments must be met with a force that is 20,000 personnel leaner than the 202k than the one developed to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

-Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan: The Marines learned many critical lessons during fourteen years of sustained combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In an uncertain world, the challenge to institutionalize lessons learned about counterinsurgency and stability operations looms large—all without neglecting the skills needed to conduct conventional warfare and amphibious operations against traditional state actors.  The American people rightly expect the Marine Corps to be prepared to fight and win across the entire spectrum of conflict.  The Marine Corps does not have the luxury of focusing exclusively on either “small wars” or on the skills needed for a more traditional combined arms campaign; the nation’s “911 force” has to be ready for everything.

-Relationship with the U.S. Navy: The Marines continued to deploy Marine Expeditionary Units with the Navy during the fourteen years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at times the focus on combat operations resulted in less emphasis on the traditional relationship between the two services (Navy and Marine Corps).  As a maritime nation, a reinvigorated relationship between the Navy and Marine Corps is important.  The availability of amphibious shipping (adversely impacted by sequestration) remains a serious concern for Marines working to maintain institutional expertise in amphibious operations.  The use of other types of shipping has been suggested to mitigate scarce amphibious warships but these alternative platforms do not remove the requirement for a healthy amphibious ship building program and money to maintain them in a high state of readiness.

In working to meet these challenges, the Marine Corps has gone back to its roots and will ensure  it is most ready when the nation is least ready.  Maintaining the Marine Corps in a high state of readiness to respond to crises is priority number one.  Modernization of equipment, infrastructure maintenance and quality of life efforts will be reduced to sustain readiness today.   This means the long-term health of the Corps could be placed at risk for the sake of near-term readiness if the disaster of sequestration is not fixed.

In a time of fiscal uncertainty at home and unrest around the world, the Marine Corps will need to return to its roots in other ways.  In addition to focusing on near term readiness for crisis response, innovation and leadership will be required to meet the challenges facing the Corps—the same sort of innovation displayed by the Marine Corps following World War I when it developed the doctrine and expertise needed to execute the amphibious campaign in the Pacific during World War II.

The Marine Corps has been in challenging positions before, resulting in some of its greatest achievements.  As the Marines toast the Corps on their 239th birthday, they know that much work lies ahead in their 240th year.  Most importantly, the Corps knows that success in the future will ultimately depend on the quality of its greatest asset—the character, strength and skill of the individual Marine.

Colonel Stephen Liszewski, U.S. Marine Corps, is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before coming to CFR, he served as Commanding Officer, 11th Marine Regiment.  His combat deployments have included Iraq in 2007  and Afghanistan in 2012. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This piece first appeared courtesy of CFR’s blog Defense in Depth.

Image: U.S. Marines Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

An Internet Superpower: China Has 632 Million Internet Users

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The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) released its 2014 statistical report on Internet development in China, and here are some of the highlights:

-Numbers have risen across the board. By the end of June 2014, China has had 632 million Internet users, up 14.42 million from 2013. Internet penetration rate was 46.9 percent. China has had 527 million mobile Internet users, an increase of 26.99 million since last year. Students are the single largest population of users, accounting for 25 percent. The weekly average time spent online reached 25.9 hours (by contrast, the U.S. average was 20.4 hours a week in 2013).

-Mobile is the future in China. For the first time, the number of users accessing the web on a mobile device is greater than on a personal computer. Mobile Eats the World, a presentation by Benedict Evans of Andreesen Horowitz,  shows this as a global phenomenon. Reflecting this trend, payment applications were the fastest growing segment of the market in China.

-The rise of online financial instruments. The number of users of Internet financing or wealth management products grew to over 60 million in less than one year. These are funds like Yuebao that are only offered online, usually with no minimum deposit and transactions fees, providing access to small investors. Yuebao is part of the Alibaba empire. Users of Alipay, an online payment system, can invest into Yuebao, which provides better return than the 3 percent found at state-owned banks and is mobile-friendly. By the middle of 2014, Yuebao had $90 billion in assets.

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-Digital divide. There were 178 million rural Internet users, 28.2 percent of the total in China. Or put another way, approximately 450 million people in rural areas are not using the Internet. There is also a growing divide between available broadband speeds in urban and rural areas. Among those who do have fixed broadband access in China, only 18 percent in poorer central and western provinces enjoy speeds of 8 megabits per second or more,compared to 36 percent in the wealthier eastern provinces.

-The decline of Weibo and other social networking sites. The number of microblog users in China was 275 million, decreasing by 5.43 million compared with that at the end of 2013. Utilization rates stayed the same, as users switched to social applications and instant messaging tools like WeChat. This supports reporting that the crackdown on social media has bolstered the shift from more public to more private forms of communications.

