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A Plan to Save the South China Sea from Disaster

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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

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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

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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

Bipartisanship and U.S. Foreign Policy

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Depending upon who you speak to, both partisanship and bipartisanship can be dirty words in U.S. politics, including when it comes to foreign policy.  In a way, it is appropriate—not to mention quintessentially American—that there is such dissensus over whether a bipartisan foreign policy is necessary or even desirable.

Perhaps the real question, though, is whether the presidency and the Congress ought to agree on foreign policy, for it is these two organs of government—each allocated by the constitution certain powers over foreign policy—through which the political parties exercise their influence.  It is only in the context of political relations within and between the presidency and Congress that partisanship and bipartisanship become operative concepts.

Realist scholars of international relations from George Kennan to Henry Kissinger to Stephen Krasner have long argued that Congress is ill-suited to foreign policy-making.  Individual congressmen are responsible to narrow constituencies of electors, perennially up for re-election and thus hopelessly short-sighted.  Against the wishes of the Framers of the Constitution, the Seventeenth Amendment ensures that the Senate is little better than the House: members of both chambers often seem more interested in their own careers than in defending truly national interests.  Why allow the partisan muckrakers in Congress a say in foreign policy when their branch of government is so badly designed for it?

Instead, realists tend to believe that foreign policy should be the preserve of the president.  As a unitary actor, the presidency does not have to compromise with itself as does Congress.  Moreover, presidents are dependent upon achieving a decisive hunk of the national electorate, not a paltry slice of it; they thus have incentives to cater to the nation at large in words and in deeds.  At least in theory, the office of president carries with it the legitimacy to remain aloof from short-term partisan bickering.  Given that he (one day she) symbolizes and embodies the entire nation, surely the president should be allowed to conduct foreign policy as he sees fit?

Seen from this perspective, bipartisanship means a dilution of the national interest and the triumph of politics over hard-headed calculations.  In fact, though, broad consensus between the presidency and the Congress—or, more accurately, the two parties controlling these institutions—is extremely important for U.S. foreign policy.  As Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz reminded readers of Foreign Affairs in 2007, the issue at stake is (in Walter Lippman’s words) one of “political solvency.”  That is, the nation’s ambitions on the international stage must tally with the stomach of its political representatives.  When foreign policy is solvent—when goals and objectives do not exceed domestic appetite—then presidents can rely upon the political foundations necessary to carrying out the business of promoting the national interest.  When foreign policy is insolvent—when chief executives try to punch above or below the weight expected of them by domestic actors—then presidents will find themselves constantly looking over their shoulders, hamstrung in undertaking international diplomacy.

Today, President Obama’s foreign policy looks politically insolvent.  Some Republican law-makers criticize the president’s agenda of downsizing the military’s overseas footprint while others from both sides of the aisle argue for greater economies in defense spending.  Just in the last few weeks, divisions have emerged over the appropriate tools with which the United States should fight insurgents in Iraq.  More broadly still, it is unsettled whether the Greater Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria), East Asia (the East and South China Seas) and Eastern Europe (Ukraine) constitute core areas of strategic concern.

Interestingly, the general public often is more united when it comes to foreign policy.  Partisan differences are evident in public opinion polls, but they are modest.  The problem is that Congress and the political parties that control it are much more able to torpedo Obama’s foreign policy agenda than “the people” are able to buoy it.  Even withstanding the presidency’s considerable powers over foreign policy, Congress constitutes a formidable backseat driver.  It is therefore Congress that needs to be assuaged if the nation’s external relations are to be placed on a sound footing.  And in an era where no party reliably can command a permanent majority in either chamber, this must mean bipartisanship.

Vigorous debate over foreign policy is essential in a democracy.  But a stable and practicable foreign policy is also to be valued.  For better or worse, and despite the well-worn obstacles to its realization, bipartisanship still offers the best route to this outcome.  It might be too late for President Obama, but his successors should take note.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Tensions in the South China Sea are rising: What Should Australia do?

