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The West's Containment Folly

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Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly last week was a telling piece of statecraft.  Now that the country’s relationship with the west have reached a new a nadir, and the impact of western-imposed economic sanctions is beginning to bite at home, Putin’s speech was a timely exposition of the defiant course that Moscow seems intent on charting.  The oration showed that Putin is on the back foot to a certain extent.  But it also highlights some serious limitations to prevailing U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, casting doubt on whether finely-tuned policies of containment ever will be enough to extract meaningful changes in policy from the Russian leader.

While most of Putin’s speech was devoted to announcing economic reforms—tax freezes, deregulation, investment in key infrastructure—and various social policies, there nevertheless was a clear and predictable emphasis on foreign affairs.  Putin celebrated Russia’s annexation of Crimea, stressing the deep cultural, religious and historical roots of Russia’s connection with the peninsula.  He railed against the western policy of “containment,” accusing the west of reflexive antipathy towards a strong and confident Russia.  And he pledged that Russia’s armed forces were ready to meet any and all foreign threats.

Stoking nationalistic sentiment has never been more important for Putin.  For a long time, his domestic popularity—indeed, his very legitimacy as a national leader—hinged upon his ability to deliver economic growth and prosperity.  Now, with the ruble tumbling vis-à-vis the dollar and the Russian economy sliding towards recession in the face of U.S.-led economic sanctions, Putin’s reputation for sound economic stewardship is faltering.  As such, it is hardly surprising that Putin is keen to ensure that the Russian people know to pin the blame for their woes on the western world and not the Kremlin.

Nor is Putin altogether wrong in his diagnosis. Western states do indeed fear a powerful and assertive Russia, and western sanctions—applied in response to Moscow’s policies towards Ukraine—are largely responsible for the economic turmoil currently ravaging the Russian economy.  While it was hyperbolic and inflammatory (likely intentionally so) of Putin to liken contemporary western policy to Hitler’s ambition to “push us [Russians] back beyond the Urals,” it is true that Europe and the U.S. wish that Russian influence would stop at its own borders.  A policy of containment is today being implemented by NATO, albeit to a questionable degree of success.  This policy might not be as colorfully articulated as was Georges Clemenceau’s “cordon sanitaire,” and is not as well thought-through as was George Kennan’s recommendation in the 1940s for the “adroit and vigilant application of counter force,” but it is nevertheless a concrete strategy of containment: a package of foreign economic, diplomatic and military policies aimed at preventing Russia from influencing events in its “near abroad.”

Putin is wrong to suggest that this means the west is bent on destroying or dismembering Russia, however.  This has never been the desire of American or European leaders.  Instead, the nominal goal of western policy is to change Russia, to encourage leaders in Moscow to adopt a new foreign policy tack.  By imposing intolerable costs upon Russia as the price of its interventionism (in Ukraine or elsewhere), the U.S. and Europe hope to bring Moscow to terms and lay the foundations for a relationship whereby Russia will be expected to play by western-designed rules.  At various points during its history, Russia has functioned as an integral and an important member of European and international society, a feared and respected Great Power and even a trusted military ally of the western powers.  The (distant) hope today is that external pressure can shift the needle of domestic politics in Russia such that the country changes course, once again taking its seat at the top table of world diplomacy.

Putin’s recent speech suggests that such an endgame might be wishful thinking.  Instead of empowering doves in Russia (as if such a faction even exists in the Kremlin), the policy of containment risks strengthening the hawks and encouraging Putin to double down on nationalistic words and deeds.  Rather than bringing Moscow to heel, economic sanctions and military balancing appear to be riling Russia’s leadership and closing off the possibility of rapprochement.  This is an unhappy state of affairs for all concerned. More depressingly, a straightforward way out of the current diplomatic abyss is difficult to detect.

TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia

Did Congress Kill an Iran Nuke Deal?

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Numerous reports indicate that a major reason the P5+1 and Iran failed to reach a nuclear agreement was because Tehran doubted that the White House’ could persuade Congress to lift the sanctions against it. Purportedly, U.S. negotiators offered to suspend the sanctions through presidential waivers, which Iran rejected because there would be no guarantee future administrations would continue this practice. This is a legitimate concerns and the Obama administration will need to exert every effort to reassure Tehran. In dealing with Congress, the administration should first negotiate, then lambast, and then be prepared to “go solo” if all else fails.

To be sure, there are creative methods that would allow the administration to circumvent the sanctions without congressional approval. Before sidestepping the incoming Republican-led Congress, however, the Obama administration should negotiate with Capitol Hill in earnest. In doing so, the administration could find itself in negotiations that are every bit as arduous as those with Iran. The administration could have little choice but to use other policy issues as bargaining chips to get Congress to remove sanctions against Iran. There are a number of potential issues the Obama administration could use to reach a grand bargain with congressional Republicans, including flexibility on budgetary matters, approving the Keystone pipeline, revisiting the coal plant emissions limit, and/or compromising on future immigration reform, to name a few.

One obstacle to this process could be the president himself. It is no secret that President Obama has little enthusiasm for “wheeling and dealing” and “back slapping” with congressional leaders. Nonetheless, the administration simply has to include Republicans in the process if it wants to get the congressionally mandated sanctions against Iran repealed.

