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Japan's Collective Self-Defense Play: A Game Changer?

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As anticipated, Japan’s Cabinet has reinterpreted the constitution to permit Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense. After some initial histrionics – Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, opined that Prime Minister Shinzo “Abe is manipulating a dangerous coup to overturn the country's post-war pacifism and democratic ideals, as he hones in on releasing the shackles of the nation's legally tethered military and war will from its war-renouncing Constitution” – the decision was met by neighbors with resignation and the grinding of teeth. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged Japan “to earnestly respect legitimate security concerns of its Asian neighbors, deal with relevant issues with discretion, not to harm the national sovereignty and security interests of China and not to undermine regional peace and stability.” His counterpart in Seoul insisted that any Japanese exercise of collective self-defense affecting security and national interests on the Korean Peninsula “cannot be accepted unless we request it or agree to it.”  

If the reaction seems anticlimactic, it is because there is much less going on than meets the eye. The legal and constitutional constraints on Japanese security policy are less restrictive than many admit.  As Adam Liff noted recently, Japanese prime ministers have reinterpreted the constitution throughout the postwar era when they felt compelled to do so. Bureaucrats and politicians have been masterful practitioners of the “fudge” when addressing hard national security and alliance issues: recall the secret agreements regarding US nuclear weapons on Japanese territory. And Japan’s Supreme Court has traditionally deferred to politicians on such matters.

The real constraints on Japan’s security policy have been and will continue to be social and political. Recall that Abe took office with a desire to rewrite the entire constitution. That became an intent to change just Article 9. He has settled, after a much longer process than anticipated, for a change in the interpretation of the exercise of the right of collective self-defense – and now must wait for legislation to turn this week’s Cabinet decision into law. When that happens – it could take as long as two years – the use of Japan’s military will be subject to three conditions:

1: Japan can come to the aid of an ally with which it has a “very close relationship” if there is a threat to constitutional rights to life, liberty, and happiness of Japanese citizens. [Taken literally, Japan has only one ally, the United States, which considerably limits application of this change in interpretation];  

2: There is no other diplomatic or negotiated means to protect both that nation and its citizens but through the use of military force; and

3: The use of military force is kept to a “bare minimum.”

That scaling back of ambitions reflects powerful opposition. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party isn’t united on the issue and its alliance partner, New Komeito, demanded the introduction of the three conditions as the price of its support for the measure. Opinion polls consistently show more than 50 percent of the public opposes the reinterpretation of the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. 

The rhetoric that has been used throughout the reinterpretation discussion – and by the prime minister himself when he announced the change Tuesday evening in Tokyo – underscores the power of those constraints. Abe framed the move as consistent with Japan’s status as a “peace state” and emphasized that any and all changes will be part of its strategy of “proactive pacifism.” Cynics may dismiss that as another empty slogan, but the fact remains that such language is needed to legitimate action to the public.

Those same cynics point out that the three conditions designed to limit Japanese action are undefined and potentially quite expansive. What is the “bare minimum” use of force necessary? Subsequent legislation will define that phrase, but its application will invariably be influenced by political considerations at the time of a crisis.

Any “adventurism” will encounter powerful headwinds in Japan. My study of Japan after the March 11, 2011 “triple catastrophe” suggests that there is no stomach among the Japanese for a high-profile “hard” security policy; there remains profound skepticism about the value of a military except in the defense of the homeland. Combine the Japanese ambivalence about engagement generally with a shrinking population that is aging and a military that would have to be significantly (and expensively) retooled to project power, and those headwinds reach gale force.

There is a temptation to see the return to power of Abe Shinzo as heralding a rightward shift in Japan. Resist it. Remember that Abe wasn’t the first choice to lead the LDP in the party election before the 2012 general election. The structure of the electoral system rewards large parties: in the absence of a unified opposition, the LDP took a disproportionate share of the seats in that ballot. (The LDP claimed more seats in 2012 than the DPJ did in its landslide win in 2009, even though the DPJ won more votes in the 2009 election.) Abe and the LDP won a mandate, first and foremost, to fix the economy, not lead a revanchist movement.

While Abe’s conservative views on security issues were well known, his first task remains an economic recovery. Failure to get the economy back on track will empower opposition to him within the LDP – and it is substantial. Foes within the party will likely use public protests against his security policy to help make the case for a change in the Prime Minister’s Office. If that is the case, change in Japan’s security policy may prove to have far greater impact than Abe and his supporters ever anticipated – and not in the way that they anticipated. 

Brad Glosserman is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, which has provided policy-oriented analysis and promoted dialogue on regional security, political, economic, and environmental issues in the Asia-Pacific region for over 25 years. This article first appeared in the CSIS:PACNET newsletter here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

Civil Rights, Fifty Years On: Partisan Realignment and U.S. Foreign Policy

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Fifty years ago today Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into federal law.  The Voting Rights Act followed just one year later.  Both pieces of legislation were important nails in the coffin of Jim Crow, the oppressive system of laws that had segregated the American South along racial lines since the end of Reconstruction.  A corollary was to reshape U.S. party politics and, by extension, foreign policy for generations to come.

As well as keeping African-Americans subjugated and disenfranchised, Jim Crow had been the political foundation of the Democratic Party’s century-long lock on the so-called Solid South.  In approving the Civil Rights Act, Johnson is said to have confided that he had signed away the South “for a generation.”  The president knew that white segregationists would not forgive the national Democratic Party for supporting civil rights.  Although he hoped (misguidedly) that newly enfranchised blacks would be enough to buoy the Democratic vote share, Johnson was mostly clear-eyed that embracing civil rights would mean losing the South.

Johnson’s concerns were well founded.  Beginning with Nixon and his so-called “Southern Strategy,” the Republican Party in the late 1960s began a long march towards absorbing disaffected Southern Democrats and establishing political control over the South.  The process was slow, only to be more-or-less completed by the 2000s, by which time most of the old Confederacy was reliably GOP territory.