The report, which also has some interesting details on online commerce, gaming, and videos, should be read in parallel with this great post by David Bandurski on the ideas of Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar. Much of the discussion focuses on the balance among control, development, and security the Chinese Communist Party tries to achieve domestically, but Bandurski also notes that China is becoming more assertive about its right to define international norms of behavior in cyberspace. A new platform for this will be the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, but the most likely source of  influence be size. Or as Bandurski explains, “China, in other words, wants the influence over global Internet-related decision making that its sheer size warrants.” The CNNIC report gives a sense of that size, and how the size, and perhaps influence, will increase over time.

This piece first appeared on CFR’s blog Net Politics here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

Topicsinternet RegionsChina

Xi-Obama Summit: Son of Sunnylands?

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U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping will meet this week, in a state visit by the American president to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the eve of the APEC Summit. Counting side discussions at multilateral conferences, this will be the fourth meeting between the two presidents—a remarkable, and even laudable, track record of top leaders interacting with each other.

Opening lines of communications, having an opportunity to exchange views…these, in the main, are not bad things. The past various meetings have allowed both sides to reiterate points of concern. For the United States, this has meant emphasizing the importance of limiting nuclear proliferation (especially on the Korean peninsula and Iran), military-to-military relations and climate change. For the PRC, it has meant pushing for a “new model of great-power relations” in which the two sides express respect for each other’s “core interests.”

What is problematic is when neither side has much of an agenda. President Obama will be in Beijing for the annual meeting of APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) leaders. Absent this standing commitment of all U.S. presidents, it’s not clear that President Obama has much reason to be in Beijing. As long as he’s there, however, the president is arguably obliged to have a bilateral meeting with Xi. (That it is a “state visit” is probably at the insistence of the Chinese).

Unfortunately, summits for the sake of summits are hardly a productive use of senior leaders’ (and their staffs’) time. Worse is if one side does have an agenda, and the other side either does not, or has a different one. On those occasions, the prospects for misunderstanding or unmet expectations are far greater.

The June 2013 Sunnylands summit was touted as a “shirt-sleeve summit”—a summit without talking points or a formal agenda. American officials hoped that Presidents Obama and Xi would “really get to know each other, while exchanging ideas about how best to manage a complex, sometimes combustible relationship.” Yet, rather than bring the two leaders together, the Chinese chose to stay at the Hyatt in town, rather than at the Annenberg estate (the site of the summit)—pointedly questioning the electronic security of the venue. As Edward Snowden had already made his way to Hong Kong, the Chinese decision made clear that they had no intention of engaging in “informal” discussions about things like cybersecurity. This contradicted the entire point of the summit, and was likely not an oversight on China’s part. Indeed, it may well have been part of Beijing’s messaging.

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This week’s summit is likely to be a study in contrasts.

For President Obama, now in the final two years of his final term, the question is what, if anything, can he deliver or promote. That question became even more difficult when the midterm elections gave Republicans control of the Senate.

While the Obama administration has highlighted its strategic “pivot to Asia,” few in Washington think the commitment—with the possible exception of engagement with Southeast Asia—is substantially greater than that of the previous administration. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent far more time in the Middle East trying to broker a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem than in East Asia. Neither Susan Rice, nor Samantha Power, longtime Obama confidantes, are seen as Asia hands, nor as especially focused on the region. With this as background, President Obama will again (like many Presidents before him) be pressed to declare and demonstrate American staying power.

President Xi, meanwhile, is coming out of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, which supported his continuing anti-corruption push by nominally promoting a greater emphasis on the role of the law in Chinese governance. Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption efforts have almost certainly aroused criticism (if not worse) within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but they have also heightened his populist appeal, and are difficult to criticize. (After all, who is for corruption?)

As important, this summit occurs against the backdrop of an overall Chinese strategic offensive across the region. The past year has seen the Chinese: declare an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone; deploy a deep-sea oil drilling rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast; deploy nuclear and conventional submarines to the Indian Ocean; increase their presence around the disputed Senkaku islands and send troops into disputed territory held by India. At the same time, China has pushed for the creation of an Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (which it would dominate) and is promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership plan.