Should a charm offensive fail, President Obama can try and lambast lawmakers into action much like he did last year when Congress tried to pass additional sanctions after the interim agreement was signed. In that instance, President Obama the sanctions push by dispatching Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry to lobby Congress, while also inviting lawmakers and Hill staffers to the White House for special briefings. Simultaneously, the president and other senior officials launched a major PR campaign outlining the dire consequences imposing more sanctions could have for U.S. national security.

A similar effort might work in persuading Congress to lift the sanctions against Iran. Having won majorities in both chambers of Congress, and with an eye towards the 2016 presidential election, Republicans will want to portray themselves as capable of governing. This can only happen, however, if the GOP appeals to the broader American populace, which just so happens to favor making a deal with Iran. As such, publicly lambasting Republicans could force them to make compromises on Iran sanctions.

If negotiations and public shaming fail, a creative method for ensuring continued sanctions waivers in a post-Obama environment could be to codify them within a UN Security Council resolution. That is, within a larger UNSC resolution, the U.S. could assure Iran that it will honor its commitment to provide sanctions relief. Such action would mandate the United States, the other members of the so-called P5+1 and UN members at-large to repeal sanctions against Iran and refrain from adopting nuclear-related restrictive measures so long as Tehran remains in compliance with the final nuclear agreement.

Supplemented domestically by a blanket executive order by President Obama to continuously and automatically waive sanctions in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution, this will provide future U.S. presidents with the legal impetus and authority to continue waiving the sanctions. Of course, Congress can pass a bill barring the president from providing waivers and override the presidential veto that would likely follow with a two-thirds majority from each house in Congress, but such a scenario is uncommon and would require the Republican majority in the Senate to rally many Democrats toward their cause.

Moreover, by failing to uphold its end of a nuclear accord, the United States could damage its relations with the European members of the P5+1, particularly since the bloc is negotiating with Iran in good faith. It could also signal to its competitors, rivals and foes alike (i.e. China, Russia and North Korea) that the U.S. reneges on its commitments due to its dysfunctional political system.

Legal experts may disagree on the above approach but the intent here is to promote outside the box thinking in reaching a historic nuclear deal with Iran.

Navid Hassibi is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Washington DC-based Nuclear Security Working Group and a doctoral candidate with the Research Group in International Politics at the University of Antwerp. He tweets @navidhassibi. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore/ CC 2.0​

TopicsDiplomacyPolitics RegionsMiddile East

Space: America's Forgotten Frontier

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NASA's launch of the first test flight for the new Orion capsule occurred recently. The capsule is tipped as a possible vehicle for carrying US astronauts into deep space. Space fans are enthused, given the fact that America has been unable to launch astronauts since the Space Shuttles were retired in 2011. But all is not as it seems.

This is not a fully assembled Orion, but a simple test version. There won't be any flights with astronauts until around 2021 according to current plans. But even this is uncertain. Nobody knows what NASA will really do with Orion. There is no formally approved long-term mission, nor any guarantee of funding. NASA has been talking of flying astronauts to visit an asteroid captured by another robot spacecraft and towed to lunar orbit. But Washington still won't give NASA any real marching orders or material support for anything involving this new capsule.

Thus, Orion could be on a mission to nowhere.

The Orion controversy points to a deeper malaise within the US Government. Spaceflight is no longer a priority for the nation that put footprints on the Moon. Certain local politicians lobby for pork barrel projects for their districts, but space politics is a minor niche topic on Capitol Hill.

In the meantime, Asia is experiencing its own regional space race. India will soon do its own test flight of an astronaut capsule. China is preparing another space laboratory. Japan just launched a mission to scoop samples from an asteroid. The balance of power in spaceflight is clearly shifting east.

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

Image: NASA. 

TopicsSpace RegionsUnited States

Coming to a Conflict Near You: Robot Wars

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The use of lethal robots in conflict is inevitable. When it happens, it’ll create a significant shift in the ways of warfare. A discussion has already begun (see here and here) on how such capabilities might be developed and applied.

Robots in general are becoming smaller, smarter, cheaper and more ubiquitous. Lethal robots are becoming more deadly and discriminating. The degree of autonomy will be a key driver of a robot’s role in conflict and is likely to evolve in three generations; the semi-autonomous, the restricted-autonomous, and ultimately the fully-autonomous generation.

We’re already a decade into the semi-autonomous generation—using robots to kill people but with humans still in the decision loop. Technology and cost factors mean the semi-autonomous generation has—so far—been dominated by states. Moreover, the targeting of senior-level decision makers has come to be regarded as a legitimate and effective tactic. “Targeted killings” by states with drones, aircraft, missiles or occasionally Special Forces raids have become common. As lethal robots proliferate they’ll increasingly be used for such missions because of their low cost and risk.

The motivation for states to regulate the use of semi-autonomous lethal robots has waned in recent years as more states develop the capability. And, in response to the potential for criticism and retaliation, states may increasingly seek to make the actions of their robots “plausibly deniable.” We can discern aspects of that approach already with US drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, as well as parallels regarding the use of cyber weapons and clandestine or proxy forces.

Non-state actors seem poised to join the contest by adding a remotely-detonated explosive charge to a commercially-available off-the-shelf drone. Such a device would likely be guided to its desired target through an on-board camera.