The reconfiguration of America’s political landscape translated into new partisan differences over policy, many of which last until this day, particularly when it comes to the military.  By the mid-1960s, the American South was home to some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Cold War military-industrial complex.  Although the “gun belt” is not strictly coterminous with the South, there is considerable overlap: military bases were disproportionately located below the Mason-Dixon while arms manufacturing and related industries brought much needed jobs to a region with historically low income levels compared to the rest of the United States.

As part of the Democratic fold during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the South had thus been a linchpin of the party’s support for containment of the Soviet Union and the massive investment in military hardware that containment entailed.  As southern votes migrated towards the GOP, however, so too did these preferences for privileging the defense industry.  Crudely put, a switch in partisan preferences took place: the Republicans becoming hawks and the Democrats doves.

Consider the differences between the Truman, Kennedy and Johnson administrations—each of which oversaw over massive increases in defense spending—and the post-Civil Rights Act administrations of Carter, Clinton and Obama—none of which are known for having lent robust support for investment in the military.  On the Republican side, the contrast is equally striking: Eisenhower and even Nixon sought to curb defense expenditure while their firmly post-Civil Rights Act successors (particularly Reagan and George W. Bush) were emphatic supporters of expanding the size of the military.

The history of civil rights is intimately connected with America’s history as a global power. Law professor Mary L. Dudziak once argued that the Civil Rights Act was, as much as anything, a foreign policy scheme concocted to improve America’s international image in the context of the Cold War.  From Dudziak’s perspective, U.S. foreign policy objectives drove political decision-making on the home front.  Yet the causal arrow also points in the other direction—that is, the domestic realignments of the civil rights era had a significant impact upon the nation’s external posture, much of which has carried through to the present day.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

ISIS has a Choice to Make: Build a State or Super Terrorist Organization

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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has a tough decision to make.

He can aim high and marshal all his human and material resources to consolidate his de-facto state in the borderlands of Syria, Iraq, and soon possibly Jordan and Lebanon. That’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Or he can drop the idea of statehood altogether and focus on excelling at something smaller: the creation of the most lethal clandestine terrorist organization in the world that could supplant Al-Qaeda. That’s a limited objectives, low-risk strategy. The choice is clear: it’s between setting up a state and setting up shop, it can't be both, and what al-Baghdadi picks will have serious implications for the future of his group, the Middle East, and that of transnational jihadist terrorism.

There are unique benefits to the first option. If al-Baghdadi succeeds in establishing a physical state, he would be the first jihadist leader to rule over a real Islamic Caliphate built on jihadist laws and principles. The jihadists’ dream would finally come true. Al-Qaeda has been calling for the creation of such a state since its inception in the early 1980’s, and its various franchises in Northern Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula have tried over the years to seize territory and force sharia law on its inhabitants. But the land they have sought to control is small and barren, making it strategically insignificant and practically ungovernable. In contrast, the areas that al-Baghdadi has taken over are vast, sufficiently populated, and rich with resources including oil, making them ideal for governance.

But for the vision of statehood to survive, al-Baghdadi would have to commit to sustaining an overt and powerful insurgency that would be capable of defending his new state from all enemies. This won’t be easy. World governments, and especially Washington, will not tolerate such a major terrorist safe haven. The Middle East’s Shi’ites will also be on the offensive, doing everything they possibly can to destroy al-Baghdadi’s state.

Aside from trying to secure what may be an indefensible state, al-Baghdadi would also have to govern over a sizable constituency, and that includes paying salaries, policing, administering, and delivering social goods and services. The historical record shows that extremist Islamic groups are only good at killing people who don’t agree with them, and nothing else. Sure, al-Baghdadi might not care much about doing a good job at governing, but indifference would most likely cause defections and desertions among the ranks, and possibly rebellions, which would ultimately lead to his state's collapse. It’s one thing to set up a state, but maintaining it is another thing altogether. 

The second option, which US intelligence agencies are already analyzing and worrying about, is purely a terrorist model, with no plans for societal and territorial control. With more than a billion dollars and thousands of supporters, al-Baghdadi can turn ISIS into the most powerful terrorist organization the world has ever known. He could inherit the world of jihadist terrorism and dethrone Ayman al-Zawahri, the al-Qaeda chief. With this amount of money and this large a following, he can build the most sophisticated network of terrorist cells across and beyond the region. He can recruit, train, and plan for the next 9/11 and even more. But there is only one condition: al-Baghdadi would have to give up statehood and go underground. To be effective, he would have to do this covertly. He would have to forget about political power and public leadership and operate away from public eyes.

So which goal does he value more? Ruling a kingdom temporarily or attacking Western interests for the long term? For now, all signs on the ground indicate that he is at least going to try pursuing the first option. It is not every day that a strategic opportunity like this presents itself. The Iraqi army is relatively weak and the international community's and specifically the United States' reaction has been lethargic.

But by choosing the first option, he risks losing everything. If he continues to expand and opts for statehood but fails, there is a big chance that he won’t be even capable of exercising the second option. That’s because the potential breakdown of his state will be demoralizing and it will deal a huge blow to his group. As a result, his support-base will most likely shrink, and fighters from the Syria-based and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical Syrian entities will immediately walk away. Most likely, they will prefer not to partner with a defeated group and a leader on the run. Surely al-Baghdadi will still try to create a clandestine presence if his state falls, like Fatah al Islam leaders did after they were defeated in the battle of Nahr al Bared against the Lebanese Army, but he won’t be nearly as dangerous because he won’t have as much money or as many followers. He will be just like any other local al-Qaeda commander in the region, trying to survive and avoid getting killed by rivals or a US drone. The time to make a decision is now.

Let’s hope that al-Baghdadi sticks to the choice of statehood and further expansion, because ironically, it is the one path that will most likely lead to his group’s demise. But if he doesn’t allow his ideology to cloud his rational thinking and he somehow manages to escape what is essentially the trap of statehood, he will pose a formidable, global terrorism threat that will make al-Qaeda look like a walk in the park.

