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The Philippines vs. China in the South China Sea: A Legal Showdown

The Buzz

The next stage in the Philippines’ closely-watched arbitration case against China’s maritime claims will come in March when Manila’s lawyers submit their answers to questions posed last month by the five judge panel overseeing the case. The Philippines has put together a clever case, one that seeks to skirt China’s exemptions to compulsory arbitration as allowed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But the case is not a slam dunk, and that might be for the best.

The heart of the Philippines’ case is an argument that China’s infamous nine-dash line does not qualify as a valid maritime claim. If the Arbitral Tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction in any part of the case, it is hard to imagine that it will not agree with Manila on this point. And that ruling—that Beijing is legally obligated to lay out its claims based on maritime entitlements from coastlines and islands, not via dashes arbitrarily drawn on a map—could be enormously beneficial for all those with an interest in the South China Sea.

Despite Beijing’s insistence that it will not recognize any award the court makes, China’s leaders might be persuaded to clarify the country’s South China Sea claims even while publicly refusing to obey the court. This would be much the same as how the United States under the Clinton administration complied with much of an International Court of Justice ruling in a case brought by Nicaragua that the Reagan administration had earlier rebuffed.

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Chinese legal experts both inside and outside government already know that Beijing will eventually need to redefine the nine-dash line. In theory, it could maintain a claim to most of the waters within the line by making (admittedly extreme) EEZ and continental shelf claims from the Paracel and Spratly Islands. That is a clarification that the Chinese leadership could live with.

Other parts of the Philippines’ case are more ambitious, more tenuous, and less acceptable to China. Manila has asked the Tribunal to rule that several features occupied by China are in fact low-tide elevations, not islands, and are therefore not open to claims of sovereignty because they are legally part of the seabed. At least one of these features listed by the Philippines appears to lie within the territorial sea of a rock or island claimed by China and is therefore beyond the possible jurisdiction of the court. The court may or may not find it has sufficient evidence to rule on the remaining features, especially because accurate surveys of the Spratlys are notoriously lacking. If the tribunal does rule these features to be low-tide elevations and orders China to evacuate them, it is hard to imagine that Beijing will comply.

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But the really troubling outcome of the case could lie with the most ambitious of Manila’s arguments—that a number of islets occupied by China are legally rocks, not islands, and therefore can generate only a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, not an EEZ or continental shelf. In its full memorial submitted to the court last year, the Philippines added Itu Aba, the largest of the Spratlys, to its case. It is unlikely that the court will rule that Itu Aba, and by extension all the smaller islets in the archipelago, are legally rocks—such a ruling would be unprecedented in its scope. More importantly, such a ruling would back Beijing into a legal corner, with worrying results.

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Redefining the nine-dash line could be palatable to Beijing, but only if that redefinition leaves China with a substantive claim to EEZs and continental shelves in the South China Sea. If the Philippines gets everything it is asking for from the court, such a clarification would be impossible. In that case, China is all but certain to dig in its heels, doubling down on the nine-dash line and in all likelihood withdrawing from the Law of the Sea convention. This would technically be illegal since the treaty requires advanced warning of such a withdrawal, but at that point, Beijing would be unlikely to care. Provoking such an extreme reaction from China will not be in the Philippines’ interests, nor in those of the other South China Sea claimants, the United States, or the international legal order.

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies and the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS. He manages research projects that focus on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a special focus on the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This piece first appeared as part of the Asia Maritime Transparency Project created by CSIS.

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsChina

Why India Is Still Hedging Its Bets on US

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Obama’s official state visit to India this week is unique due to the U.S. president’s place as “chief guest” during Delhi’s Republic Day celebrations, a role never previously bestowed on an American president. The visit comes on the coattails of several highly publicized, official state visits from China and Russia, both shortly before and after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the U.S. in late 2014.

Many Indians are likely to view Mr. Obama’s presence at the Indian Republic Day celebration as a sign of India’s increased global importance and influence. Still, challenges—on both sides—threaten the sunny relationship. There is a pressing need to share both the benefits and risks bi-directionally across a number of areas, including foreign direct investments; technology co-creation; security and defense trade and cooperation; and energy and environment matters. If the U.S. can wrap its head around the fact that India will be India, inevitably trading with Russia and China and not always agreeing or siding with the U.S., then there is some hope for a positive set of outcomes this week. Likewise, India has challenges as well, with the need to manage liability, create more transparent procurement processes, and understand that Buy American can conditionally work with Make in India. Moreover, both countries need to come to terms with policies vis-à-vis Pakistan that can actually enable South Asia to be stable and peaceful.       

What will be on the agenda this week has been largely kept under wraps, fueling cross-border, Indian-Pakistani media antagonism. The tit-for-tat media volley has New Delhi claiming that inside sources in Washington told Islamabad to clamp down on cross-border terrorism during Obama’s visit. Islamabad has dismissed these allegations as propaganda. If the allegations are true, they would be tacit confirmation that India faces an unwieldy “Pakistan problem” in which Washington would not likely interfere either before or after the U.S. visit. Moreover, Indian perceptions that the America’s lack of condemnation through actions—such as using aid as a bargaining tool—only adds insult to injury to those worried about the alleged condition for Obama’s visit. Secretary of State John Kerry’s most recent visit to Pakistan, where he offered $250 million in emergency aid, did not go unnoticed  in New Delhi.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 2014 visit to Delhi for the 15th India-Russia annual summit resulted in an hundred billion dollar bonanza, with Modi and Putin inking significant nuclear, oil, and defense deals. The more subtle yet most significant outcome of last year’s summit, however, was Russia agreeing to further jointly developed defense capabilities with India and to allow Delhi to harness Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. And in a well-timed visit just days before Obama’s arrival, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with his counterpart Mannohar Parrikar and Prime Minister Modi, reinforcing the "time-tested special and privileged" strategic partnership between India and Russia. While in Delhi, Shoigu visited the Russian-Indian joint venture, BrahMos Aerospace Limited, which makes supersonic cruise missiles. In addition, Shoigu reportedly discussed jointly developing a new-generation of missiles that would be smaller and compatible with the fifth-generation fighter, the MiG-29K, the Su-30MKI, and Indian submarines.

This visit prompted Parrikar to say that India will be “fast-tracking” many of the issues related to the joint Russian-Indian stealth fighter jet project. The visit also reinvigorated talk about building 400 Russian helicopters in India annually. Overall, the purpose of Shoigu’s trip seemed to be about marking Russia’s manufacturing territory in advance of Obama’s visit.

For the most part, Washington appears to be choosing its battles with India wisely, and not remonstrating Delhi too much for its choice of “partners” or for not enacting sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation and continued conflict in Ukraine.

India has loudly acknowledged that Russia is its foremost defense partner amidst a growing list of foreign nations courting it. And, despite the U.S. taking the lead in defense sales to India last year, Washington’s reluctance to share custody of joint defense innovations makes it easier to understand Delhi’s continued ties to Moscow.

As Russia’s economic situation deteriorates, however, there is little indication that India will forego its old ally in favor of strengthening its ties with the U.S. This will not be a zero sum game for the U.S., and the focus will need to remain on how the U.S. and India can work bilaterally, independent of other variables. India can afford to pursue stronger ties with America despite preexisting ones with Russia; with that in mind, there is an opportunity for the Delhi and Washington to sign a new defense framework agreement.

Questions remain regarding how the Indian bureaucracy can engage the U.S. for joint development and production of various military hardware (around 17 projects are under discussion) in light of the ‘Make in India’ campaign. It is possible that the Pentagon will provide approval for the co-production of at least two projects; Indian rumors abound over at least two specific projects to be finalized with a price tag of around $20 million.  Concerns about cost and global supply chains, corruption, skilled manufacturing labor, labor availability and labor laws are still a vital part of the U.S. reluctance to fully advance co-production and Make in India. Joint production of combat and non-combat UAVs is an expected first step, although the U.S. is keenly aware of what its export restrictions are likely to mean for Indian’s security and defense needs. Also, some facility could be created for the joint production of equipment required for transport planes like the C-130.

Presently, the onus is on both the states to ensure that their bilateral relationship reaches new heights, not just in the security field, but also in technology and economics as well (the nuclear agreement announced just after President Obama landed is a good start). The burgeoning U.S.-India relationship will require actions—not just pomp, platitudes, or recapitulations of previous agreements/promises.

Melissa S. Hersh is a Washington, D.C.-based risk analyst and consultant and Truman National Security Fellow. Dr Ajey Lele is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. The views expressed are their own.

Image: Flickr/Narendramodiofficial

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsSouth Asia

With Obama Trip, India and US Deepen Ties

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Mention January 26 and the thoughts of Australians jump quickly to barbeques, beaches and cricket. But this post isn’t about Australia Day. Many Australians will be aware that Indians celebrate their Republic Day on January 26. This year, the 66th since the Indian constitution entered into force in 1950, will be no different. Festivities in New Delhi will center around the Republic Day Parade, a showcase of the country’s defense capabilities—”the glories and follies old and new of the Indian armed forces, from camel regiments to tanks to ballistic missiles”—alongside the lush diversity of Indian culture. Moreover, Barack Obama is set to attend this year’s parade as the invited chief guest, the first time a U.S. president has received the honor. Obama’s attendance represents a diplomatic coup for Indian PM Narendra Modi. It’s yet another sign that relations between India and the U.S. are being reinvigorated, and serves as a reminder of the foreign policy dynamism Modi has displayed since his election last May.

The Republic Day parade will be rich in symbolism for both leaders. The imagery of an American president watching on as India flexes its military muscle won’t escape the attention of India’s neighbors. That Obama’s trip marks the first time a U.S. president has visited India twice while in office (he visited in 2010) will bring additional diplomatic cachet. The chief guest role will offer simple yet important sponsorship of the “rebalance;” it’ll similarly illustrate Modi’s support for a continuing American role in Asia.

Obama’s trip to India comes just four months after Modi was in the U.S.—a sign of the momentum in the bilateral relationship. The joint statement that came out of Modi’s September visit illustrated steady progress on a range of security issues. The decision was taken to renew for another 10 years the 2005 Framework for the U.S.–India Defense Relationship, and pledges were made to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation, to deepen military-to-military contact, and to “upgrade” the Malabar naval exercise. The statement reiterated support for India’s phased entry to the key non-proliferation regimes and established a contact group to push forward on civil nuclear cooperation. That Ashton Carter, Obama’s SECDEF nominee, has long championed U.S.–India relations and seems a popular pick in India is unlikely to do the relationship any harm. Still, real challenges to closer U.S.–India relations remain: distraction and competing priorities for Obama, and an historical commitment to strategic autonomy for Modi.

Modi’s decision to invite Obama recalls the symbolism and strategy of former Indian PM Manmohan Singh’s hosting of Japanese PM Shinzō Abe as chief guest last year. High expectations were attached to Abe’s 2014 visit, given his long-standing admiration of India and belief in the great potential of the bilateral relationship. (In his 2006 book, Abe wrote, “it would not surprise me if in another decade Japan–India relations overtake U.S.–Japan and Japan–China ties.”)

The Japan–India embrace has tightened considerably since last May; the Abe­–Modi bonhomie runs deep beyond bearhugs. Both are nationalistic, conservative leaders; both were elected with mandates to restart their economies and reclaim lost pride; and both are playing for a greater role in underwriting peace and stability in the Asia–Pacific. Both PMs are apprehensive about China’s rise—historical tensions and territorial disputes abound—on the back of which they’ve sought to engage more with the US, regional partners and multilateral security architectures. The upgraded “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” that resulted from Modi’s 5-day visit to Tokyo last September bore witness to growing affinity and shared ambition; so too did last week’s strategic dialogue between foreign ministers, brought back into play after two years on the bench. As Abe increases military spending for a third consecutive year (following 11 years of decline), the steady development of a balancing arc between Tokyo and New Delhi, across China, is an indication of the “proactive contribution” to regional peace and stability that both leaders seek to make.

While the U.S. has been drawn to various global flash points, the rebalance has quietly trundled along. It has become a standard administration line to encourage allies and partners in the Asia–Pacific to deepen and broaden cooperation. So the Asian elements of the one-time Quad—Japan, India and Australia—are holding the line in this respect. Australia should continue to aver strong support for the more active role that both Japan and India, separately and together, seek to play in the region. And with a freshly minted Framework for Security Cooperation with India and a “quasi-alliance” with Japan, Australia should look for and jump at opportunities to foster cooperation. What happens in and from those relationships will serve as important support for a U.S. rebalance that’s materially underway but politically underpowered.

David Lang is an analyst at ASPI and an editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of The White House.

This piece first appeared in the ASPI Strategist Website, here.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsSouth Asia

Time to Nuke the Doomsday Clock

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The “Doomsday Clock” is one of the iconic images of the Cold War. Operated since its creation in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is designed to show how close humanity is to a global catastrophe. The less time to midnight, the closer we supposedly are to Armageddon. Over the past sixty-eight years, it has always been somewhere between two and seventeen minutes away from midnight.

Yesterday, the Bulletin, which is a great publication and a valuable resource, made news by moving the clock from five minutes to three minutes to midnight.

The last time the clock was at three minutes to midnight, it was the mid-1980s. There were roughly sixty thousand nuclear weapons in the world, virtually all of them held by the United States or the Soviet Union. Those two nations were in the midst of a four-decade-long ideological conflict that had already involved both proxy wars between them and numerous crises that came awfully close to all-out thermonuclear war. It was the decade of KAL 007 and the Able Archer exercise. In the words of Micah Zenko, it was possibly “the least safe time to live on earth. The number of deployed nuclear weapons was obscene overkill, and potential flashpoints for a U.S.-Soviet conflict were many.”

So, according to the Bulletin, how is it that we are as close to catastrophe now as we were in the mid-1980s? Here is the short version of its explanation for moving the clock (you can also read its longer statement here):

Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth. Despite some modestly positive developments in the climate change arena, current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have embarked on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties. The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.

There are essentially two separate arguments here—one involving nuclear weapons, and the other about climate change. The first is that the United States and Russia continue to have large stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons, and some of the world’s nuclear states keep modernizing their arsenals. This suggests that nuclear weapons will be with us for quite some time—and that, over a long time frame, the possibility of a disastrous nuclear war will continue to exist, whether started by choice or miscalculation.

Even granting all of that, it’s impossible to argue that nuclear danger, as a whole, is greater now than it was during the 1960s and 1970s (during which time the Doomsday Clock ranged from seven to twelve minutes away from midnight). Keep in mind, the long-term nuclear risks that the Bulletin identified yesterday existed then as well. And, at the same time, there was the unavoidable risk of an immediate nuclear holocaust. This risk is underscored by the several near-disasters that occurred then, most notably in Berlin, Cuba and the Yom Kippur War. There were also far more nuclear weapons in the world overall, and the global nonproliferation regime that exists today was just in the process of being created. 

Then there is the issue of climate change, which seems to be the primary motivation for the Bulletin’s announcement. Yes, contra today’s Senate Republicans, climate change is real, and human activity contributes to it. And yes, the potential future consequences of it could be huge. But it’s fundamentally a different kind of phenomenon from nuclear disaster. We have a rough idea of what a nuclear war would look like. There would be, presumably, a single, definable moment at which it would start. Climate change, in contrast, will presumably lead to a series of progressively worse consequences. As Josh Keating put it the last time the Doomsday Clock was moved in 2012, “When we hit climate midnight, how will we know it?”

Stephen Schwartz made a similar point on Twitter yesterday, noting that the addition of climate change as a factor in the Bulletin’s calculations makes it “impossible to make comparisons of any clock settings pre-2007.” The clock has always been something of a cross between a symbolic prop and an attempt at a rough quantitative measure. The inclusion of climate change serves to make it even less useful as an analytical tool, and more of a prop for the Bulletin to prod the world’s governments on whatever issues it thinks is most important at the time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does mean you can safely ignore breathless headlines like “WE ARE ONLY 3 MINUTES FROM MIDNIGHT, PEOPLE.” That’s because, in the end, comparing nuclear weapons and climate change is like comparing A-bombs and oranges.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

China Reacts to Obama's State of the Union: America is in Decline

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In his State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Obama mentioned China a total of three times.

One was to praise China's commitment to cut carbon emissions. The second was to encourage American manufacturing executives to bring back jobs from China. The third was a call-to-arms to prevent China from writing the trade rules in the Asia Pacific.

China watchers inhaled sharply at this third point, given the sensitivity in China about who should be calling the shots in Asia. However, the media coverage in China of Obama's remarks has been surprisingly restrained, suggesting that the leadership does not want to encourage anti-American nationalist fervour at the moment.

The language and tone also reiterates China's view of the US role in the world, its own place in the world order, and how both might change in the future.

The People's Daily ran subdued coverage of Obama's speech, and today, except for a factual article in Xinhua's Chinese language paper, Chinese media made no mention of it at all. The English version ran a piece which focused on Obama's vow to rebuild the economy to help the middle class, but it did not mention anything about who should be writing the rules in the region, or the Sino-US relationship. A Chinese language version of the same article appeared in Thursday's China Daily's business section.

Yesterday's Chinese-language People's Daily noted there was a: “deep meaning” behind China being mentioned three times, and argued that Obama emphasized the competitive nature of the Sino-US relationship. The article called on the expertize of Sun Zhe, Director of the US-China Relations Research Center at Tsinghua University, who said that although Obama did not directly discuss the Sino-US relationship, he implied that China should comply with what he described as US (note, not international) rules in the global marketplace. Sun Zhe concluded that overall, Sino-US relations will continue to grow in 2015.

Coverage of Obama's address in the English version of the People's Daily was limited to how Obama was positioning himself in domestic politics.

Both the English and Chinese versions of the Global Times ran more incendiary coverage of Obama's speech. “The US still wants to dominate the world. They worry that China's fast development will challenge the status of the US,” according to Zha Xiaogang, a Research Fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. The article also said China was not the only country to be “irked” by Obama's address, and quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that the speech shows that at the center of the (US) philosophy is one only thing: "We are number one and everyone else has to recognize that.” In addition to describing the US as a self-centered hegemon, the article reminded readers that China operates differently, wanting only for “all parties to work together to create a fair, open and transparent environment for economic cooperation as well as to contribute to the improvement of world trade rules” (Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying).

In another Global Times article, Renmin University School of International Relations Deputy Dean Jin Canrong drew on the popular discourse that the US has been in decline since the global financial crisis and argued that while the US may be worried that the world's rules are being redesigned by new powers, it can no longer rely on its own strength alone to manage global issues. The article also noted that Obama's address highlighted the complexity of the Sino-US relationship, since it referred to China in both positive and negative ways.

Taken together, the Government-aligned media coverage in China of Obama's 2015 State of the Union suggests two things.

Firstly, it would seem that at this juncture, the Chinese leadership does not want to stir up nationalist anti-US sentiment. This may imply that the Government wants to pursue engagement and discussion with the US in the near future, and wishes to create the public policy space in which to do so.

Second and relatedly, this should not be misread as any shift in China's fundamental beliefs about what the world should look like and what roles the US and China should play. The overall narrative still paints a picture of a US naturally and inherently inclined to hegemony and unilateralism, but in inevitable decline; and China as a fair, impartial and constructive global player, doing its best in a system it didn't create, and which in time will have to adjust to the rise of new global powers with different (but not threatening) views of how the world should work.

This article first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSOTU RegionsChina

A $50 Billion Chinese Canal in Nicaragua?

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There is pride in Hong Kong that a local private company is pushing ahead with perhaps the world's largest-ever civil works project, the 280km long, 500m wide Nicaragua Canal. Construction began in December 2014.

The South China Morning Post dismisses outside suspicions while modestly describing the scheme as being “centered on the creation of a more just, reasonable and equitable world order.” That a private company should be undertaking such munificence is remarkable. One thing's for certain: it can't be doing it for the money. Financially the numbers don't add up.

At a cost of at least US$50 billion, the project will take many years and require tens of thousands of workers. Legal, social, corruption and environmental concerns aside (and all are daunting), the financial returns are violently challenged.

The century-old Panama Canal, which is struggling through its own US$5 billion upgrade to double its potential traffic, generates about US$2 billion in annual revenues, about half of which are retained as profits. Building parallel infrastructure in Nicaragua at huge sunk expense will provoke a knife-fight response from Panama, which has capacity to spare. Although the Nicaragua canal will allow larger-sized ships to pass, Panama should retain most of the transit share, and will slash pricing to make sure. In that case, the canals' combined annual profit pool might be much less than the US$1 billion today.

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Commercially speaking, this US$50 billion gambit is courageous, if not reckless.

There is of course another possible explanation: that the company is a front for Beijing, that it will rely heavily on cheap long-term financing from state institutions, and that the canal is to secure access for Chinese shipping.

There is plenty of scuttlebutt on the internet about the company's mysterious chairman (he says he is “just a businessman”) and China's strategic game plan. US$50 billion is serious money, way beyond the exposure limits of institutions like the World Bank but feasible for the Chinese agencies which long ago surpassed it. If this canal is built, it will mostly be with Chinese state contractors and funds. True, companies can raise US$10 billion or even US$20 billion in international public equity, but these are special cases (like Alibaba) for proven businesses.

This gargantuan engineering enterprise also has the audacious hallmarks of a Chinese Government design. But if it is, why would Beijing wish to hide behind a supposed Hong Kong-based entrepreneur?

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China enjoys excellent relations with Nicaragua's charismatic Daniel Ortega, who in turn is no friend of the US. Maybe Ortega is simply downplaying Beijing's role in order not to antagonize the yanqui. Perhaps Beijing is happy to maintain plausible deniability for now, and will later assume greater ownership over the enterprise once it has matured and the Americans have resigned themselves to its existence. Although the targeted financial payback is just 12 years, with operations underway by 2019, both these estimates seem fanciful. In reality, the project is likely to see overruns and delays, so the operating concession might be 50 or even 100 years.

Then a Chinese entity – perhaps the state itself – will have long-term control over a key “chokepoint” into the Atlantic.

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The Nicaragua canal would prioritize Chinese shipping: containers to the US eastern seaboard, tankers from Venezuela, iron-ore carriers from Brazil, perhaps even PLA Navy warships. That sounds pretty sensational. But what is really gained here? As noted above, the canal is broadly replicating what already exists in Panama. The shipping distance to the western Atlantic is not shortened; Hong Kong is equidistant via the Suez. And the Atlantic southern capes offer other entry points. If the specific objective is ensuring passage for Chinese naval vessels through the central American isthmus into the Caribbean, it must be obvious to Beijing that – with or without a second canal – it can only be at the forbearance of the US. And those PLA Navy ships will be a very long way from their home port.

There is a broader agenda here, obviously. With its diplomatic “whirlwind” China is seeking greater access to world markets and wants new trade routes opened, preferably under its own aegis.

The most significant is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) program, which envisages continental and maritime pathways west to Europe and Africa, away from the US-contested Pacific. There are good reasons why China should seek to build strategic 'keys' like OBOR, not least to secure its restive frontiers. But in reinforcing its periphery it will encounter powerful rivals. Nicaragua's canal is a clear challenge to the US. New Delhi strategists are already muttering that OBOR pincers India. Russia, distracted for now in Ukraine, may come to resent greater Chinese influence in Central Asia.

The other risks in holding these access points should also be well known to Beijing's leaders: grassroots protests, wars, coups, external interventions, nationalisations, and – most unpredictable – democratic elections. It is already evident that Nicaragua, which is hardly a stable jurisdiction, will be divided by the canal in more ways than one.

Indeed, compared to the serious public effort China is making with its OBOR initiative, the whole Nicaragua canal adventure seems quirky and speculative. Perhaps that's why it's in the hands of a private Hong Kong developer.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsChina

Will Charlie Hebdo Change the NYPD?

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It was the deadliest attack in the French capital since the World War II era.  Two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, dressed as commandos with automatic weapons and black facemasks, barged into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shot up the staff who were in the middle of an editorial meeting, and turned the office into a brutal crime scene.  Across town, in a Kosher supermarket, a Frenchmen of African dissent named Amedy Coulibaly killed four people, held others as hostages, and threatened to kill each shopper in the market unless French police let the Kouachi brothers escape.

By the time the French police killed all three terrorists in near simultaneous raids, seventeen people were killed.  France, the European country with the largest Islamic community at roughly 5 million Muslim, was a nation virtually at war, as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls would say days later. 

The official claim by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that the Kouachi brothers were working for them, and that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was planned, orchestrated, and funded by the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, served as a confirmation that the terrorist network is far from defeated, as the Obama administration has consistently argued.

Equally disturbing to the death toll and brazenness of the raid, however, is the sheer simplicity of the Kouachi brother’s operation: two men, armed to the teeth, shooting up innocent people on a soft-target as innocuous as an office building, killing a dozen people inside.  We have all heard about how dangerous and random “lone-wolf” attacks can be, but the terrorist attacks in France last week will add a new topic to the conversation: a small group of two to three people striking a soft target and doing damage before any police or law enforcement can respond.

The frightening aspect about the attack in Paris (in addition to the fact that a pillar of democracy—free speech—was deliberately attacked by Islamic extremists taking direction from an Al-Qaeda affiliate) is that it could theoretically happen anywhere.  This is not fear mongering, but a reality: As NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton acutely observed last week, there are simply too many potential soft targets to defend and not enough law enforcement and intelligence agents to defend them. 

If Paris is a microcosm of France, New York City is a microcosm of the United States: a city where Americans of all colors, ethnicities, religions, and beliefs congregate, live, work, play and study.  Along with London, New York is at the heart of world financial markets, the center of commerce, and truly one of the greatest cities in the world.  Like it or not, all of these qualities are incentives for terrorists—whether lone wolves or terrorist organizations—to pinpoint New York as a prime target.  NYPD Commissioner Bratton, Mayor Bill de Blasio, CIA Director John Brennan and President Barack Obama all know this is the case, and as the old adage says, it’s what keeps them up at night.

The New York Police Department may have gotten some bad press over the past month and a half over the death of Eric Gardner and its very public feud with Mayor de Blasio, but the department remains the best police force in the entire world.  It’s intelligence and counterterrorism division led by Deputy Commissioner John Miller (who, if you recall, was live on-the-air with the late Peter Jennings during the September 11, 2001 attacks) consists of 1,000 dedicated officers whose sole job it is to “connect the dots,” thwart possible plots, and take would-be terrorists into custody.  At the same time, the NYPD also has officers dispatched overseas, tasked with helping other police departments with terrorism-related investigations.

But, even with all of that talent and experience, the NYPD has a decision to make: after the attacks in Paris, can they do their jobs effectively without the kinds of controversial surveillance policies that got the department into trouble with civil liberties groups in the past?  Before Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio entered office, the NYPD had a special unit assigned to map out Muslim communities across the entire New York metro area—a unit that, according to an extensive investigation by the Associated Press, included monitoring mosques, placing plain cloths agents into neighborhoods where Muslims lived and worked, and keeping a database of New York’s Muslim residents.  The purpose was to determine which neighborhoods terrorist sleeper cells or lone wolfs would congregate and hide in before or after a terrorist attack in the city, and it was a divisive program that was shut down by Commissioner Bratton in early 2014 (the previous Commissioner, Raymond Kelly, heralded the program as critical to keeping New Yorkers safe).

It’s an awkward question, given the ethics and legal issues involved, but it’s worth asking: will the terrorist assault in France change the way the NYPD operates?  Given the horrible massacre that took place in one of America’s oldest allies, will New York’s finest find the need to resurrect a program that could cause consternation with the city’s Muslims, even as it helps police assemble a stockpile of information that could be useful in the future?  And finally, is the threat of lone wolf or small cell terrorism on soft targets heightened to such an extent that NYPD officers choose to devote more resources, manpower, money, and attention to intelligence work instead of ordinary crime?

All of these questions will have to be discussed among the NYPD’s top brass, if they aren’t already discussing it.  Because if the Charlie Hebdo attack tells us anything, it’s that even people in an office can be prime targets for terrorists. 

Image: Flickr/Diana Robinson

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Russia's Nuclear Forces Conduct Surprise Drill

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Russia’s Nuclear Forces performed a surprise readiness drill on Tuesday, according to state-run Russian media outlets.

The Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN), which control Russia’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), began a snap drill on January 20, the reports said, citing a press release from the RVSN. The drills, which are taking place in Western Siberia, will include 1,200 RVSN troops who will perform over 20 different tasks. Emergencies Ministry's troops, as well as Internal Ministry and Federal Security Service forces, were expected to participate in aspects of the drills.

“During the unannounced exercises of the missile forces, a committee will study the current condition in organizing activities by the commanders in completing drills of fighting terrorism as a command unit, missile force regiments and a number of other subdivision units," Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Igor Egorov was quoted as saying of the drills.

RVSN said that “no less” than four such drills will be held in 2015. Earlier this month, Egorov had announced that in 2015, the Strategic Missile Forces “will conduct over 100 command and staff, tactical and specialized drills. The drills will be conducted in complex and tense conditions.” In December, RVSN Commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev had told reporters that “A total of 14 launches are planned for 2015 - for the flight tests of advanced weapons samples and controlling technical readiness of missile systems adopted for service.” As of last summer, Russia had planned on conducting 16 ICBM test launches in 2014.

This focus on strengthening Russia’s strategic deterrent seems to still to continue unabated. Last month, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, said that Russia’s nuclear forces would be the Defense Ministry’s top priority this year. Part of this will include becoming better equipped at using new and modernized platforms, including the 38 new ICBMs that Russia acquired in 2014. It will also include incorporating new personnel into the RVSN. In August of last year, the RVSN announced that it will add an additional 8,500 troops to its force through 2020. According to Newsweek, the RVSN currently boasts about 18,000 troops.

Russia’s modernization efforts come at a time when its nuclear relationship with the U.S. is fraying. The Boston Globe reported earlier this week that Russia severed nuclear security ties with the United States last month.

“The Russians informed the Americans that they were refusing any more U.S.” help protecting their largest stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from being stolen or sold on the black market,” the report said, citing three unnamed American officials. The U.S. and Russia have previously cooperated on protecting Russian nukes as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which began in the 1990s shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of the National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia

An Important Anniversary: Remembering the Twenty-One Demands

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Compared with the high-profile national Memorial Day for the Nanjing Massacre last month, the date January 18 passed uneventfully. Chinese media appeared to have forgotten that one hundred years ago, on exactly that day, Japan presented Chinese President Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-Kai) with requests that would have turned China into a de facto Japanese protectorate.

The Japanese requests included five groups of secret demands that became known as the Twenty-One Demands. Groups One and Two were designed to confirm Japan’s dominant position in Shandong, southern Manchuria, and eastern Inner Mongolia. Group Three would acknowledge Japan’s special interests in an industrial complex in central China. Group Four forbade China from giving any further coastal or island concessions to foreign powers except for Japan. The most outrageous was Group Five. Group Five required China to install Japanese advisors who could take effective control of Chinese government, economy, and military. These demands would have had a similar impact to that of what the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty had on Korea in 1910.

These notorious demands were issued at a time of shifting balance of power in East Asia. With the Qing dynasty’s humiliating defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), regional dominance for the first time had moved from China to Japan. Japan’s ambitions in China were further emboldened by its decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), which affirmed the Japanese presence in south Manchuria and Korea. The 1911 Revolution brought an end to the Qing dynasty and ushered in the Republican era in China, but China remained a pushover in the face of pressure from Western powers. Furthermore, Yuan’s ruling status itself was shaky due to threats from competing local warlords. World War I granted Japan a perfect opportunity to push the envelope even more with China. As the war was underway in Europe, the Japanese hoped that other major powers would show little interest in countering Japanese expansion in China. For these reasons, Japanese Foreign Minister Kato Takaaki was convinced that the filing of an ultimatum buttressed by the war threat would cause China to accept all the demands.

Fully aware of the negative reaction the demands would cause, Japan asked China to keep them confidential and threatened to take “drastic actions” if they were leaked. Contrary to the popular Chinese image of Yuan being a traitor, archived history suggests that Yuan and his top associates worked hard to minimize the harms caused to China’s sovereignty by the Twenty-One Demands. Soon after studying the Japanese request, Yuan instructed top Chinese diplomats that by no means should China submit to the demands of Group Five. Headed by then Foreign Minister Lou Tseng-Tsiang, the Chinese negotiators sought to stall the negotiation process for as long as possible. Between February 2 and April 17, twenty-five rounds of negotiations were held. Disregarding the Japanese threat, Yuan had his political advisor leak the full contents of the Twenty-One Demands to a correspondent for the Timesin Beijing, who then reported them on February 12. In seeking international support, Yuan also relied on the traditional Chinese strategy of playing one power against another (yi yi zhi yi). He hoped that a perceived threat to European and U.S. political and economic interests in China would lead them to constrain Japan’s aggressiveness. Although the United States continued with a low-risk strategy in China, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan warned that the United States would not recognize infringements on Chinese sovereignty and the Open Door policy. As author Bertram Lenox Putnam Weale documented in the book An Indiscreet Chronicle from the Pacific, the possible intervention of Great Britain and the United States was indeed a concern for Japan in deliberating what final steps to take on May 6. In addition, Yuan also sought to affect Japanese domestic politics by mobilizing the support of Genro, who were angered by the government’s failure to consult them before drawing up the demands. As the negotiations evolved into an inevitable crisis at the end of April, the open opposition of elder statesmen like Matsukata played a decisive role in forcing the Japanese government to drop the demands of Group Five in the ultimatum delivered to China on May 7.

Not surprisingly, Yuan, who had no intention of risking war with Japan, accepted the ultimatum on May 9. The final form of the treaty was signed on May 25, 1915. With the removal of the most odious provision, however, the new treaty gave Japan no more than what it already had in China. Yuan, whose credibility and popularity as a leader was further weakened as a result of his appeasement policy, viewed accepting the treaty as a “terrible shame” (qichi daru) and made May 9 China’s National Humiliation Day. The Twenty-One Demands nurtured a considerable amount of public ill-will towards Japan, and the upsurge in nationalism is still deeply felt today in China’s handling of Sino-Japanese relations.

To be sure, times have changed. This time, the pendulum of power is swinging in China’s favor. Given the ongoing territorial disputes in East Asia, the episode that occurred exactly one century ago can still provide critical insights into how a rising regional hegemon like China should behave, and how less powerful states could play the power game to better protect their national interests.

This piece comes courtesy of CFR’s blog Asia Unbound.

TopicsHistory RegionsAsia-Pacific

Explained: The Real Point of the State of the Union

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America’s constitution is more than just seven articles and twenty-seven amendments. Although they are often overlooked, a number of unwritten conventions also form part of the de facto U.S. constitution. The rule that the Supreme Court gets the final say over interpreting all aspects of the constitution, for example, is nowhere to be found in the written constitution itself—and, indeed, was vigorously disputed by past presidents such as Andrew Jackson—but is now held to be sacrosanct, part of a deeply entrenched unwritten constitution that oils the machinery and eases the working of the written components.

The State of the Union address has become part of that unwritten constitution. Formally, Article II is vague about how presidents should keep Congress informed (“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”). From Jefferson through to Taft, in fact, each successive president opted to send a written address to Congress rather than appear in person. But in the twentieth century, a recognizable tradition emerged regarding how the State of the Union should be delivered. Today, that tradition constitutes a powerful constitutional norm that few can imagine deviating from.

What is the point of the State of the Union address? The nineteenth-century constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot distinguished between “dignified” and “efficient” elements of a constitutional system. Dignified elements are mostly symbolic, designed for public consumption and to maintain the outward appearance of competent and legitimate government. Efficient elements, by contrast, are those aspects of a constitution that truly are responsible for the day-to-day business of governing a country. People prefer the majesty of monarchy or the pomp and ceremony of well-oiled traditions than they do the reality of government, which can vacillate between the grotesque and the utterly mundane, Bagehot reasoned.

Without doubt, the State of the Union address is part of the dignified constitution. The tradition puts on show almost the entire U.S. political establishment, a political haut monde portrayed as congenial public servants intent on deliberating the issues of the day. The president takes care to craft remarks that emphasize the unity and strength of the republic and so will reassure ordinary members of the public. And the ritual of announcing a raft of new policies can be thought of as symbolizing the efficient workings of Washington: the supposed first stage in an orderly legislative process.

In truth, American government does not function in the way that the State of the Union portrays it. Indeed, a cynic might joke that there are precious few “efficient” elements of the American constitution left standing. With the Republicans in control of Congress and many in Washington already looking to 2016, President Obama is not the primary originator of new legislation; Congress will not follow his lead. Instead, President Obama will vie with Congressional leaders for the remaining part of his presidency. Each branch of government will push the limits of its constitutional authority to implement its own vision of what America should look like. When the two sides do pause to talk to each other, it will be to sling mud as often as to find agreement. As a result, the next two years will be decidedly undignified and likely inefficient, marked by pitched battles fought over “middle class economics” at home and “smart diplomacy” abroad.

President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address thus told us little about how the business of government actually will be conducted over the next two years. But it was not supposed to. After all, any event that accurately portrayed the filthy business of sausage-making in Washington would be repulsive to behold. Instead, the State of the Union fulfils a different role in the American political system: it is a focal point of the political calendar; a rallying opportunity for both parties; and a chance for politicians, pundits and citizens alike to take stock. For all the pomp and ceremony—because of it, in fact—the State of the Union has a serious role to play in the overall order of things. If nothing else, last night’s event was enjoyable to watch—and that was the point.

Image: White House facebook

TopicsDomestic PoliticsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States