The semi-autonomous generation of lethal robots remains focused on distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants and holding individuals accountable for the decision to use lethal force—a constraint adopted by states through the Geneva Conventions. Many non-state forces reject this distinction and as a consequence they are more likely to employ lethal robots without a human in the loop – which will likely be first manifest in the restricted-autonous generation. That generation will involve the use of autonomous robots to kill people within a designated space or timeframe.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) will be critical to enabling that capability. Absent a human in the loop, the robot will be empowered/programmed to make the “decision” to kill. Distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant will be less critical. Targeting will occur on the basis of humans simply being in a certain place at a certain time. Restricted-autonomous lethal robots require less supervision and appear to provide more operational flexibility than the semi-autonomous generation.

Restricted-autonomous generation lethal robots are particularly appealing to non-state actors or irregular forces seeking to optimise their ‘terrorising effect’ by generating mass casualties. Commercially-available drones and other robots adapted by non-state forces to achieve lethal missions will likely appear first; later, copies of state-produced lethal drones may become more prevalent.

Restricted-autonomous generation lethal robots would also have tactical utility for state forces. In the initial operations, states would likely endeavour to provide early warning to non-combatants to move clear of a certain area. But as this generation of lethal robots becomes more capable such constraints are likely to be progressively relaxed as the robots determine targeting priorities based on “signature behaviour.” The restricted-autonomous generation will likely also witness the introduction of counter-robot robots tasked with finding and destroying lethal robots.

The use of restricted-autonomous lethal robots will also encourage enemy combatants to use non-combatants as human shields to deter attacks. While that process likely won’t witness the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions, invariably the West’s current high bar is likely to be called into question. That, in turn, will likely spur the development of technology for robots to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.

The fully-autonomous generation of lethal robots will witness the use of fully autonomous robots to kill designated combatants. The zenith of that generation can be imagined by reference to the 1984 movie The Terminator, but in reality a fully-autonomous lethal robot is more likely to take a functional rather than humanoid form.

The technology used to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants is difficult to imagine at present and may well be multi-faceted to include visual, magnetic and explosive vapour sensors coupled with biometric databases and behavioural algorithms. The cost of such systems will likely witness states being the first to leverage this generation of lethal robot. Non-state actors are unlikely to be able to afford or see the benefit in using fully-autonomous lethal robots.  In the near-term, though, those groups are on the cusp of using lethal robots built from commercially-available technologies. It’s in this area that states must urgently develop counter-measures.

Marcus Fielding served as a senior officer in the Australian Army with operational experience in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Haiti, East Timor and Iraq. He holds degrees in science, engineering, defense studies, business administration, military arts and science as well as strategic studies. This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

Why India Really Likes Ashton Carter

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After a week of swirling rumors, Ashton Carter, the deputy defense secretary from 2011-2013, has been all-but-announced as President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of defence.

Although Carter now needs to get confirmed, and will face particularly strong grilling on his views on US strategy in Iraq and Syria, it looks as though his confirmation will be a great deal smoother than Hagel's tortuous process: Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said “he would be a great choice,” and Levin's successor come January, John McCain, has expressed approval.

India will be watching Carter's path through Congress with particular interest. On Wednesday, the Indian news agency IANS headlined its report “India friend Ashton Carter is Obama pick.” The New York Times' South Asia bureau chief called Carter “one of India's favorite US officials,” the defense journalist Ajai Shukla cheered the “superb news,” and others were similarly effusive.

Why all the optimism?

Carter has a longstanding interest in India. In 2006 he wrote a long and nuanced essay in Foreign Affairs on the much-maligned US-India civil nuclear deal, arguing that, though it was unbalanced and problematic, it was worth pursuing for the sake of a “strategic realignment.” Then in 2011 Carter was appointed deputy secretary of defense. Ajai Shukla argued that, in this role, Carter was responsible for “bulldozing the Washington bureaucracy into moderating its hands-off attitude to India,” pushing forward the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTI, a body designed to help smooth the flow of advanced American technology to India), and proposing the unprecedented co-manufacture and even co-development of key weapons systems. Even though India has been steadily buying US arms, there seemed to be something sluggish about US-India ties. Carter looked like a bright spot in those lean years.

In an article for Foreign Policy in November last year, as he came to the end of his tenure, Carter emphasised “DoD's decision to change its mindset regarding technology transfer to India from a culture of ‘presumptive no’ to one of ‘presumptive yes.’” Carter framed this change in the context of the US rebalancing to Asia, but also within Asia – from “existing partnerships in Northeast Asia” to “new bilateral and multilateral collaboration in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.”

Two months before he wrote that, Carter had suggested, on a September 2013 visit to India, that Delhi and Washington co-develop the next-generation version of the Javelin anti-tank missile, something that he underscored was “an entirely new proposal intended to reflect the DTI, and it's being offered to no other country but India.” This was a potentially far-reaching proposal, and it seems fair to assume Carter was the animating force behind it. But India stalled, and recently, to Washington's great disappointment, opted for a large purchase of Israeli Spike anti-tank missiles over the existing Javelin.