Bilal Y. Saab is resident senior fellow for Middle East security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, specializing in the politics, security, and defense-industrial affairs of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Gulf and the Levant.

TopicsISIS RegionsIraq

Stop Comparing Iraq to the Vietnam War

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Pundits, journalists, and scholars are once again comparing the conflict in Iraq to the Vietnam War. After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, observers began drawing the analogy in earnest, and now that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is threatening the government in Baghdad, analysts are continuing to draw parallels between the two wars. They point out the lack of motivation of Iraqi and South Vietnamese troops, the unpopularity of Nguyen Van Thieu and Nouri al-Maliki, and the inability of U.S. military power to achieve decisive victory. Commentators chide the U.S. government and military strategists for not learning from the mistakes their predecessors made in Vietnam. Some envision a chaotic evacuation of the U.S Embassy in Baghdad a la Saigon 1975.

It is easy to understand why this line of comparison is convenient. U.S. troops and political advisors went to Iraq and Vietnam ostensibly to help establish a democratic nation. In both cases, Americans severely misunderstood the local conditions that made it difficult for democracy to take root. The inability to make sense of the domestic contexts caused the U.S. to sink into a military quagmire in which winning battles did not lead to overall victory in war. In both countries, ideological movements -- radical Islam in Iraq, communism in Vietnam -- trumped nationalism so that brothers fought brothers in civil wars. For those on the Left, the Vietnam War remains the ultimate symbol of the hubris of American imperialism. Some on the Right see Vietnam as an example of what happens when the U.S. abandons an ally. Across the political spectrum, the Vietnam War has become shorthand for U.S. foreign policy and military failure, and so when a shaky government that Americans have tried to pass off as a democracy begins to crumble, some analysts are quick to christen it "another Vietnam."

Despite the commonalities, it is time to stop comparing Iraq to Vietnam. It is unproductive to view the conflict in Iraq through the lens of the Vietnam War, in which U.S. intervention began more than fifty years ago and ended forty years ago in a very different international context. To justify the war in Vietnam, American policy makers exaggerated communism's threat to American security and considered Vietnam a place where the U.S. could showcase its nation-building capabilities as post-World War II decolonization produced new countries in Africa and Asia. The U.S. has executed military engagements since Vietnam, particularly the first Persian Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, that offer more accurate points of comparison. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 1991 was America's first post-Cold War conflict and one that illustrated the "new world order" in which the U.S. was the globe's sole super-power. Gulf War I was also the root of the current conflict in Iraq. From the crippling sanctions the U.N. Security Council imposed on Iraq in 1990 to George W. Bush's effort to "finish the job" of his father and get Saddam Hussein, the first Gulf War offers a more direct map for understanding the progression of events that led to ISIS's advance in Iraq than the Vietnam War does. Looking beyond Iraq, Afghanistan reveals how difficult it is to impose and maintain democracy in the face of violent religious extremists. Afghanistan is America's other 21st century war, and it, like Iraq, began as part of the "global war on terror." By returning to the old Vietnam War comparison every time the U.S. stages a military intervention, we miss opportunities to evaluate more recent conflicts which are directly related to Iraq, rather than basing analysis on the general parallels between the Iraq and Vietnam wars.

That the U.S. has not learned from Vietnam is obvious now. What can more recent wars teach us about the perils and potential consequences of attempting to implement democracy through military force? If we turn our attention to subsequent American military engagements, perhaps we can find some useful lessons about the 21st century global order and American affairs in the Middle East.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a 2013-14 Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam, where she is a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011).

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Explained: Why We Must Negotiate With Terrorists

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The prisoner swap that brought Bowe Bergdahl home gave rise to an intense debate about the legitimacy and prudence of negotiating with terrorists. Those objecting to such deals have two worries: first, that negotiating with groups like the Taliban or Al Qaeda provides them with incentives to continue snatching soldiers; second, that the released operatives would go back to their old ways. Once out, they might devise new ways of harming us. 

The Israelis have been engaged in a similar debate - most recently after the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shavit, an Armored Corps soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006, and held in Gaza for more than five years. The worry there, too, was that the exchange would encourage further acts of terror and that the militants released would return to their dangerous activities. In the past few weeks those raising such concerns have been vindicated by events: three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas operatives who hoped to bargain for the return of their bodies. Around the same time it emerged that one of the Hamas prisoners released in the Shalit deal was involved in the recent murder of an Israeli Police Colonel.

Clearly, then, critics such as Ambassador John Bolton and Senator Marco Rubio, who raised these kinds of worries about the Bergdahl deal, have a point. But these skeptics are, ultimately, off the mark. Negotiating with terrorists does spur them on. And some of the militants we release will reoffend. And yet there is no choice but to conduct such negotiations.

Since the end of World War II, most conflicts involving western powers have been asymmetrical.  They involve a modern, well-trained and well-equipped army, with an orderly chain of command on one side and, on the other, loosely affiliated paramilitary groups who do not wear uniforms, do not train or reside in clearly identifiable military bases, and do not answer to anything like a chain of command. To use a cinematic illustration, contemporary war looks far more like the Battle of Algiers than like Saving Private Ryan. There is a vast difference in conventional power and wealth between such fighting sides. The Taliban and Hamas cannot fight in the same way regular armies fight because they would not stand a chance if they did.  Rather, such organizations tend to adopt two strategies: striking from behind civilian cover and selecting “soft” targets – noncombatants, off duty soldiers and so on. From Algiers to Bagdad to Tel Aviv, we have seen, in the past few decades, obscene and gruesome attacks on buses, clubs, travel agencies and schools.  While morally repugnant, such attacks are not going anywhere because they are both tactically and strategically essential to those perpetrating them.