Despite the widely touted “pivot,” the United States, by contrast, appears to be far less sure-footed. Sequestration has meant limits on U.S. deployments and training. The American invitation to China to join in the multinational RIMPAC exercises resulted in not only an official Chinese participating force, but an uninvited Chinese intelligence ship as well. American intelligence flights have been openly challenged, including dangerous approaches to both American ships and aircraft. Meanwhile, President Obama has not employed his “bully pulpit” to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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In this light, one might well hope that the result will be a “Son of Sunnylands,” a meeting about little other than the two sides continuing to get to know each other. But there is a far more dangerous possibility: that this will be a replay of the 1961 Vienna summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. President Kennedy concluded that he had been “savaged” by Khrushchev, who apparently concluded that Kennedy was weak and vulnerable.

President Obama is not a newly elected president. But Xi almost certainly has a better understanding of American politics than Khrushchev did.

Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

TopicsDiplomacyForeign Policy RegionsChinaUnited States

America and Its Allies in the South China Sea: Dangerously Overmatched, Outgunned, and Outranged by China

The Buzz

Three books published this year contemplate Asia's most vexing problem. Taken together, they provide a thorough understanding of the contest in the South China Sea. Still, they leave the reader with one large puzzle.

Asia's Cauldron recounts, in Robert Kaplan's readable travelogue style, the fascinating political and economic trajectories of the nations surrounding the South China Sea. A strategic geographer, Kaplan explains why the South China Sea — which from China's perspective is its “Caribbean” but which a divided ASEAN attempts to keep “Mediterranean” — is so crucial. US$5.3 trillion of trade transits the area annually. Economics underpins Kaplan's insight: the divergent developmental performance of adjacent states has tilted the power balance, and this asymmetry has exacerbated the latent tension of the region.

“Latent” because the rich history of the South China Sea fates dispute. Both Kaplan, and Bill Hayton in The South China Sea describe the Malay and Indochinese civilizations that plied these waters before and after Christ's birth. Deng Xiaoping asserted in 1975 that the islands of the South China Sea “have belonged to China since ancient times,” but he mentioned only islands, and definitions of “belong,” “China” and “ancient” are disputable. The successive Chinese dynasties had vacillating interest in maritime trade. Soon after Zheng He's final epic voyage the Europeans turned up. By the 1600s, Grotius and Selden were arguing the legal basis for open versus closed seas, a debate that has reopened again over the islands, reefs and waters of the South China Sea.

(You May Also LikeMachiavelli: Still Shocking after Five Centuries)

Ironically, it was the withdrawal of the European (and Japanese and American) colonists in the 20th century that catalyzed today's disputes.

Most consequential was China's submission of the U-shaped Nine Dash Line in 1947 (subsequently reaffirmed in 2009), an abstract, unprecedented claim of “historical waters.” An unseemly scramble for islands, rocks and reefs followed. China now dominates all the Paracels, wrested violently from Vietnam. As Hayton says, “China was a latecomer to the Spratlys party but each time it has occupied a feature, Beijing's negotiating position has become stronger. What practical benefits has it gained though? Only the negative effect of preventing others from making gains.” Hayton himself is doubtful of the oil and gas reserves inside China's claim. Even fish are at risk of being depleted by over-zealous trawler fleets. The South China Sea tussle is really about power, and the ability of China to deny those waters to others. Both Kaplan and Hayton observe that China's nationalism offers little scope for Beijing to retract its claims, in fact its “salami slicing” is upping the stakes. Could a military conflict ensue?

That is the central topic of Robert Haddock's Fire on the Water. His analysis is clear: the US and its allies are increasingly vulnerable, overmatched, outgunned, and outranged by China, which enjoys great material power and the advantage of proximity.

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His conclusion is that the US must adapt its weapons, doctrine and alliances accordingly. He weighs in on the ongoing American debate about “operational concepts” in the western Pacific. A Chinese conflict with Japan is one scenario; the South China Sea certainly is another. Hayton and Kaplan's readers must question the strategic resolve of the Philippines amid its conflicted, incoherent relations with both America and China. In contrast to steely Vietnam and savvier Malaysia, the Philippines' neglect for its own South China Sea interests is downright provocative. Significantly, it remains the only large country in the region not investing in submarines.

Here is the puzzle: why is Asia buying submarines? Smaller countries view subs as the asymmetric leveler, like Samuel Colt's six-shooter, which “made all men equal.” Even when deployed defensively, subs are offensive weapons in nature, unsuited for, say, fisheries patrol, anti-piracy and disaster relief. No, their purpose is to sink ships (especially merchants), intimidate and thereby achieve sea denial. I'm not a naval expert but a businessperson can guess what every prudent shipping line would do before a South China Sea conflict: clear out. It might not be “fire on the water” as Haddock fears, but the eerie opposite: John Keegan's “empty ocean.”