However, co-development isn't off the table yet. According to Indian press reporting on Monday, India's defense research organisation, DRDO, and the defence ministry have shortlisted five possible areas for cooperation: naval guns, mine scattering anti-tank vehicles, unmanned aerial surveillance system, Javelin missiles, and aircraft landing systems for carriers. Apropos the carriers, the hints have been there: September's Modi-Obama joint statement alluded to “enhancing technology partnerships for India's Navy,” and the plugged-in Ashley Tellis had in September urged “US decisions to partner with New Delhi on developing India's next-generation aircraft carrier.”

As defense secretary, Carter will have a lot more on his plate than India, of course. US strategy against ISIL is in flux (one factor in Hagel's departure), Russia continues its brinksmanship with Europe, and China is challenging the pivot. The Pentagon is also in a bruising budgetary clash with Congress, with so-called sequestration mandating automatic cuts that could mean the US defense budget shrinks by “almost a trillion dollars by 2021.” And, as Carter himself wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, “the Pentagon is ill equipped to address urgent needs that arise during wartime’ – making the procurement system more flexible and adaptive will be a priority.

Carter will also have to overcome serious obstacles in Delhi, including India's longstanding refusal to sign the so-called Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), two agreements that US law deems necessary for certain aspects of technology transfer. For instance, Iskander Rehman recently explained how India's rejection of CISMOA and another protocol, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), meant that the sophisticated P-8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft purchased by India were “delivered without secure and encrypted communications, and satellite navigational aids.”

But with Obama and Modi having established a personal connection, a new Indian defense minister now in place, and other arms suppliers – not least France and Israel – making progress in Delhi, the time is ripe for Carter, from a higher perch, to give a fresh push to the proposals he set in motion last year.

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

China Is Capable of Launching Cyber Strikes Against US Power Grids

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Two weeks ago, Admiral Mike Rogers, head of U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, told a congressional panel that China and “one or two” other countries would be capable of mounting a cyberattack that could shut down the power grid or other critical infrastructure. In addition, over the last two years, there have been a number of public reports that China-based hackers broke into industrial control systems (ICS). UglyGorilla, one of the five People’s Liberation Army hackers indicted by the Department of Justice, reportedly hacked into the computers of a public utility in the northeastern United States, perhaps to map the system in preparation for a future attack.

As with previous U.S. claims, the Chinese have fiercely denied that they hack at all, much less into industrial systems. But in one of the denials, there is an interesting insight into Chinese concerns about U.S. capabilities. This article in Chinese points out that these claims have been made before and are part of the “China threat theory,” efforts by Congress, the Defense Department, and others to paint China as a threat to the international order. The novelty and importance of the claim, the article argues, is that Rogers is its source. The article asserts, in a roundabout way, that this is evidence that the United States is capable of hacking into China’s power grid. No one knows what cyber capabilities China possesses, and so if Rogers is worried about someone hacking into U.S. critical infrastructure it is because he knows that Cyber Command can do it to others.

More concrete evidence of this concern is clear in the announcement this week that China is establishing its first laboratory to work on information security for industrial control systems (the story was also covered with the headline, “China’s Industrial Control System Information Security System is Grim“). According to the announcement, over 80 percent of China’s economy and critical infrastructure involve some type of industrial control system. These systems are vulnerable to attack for at least three reasons: operators have low security awareness and ICS are connected to the Internet; Chinese industry is heavily reliant on foreign suppliers for ICS and these suppliers have access in order to service or update software; and the country lacks a testing range or simulation environment to prepare for and defend against attacks. The laboratory is meant to address all of these weaknesses.

This sense of vulnerability could break in one of two ways for stability in the U.S.-China relationship. On one hand, if vulnerability is high and defense is difficult, there are incentives to use cyber attacks quickly before your adversary does. Offense has the advantage, and crises could quickly escalate through cyberattacks. On the other hand, a mutual sense of vulnerability may help create deterrence. You do not dare launch a cyberattack because you know the same could happen to you.

It would be good to know which the Chinese think is more likely, and to discuss how we might dampen the potential instability in the relationship through greater transparency and discussions of thresholds of attacks. As Rogers told the panel, “We need to define what would be offensive, what’s an act of war.” Unfortunately, the two sides are not talking right now (the Chinese suspended the cyber working group after the Department of Justice indictment), which means, to parrot the Chinese article, the ICS information security situation will continue to be grim.

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

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Hong Kong's Real Problem: Massive Inequality

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Old Lum's price is HK$220 (US$28). His service is washing cars in the parking lots of Kowloon Tong, where his regular customers, Hong Kong's old-money types, live and work. To see him in action is to witness life in one of the world's most unequal cities.

Mr Lum (a pseudonym) is in his 70s. He's not sure exactly how old because his personal records, and those of most of his family, were lost in the war years of his childhood. He's had a troubled adult life too. A delicate inquiry suggests he is illiterate. What can also be inferred from his appearance is that he is not well. During summer he works shirtless, so you can see his body has that skinny-tubby look that some old folks have, thin limbs and a swollen belly. His complexion hints at liver problems.

He gets free medical care, the one public service that is reliably good in Hong Kong, but has never asked for welfare. He takes pride in self-reliance and considers himself a businessmen rather than a charity case. His franchise is a customer base of a dozen or so rich families, relationships built over 30-years. In accounting terms, the only tangible assets of his business are a plastic bucket, a bottle of detergent and a deerskin cloth. Rags can be obtained for nothing. In some locations he can also make free use of a hose.