At this point we should introduce an uncomfortable but crucial distinction: terrorism, like guerilla fighting more broadly, is a way of behaving rather than a group designation. Scholars such as Stephen Nathanson have pointed out that it is more coherent to talk about terrorist methods than about “The Terrorists”. These methods are used, disproportionately, by non-state actors like the Taliban, Hamas and (recently) ISIS. But not exclusively. If terrorism consists in the intentional targeting of civilians, then blowing up buses is terrorism, shooting rockets into civilian neighborhoods is terrorism, retaliating in kind is terrorism, and the devastation of German cities at the end of World War II counts as well . Early Americans used both guerilla and terrorist tactics against the British, the French resistance used them against the Germans, the Zionist paramilitary organizations used them against the British mandate before Israel was created, and the African National Congress used them against both Apartheid forces and white South African civilians. We could extend our survey far into the past. Such methods are as old as our tendency to fight.  What has changed in recent years is that asymmetrical engagements have become the primary manifestation of war. As a result, the use of terrorist tactics has grown exponentially.  It is rather absurd to speak of gentlemanly fighting after the two great wars of the twentieth century. But symmetrical warfare at least affords the potential for nobility in battle: English, French and German troops observing an informal truce on Christmas eve, 1914; Rommel discarding Hitler’s 1942 directive to execute prisoners. But when the very possibility of equality between combatants disappears, so does the coherence of anything like the war convention or mutual adherence to rules of engagement.

But let us return to our main argument: we must negotiate with terrorists because in recent years we have been fighting weak non-state entities who will never give up the equalizing benefits that terrorism affords. If we send our soldiers to fight asymmetrical wars, they will be fighting terrorists. Refusing to “negotiate with terrorists” is the same as telling our soldiers that we will never talk to their enemies, which amounts to telling them that they have nothing to hope for if they are caught, which is the same as telling them that we don’t “have their back”. That is wrong (for obvious reasons), bad for morale, and catastrophic for our ability to recruit fighters. If any of our asymmetrical wars are worth fighting (a different question altogether), we need to face up to the moral and practical realities involved. We must, in other words, confront the enemy we find, not the one we would have fashioned for ourselves.   

Nir Eisikovits teaches legal and political philosophy at Suffolk University where he directs the Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His new book Kill Me Tomorrow: A Theory of Truces will be published next year by Palgrave MacMillan. 

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

China Pushes in the South China Sea: Abe Denmark and Dan Blumenthal talk to TNI

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The United States should play a more active role in assuring allies and deterring China, according to two American experts on Asian security issues. 

The Center for the National Interest hosted Abraham Denmark, the Vice President of the National Bureau of Asian Research, and Dan Blumenthal, the Director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise 

Institute for a robust and wide-ranging discussion of rising tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes. Harry Kazianis, the Managing Editor of The National Interest, moderated the event. 

The way China views itself and its role in the region has changed substantially over the last decade and a half, according to both panelists, which has a direct bearing on its behavior vis-à-vis its neighbors. Blumenthal endorsed Robert Kaplan’s view, expressed in his recent book Asia's Cauldron, that what China is doing is perfectly understandable and indeed is similar to U.S. behavior in the 19th and early 20th century when it sought hegemony in the Caribbean Sea and the Americas. China perceives itself as a rising power that is no longer weak and has escalatory dominance over its neighbors in the region, according to Denmark, meaning Chinese leaders believe they can prevail at every level in an escalating conflict. He explained that China therefore seeks to enhance the strength of its sovereignty claims throughout the South China Sea, enhance its abilities to defend these claims, and gain access to resources believed to be in the seabed—even if they are not yet extractable in a way that makes economic sense. While there are factions within China that are more reluctant to embark on a more aggressive path, they have largely been sidelined by the People’s Liberation Army and other voices who favor a harder line on territorial disputes. Denmark mused that U.S. Defense Department reports on Chinese military power might be leading China to think it is stronger than it actually is. He observed that if a country thinks it is stronger than it is, it might be more likely to become embroiled in a conflict.

Key developments in China, its government, and society are closely linked to China’s more assertive behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Denmark explained that Communist Party leaders recognize that an end to their stunning economic growth could pose an internal challenge to their hold on power. They are, therefore, seeking to enhance their nationalist credentials in anticipation of a slower economy. Blumenthal insisted that the Chinese people believe they are in the midst of a “great awakening process” whereby they are less and less willing to be wards of the state. 

The panelists both argued for a strong emphasis on assurance and deterrence in the region to prevent conflict. Blumenthal insisted that the South China Sea is a core national interest of the United States. He argued that the United States must “abandon [its] unthinking neutrality” on the territorial disputes and insist on democratic customary means to resolve them. Denmark agreed that international arbitration is the only legitimate means of resolving these disputes. Blumenthal stated, “Every time the Chinese push on a claim that is illegitimate, they should lose ground [diplomatically with the United States].” 

Blumenthal said that a return to the status quo should be a U.S. policy, even to include escorted convoys of Vietnamese fishing boats back to their fisheries. Liu Weimin of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China countered that it depends on how one defines the status quo. In China’s view, it is trying to defend the status quo. It is not, he insisted, China’s intention to cause trouble in the South China see. From their perspective, they are reacting to what other countries are doing. 

Blumenthal insisted that if the United States does not take the opportunity to create the alliance structure it wants in Asia, it will not happen otherwise. Along similar lines, Denmark observed that a balance of power is not self-implementing. He said that the United States must assure its allies that it will aid them in the event of a crisis or conflict. The fact that other countries are pushing back against Chinese assertiveness, Denmark insisted, provides the United States with opportunities. Denmark also recommended linking American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities with allies in Asia who are in territorial disputes with China. 