This would be disastrous for East Asia, which is almost entirely dependent on maritime trade. If one day China does really enforce outright sovereignty over the Nine Dash Line (even permitting innocent passage to continue), this will be taken as a direct challenge to the US and the established rules of the open sea. Japan would feel most threatened. Shipping would be diverted away from the Malacca chokepoint to the straits opposite northern Australia (where, as it happens, US Marines recently established a presence). Hayton draws a barely consoling conclusion: China doesn't want a shooting war in the South China Sea, but it gains everything just short of one. Even that could come at a fearful cost. China's “price of admiralty” might be the loss of trillions of dollars in global trade.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsChina

The Master Plan: Could This Be China's Overseas Basing Strategy?

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“Will China's growing global economic interests lead it to expand its overseas military presence and capabilities?” This is a question that has been asked by policymakers, academics and strategists since China's economic growth became dependent on its ability to access energy through maritime sea-lanes and overseas markets.

The common argument is that, as China continues to invest in developing markets and resource exporters such as South Sudan, and becomes more reliant on foreign oil and energy, primarily from producers in the Middle East, it will gradually seek to protect those interests with military forces. This would follow the pattern of other great powers throughout history, which have tended to extend a security presence to where their economic interests lie. The often heard “String of Pearls” theory which emerged out of a Booz Allen Hamilton report in 2004 follows this logic when it predicts that China, seeking to secure the flow of energy through the Indian Ocean, will use its “commercial and security relationships to establish a string of military facilities in South Asia.”

But some are asking if China is different.

A recent report from the Institute for National Strategic Studies, "Not an Idea We Have to Shun": Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Centuryargues that, based on an understanding of China's “long-standing” foreign policy principles and goals, there is little evidence that it will pursue a “String of Pearls” strategy.

Far more likely is that Beijing will implement a “Dual Use Logistic Facility” strategy, in which overseas bases will provide “medical facilities, refrigerated storage space for fresh vegetables and fruit, rest and recreation sites, a communications station, and ship repair facilities.” This would entail a far leaner and less overt military and security presence than the “String of Pearls” theory or most other predictions about the future of PLA Navy overseas basing. The report states that:

Given China’s self-image as a champion of the developing world and a positive alternative to other global powers, it is highly unlikely to pursue models that involve large overseas military bases or extensive networks of facilities on the sovereign territory of other states. Beyond the rationale that China is unlikely to violate foreign policy principles that it has established as a foundation for its foreign and defense policy behavior, there is an even stronger reason that China will not establish these kinds of overseas bases. They would threaten China’s image as a peaceful rising power and could imperil China’s future economic growth, if the international community interprets such bases as evidence of malign Chinese long-term intentions.

It also seems that the PLA Navy is learning from the US Navy, which is well versed in overseas logistics, resupply and basing. Take this anecdote about how the PLAN has resupplied its anti-piracy task force operating in the Gulf of Aden these last six years:

PLAN ships visited Aden 10 times, making it one of the most frequently visited ports. However, only one type of PLAN ship has visited Aden: comprehensive supply ships. The supply ships replenish their food, water and diesel fuel and then provide replenishment-at-sea services to other ships in the PLAN Gulf of Aden Task Force. This operational pattern closely mirrors U.S. Navy operational patterns in the Persian Gulf, suggesting that the PLAN studied and applied U.S. naval concepts of operation. That the port of Aden also happens to have been the port in which the USS Cole was attacked by al Qaeda in 2000 is probably not lost on PLA Navy planners. Thus, the operational pattern of sending a single replenishment ship to Aden and having it replenish other ships not only mimics the U.S. pattern of behavior but is also a prudent force protection measure.

On the often-heard “String of Pearls” theory, the report makes a strong case that it is simply not taking place: 

First, there is no evidence that the Chinese are currently conducting military activities at any of the String of Pearls sites. To date, PLAN Gulf of Aden task forces have not used or visited a single String of Pearls site. Second, transactions between the PLAN and host countries providing support for PLAN Gulf of Aden operations have been commercial in nature. These ports have only provided “hotel services,” replenished supplies, and served as liberty sites for visiting PLAN ships. Finally, the number of PLA forces and units involved in out of area activities has been very limited. None of this evidence supports assertions that the Chinese intend to deploy enough forces in the Indian Ocean to dominate the region or engage in major combat operations with any of its neighbors.

While this report is certainly good news for those that fear an Indian Ocean confrontation between an “encircled” India and China, tensions are still high and were most recently symbolized by the furor created from a pit-stop by a PLA Navy nuclear submarine in Colombo.