His routine is well practiced, deliberate and slow. He soaps the car all over and then washes it off, section by section. He takes particular care to clean each spoke of the wheels. It's tough for him to get down on his knees, but there he is, down at ground level. He patiently dries the car off with the chamois and lastly the windows. The whole operation takes about half an hour. It's awkward to watch.

He must take special care with all of his charges. Some garages in Hong Kong wouldn't look out of place in Monaco. The territory levies a 200-300% tax on luxury vehicles, but consumers aren't deterred; they buy them anyway. It's quite common to see limousines priced over HK$2 million and sports cars twice that. Mr Lum washes exotic models that you've probably never even heard of, worth HK$10 million or more. Some of his clients own several.

He has tried to raise his price a few times, to HK$250 or even HK$300. But his customers, those who drive the Paganis and the Maybachs, drive hard bargains too. They're business people with factories in China and office towers in Hong Kong, and tough negotiating is instinctive for them. Fair enough, you may be thinking. But Mr Lum's rate of HK$220 is per month. He will wash your car six days a week each month for that much.

If he works 10 hours per day, he can do 20 cars maximum. So at most he can make about HK$4000 per month, or about US$500. He lives far away from this neighborhood, in conditions unknown, but you can guess they won't be comfortable. At best he may be provided rent-free public housing. He might even live in one of Hong Kong's notorious birdcage shared apartments. He works all year with no holidays, six days per week.

He takes every Sunday off. On this day he offers his time for volunteer work, to help the needy.

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

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsHong Kong RegionsChina

Japan's Shinzo Abe Tries to End World War II

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will do “whatever it takes” to sign a formal peace treaty with Russia ending their outstanding territorial dispute, according to state-run Russian media outlets.

According to the reports, which cited Japan’s Kyodo News Agency, Abe pledged in a speech on Monday to redouble his efforts to resolve Japan’s long-standing territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories).

“I shall resolve the problem of [the] Northern Territories and conclude a peace treaty," Abe was quoted as saying in a speech with a local mayor. He added, “As a politician and prime minister, I will achieve it whatever it takes [sic]."

Russia and Japan have long disputed the four islands in the southern Pacific. Indeed, the two countries technically remain at war as the territorial dispute prevented them from ever inking a formal treaty ending their WWII hostilities.

Early on in his current term as premier, Abe launched a charm offensive towards Russian President Vladimir Putin that was aimed at finally resolving the dispute. The outreach saw early results as Abe made a historic visit to Russia in April 2013, which was the first time a sitting Japanese prime minister had visited the Kremlin in over a decade. During the trip, Abe and Putin directed their top diplomats to redouble efforts to resolve the dispute in a timely fashion.

This positive momentum was derailed, however, by the rising tensions between the United States and Russia over events in the Ukraine. Despite his interest in improving ties with Russia as a way to balance against China, Abe ultimately adopted sanctions against Russia over Crimea in order to maintain solidarity with the United States and other Western powers. He also rescinded an invitation for Putin to visit Tokyo in the fall of this year.

In response, Russia held military drills on the disputed islands in August of this year. The following month Moscow announced plans to spend $1.25 billion over the next decade to further develop the islands.

Abe’s comments on Monday may signal his intention to resume his earlier outreach efforts towards Moscow.

On the other hand, it is just as likely that Abe’s speech was motivated by domestic politics. Abe made the comments while meeting with Shunsuke Hasegawa, the mayor of Nemuro of Hokkaido Prefecture, which is located right near the Kuril Islands. The territorial dispute with Russia is an important local political issue as many Hokkaido residents used to live on the Kuril Islands before being forced into exile by Russia.

For what it’s worth, Russia appears to be interpreting Abe’s comments as a domestic political ploy. A ITAR-TASS report on Tuesday said that most “experts” believe that, “Japanese Minister Shinzo Abe's declared intention to conclude a peace treaty with Russia after resolving the territorial dispute is first and foremost addressed to the domestic audience on the eve of elections.... Some interpret this pledge as an attempt to put pressure on Moscow."

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister - Japan. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

Asia's Great Narrative Dilemma: China on the Rise, America Simply Paralyzed?

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Remember when the US called on China to step up and be a "responsible stakeholder"? Well, be careful what you wish for. Xi Jinping used the bully pulpit provided by China's hosting of this year's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting last month to present China (and himself) as the new power in Asia, touting his new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative while calling for the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), originally a US initiative. "We are getting killed here," confided one Asia-based US official, pointing to two headlines in that day's paper: one heralded progress in ROK-China trade negotiations; the other noted US efforts to block the AIIB while seemingly rejecting China's efforts to move forward on the FTAAP.

Echoes of this dismay are being heard throughout the region. While President Obama's Asia tour is touted as a success for the administration - and there were some notable accomplishments - the contrast with Chinese diplomacy was striking. Beijing is increasingly seen as a nuanced and aggressive actor, responding to regional needs (and its own), while Washington is playing defense, working to block new initiatives and seemingly struggling to keep pace with China. Meanwhile, those convinced (wrongly in our view) that the US rebalance is really aimed at somehow containing China point to these obstructionist efforts as confirming their worst suspicions.