One of the more significant points of disagreement concerned the issue of deterrence. Both panelists agreed on the need for deterrence. Denmark noted that the United States should find new ways to deter Chinese actions with paramilitary and non-military forces, such as thinly disguised “fishing” vessels that are used to claim territories. He proposed increased reliance on coast guards to “push back” proportionally, but said that the United States has not yet been able to impose sufficient costs to deter China. Similarly, Blumenthal decried the failure of deterrence in the South China Sea. Paul Saunders, the Center’s Executive Director, and a U.S. government official took issue with that view of deterrence. Saunders argued that we must be more precise about what we mean by deterrence. Looking to the Cold War, he listed numerous crises such as the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, that were not deterred, but that the true purpose of deterrence in that context was the prevent nuclear war and the invasion of Western Europe. By those measures, deterrence was successful. Saunders observed that in the South China Sea, deterrence is unlikely to succeed in discouraging China from assertive territorial claims. Blumenthal conceded that point and agreed that “we’re not there yet.” He did not hold out hope for much progress on U.S.-China ties as far as military matters are concerned. Until we can talk to China about their intentions on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear weapons, cyber, and other important matters, he said, relations are unlikely to improve.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsChina

Memories of Manas: What Central Asia Taught America about Geopolitics

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In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush asked for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing to open two military bases in Central Asia. This was an act of both strategy and chutzpah. The bases would plant the US military squarely in the middle of what Donald Rumsfeld called the “arc of instability” of the greater Middle East. But the move was also a bold assertion of American influence in Russia’s Asian backyard. Surprisingly—in hindsight—Putin said yes.

On July 1 the lease officially expires on the Transit Center of Manas, Kyrgyzstan, the last remaining US base in the region. This date marks the end of an era in which the US, at the height of its post-Cold War power, sought to extend its geopolitical reach to a critical location bordering on Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. The move was propelled by President Bush’s faith in the virtues of his Global War on Terror (GWOT), and the belief that no one could rival America’s power anywhere in the world.

From the vantage point of 2014, as Russia reasserts dominance over former Soviet territories and al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents advance in Iraq, this self-righteous confidence seems quaint, if not delusional. But it took a few years until reality started pushing back against the Bush Administration’s grand plans.

When I worked as a translator on K2 Airbase—“Camp Stronghold Freedom” –in Uzbekistan in 2004-05, the troops and contractors I met were disappointed to have been sent to such an obscure destination, distant from the fight against the Taliban and only indirectly part of the GWOT. But they expressed confidence that the mere presence of the US was a force for good, especially in a country consistently rated among the least democratic in the world. President Bush reinforced this belief when he laid out his “freedom agenda” in his second inaugural address promising to end “tyranny in our world.” Viewed from a remote outpost of American power, there was no obvious contradiction between flaunting our military might and promoting our values.

That there was in fact a tradeoff became clear beginning in mid-2005. When the Uzbek government opened fire on peaceful protesters, the US was unwittingly drawn into a domestic political matter involving its terror-fighting but democratically challenged ally. The Bush Administration, unexpectedly, criticized its hosts and demanded an independent investigation—over the Pentagon’s objections. The Uzbek government responded by evicting the US, and K2 was history.

It was around the same time that President Putin began to have second thoughts about the American guests in Central Asia. Arguing that the war in Afghanistan was over and that the base at Manas was no longer needed, he pressured the government of Kyrgyzstan to shut it down. The Kyrgyz, however, saw the geopolitical and financial benefits of partnering with the US, and used Russian pressure as a bargaining ploy. In the end, Russia was rebuffed and the US agreed to increase its rent payments to Kyrgyzstan from $2 million to $17 million. This amount—and the fact that most of it would be siphoned off by the regime—seemed a small price for the US to retain a military foothold in Central Asia.

But this was not the only challenge Manas would face. After claims by a GI that she had been kidnapped in the Kyrgyz capital, US personnel were forbidden to leave the base. US military police shot dead a Kyrgyz citizen working on the base who was reported to be brandishing a knife. Russian TV, popular in Kyrgyzstan, began a propaganda campaign against the US promoting several conspiracy theories. Kyrgyz nationalist politicians jumped on the bandwagon, claiming US jets were dumping fuel on pristine pastureland in villages around the base.

Yet the US clung on, and Manas became even more important when Pakistan shut the Khyber Pass, the main supply line for NATO forces into and out of Afghanistan. The president of Kyrgyzstan bargained the rent up to $60 million in 2009. It was only after he was overthrown in a popular uprising that the new government—under pressure from Moscow—refused further negotiations and followed through on previous threats to close down the base.

Lacking more convenient alternatives—now that ex-Soviet states are off limits on Putin’s orders—the logistics hub for troops leaving Afghanistan was moved to Romania’s Black Sea coast. While not strategically central, operating in a NATO member state means avoiding the geopolitical rivalries and messy internal politics the US was unprepared to deal with in Central Asia. It also brings the US overseas military presence back in line with the realities of American power and public opinion. (Of course, the US still has over 600 military bases globally.)

Putin will cheer the departure of the Americans and the restoration of Russian influence in Central Asia, but it is not worth shedding tears over the end of Manas. The US military presence in Central Asia began in a different era, one of boundless confidence in America’s ability to shape the world in its image. But that goal was illusory, coming at a time of momentary international solidarity—Putin was the first leader to offer President Bush condolences over 9/11—after a decade in which US power was rarely challenged.

When the last traces of American forces in Central Asia disappear, there will only be the memory of a time, fleeting in the sweep of history, when the US took advantage of favorable geopolitical circumstances but was beaten back by forces it could not control: nationalism, protection of sovereignty, great power envy, and public opinion. This is not the first time Central Asians have seen the pretensions of empire surface only to recede, and it will probably not be the last. Nor is it likely to be the last time the US overreaches, gets humbled, and learns some valuable lessons--lessons destined to be forgotten when the US regains its swagger.

Scott Radnitz is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsCentral Asia

A Plan to Save the South China Sea from Disaster

The Buzz

Editor's Note: The image above depicts possible joint development areas in the South China Sea that could be created to which an open-access, common carrier energy infrastructure could be added. Such joint development and collective infrastructure could reduce or solve territorial tensions. 