We must also remember, other great powers were once “different” too.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The New GOP Congress: Can the Hill Finally Pass the 2015 Defense Budget?

The Buzz

The results of the 2014 midterm elections are in: Republicans had a fantastic night. The GOP has further solidified its control of the House of Representatives with roughly 245 seats (the biggest Republican majority since the Truman administration) and regained control of the Senate with at least seven new seats—the first time since 2006. In the long run, this shift is likely to test the significant differences in foreign policy outlook that have opened between leading Republicans (and potential 2016 presidential candidates). In the medium term, Senator John McCain (R-AZ)’s long-sought chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee will likely lead to more direct confrontations between Congress and the White House regarding current defense policy, war powers, and ISIS strategy. Most immediately, however, the conclusion of the midterm elections raises another pressing question: can Congress pass the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before the end of this year? And if so, what might the final bill look like?

Among the many defense budgetary debates now taking place within the halls of Congress, here are five issues that deserve special attention:

1. The danger of sequestration is looming larger—and it’s set to come crashing down in FY16.

It has become clear that even if Congress does succeed in passing an FY15 defense budget, the hard challenges of 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) will still have been put off another year. Although a 2013 budget deal increased the FY15 defense budget authorization to $521 billion from $496 billion—a number that the House and Senate defense authorizations currently meet—this cushion will be gone in FY16, with the ceiling reduced to roughly $500 billion. Pentagon planners are budgeting as if this limit will be raised, and they have already delayed at least $20 billion in desperately needed maintenance. 2015 is destined to be a very rocky year in the ongoing defense budget debate.

2. The Overseas Contingency Fund (OCO) and transformation toward budgetary “emergency valve.”

The House has authorized $79.4 billion in OCO spending; the Senate has authorized $59 billion. With the rising cost of the fight against ISIS, the continuing operational presence in Afghanistan, and a variety of brewing crises abroad, the final bill will likely trend toward the higher figure. As Katherine Blakeley of the Center for American Progress convincingly argues, however, a high OCO will exacerbate the Pentagon’s use of this money as an “emergency fund” only loosely tied to the actual cost of operations. OCO is meant to be used for expendables not modernization (as the Air Force was reminded when it attempted to fund the F-35 with it!). Using the OCO for non-operational things is a difficult line to draw, given wear and tear on equipment and the enduring nature of military operations over the last two decades. Regardless of the intent, OCO is unpredictable and year to year, so it is no way to fund new equipment and modernization.

3. The A-10 Warthog: probably safe for another year.

The Air Force’s plan to retire the A-10 Warthog has been under fierce scrutiny since the day it was announced, despite estimated savings of $4.2 billion. Although Congressional approval of the divestment was always in doubt, the air campaign against ISIS is now demanding exactly the sort of close air support that the A-10 provides. This shift, coupled with Republican control of the Senate Armed Services committee—where Senators McCain and Kelly Ayote (R-NH) have been some of the most prominent defenders of the A-10—may essentially push the issue off the table.

4. Pressing “skip” on tough choices regarding military compensation and base realignment and closure (BRAC).

Although Congress is set to approve some small steps toward compensation reform like a slow in the rise of the basic allowance for housing (BAH), more comprehensive measures proposed by the Department of Defense have been shot down. Both the House and Senate have approved a 1.8 percent rise in pay, as opposed to the 1 percent urged by defense planners. Most TRICARE adjustments, ranging from adding enrollment fees to a modest increase in premiums, have been discarded. A tentatively proposed 2015 BRAC round proved an immediate nonstarter, and there is virtually zero chance of more happening on a BRAC until after the 2016 presidential election. Despite significant defense personnel reductions, the last BRAC round took place in 2005.

5. A new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)?

Interestingly, there may be growing Congressional momentum to issue a new—and more narrowly defined—AUMF to provide legal justification for operations against ISIS. Although Congress largely avoided the ISIS debate with consideration to potential political backlash (and the White House was comfortable operating under the 2001 AUMF originally directed toward Al Qaeda in Afghanistan), with the elections over, this may well become a big point of debate in the final weeks of the 113th Congress.

Under a short-term Continuing Resolution approved September 17, Congress has only until December 11 to determine the FY15 defense budget—the Senate version alone of which has received 239 amendments. The next month will prove vitally important. Our armed forces deserve some level of financial certainty as they look to the difficult year ahead. It is Congress’ job to make that happen.

Emerson Brooking contributed to this post.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

The Midterm Results: "The political momentum in Washington clearly is with a resurgent Republican Party."