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China continues to try changing the status quo in the South China Sea (SCS) through bullying its smaller neighbors and creating more facts on the ground. After moving an oil rig into an area contested by both China and Vietnam last month, Beijing is apparently planning to send a second one into the area. Meanwhile, it’s apparently constructing an airstrip and sea port on Fiery Cross Reef, a move which could see the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strengthen its military reach into the SCS through the deployment of shorter-range tactical aircraft. That comes amidst ongoing tensions between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, as well as growing concerns in Malaysia and Indonesia about China’s territorial ambitions.

Let’s face it: China’s determined to push Southeast Asian countries into accepting what it perceives as its rightful territorial claims within the "nine dash line." Scott Snyder isn’t alone in concluding that under President Xi Jinping’s leadership “China’s ability to exert its own sphere of influence in Asia is regarded as an expected benefit that will naturally accrue, regardless of the impact on the neighborhood.” The New York Times editorial board has also expressed concern about China’s "power grab" in the SCS.

Chinese leaders seem to believe that the price for their consistent violation of established norms of behavior in maritime disputes won’t outweigh the benefits. They likely base that judgment on at least three assumptions:

·       that regional opposition to China’s ‘creeping expansionism’ remains disjointed, allowing Beijing to applying pressure selectively;

·       that the United States, which has drawn a "red line" in the (maritime) sand in East Asia by declaring that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are covered by the US–Japan security treaty, finds it much harder to do the same in the SCS; and

·       that other external players such as Japan, India and Australia, won’t support the smaller regional claimant states.

The situation poses a serious challenge for Australia’s strategic policy. It’s tempting for Australia to leave it to the US and others to balance China’s maritime assertiveness in the SCS. Why should Canberra engage more strongly if ASEAN states aren’t willing to stand up to Beijing? After all, Australia is an external middle power with a strong interest in stable economic relations with China.

No doubt, those are strong arguments. But China’s strategy to change the maritime order in Southeast Asia challenges other, potentially even more important, Australian interests. It undermines the core principles of a rules-based order in maritime Asia. That affects not just values but the central tenets of maritime trade upon which Australia’s economy depends. Moreover, if successful, Beijing’s quest for maritime hegemony in the SCS would erode our ally’s position in the region, thereby also undermining a key pillar of Australian defense policy, namely that no potentially hostile power should dominate that area. While China isn’t an enemy of Australia, there are doubts over its future strategic trajectory.

In sum, Australia has a fundamental interest in supporting a stronger regional response to China’s maritime coercion in the SCS. The question is, how? Two things come to mind. First, more is required to deconstruct China’s strategic narrative regarding its claim in the "nine-dashed line." The US recently took the step of publicly calling those claims ‘fundamentally flawed’ to undermine China’s "lawfare" strategies. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Australian Defense Minister David Johnston joined the US and Japan in criticizing China’s "destabilizing" behavior in the SCS. A further step would be to renew calls on all claimant states, including China, to shelf their claims and to engage in joint resource exploitation. Such an arrangement has been critical in managing the Taiwanese–Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai/Diaoyu islands. Joint exploration and the shelving of disputes have also featured previously in official Chinese policy—and Chinese officials should be asked to explain the problems with such an approach in the SCS.

Second, the government should think about ways to quietly strengthen the capabilities of Southeast Asian countries to counter China’s maritime coercion, which often involves an integrated approach using civilian, paramilitary and military forces. Most Southeast Asian countries are poorly equipped to deal with that challenge, despite some efforts, for example by the Philippines, to rectify deficiencies. Australia’s regional defense engagement strategy should focus on capability areas, which are critical for their ability to monitor and counter Chinese maritime harassment. That doesn’t necessarily imply highly sophisticated military hardware, which would probably overwhelm those countries’ ability to operate and sustain such systems, and be provocative to China. Rather, it could include training in maritime law enforcement, as well as strengthening maritime surveillance and coast guard capabilities.