Arbitration, joint development, coordinated investment, shared infrastructure.  The plan above could offer an “everybody wins,” face-saving solution to the increasingly dicey situation in the South China Sea. None of the points are novel. All are on the table or represent logical extensions to existing initiatives. 


The Philippines has appealed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration established under the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea over China’s claim to waters near the Philippines.  Vietnam is likely to follow suit. This, after China placed a deep-sea oil exploration rig—accompanied by a protective flotilla—in waters claimed by Vietnam.  China has refused to respond to the Philippines’ UNCLOS appeal, claiming the arbitration court lacks jurisdiction. China’s certain to take the same stance with Vietnam.

While the jurisdiction of UNCLOS in the particulars of the Philippine-Chinese, Vietnam-Chinese cases is arguable, international arbitration still looks like the best bet on a menu of second-bests. Given this, the Philippines and Vietnam should continue to multilaterize the South China Sea issue. This draws uncomfortable attention to China, which could encourage China to moderate her unilateral assertiveness pending better solutions. 

Joint Development Areas

A second track—China’s favored track—should also be pursued: bilateral negotiation. China, Vietnam and the Philippines all have voiced qualified support for Joint Development Areas (JDAs) in the South China Sea. JDAs therefore, could provide the most promising medium-term avenue for avoiding escalating incidents that could lead to war.  

JDAs have pedigree. They’ve been around for decades. A number exist all around the world, including in the South China Sea. JDAs enable countries to indefinitely postpone resolution of disputing offshore claims while they jointly develop the oil and gas resources within them. Several disputed Chinese-Vietnam, Chinese-Philippine offshore areas look suitable for JDAs. These could lead to others. If JDAs were established (a big if), multilateral investment could follow. 

Coordinated Investment

China is a major investor in Southeast Asia, particularly in infrastructure.  China Southern Power Grid has built cross-border electricity grid interconnections with Vietnam. State Grid of China is several years into a 25-year contract to operate and upgrade the Philippine electricity grid. 

Therefore, this emerging situation of “coop-frontation”—deepening economic ties on the one hand between the Philippines, Vietnam and China and worsening territorial tension on the other—creates awkwardness all around. 

Shared Infrastructure

As China’s internal infrastructure needs wind down, China’s state champion energy infrastructure companies (like State Grid, China Southern Power Grid and China National Offshore Oil Company—CNOOC) face atrophy, shrinkage and decline. They need new projects. That’s why China is looking abroad. Viewed through this domestic Chinese industrial policy prism, China Southern Power Grid’s Vietnam interconnections, State Grid’s investments in the Philippines (and Australia) and CNOOC’s aggressive recent placement of an oil and gas exploration rig off Vietnam make a bit more sense. So does China’s proposal to provide majority capital for a $50+ billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). 

If JDAs were established in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, China’s proposed AIIB could provide the infrastructure funding to develop the South China Sea’s offshore energy resources and bring them to market. 

With JDAs, China gets a regional “social license” for her domestic infrastructure state champions to build new projects.  Vietnam, the Philippines and (potentially later) other Southeast Asian nations, meanwhile, get new infrastructure they can’t afford to build on their own. 

But this happy symbiosis, however, begs the question: who controls the infrastructure once it’s built? But this may be less of a problem than it appears. 

China, like Europe, is  “unbundling” its domestic energy markets to separate ownership of energy generation assets and energy transmission infrastructure.  The aim is to enhance energy market competition, encourage new energy market entrants and increase energy supply security. Applying this plan to the South China Sea, energy transmission infrastructure built to serve JDAs could be built and operated on an “open-access, common-carrier” model. This would avoid the problem of one party (read China) exploiting control of the infrastructure to squeeze the neighbors.

A rough draft for such an infrastructure already exists in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) proposed Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline (TAGP) and Trans-ASEAN Electricity Grid (TAEG). Both are aimed at deepening and broadening ASEAN’s energy markets to increase supply security, and lower prices.

In their most extensive forms, both the TAGP and TAEG look tailor made for providing access to new oil and gas supplies from the South China Sea developed through JDAs. 

Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure

What emerges is a proto-China/Southeast Asia energy network. That, in turn, can provide a template for something similar to be built in the East China Sea connecting the energy markets of China, Japan and South Korea, as well as a template for extending infrastructure southward to Indonesia and Australia. The end result would be a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure stretching from Beijing to Brisbane, Seoul to Sydney.

A Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure—in its more extensive form—would be a multi-fuel network of gas pipelines, high-capacity power lines and fiber optics cables. These would create the world’s largest common energy market along with the information to trade it. Built correctly, new Asian pipelines could carry natural gas supplies over the short-term, and future fuels like hydrogen, bio-energy and even waste carbon over the long term. Existing pipelines already do this in the US, Canada and Europe. So it isn’t fanciful. It’s an extension of current trends.

A Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of power lines and gas pipelines, and fiber optics creates the conditions for “cloud energy.” Cloud energy—like cloud computing—involves sourcing marginal supply from anywhere on an interconnected network with dispatch arbitrated by distance, congestion, availability and, in the case of cloud energy, carbon pricing. In short, it represents a frictionless “perfect market”—a big one.

The South China Sea represents a classic case of crisis leading to opportunity. Upcoming multilateral meetings offer a pathway for moving the ideas forward. In October, the United Nations’ Green Climate Summit meets in New York. It will focus on funding clean energy projects in the developing world. In November, China hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group. A week later, Australia hosts the Group of 20 (G20). Both China and Australia plan to push infrastructure and investment agendas. In December 2015—18 months from now—the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Paris. It’s tasked with reaching binding global agreement on post-2020 emissions cuts. Infrastructure could be the key to solving the challenges above simultaneously. These include climate change, territorial tensions, accommodating the rise of China, encouraging energy market innovation and developing low-emission energy sources. Viewed this way, the growing crisis in the South China Sea may really be an opportunity. Handled correctly, it could represent a turning point in history.