The Buzz

Power is supposed to be diffuse in American politics.  Especially at the federal level, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution were keen to avoid the monopolization of authority by any one party (or “faction”).  By designing a system that would tend towards power being apportioned between political actors rather than concentrated in one set of hands, the architects of the American government sought to entrench republicanism and limited government.

Yet the relentless diffusion of power is not without its problems.  Without a single locus of authority in the federal government, questions of accountability can arise.  In the words of Woodrow Wilson, who as a scholar found much to dislike with the operation of American government, “How is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping?”  In other words, which parties or politicians should incur the public’s wrath when the federal government is failing?  Are national elections referenda on president’s party (or the majority party in Congress) or are they better seen as constellations of local contests, each with their own sets of issues, candidates, and meaning?

Last night, the Democrats lost control of the Senate in dramatic fashion, the American people handing majorities in both chambers of Congress to the Republican Party.  Both parties will attempt to frame the results to suit their own political ends.  Having portrayed the elections as a referendum on President Obama, the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already has called the result a denunciation of “a government that people can no longer trust.”  The Democrats have been whipped; the Republicans have been favored.

During the election campaign, however, observers agreed that there was no unifying theme to bind together the disparate electoral contests taking place from coast to coast.  This was a Seinfeld election, they said; an election “about nothing.”  From this perspective, the Republican Party would be overstating the case to claim a mandate to govern.  While the Democrats probably will not push the point too far, it is nevertheless likely that the White House will minimize the wider significance of the GOP’s triumphs.  President Obama’s own mandate to govern is still current, they will insist.

Whatever the correct way to interpret the results—whether the nation was consciously admonishing the president’s party or simply venting frustration at politicians in general—the political momentum in Washington clearly is with a resurgent Republican Party.  The GOP has chalked up its largest majority in the House of Representatives since World War II; it has taken Senate seats from the Democrats in states such as Colorado, which twice voted for President Obama; and Republicans now occupy the governor’s mansion in supposedly blue states such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Obama’s own Illinois.  These are considerable gains.

But can these gains be sustained going forward?  Newt Gingrich perhaps put it best last night while providing commentary on CNN when he credited the elections with demonstrating that “campaigns matter, candidates matter, and—by the way—your vote matters.”  This was far from a vapid observation: yesterday’s elections proved that the modern Republican Party can win across the nation—including in some very unexpected locales—if it is equipped with the right messages and blessed with the right candidates and (Newt omitted to mention) the right timing.  These are important—and highly restrictive—qualifications, to be sure, but at least last night’s results should put paid to the commonplace notion that the Republican Party is in terminal decline, an embattled party with a shrinking membership, increasingly unable to garner votes from outside of its heartlands.

This is not to say that the Republicans will learn from the experience and elect to refine and update their message in future elections: anti-Obama campaigning can only unite an electoral coalition for so long and the GOP has struggled in recent years to rally behind a positive program for government.  Nor does it say anything about the quality of candidates that will emerge: a toxic Tea Partier would condemn the party to oblivion in 2016; the challenge for the party is to carve out a space for moderate politicians to adopt a leading role on the national stage.

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists should be worried.  What happened to their much vaunted “ground game” in states like Colorado and Illinois?  Why can’t the party poll well without President Obama on the ballot?  Is this simply a case of the familiar six-year itch or do these torrid election results point to some fundamental inadequacies with the Democratic coalition?  Are the Democrats about to be cast into the wilderness?  The party’s would-be nominees for 2016 have two years to put together their responses.

Until then, Americans will expect their leaders to work with the messy, overlapping electoral mandates that have been handed to them.  Important matters of domestic policy and foreign affairs hinge upon the White House and the Congress, Democrats and Republicans, being able to pool authority and govern in an effective manner.  The Framers intended that it would be this way; the American people have duly played their part.  All eyes are now on Washington.  Few, however, are holding their breath.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Think ISIS Militants Are Scary? Wait Until Their Kids Grow Up.

The Buzz

The Islamic State takes pride in training children to become jihadists, suicide bombers and beheaders. While morally despicable, this is not a discussion about the ethics of training children to be soldiers. As a country already invested in a fight against the Islamic State, however, there are some very real concerns about these children that should be addressed when using airstrikes—and potentially ground troops in the future—to “degrade and ultimately destroy [ISIS].”

Obviously, the United States should be concerned about the safety of these children—many of whom have been orphaned in either Iraq or Syria, due to both internal conflicts and, ironically, the merciless acts of the “Caliphate” to which they pledge allegiance. But as the eerie five-part series on Vice News about the Islamic State documents, these children may grow up to be the new faces of ISIS.

In the second segment of the series, several children are interviewed either by the Vice reporter or an Islamic State fighter. A father who emigrated with his son from Belgium to the Islamic State in Raqqa asks his son why he wants to kill all the infidels (namely, in Europe). His son replies, “Because they kill Muslims.” Now, place yourself in the mind of this child. Your father drills into you that all non-Muslims are infidels who want to kill Muslims. He does not explain to you that the “infidels” are only aiming to kill bad Muslims like himself. He leaves that information out. So you grow up thinking that America is sending airstrikes to Raqqa, your new home, to kill all Muslims, when really America’s goal is to kill the Islamic State. Now, even if America could somehow convince this child and his peers that it only wants to eliminate the Islamic State—which, it does, and has publicly announced it will do—they have been taught to love the Islamic State and everything it represents.

In essence, these children, if continued to be brought up learning the ways of ISIS, will ultimately pose a much greater threat to Baghdad, Damascus and the Western world than their fathers and mentors did. Many adults in the Islamic State learned to speak the language of violent jihadism as just that—adults. Take the moldable, impressionable young mind of a child and teach him the language of violent jihadism at age seven, and he will speak it more fluently than his predecessors.

How, then, can these children be pulled out of the brainwashed state of mind in which IS militants have placed them? How can we reverse the teachings of ISIS? The simple answer: we probably can’t. However, there may be a way to discredit the teachings.

The Islamic State preaches that it carries out Allah’s will by purging the world of (mostly Western) infidels who wish only to kill Muslims and by spreading the Caliphate. It preaches that Sharia can be implemented only with weapons (which conveniently supports ISIS’ love of violence). Well, unfortunately, by implementing airstrikes, we are confirming—in the minds of those children—that what their leaders tell them about Western “infidels” is true.

So why doesn’t the Western world just cease with its counterinsurgency strikes on the Islamic State? Aside from the fact that it would force the Arab states and other regional actors whose security is more threatened by ISIS than ours is to lead the fight against the Islamic State, if we don’t kill any Muslims, then the preachings of ISIS to these children will be rendered falsehoods. Some psychologists assert that when parents or parental figures lie to children, they lose faith in those figures and are less likely to trust them, causing confusion and doubt within themselves and about those around them. If these children became disenchanted with their mentors, because they believe they are being lied to, there would likely be less of a chance that they would grow up to be ruthless, bloodthirsty jihadis blindly following, and ultimately leading, the Islamic State.

The children of ISIS are told that infidels are killing Muslims, and sure enough, they see America killing Islamic State militants. However, if the foundation of what they have been taught is flipped upside down, and they do not see Americans killing Islamic State militants, they may start to question the validity of the Islamic State’s leaders and their claims. Since many in the West have already asserted that airstrikes against ISIS are not working, and since the only other effective addition to the anti-ISIS campaign—sending ground troops—is an unpopular option, there does not seem to be much of an argument for continuing to attempt to eliminate the Islamic State—especially if by doing so, we are only showing those young, budding jihadis that their leaders are right and that their jihad is justified.

Rebecca M. Miller is an Assistant Editor at The National Interest. She tweets at @RebecMil.

TopicsISISCounterinsurgencySecurity RegionsIraqSyriaUnited States

10 Cold War Memoirs Worth Reading

The Buzz

Yesterday, I posted a list of great histories of the Cold War. Those books provide an excellent analysis of the U.S.-Soviet superpower rivalry. Their great strength is their detachment—they are academic efforts to make sense of the decisions governments made. But you can also gain deep insight into the Cold War by reading the memoirs of the people who made those decisions. Below are my ten favorite Cold War memoirs—firsthand accounts of the events that shaped the second half of the twentieth century.

Here are seven memoirs by American policymakers:

-Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department(1969). Acheson’s ten years at the State Department are hard to top. As assistant secretary of state for economic affairs (1941-1944), undersecretary of state (1945-1947), and finally as secretary of state (1949-1953), he served during some of the most critical years in American history. Here are just three of the major events he helped shape: the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty. If you want to understand how the Truman administration saw the emerging Cold War, Present at the Creation is a must read.

-James A. Baker III, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War & Peace, 1989-1992 (1995). The Cold War began. It also ended. And one of the reasons it ended peacefully—and many observers at the time worried that it wouldn’t—was Baker’s adroit diplomacy. He certainly brought well-tested negotiating and crisis-management skills to the task. After a successful law career, he served first as White House chief of staff and then as treasury secretary under Ronald Reagan. Baker’s memoir covers the final days of the Cold War and tells of how he and his colleagues struggled to make sense of the fact that the world they had known their entire adult lives no longer existed.