To be fair, China was supposed to look good last month. As in the 2008 Olympics, Beijing milked APEC for all it was worth. Every component of the national bureaucracy was devoted to stage managing the APEC forum and all associated festivities. Xi even managed to patch up differences with Japan (at least temporarily and begrudgingly) to allow him to meet visiting Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Meeting with Obama in Beijing, the two men concluded a series of agreements designed to breathe new life into Xi's concept of "a new type of major country relations," among them a potentially historic pledge on climate change. And unlike Obama, Xi is thought to be able to deliver on his promise to cut emissions. Obama had hardly stopped speaking when Congress began negating and berating the agreement, reinforcing the image of a president (and nation) in decline.

But APEC and the AIIB were just part of a larger demonstration of Chinese power and largesse. Xi has been touting one initiative after another, whether the "Asia for Asians" security concept unveiled at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a New Silk Road Land Belt, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) New Development Bank (NDB), or trade agreements with the ROK and Australia. And those aren't just empty words. China has pledged half the capital for the AIIB, at least 20 percent (and probably more) of the NDB funds, $20 billion for investment in India, and $40 billion for the Maritime Silk Road.  

Meanwhile, the US is playing defense. The run-up to the APEC meeting was dominated by reports of Washington's behind the scenes efforts to undermine the AIIB, pushing allies and partners to keep their distance from the new bank. The US was also allegedly impeding Chinese efforts to promote the FTAAP: rightly (to avoid distractions from the Trans-Pacific Partnership process) or not, the image is of a government set on blocking progress, not shaping the future.   

All this is overlaid across the narrative of a sclerotic US political system, with a lame duck president deeply wounded by midterm election results. Most have given up hope that Obama will muster the political courage, much less the political support, to move forward with Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or "fast track") legislation deemed essential for any hope of successful conclusion of the TPP. Obama is increasingly seen as weak, overly intellectual, indecisive, perhaps even feckless. The US public is riven by ideological discord, soft, and prone to disengagement. Even the US military is overextended and battling the budget cuts triggered by take no prisoners domestic politics and decades of profligacy; the image of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (the only Republican in Obama's Cabinet) being forced to resign only deepens this image, one that fits the story of a weak and declining country, battling to maintain its hegemony in the face of a rising power.

This hapless state of affairs is a stark contrast with the image of Xi, a strong and powerful Chinese leader, bending even a rapidly modernizing PLA to his will, determined to root out corruption, to enhance the legitimacy of the Communist party and to realize the Chinese dream that culminates in the emergence of the Middle Kingdom. He has rallied the Party and the public behind him and his vision. Xi has even shown a capacity for correction, recognizing the damage done by four years of aggressive diplomacy and showing more nuance in recent weeks in remarks and actions toward neighbors.

These perceptions are distorted. They exaggerate US problems and misinterpret domestic developments. In fact, the US economy is on the mend, registering growth in excess of 3 percent, with unemployment dropping below 6 percent for the first time since the global financial crisis, the budget deficit is dropping, and US exports keep surging. Obama may be wounded but he is not enfeebled, as his recent executive actions testify. The US commitment to Asia remains strong; the rebalance is continuing. And while the US public is wary of foreign adventurism, polls show that the demand for US leadership in the world remains undimmed. When problems require action, the public will back intelligent responses.

China's growth continues to outpace that of the US, but it should since it is a less developed economy. Still, the nation's growth rate has dropped by one-third, and internal strains are increasing: the banking system is stressed, real estate prices are frothy, corruption may be under assault but it is deep rooted and eradicating the cancer threatens to do great damage to the Party itself. Beijing's citizens derisively talk about "APEC Blue," the (temporary) clear skies manufactured for APEC, which have already been replaced by hazardous pollution ratings now that the spotlight has been turned off. Neighboring countries are happy to accept China's largesse but that has not stopped them from forging stronger security ties with the US to hedge against Chinese assertiveness as Beijing violates its own pledges not to change the status quo in the South China Sea, for example.

US foreign policy in Asia may seem self-interested, especially when contrasted with China's generosity, but the fact remains that there is a strong demand for the US presence and profile in the region. If partners and allies are troubled by US behavior, it is because they still expect much of Washington. And Washington is right to raise serious questions about the standards that the NDB and AIIB will follow and how they will complement rather than compete with existing organizations like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Nevertheless, the two divergent narratives should worry US policy makers. Washington is losing the PR battle, and while perception doesn't always match reality, in many cases it shapes reality. While the US must not substitute public relations for policy, it must do more to manage the message and help rewrite those headlines. For instance, moving forward with IMF reform (currently languishing, like many other initiatives, in the US Congress) would send a signal that the US is committed to adapting existing institutions to allow China and the other BRICS countries to play an expanded role commensurate with their growing economic influence, rather than having to create alternative mechanisms.

Critical to the US effort is somehow accommodating and coopting Chinese efforts to shape the international environment. Washington cannot be perceived as opposed to Chinese (or other government's) initiatives to deal with regional problems; it cannot be seen as petty or petulant, more concerned with the provenance of an idea than its ability to solve problems.  It needs to encourage participation from all countries to handle the myriad challenges of the 21st century.  Otherwise, the United States will appear as increasingly obstructionist and weak, rather than the world leader it still proclaims itself to be.

Ralph Cossa is president of Pacific Forum CSIS. Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS and co-author with Scott Snyder of The Japan-Korea Identity Clash (Columbia University Press, forthcoming, 2015). This piece was first posted in CSIS:PACNET newsletter here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Hey, America: Forget the Middle East, Focus on China Instead

The Buzz

President Barack Obama's recent travel put his "pivot to Asia" back into the news. But his trip redefined that wise strategic goal as merely increased trade and investment, bereft of its original security component. That switch is due to a renewed fixation on the Middle East. After promising to end our interventions in the region, Obama again is succumbing to pressure from the military, Congress and the media once more to send troops to Iraq and to arm a phantom "moderate army" in Syria—all in the name of fighting terrorism, although terror has never presented an existential threat to any state, still less one as powerful and wealthy as America. The existential threat we may face will come from another direction: Asia.

Our narrow focus results from a political class and media that regularly reanimate our 9-11 trauma, perpetuating a public addiction to the Middle East melodrama, a public arrested by horrors on television and ignorant of far greater dangers looming in the Pacific.

The Pacific Ocean, not the Persian Gulf, is where our geopolitical attention should be focused. And for that region, we need a “security industrial complex” far less than geopolitical vision and a meaningful naval presence in the eastern Pacific to buck up our terrified allies.

There is a disturbing gap between the American establishment's view of China and that of its Pacific neighbors. The former sees business opportunities, the latter are terrified by China's military buildup, its proliferating claims on their territories and a parade of alarming incursions.

In 2013, East Asia contributed more than 40 percent of the world's economic growth. Our National Intelligence Council reported a “continuing” and “unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East.” That economic shift is well known; less well recognized is the shift in military power and geopolitical tensions to that region.

In February, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported that last year, Asia’s military spending rose while most Western countries cut theirs, accelerating a “shift in the global distribution of military power towards Asia. . . . In real terms, Asian defense spending in 2013 was 9.4 percent higher than it was in 2011.”

IISS also found that the growth in Chinese military spending eclipses that of its neighbors. In 2013, it accounted for 46 percent of the region’s combined military growth. Moreover, IHS Jane’s and other reputable military analysts say China’s actual military spending widely outstrips official figures.

As a consequence of this spending, and new Chinese territorial claims, Vietnam has nearly doubled its military spending, Japan is projecting its largest defense budget since World War II and the Philippines hastens to cobble together a viable navy. India and South Korea are now desperately engaged in military modernization. With China leading the way, Asian countries now account for about half of the world's arms imports.

But this is not an “arms race” anymore than an “arms race” preceded World War II. The allies tardily began to rearm after years of appeasing Germany. China’s neighbors are mustering belatedly and anxiously.

Armed to the teeth, Beijing brazenly presses territorial claims against its neighbors, from rocks, reefs and fisheries to islands and sea-lanes. In 2012, China provoked a dangerous dispute over islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea. A year ago, China stunned Japan, South Korea and the United States by suddenly declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over parts of that sea. Beijing now claims 90 percent of the South China Sea in which the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have claims. Beijing rejects multilateral discussions with its Southeast Asian neighbors, preferring bilateral meetings with individual countries, an approach that allows China to apply greater pressure.

The stakes in these disputes include deposits of oil and natural gas and vital shipping lanes. Moreover, China’s new naval and air strength enables it to project power even into the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Chinese mastery of Pacific and Indian Ocean shipping lanes would give it a stranglehold over a global economy increasingly centered in Asia.

There is popular enthusiasm in China for the assertiveness of its new leader Xi Jinping, whom China watchers told us would focus on mushrooming domestic inequities and widespread Communist corruption. Instead, Xi, even more than his predecessor, has sought to channel domestic discontent into external belligerence. As a prologue to Obama's visit, Chinese state-controlled media has been engaging in a drumbeat of anti-American conspiracy theories and demonization. All the while its spies were reading State Department emails, National Weather Service computers and the personal data of 800,000 U.S. Postal workers. Meanwhile, Obama was blithely, if properly, signing trade agreements and a greenhouse-gas pact in which smog-choked China is obliged to do nothing until 2030.

As for the trade agreements, China is exploiting its new riches, rooted in domestic wage slavery and American consumerism, to supplant the very international economic institutions that helped make Asia prosperous, the IMF and the World Bank, with an “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” and a “New Development Bank.” Those entities are not expected to follow the environmental, labor and procurement standards that have characterized traditional development banks. Furthermore, China is dangling financial and trade incentives to Central Asia and South Asia, to resurrect the old Silk Road trading route that once carried treasures between China and the Mediterranean. Pakistan and its neighbors becoming Chinese vassals may be the long-range fallout of our Afghan wars.

Many China watchers argue that it could take decades before Chinese military spending overtakes that of the United States. But it is the composition of that spending that will matter in the Pacific, where naval forces are key. According to congressional sources, in 2015 “for four months, the Navy will not have an aircraft carrier in the region.” Meanwhile, as the New York Times editorial board, not known for hawkish opinions, has pointed out, “China is investing in new systems, including submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, that could be used to further intimidate neighbors or deny the United States access to Asian waters to defend its allies.”

And those allies are terrified. In February, the highly respected Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III compared Western inattention to China’s oceanic claims to the West’s failure to oppose Hitler’s demands for Czech land in 1938. Like Czechoslovakia, said Aquino, the Philippines faces demands from a far more powerful country to surrender territory piecemeal.

Aquino’s appeal was only the most poignant Asian analogy to European wars. A month earlier, Japan's prime minister alarmed the annual Davos meeting by observing that Germany and Britain went to World War I, notwithstanding their close economic ties—like those between China and Japan today.

Indeed, World War I and World War II both offer disturbing analogies. Before World War I, a rising Imperial Germany built a navy to rival Britain's. Before World War II, a one-party, totalitarian state portrayed itself as a victim of history, modernized its economy, stirred up nationalist fervor, built up its military, made territorial claims against neighboring countries and enforced those claims with a blitzkrieg to the acclaim of its people.

Historical analogies can take us only so far. The Chinese leadership is usually far more nuanced in seeking “lebensraum” than Nazi Germany (though it can be clumsy to boot), and today's world is more willing to accommodate a rising China than it was the Kaiser's Germany. Yet these precedents are worth pondering as we stumble into a policy of appeasement preferred by investment banks and multinational corporations.

We cannot ignore the vested interests driving and distorting our geopolitical priorities. September 11 created a counterterrorist octopus, with a squishy head and many lucrative arms. These include more than three thousand government organizations and private companies in more than 10,000 locations across the country with as many as a million employees specializing, often redundantly, in homeland security, intelligence and counterterrorism. As the Washington Post's Dana Priest and the New York Times James Risen have reported, the octopus has studded the DC Beltway with some three-dozen complexes since September 2001, occupying the square footage of three Pentagon Cities. Its cephalopod arms coil around cable news, whose ratings soar with every image of beheaded Westerners or American soldiers mired in Middle East sectarian strife, images designed to provoke us once again into another futile intervention in a religious war likely to last for decades.

The octopus has conceived the squishy concept of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) without being able to distinguish enemies (Iran) from allies (Iran again), or to define our national interests in that war or the real, as opposed to the speculative, dangers it is supposedly averting. Boosting GWOT is a phalanx of pundits and congressional warriors with high-flying rhetoric and a dismal record on the ground. Meanwhile, the octopus has smothered the credibility of the agencies charged with protecting us, while diverting the administration into another quixotic Middle East intervention.

If that weren't sufficiently distracting, the administration plunged into foolish dispute with Russia over Ukraine—a country politically, ethnically and religiously split for a millennium. Instead of ensuring that Ukraine remain a bridge between Russia and the West, the democracy-everywhere-now zealots (another arm of the octopus) turned into a Cold War battlefield a country of paltry geopolitical consequence, ruled by corrupt oligarchs customarily thrown into prison after, or sometimes before, completing their terms in office.

Our activities in Ukraine followed a decade and a half of steady enlargement of the NATO alliance (whose purpose was to contain a Cold War Soviet threat) by appending all the western neighbors of a prostrate Russia. Vladimir Putin accordingly persuaded his subjects they were being surrounded by the West, stirred up latent anti-Western sentiments conveniently designed to split his democratic opposition, and began to modernize his decrepit and demoralized military. Russia has been called “a gas station with a flag,” and it is true that Russia has become an oil monoculture with a second-rate army. But that is hardly a reason for pushing Russia into the waiting arms of a rising, ambitious, superpower with a first-rate army and nearly five times Russia's gross domestic product.

A significant consequence of Western sanctions on Russia for its interference in Ukraine was Moscow’s last-minute capitulation to Chinese pricing demands in their May 2014 gas deal. Putin called the deal “a large-scale strategic project on the global level,” one that “will significantly strengthen economic cooperation . . . with our key partner China”. Rather than pivoting to Asia, we've managed to create another distraction to accompany our fixation on the Middle East.

There we intervened to overthrow a totalitarian dictator allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction, ready to lend to religious terrorists he despised and who reviled him. Though we fought in the name of democracy, freedom and counterterrorism, in reality, we sunk our blood and treasure into a confessional conflict, "a clash of civilizations," and what the Quran terms a fitna. This Quranic "discord" is promoted not by would-be global tyrants, but by Holy Warriors funded and armed by local states, dynasties and great powers, like the United States and Russia. This mosaic of proxy, national, dynastic and sectarian wars closely resembles Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, which was the culmination of a Christian fitna that lasted not thirty, but one hundred and thirty years.

The Shia-Sunni clash structures that theater of action, not democratic resistance to tyranny. Instead, we should pursue a policy of "offshore balancing" to prevent both the proxies of the Saudi/Gulf kingdoms and the surrogates of Iran from triumphing—by sanctioning banks laundering terrorist funds, firing an occasional cruise missile, dropping an occasional bomb when we see terrorist camps being erected. But the incoming Secretary of Defense should reorient our spending to revitalize our navy and reestablish an effective naval presence in the Pacific to deter Chinese adventurism and back up our allies. This would have the added benefit of reining in any resurgent Japanese militarism. We need a strategy of offshore balance in the Middle East, but must also start alerting the public to the possible hegemonic threat gathering in Asia. We need to look in the other direction.

Robert S. Leiken is the author of Europe’s Angry Muslims (Oxford University Press 2012). He was the director of the National Security and Immigration Program at the Nixon Center and the Center for the National Interest 2002-2012.

Image: Flickr/caledomac/CC by-nc-sa 2.0

TopicsForeign PolicyMilitary StrategyDefense RegionsAsiaMiddle EastUnited States