Stewart Taggart is principal of Grenatec, a research organization studying the viability of a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of high-capacity power lines, natural gas pipelines and fiber optic cables stretching from Australia to China, Japan and South Korea.

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsASEAN

China's South China Sea Strategy: Win the Perception Battle

The Buzz

Editor's Note: The following article first appeared at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute blog here

With the United States once again preoccupied with events in the Middle East China has made another strategic adjustment to its claims in the South China Sea. It seems clear by now that Beijing has found a new way to bolster its position in what Stratfor analyst Robert D. Kaplan has dubbed Asia’s Cauldron. China’s plan: why provoke your neighbors with raw military might, or the outright taking of claimed territory, when you can use oil rigs and maps to achieve the same strategic aims?

While China’s crafty placement of an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast—with fears several more might be in the offing—has been in the news for the past month or so, it is Beijing’s latest ploy that should make Asia watchers more concerned.

According to various reports the PRC “has published its first official vertical national map incorporating the vast South China Sea, with equal weight given to both land and sea, in its latest move emphasizing its claims of sovereignty over the disputed waters.” While Chinese maps have been used before in various claims of sovereignty (recall Beijing’s passport photo controversy a few years ago), this adds a new twist. According to an article in the South China Sea Morning Post past official maps “were horizontal and focused on the country’s vast land area. And the country’s sea areas and islands in the South China Sea were often featured on a smaller scale, in a separate box-out in a bottom corner of the map.” This new map, which went on sale last Monday shows “the islands and claimed waters in the South China Sea have been given the same amount of weight as China’s land areas, and are featured on the same scale in one complete map.” The report goes on to detail the area of the map concerning the South China Sea being “more prominent in the new map and is marked out by a nine-dash demarcation line. China claims all the islands and their adjacent waters encompassed by the line are part of its sovereignty.” (Note to readers: looking at the map, it’s actually a 10-dash line now)

For China, such a strategy is in line with past attempts, not only to slowly change facts on the ground and in the water, but to change perceptions regarding various territorial claims. Doing and acting as if you have sovereignty over something goes a long way to driving the narrative towards your own perspective. Sending an oil rig well within another country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), constantly utilizing non-naval maritime assets (rightly dubbed “small-stick diplomacy”) to solidify claims, issuing regulations over various parts of vital commerce such as fishing in disputed territories and now using maps all make it quite clear what China’s strategic plan for the South China Sea is. It’s quite simple really: don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. They say possession is nine-tenths of the law. For China, outright possession could spark a war. So winning in multiple domains that have less of a chance to spark a conflict like maps, oil rigs, using non-naval assets and regulations put China in position to inch its way towards possession in the one place that might just count the most: the perception game.

So should the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific be concerned about such a move? What about the United States?

For ASEAN countries, and those for whom China’s nine or ten-dash line appears right off their coastline, the challenge is quite clear—and what to do about it should also be clear as well. Such nations must protest in every possible way. One strategy that might be possible is what the Philippines has done—what pundits have called “lawfare.” Manila has appealed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration—essentially an attempt by the Philippines to use legal maneuvers and international law to shame the Chinese into some sort of compromise. One possible strategy could be to take this to the next level. All of the various claimants to different parts of the South China Sea could collectively ask for international arbitration—banding together to test China’s South China Sea claims. Call it the biggest class-action lawsuit of all time. This might be the only way nations impacted by China’s claims will be able to push back. Lawfare just might be the best way to achieve such a goal.

For Washington, the challenge is quite clear: Beijing is bent on changing the status quo, in this case, one map at a time. The trend lines are also clear. While America does not take an official position on such claims, Washington does have a big stake in the outcome. With $5 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passing through Asia’s Cauldron, Beijing claiming 90% of South China Sea is a direct threat to the very concept of the maritime commons in which all nations benefit from. If Beijing were to overturn the almost timeless concept that oceans are not national territory but part of the commons all nations are free to utilize, a dangerous precedent would be set. Who is to say Beijing would not enact such a precedent again (think East China Sea) or that other nations in other parts of the world would use such a trend to their own advantage (think Russia in the Arctic). All nations who value the global commons share a stake in seeing them survive Beijing’s latest challenge. No map or otherwise should be allowed to chip away at something so important.

Image: U.S. Navy/Wikicommons. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsChina

Japan's Article 9 Challenge

The Buzz

Throughout the postwar period, the Government of Japan's (GOJ) definition and interpretation of collective self-defense and Article 9 of Japan's constitution have played a crucial role in how its leaders develop and employ military power. This issue also has had significant implications for its political and security relationship with the United States.

Japan has arguably been alone among sovereign states in self-imposing a ban on exercise of the UN-sanctioned right of "collective self-defense," despite recognizing that it too possesses this right. The crucial factor has been the government's official interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, which basically renounces war as Japan's sovereign right and forbids it from threatening or using force to settle international disputes.

That Japan's constitution has never been revised is widely known; but the GOJ's interpretation of Article 9 has changed significantly over time, however. Indeed, there is precedent for effective 'reinterpretation' of Article 9 in response to changing circumstances within and outside Japan. After the Korean War, Tokyo effectively (re-)interpreted the definition of the term "war potential" prohibited by Article 9 to allow "that which does not exceed the minimum necessary level for self-defense." This paved the way for the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 1954. By 1957 even nuclear weapons were deemed constitutional, provided they stayed within the scope of the new interpretation - i.e., of "minimum necessary level for self-defense" - a vague concept subject to political interpretation. These weapons have been eschewed, however, primarily for domestic political reasons. Other weapons GOJ defined as "offensive" (kogekigata), such as aircraft carriers, ICBMs, and strategic bombers, in contrast, were - and still are - deemed explicitly unconstitutional.