-George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (1998). I have left presidential memoirs off this list because they typically devote more space to domestic policy than to foreign policy. The elder Bush’s memoir is the exception. Written with Brent Scowcroft, his national security advisor, it makes clear that the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union was not inevitable. Leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain worried about the new world they were entering, and on more than one occasion their initial instincts look terrible in retrospect. American voters may not have rewarded the elder Bush for his foreign policy successes, but historians are likely to be far kinder.

-Robert Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (1996). Gates joined the CIA as an analyst in 1966 after being recruited while getting his master’s degree at Indiana University. He stayed with the CIA for much of the next quarter century, eventually becoming its director in 1991. That career trajectory enabled him to give a first-hand account of how five presidents, from Richard Nixon through George H.W. Bush, managed the Cold War. Gates explores how different personalities worked together to make important policy decisions. (Gates returned to the memoir genre in 2014 with Duty, his reflections on his time as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011.)

-George Kennan, Memoirs 1925-1950 (1967) and Memoirs 1950-1963 (1972). If one person deserves credit for formulating the strategy that the United States pursued during the Cold War, it’s Kennan. First in the Long Telegram and then in the “X article,” he made the case for containment of the Soviet Union. Kennan left the Foreign Service in 1950, disillusioned that the Truman administration had given containment a more militaristic bent than he had intended. Other than a brief stint as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952, he spent most of the next fifty-five years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton writing elegantly though critically about U.S. foreign policy. His first memoir covers his early years as a Foreign Service officer and the beginning of the Cold War. His second memoir recounts his time as the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and conveys his reflections on U.S. Cold War policy in the 1950s and early 1960s.

-Henry Kissinger, White House Years, Years of Upheaval, and Years of Renewal (1979). As national security advisor for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and then as secretary of state under Ford, Kissinger dominated the U.S. foreign-policy process in a way that no one outside of a president has done before or since. He was a central figure in shaping U.S. policy in Vietnam, détente with the Soviet Union, and the opening to China to name just a few of the monumental policy initiatives he helped fashion and implement. In his three-volume memoir, Kissinger reflects on the decisions that the Nixon and Ford administrations made as well as on his relationships with both presidents.

-George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (1993). Few people can match Shultz’s career. He taught economics at MIT and the University of Chicago for nearly two decades, served as secretary of labor (1969–70), director of the Office of Management and Budget (1970–72), secretary of the treasury (1972–1974), and then headed up the Bechtel Corporation. He capped off his government career as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state from 1982 to 1989. From his seventh floor office at the State Department, he engaged in legendary bureaucratic infighting with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and helped shaped U.S. foreign policy in the final years of the Cold War. In his memoir, Shultz takes readers behind the scenes of the Reagan administration and offers his assessment of Reagan the man.

Of course, the Soviets had their own views of the Cold War. Here are three memoirs by senior Soviet officials worth reading:

-Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents (1995). Dobrynin served as the Soviet Union’s ambassador to the United States from 1962 until 1986. He witnessed a lot of ups and down during his quarter of a century in Washington: Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko lying to President John Kennedy in the Oval Office about Soviet missiles in Cuba, the rise of détente, and the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to name just a few. His memoir provides a different perspective on how American politicians and policymakers handled the Cold War.

-Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1996). In the West, Gorbachev is a hero for recognizing the inevitable and allowing the Soviet Union to collapse. For many of his fellow Russians he is a villain for the same reason. In his memoir, Gorbachev explores why and how he revolutionized his country, transformed relations with the West, and helped end the Cold War. His account hasn’t done much to change how Russians feel about him, but it does make clear that at critical points in history, individuals matter.

-Nikita Khrushchev, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, Volume III: Statesman(2007). Khrushchev was one of the Cold War’s most blustery personalities. He vowed to “bury the West,” challenged then–Vice President Richard Nixon in a kitchen debate, and banged his shoe on a desktop at the United Nations. Those theatrics, plus his reckless instigation of the Cuban missile crisis and his mishandling of relations with China, help explain why his Politburo colleagues dumped him as Soviet premier in 1964. While under house arrest following his ouster, he dictated his memoirs—and he had a lot to say. Khrushchev’s memoirs were originally published as Khrushchev Remembers in the 1970s. (Strobe Talbott, who later became deputy secretary of state and president of the Brookings Institution, was the translator.) But Khrushchev’s son had a new and more complete version published.

My suggestions hardly exhaust the supply of good Cold War memoirs. So please list your favorites in the comments below.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog The Water's Edge. 

TopicsCold War RegionsUnited States