As I’ve argued previously, Australia’s regional defense engagement could become much more consequential in the future. But China’s strategic behavior in maritime Southeast Asia demands a more proactive Australian strategic stance in that key region.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. This article was originally published by ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Australian Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsAsia-Pacific

“Iraq is for Iraqis, but the U.S. can help.”

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On June 22-23, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant dealt the Iraqi security forces yet another series of embarrassing defeats in the expansive desert province of al-Anbar.  In addition to four small towns being overrun by ISIL militants in pickup trucks, the group managed to wrest control of the Al-Waleed crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border—forcing police, without army backup, to flee partly into Syria’s eastern Deir-ez-Zor province.  With this latest battlefield success, ISIL has again exemplified how weak, overstretched, and disheveled Iraqi army and police units are in the Sunni-dominated provinces in the north and west, and how irrelevant the Syrian-Iraqi border has become.

The violence tearing Iraq apart is especially concerning to politicians and policymakers, Democratic and Republican alike, who were hoping that the word “Iraq” could be eliminated from the American political lexicon.  Unfortunately, that wish has not been granted.  Indeed, just two and a half years after U.S. combat troops departed the country for good after a tough and bloody nine-year occupation, the Washington of 2014 feels eerily familiar to the Washington of 2006 and 2007—Iraq, in other words, is on everyone’s mind.

Just as everyone in Washington has an opinion, it seems as if every Democrat, Republican, and Independent on Capitol Hill, the media, or in the think-tank industry has ideas for how the United States should deal with Iraq’s latest security crisis.  Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and one of U.S. Foreign Service’s most effective and respected diplomats in the Arab world, wants President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to personally invest in Iraq’s political future in much the same way that the David Petraeus-Ryan Crocker duo was able to do in 2007-2008.  Fred Kagan and William Kristol are pushing for U.S. troops to return to Iraq in larger numbers than the Obama administration is willing to expend (presumably, a larger U.S. deployment would increase American leverage with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government).  House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce wants U.S. drone strikes on ISIL targets immediately, while Rand Paul calls any further U.S. military intervention in Iraq’s civil conflict a terrible mistake that ignores the lessons of the U.S. occupation years earlier.  And those are only a few prescriptions being offered.

President Obama and his national security team are no doubt cognizant of all of these recommendations, just as they are determined not to launch a third war in Iraq in twenty-five years.  “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.” Obama said on June 19 as he unveiled his Iraq policy to the American people.  With Iraq synonymous with words like “disaster” and “quagmire,” Americans are incredibly happy that Obama uttered that statement.

Yet pressed by events, including an utterly disastrous and pathetic performance by the Iraqi army in the north and west of the country, the same man who successfully campaigned on ending the war is now confronted with a number of choices that could ruin his legacy as the Commander-in-Chief wise enough to terminate America’s military involvement in Iraq. 

After seeing a few Iraqi army divisions collapse without a fight, President Obama announced that there would be a small deployment of 300 U.S. special operators for two limited missions: assessing where the Iraqi security forces are and what needs to happen to stop the bleeding.  Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets inside of Iraq have increased exponentially since ISIL took the city of Mosul nearly two weeks ago, and reinforcements have been sent to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to secure the facility and ensure that American diplomats on the ground are safe and secure. 

For many on the Republican side, particularly those like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Paul Bremer who were partly responsible for mismanaging the U.S. occupation during the 2003-2006 timeframe, Obama is engaging in half-measures for the sake of his political legacy: afraid of doing nothing in the face of a jihadist menace barreling towards Baghdad, but equally afraid of tying U.S. military and intelligence resources back into a country that Americans would much rather run away from.  Unfortunately for the neoconservative architects of the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq, their views are completely discredited by tens of millions of mainstream Americans.

The Obama administration has gotten a lot of heat in the polls over what is often labeled as a disjointed, ad-hoc, and reactive policy to international events, with only 37% of Americans approving of the way the president is “handling foreign policy.”  On the specific issue of Iraq, however, the president and his national security team are in step with the American public, a majority of which do not want to see any U.S. boots on the ground under any circumstances.

The first U.S. advisers are just now making the trip to Iraq, and there is every reason to believe that the president’s attempt to shore up the capabilities of the Iraqi Government will be a long-term effort that could continue even after the ISIL threat is rolled back and contained. 

While it’s almost impossible to evaluate the administration’s policy response to the ISIL problem inside Iraq (it’s way too premature), it at least looks as if the White House is trying to construct a multilateral solution to what is a multilateral Iraqi security problem.  Airstrikes on ISIL convoys and training locations may make us all feel better in the short term (ultimately, the U.S. advisers being deployed could serve as a critical enabler to a selective air campaign), but they will not adequately address the kinds of internal disturbances embedded within the Iraqi political system that have allowed groups like ISIL to function.  As any serious Iraq watcher will tell you, the kind of terrorism imposed by groups like ISIL cannot be solved solely with military force: creating a framework that convinces all Iraqis to invest in the political system is the ultimately remedy.

This is naturally easier said than done.  Or, as the administration likes to say, ‘if it was easy, it would have happened a long time ago.’  But for those who are concerned about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East or for the security of Iraq as a nation-state, we can be somewhat encouraged that the president’s Iraq strategy is attempting to tackle the political roots of the issue head-on.  Or, in the administration’s own words: “all leaders of all sides of all parties have to treat the situation with extreme urgency and begin in a very serious…way the negotiations for the makeup of the government.  And that government, in our view, in order to provide stability in the country, has to be a broadly inclusive one.” 

The president’s policy can best be described as “Iraq is for Iraqis, but the U.S. can help.”  Americans have long grown tired of pulling Iraq in the right direction on their shoulders, so let’s all hope that this time, Iraqis will work as hard as Americans to rescue their own country from a third sectarian-laced civil war. 

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

The Many Economies of America

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The US is not economically homogeneous, and it is too often treated as if it were. It sounds reasonable to say the US economy is rebounding from the recession. But in reality it is far more complex. The US is comprised of regions that have economic spirits idiosyncrasies all their own. It is unreasonable to say “The US economy is...” anything, because there is no “US” economy.

According to recently released 2013 data, states grew anywhere from -2.5 percent (Alaska) to +9.7 percent (North Dakota). To be fair, North Dakota sits on the Bakken formation and is growing from a very low base. Regardless, it had 2 percent growth in the depths of the most recent recession, and its unemployment rate is now 2.6 percent. Interestingly, lower oil production on the North Slope was the cause of the decline in Alaska’s output. Even regionally, growth rates differ substantially. In 2013, the Rocky Mountain region grew at a 4.1 percent clip, while the Mideast grew at only 0.7 percent.

The coasts of the US have long dominated economic activity, but increasingly, the middle matters. The “middle”—regions that include the Southwest (3.3 percent growth), the Plains (2.5 percent growth), and the Rocky Mountains (4.1 percent growth)—grew far more quickly than either coast. Together, the 3 regions contributed 38 percent of total economic growth; up from 36 percent in 2012. With the exception of Texas, most of the rapid growth in the middle came from smaller economies such as Wyoming, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Idaho.

This regional economic disparity makes it difficult for the Federal Reserve to create effective policies for the country as a whole. By default, the Fed is forced to set policy based on the economies of the larger states: the ones that do have an effect on the aggregate statistics “US GDP” and “unemployment”. These would be New York, Texas, and California which represent about 30 percent of US GDP, but are not necessarily representative of the US economy as a whole. This creates the potential for economic overheating in some parts of the country, while other locales require continued Fed support.

Regionally, the Fed could declare mission accomplished in the Southwest, but must remain concerned with developments in lagging New England. While portions of the country have recovered, the Fed is forced to set monetary policy to produce maximum employment and stable inflation for the US. It is an impossible task, and it is also one with potential negative consequences for the regions that recover earlier or weather recessionary storms the best. Pockets of the US economy may be allowed to overextend and overheat as the goal of the aggregate is chased with little regard for the local.

Housing prices and inflation are all over the map. The latest Home Price Index (HPI) from the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA) showed prices were flat month over month. But this hid the underlying regional movements. New England saw its prices decline 1.3 percent, but East South Central (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama) homes appreciated 0.6 percent. The FHFA reported that 4 of the 9 census divisions actually saw declines. Year-over-year numbers give an even clearer picture of the divergence. The Middle Atlantic appreciated a mere 1.7 percent, but the Pacific (with the fabled San Francisco housing market) gained 10.7 percent. The US as a whole came in at 5.9 percent.

Because the Fed is mandated to maintain stable prices in the adjudication of monetary policy, inflation matters for policy, but it also varies considerably from place to place. San Francisco’s and Houston prices, putting aside the volatile categories of fuel and food, gained 3.3 and 2.8 percent respectively as the tech and shale booms have driven strong economic growth in both those metros. For perspective, the Fed has stated inflation of around 2 percent is desirable. Two cities within a relatively close distance, Los Angeles and Dallas, have different realities. Prices rose only 1.4 percent in LA, and 1.7 percent in Dallas. While the cities would appear to have similar traits and economic fortunes, two have inflation running well above the Fed’s comfort level and two well below. But there is no need to be concerned; at the aggregate level, the Fed is on target at 2.1 percent.

This poses a problem: the issue of the aggregate. On the surface, the US is growing at a slow clip with relatively benign inflation. But this hides the potential bubbles that are driving growth; the areas that continue to languish are shielded by a focus on the singular “US” number. It is nearly impossible to conduct effective regional monetary policy to circumvent these problems. Economists need to be cognizant of how their policies affect different regions and states, and understand that monetary policy for the “US” is a misnomer.

Excepting proximity and currency, the economies of US States and Regions can have little in common. While the US is a single nation, the US economy needs to be thought of as a collection of smaller, diverse entities. Not a singular whole.

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States

"China is Competing Today with the United States"

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In June 2012 I wrote an article for CSIS:PacNet titled "China. There, I said it" in an effort to generate a conversation about how the United States was publicly discussing the competitive elements of its relationship with the People's Republic of China (PRC). At the time, I felt like there was an unnecessarily tight muzzle on our civilian and military leadership that prevented the US from having a frank and honest conversation about the subject. If Congress is going to be asked to marshal the resources to sustain its enduring interests in the Asia-Pacific region--including a balance of military power that favors the US and its allies--I contended that the administration and specifically the Pentagon would only be successful if they were comfortable publicly making the case why these investments were required.

Two years on, I have observed occasional improvements in the discourse. Between President Obama's strong position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands before his recent trip to Asia, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's forceful speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, or Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel's stern testimony on maritime disputes in the region, the statements and testimony from administration officials and the president himself in the past two years have taken on a new level of seriousness toward China.

However, in military and security terms we still struggle to communicate how the defense budget is being built to manage the security competition with China. For instance, our military's capabilities for anti-surface and anti-air warfare, counter-mine operations, missile defense, long-range strike, and base resiliency are increasingly discussed in public briefings and strategy documents. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to justify these missions as an end in themselves rather than explain why they have taken on a newfound importance. Classified briefings will continue to be used to translate this information to the Congressional defense committees, but if the Pentagon aims to justify its budget to Congress as a whole and avoid further rounds of sequestration cuts, for instance, it will need to move beyond discussing missions and programs to identify the actual risks associated with failing to counter China's emerging military capabilities.

Despite this shortfall, the War Colleges should be given credit for the public work their academics have produced. Specifically, the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) and a number of professors at the Naval War College have generated large volumes of open-source analysis of Chinese military developments. Their work has been so successful that I understand the Air Force is eager to replicate it by setting up a similar institution to study the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). I applaud the War Colleges and the services more generally for taking a lead in this area.

But while there have been some positive developments, I was reminded last week of the persistence of this problem when the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, responded to a question from a Naval War College student at the Navy's Current Strategy Forum about how US naval professionals should discuss "tactics, techniques and procedures [on] how to counter Chinese ships and aircraft." Greenert replied without hesitation: "If you talk about it openly, you cross the line and unnecessarily antagonize..You probably have a sense about how much we trade with that country, it's astounding." Following the panel, he doubled-down on his position with reporters, contending that "it would be antagonistic to any country to openly say that we are preparing [for conflict]."

Let me be clear: I have tremendous respect for the CNO and the work he is doing. But I have to respectfully disagree with him on this issue. The perspective that we cannot talk about China's military or strategic goals and what we are doing to offset them because we will antagonize Beijing is exactly the wrong policy for the Navy and for our nation.

Several brief points on this topic are worth reviewing. First, as I wrote two years ago, our military and civilian leaders need to speak clearly about the PRC and the military and security competition now ongoing in the western Pacific Ocean and beyond. I am not implying we need to be abrasive or obstinate in how we discuss this policy issue. Instead, our leaders should speak with clarity when China bullies its neighbors, seeks to unilaterally revise the status quo, challenges freedom of navigation, directs economic espionage, and as it continues to build military capabilities that undermine the US security guarantee in the region, among other issues. If the US expects to remain the leader of a rules-based international system and welcome China as a responsible international stakeholder, Washington will need to clearly articulate its interests, describe when and how China is impinging on those interests, and develop strategies for mitigating Beijing's actions.

Second, if we resign ourselves to a policy of self-censorship about China's assertive actions and growing military power for fear it will antagonize them, we will be granting Beijing a veto over what we can and cannot say. Instead of stabilizing the relationship as some argue, China will gain control over the conversation and could move the "goalposts" as they please. As some astute observers have reminded me, such behavior could result in a sort of "Finlandization" of public discourse in the US.

Third, the real foundation and strength of our democracy is that we believe in and cultivate a marketplace of ideas. To let Beijing dictate to us the parameters of our domestic conversation about their rise and role in Asia out of a fear for how they might react would limit the transparent process by which our nation generates sound foreign policy. In short, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if frank conversations about China and US policy are only being generated within our academic and think tank communities.

Fourth, great powers need to have thick skin. The US is criticized domestically and across the globe, but while our government will seek to shape perceptions of its actions and respond to criticisms, it does not assert that such critiques are off limits or seek to punish the perpetrators. If China is indeed ascending to the position of a great power--which I believe they are--they too need to be able to listen to criticism and assess their actions without simply resorting to retaliation. The sooner China understands this, the better it will be for Beijing, Washington, and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

Finally, despite my concern with the CNO's recent comments, I look forward to the release of a new Maritime Strategy (Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard) this fall that takes a clear perspective on China's military modernization and the role US seapower needs to play in balancing (not containing) against it. The previous maritime strategy from 2007 was deficient in that it failed to even mention China. Build a 313-ship fleet, it implored, but then failed to offer justification for this fleet design short of vague references to preventing war. If the Navy desires new capabilities to retain its competency to conduct sea control, power projection, and cross-domain access, it will need to explain why, after two decades of maritime dominance, these missions are again being challenged. The Navy must explain why it needs a fleet of a specific size, munitions of a certain range and quantity, aviation assets outfitted with electronic attack or stealth capabilities, and sailors trained for traditional warfighting missions we once determined would no longer be required.

China is competing today with the United States. We cannot afford to abide by the axiom that if we treat Beijing like a competitor they will become one or if we are critical of their behavior it will antagonize them and upset our best laid plans. With all of the challenges the US is facing in Asia and around the globe, now is the time for elected officials, military leaders, and policymakers to lead a thoughtful, respectful, and frank discussion about the nature of our relationship with China. Preparing our democracy for what will be an extended peacetime competition in the Asia-Pacific demands no less.  

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and co-chair of the Congressional China Caucus. This article was original published by CSIS: PACNET here

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Iraq Advice, Then and Now

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On rhetoric

“Defeating [Al Qaeda and its affiliates] will require a strategy—not a fantasy. It will require sustained difficult military, intelligence and diplomatic efforts—not empty misleading rhetoric.”

Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney, June 17, 2014.

“Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003.

On the cost of waiting to act

“If this House now demands that at this moment, faced with this threat from this regime, British troops are pulled back, that we turn away at the point of reckoning—this is what it means—what then? What will Saddam feel? He will feel strengthened beyond measure.”

Tony Blair, March 18, 2003.

“Every time we put off action, the action we will be forced to take will ultimately be greater.”

Tony Blair, June 14, 2014.

On Iraqi sectarianism

“To portray it as some obscure thing between Shia and Sunnis, that Americans couldn't tell you which is which, is misleading.”

Paul Wolfowitz, June 17, 2014.

“We have no idea what kind of ethnic strife might appear in the future, although as I have noted, it has not been the history of Iraq’s past.”

Paul Wolfowitz, February 27, 2003.

On designing the war

“'I would say that what's been mobilized to this point—something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers—are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.''

Gen. Eric Shinseki, February 2003.

“...Some of the higher-end predictions that we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark.”

Paul Wolfowitz, February 27, 2003.

“...By the way, I'm not the architect of the war. If I were the architect, it would have been handled very differently.”

Paul Wolfowitz, June 17, 2014.

On staying for the long haul

“The best estimate of what we will need, post-Saddam Hussein, is what the President and Secretary Powell and Secretary Rumsfeld have been saying: we will stay as long as necessary and leave as soon as possible.”

Paul Wolfowitz, February 27, 2003.

“The possible cost of war in Iraq ought to be considered in the context of America's other international undertakings of recent years. Our preliminary estimate is that it has cost us slightly over $30 billion to maintain the containment of Saddam Hussein for the past 12 years...I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to spend another $30 billion to be there for another 12 years...”

Paul Wolfowitz, February 27, 2003.

“Look, Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953 having campaigned to end the war in Korea, which he did immediately. He did not remove American troops from Korea. If he had done so, Korea wasn't ready to stand on its own feet for another 10 or 20 years and even then not very well. But today it's a miracle story.”

Paul Wolfowitz, June 17, 2014.

On the price of war

“This is the education of Barack Obama, but it’s coming at a very high cost to the Syrian people [and] to the Iraqi people...”

—Doug Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy when the 2003 war was launched, June 2014.

“We think it is roughly around half a million people dead. And that is likely a low estimate.”

—Amy Hagopian, leader of a research team estimating the avoidable death toll of the 2003 war, October 2013.

TopicsSecurity RegionsIraq

The Five Best Battleships Ever: Metal Edition

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Editor's Note: Take a look at some of our other defense lists such as: Five Best Bombers of All Time, Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All TimeFive Worst Fighter Aircraft of All Time and the Five Best Submarines of All Time.

In December of last year, The National Interest listed the world’s five greatest battleships, defined as the most iconic. Definitions matter. Less adventurous but more easily defended, here’s a list of the five greatest metal battleships, defined as having the most influential designs. A list of the five that were greatest in service would be different again.


Gloire, France, 1860: The French navy had the incentive to invent the armored battleship, because in the 19th century it was the challenger; the dominant Royal Navy had much less interest in revolution. The idea of armored ships had been floated for decades, but actual experience with floating batteries in the Crimean War proved it. France took the next step, building the armored battleship Gloire. The English-language historiography of the warship skips quickly past the wooden-hulled Gloire to emphasize that the British response, the iron-hulled HMS Warrior, was utterly superior. And so it was. But the starting point for more than 500 battleships completed between 1860 and 1949 was Gloire. 

Honorable mention: Warrior.


Royal Sovereign, Britain, 1892: For 30 years after Gloire, battleship design was a stream of confusion. New ideas came thick and fast. Most had merits. Many were quickly superseded. Then experimentation stopped with the Royal Sovereign Class. Those seven ships introduced no great innovation except a valuable increase in size, but they combined the best ideas of three decades, notably a high freeboard and the French concept that enabled it: putting the machinery and crew of the main armament inside a fixed column of armor, a barbette, with the guns rotating on top. HMS Royal Sovereign was so right that for 15 years most battleships followed its general design.

Honorable mentions to ships that introduced lasting features into battleship design: Monarch, Britain (revolving protected armament); Devastation, Britain (fore and aft revolving armament and the elimination of sailing rig), Redoubtable, France (steel) and Amiral Duperre, France (barbettes).


Dreadnought, Britain, 1906: Soon after 1900, long-range gunnery looked increasingly practicable—and necessary, because torpedo ranges were rising too. Dropping medium guns and adding big guns seemed wise. Major navies began drifting in that direction, especially the US Navy, which began building two ships, South Carolina and Michigan, with little armament but eight 305 mm guns. Then the energetic head of the Royal Navy, Sir John Fisher, turned the drift into a landslide. His HMS Dreadnought had 10 guns of 305 mm caliber and turbine machinery for a decisive increase in speed to 21 knots. The leap in propulsion efficiency meant that the ship displaced little more than predecessors it made obsolete. The world had little option but to follow.

Honorable mention: South Carolina.

Invincible, Britain, 1908: A curious fact in warship history is that Fisher didn’t want Dreadnought. Convinced that the torpedo, fired by submarines and small ships, could protect Britain; he wanted to replace the battleship with the armored cruiser, a type that owed much to French development. Crucially, the Royal Navy had already invented network-centric warfare, as the historian Norman Friedman has recently pointed out. The Admiralty in London, unworried about home defense, could use radio to direct huge armored cruisers across the planet, bringing them down on targets that it tracked on a plot of global naval movements. Fisher’s cruisers emerged as the Invincible Class, soon reclassified as battle cruisers in recognition of their closeness to battleships. They had battleship guns and high speed but only cruiser armor, which Fisher wrongly thought good enough. Invincible launched a wave of battle-cruiser construction, but Germany quickly realized the need to thicken the armor in its quite superior Von der Tann.

Honorable mention: Von der Tann.

The Final Phase

Hood, Britain, 1920: Two lines of development led to the last battleships, the fast battleships of WWII. One line ran from Dreadnought through several British and Japanese classes to the concept that finally emerged with the Italian Littorio, laid down in 1934. But by then the other line had already arrived. It ran from Invincible through the German battle cruisers to HMS Hood, an enormous battle cruiser that was really a fast battleship. That capability was achieved mainly through sheer size but also through the innovation of heavily sloped side armor. Most subsequent battleships, of similar displacement, were comparable to Hood, but with improvements of detail.

Honorable mentions: Dante Alhgiheri, Italy (triple turrets); Queen Elizabeth, Britain (oil firing, higher speed); Nevada, USA (oil firing, reversion to all-or-nothing armor).


None of the famous WWII fast battleships ranks as one of the five greatest designs. They were the end of the line, so none was influential. Most were quite good—but they had to be, because the building holiday imposed by Washington naval treaty of 1922 had given designers plenty of time for new technology. Italy’s Littorio was the first of this series to be designed but the US South Dakota and French Richelieu designs were the more efficient. Had battleships been built beyond the 1940s, the Japanese Yamato might well have been most influential because it was so big.

The choice of four British ships among the five greatest reflects not a bias in selection but a bias in the data: Britain built about a third of all battleships and was especially dominant numerically and technically during the period of fast evolution. And a disruptive random factor, Fisher, accounts for two of the designs—even in the battleship world, individuals matter.

Bradley Perrett is Asia-Pacific bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology. This article was originally written for ASPI's The Strategist here