So, while the actual text of Article 9 remains unchanged, its interpretation has in practice been shaped by changing external conditions, weapon technologies, and shifting political winds at home. Also relevant today, there is precedent for prime ministers personally spearheading shifts in reinterpretation - in contradiction of the powerful bureau effectively tasked with interpreting Article 9: the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB). For example, as Richard Samuels notes, early in the Cold War, motivated Prime Ministers Yoshida Shigeru and Kishi Nobusuke (Abe's grandfather) effectively shaped significant changes in policy by pressuring CLB bureaucrats. The results? The SDF itself and nuclear weapons, respectively, were deemed "constitutional." Restrictions have in effect been further loosened over time. Most recently, some critics have called Japan's past replenishment operations in the Indian Ocean and air transport operations, as well as its involvement in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden de facto exercise of the right of collective self-defense. In effect, what has already taken place at these key inflection points is "constitutional reform through reinterpretation" (kaishaku kaiken).

Despite being unable to generate sufficient support for constitutional revision and moving instead to 'reinterpretation,' domestic political winds still do not appear to be shifting in Abe's favor. Public opinion is mixed, at best. A mid-June Kyodo poll revealed that 55 percent are opposed (up from 48 percent in May). Although the tactic is controversial, even some opponents concede that Abe's push to reinterpret Article 9 by Cabinet resolution is within his right as a democratically elected leader, particularly one whose views were well-established before the LDP's landslide 2012 election victory brought him to power.

Nor is support for reinterpretation of the constitution limited to so-called "hawks."  Although the specifics of proposals differ, the idea of moderate changes to interpretation and/or revision of Article 9 itself has support across the political spectrum. The key points seem to be how to revise the constitution/reinterpret the constitution - and on these matters views vary widely. Although exercise of the right of collective self-defense is often presented by analysts as a simple binary choice for Japan - 'yes' or 'no' - the practical significance of any reinterpretation will be contingent on its specific content.

In May, the Abe administration listed more than a dozen scenarios for threats that it argues Japan could address more effectively by exercising the right of collective self-defense. These include: defending US ships on the high seas, protecting foreign troops involved in UN peacekeeping operations, minesweeping operations in international sea lanes (e.g., the Strait of Hormuz), and shooting down a North Korean missile fired at the US. As the intense negotiations between leaders in the LDP and its far more cautious New Komeito coalition partner suggest, however, even if Abe pushes through reinterpretation the Cabinet resolution itself and subsequent legislation will be watered down. For example, in response to New Komeito resistance the Cabinet set aside the issue of participating in UN-sanctioned collective security operations requiring military force. It has also incorporated more restrictive language on three new conditions for exercising the right; e.g., the right is to be exercised only when there is an "impending danger" threatening "Japan's existence" (kuni no sonritsu). 

Bringing balance to the force[s]?

There is strong support for reinterpretation of Article 9 in Washington, where Japan's self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense has for decades been seen as a major obstacle to expanded and more effective alliance cooperation. Accordingly, in April President Obama praised Abe "for his efforts to strengthen Japan's defense forces and to deepen the coordination between our militaries." Many supporters view reinterpretation as major progress toward a more "equal" (taitona) alliance and toward mitigating longstanding 'abandonment' fears in Tokyo. Timing is also key. Tokyo and Washington are negotiating the first revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation since 1997, with the explicit objective of "expanding security and defense cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond."

Beyond the alliance: concerns abroad

Whereas Abe's efforts have received public support from US treaty allies Australia and the Philippines, recent statements from Beijing and Seoul, as well as editorials in media in both countries, provide grounds for concern that reinterpretation may exacerbate regional tensions. China's foreign ministry has said China will be "highly vigilant as to Japan's true intentions."  Less diplomatically, earlier this week the deputy chief of the PLA's General Staff placed reinterpretation in the context of what he called a resurgence of Japanese militarism and efforts to accelerate Japan's "military buildup" (kuochong junli) and "to destroy the post-war international order" (pohuai zhanhou guoji zhixu). Seoul's official position appears moderate: it acknowledges collective self-defense as Japan's sovereign right but stipulates that it will not tolerate SDF involvement in a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula without a direct request from Seoul.

Regardless of the specifics, reinterpretation without effective engagement with neighbors may backfire, making Japan more insecure. As former deputy minister for foreign affairs Tanaka Hitoshi, who supports a limited reinterpretation, has argued, "security policy changes not coupled with diplomacy may [.] worsen the overall regional security environment."

A 'game-changer'?

Reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow for the exercise of Japan's right to collective self-defense has the potential to spark major changes in Japan's security policy and political and security relations with other countries - above all the United States, but also US allies such as Australia and the Philippines. Much will depend on the actual content of the Cabinet resolution, as well as how the reinterpretation itself is interpreted in subsequent legislation and security policy decision-making, especially concerning the forthcoming US-Japan Guidelines revision. A June 16 preliminary draft of the proposed Cabinet resolution notes "fundamental changes in international conditions surrounding Japan" (wagakuni wo torimaku kokusai josei ga konponteki ni henyo shi) and states that "no country can protect peace by itself" (dono kuni mo ikkoku nomi de heiwa wo mamoru koto ha dekizu). This suggests the Tokyo government will present collective self-defense as needed to meet the condition of 'minimum necessary level for self-defense.'

Yet how much will change in practice is unknowable at present. Resistance from the Japanese public, opposition parties, and even within the ruling coalition, together with foreign reactions, is sure to play a significant role in determining Japan's path forward - a path that is not - despite all the effort by the Abe administration - all that clear. 

Dr. Adam Liff is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. This autumn he will become a postdoctoral fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program and an assistant professor at Indiana University's newly established School of Global and International Studies (SGIS). Dr. Liff is also a former SPF Non-Resident Fellow and Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leader. This article was first published by CSIS: PACNET here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan