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Chinese Subs Lurk Under the Indian Ocean: Cause for Concern?

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The visit of the Chinese Type 039 Song class submarine to Colombo, Sri Lanka, earlier this month passed with little notice, but it's the first time one of the People's Liberation Army-Navy's (PLA-N) diesel-powered submarines has emerged in the Indian Ocean, and its a rare PLAN submarine visit to a foreign port. Naturally, this visit, and an Indian Ocean patrol by a Chinese nuclear submarine at the start of this year, is prompting discussion about the expanding reach and capability of China's navy.

Yet beyond signaling China's willingness to deploy its submarines far beyond the first island chain, this visit also highlights a dilemma the PLAN must address as it develops into a blue water navy: how to rescue its submarines in the event of disaster.

The submarine "Great Wall 0329" docked at the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal in Sri Lanka from 7 to 14 September, just before a one-day visit to the country by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Yesterday the Chinese Ministry of Defense's spokesperson Colonel Gen Yengsheng confirmed that the submarine visited while in transit to join the PLA Navy task force engaged in counter-piracy operations near the Somali coast and Gulf of Aden. The US, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia were all notified of the deployment.

Submarines have deployed to support Indian Ocean counter-piracy missions before: in 2010 the Dutch navy sent a Walrus class diesel-electric submarine to conduct reconnaissance of pirate operations and ports. But the Chinese Type 039 is a smaller submarine. And though the US military's Pacific Commander describes China's submarine fleet as "large and increasingly capable," China's commanders have little apparent proficiency in long-range deployments. The visit to Sri Lanka is the leading edge of Chinese conventional submarine operations.

The presence of Chinese submarines in the eastern Indian Ocean and approaches to the Malacca Straits, should it become regular, will change the strategic calculations of a number of other navies in the region.

As Chinese submarines range further from home, the Chinese Navy must find a solution to the vexing problem of how to rescue downed or damaged submarines. The risk of submarine accidents is real: since 2000 there have been at least 30 incidents reported by the world's 40 submarine-operating navies. In 2003, all 70 crew onboard the PLAN Ming-class submarine "Great Wall 61" suffocated after an engine malfunction while on patrol in the Bohai Sea. The risk of collisions will also increase in coming years as Asian waters become home to more submarine activity. China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and Japan all have plans to grow their submarine fleets over the next decade. 

In a 2008 article, International Submarine Rescue: A Constructive Role for China, US Naval War College professors Lyle Goldstein and William Murray highlighted both the importance of submarine rescue for the Chinese Navy and its limited capabilities in this regard, raising the prospect of international naval cooperation to help China bridge this gap. Though the PLAN now participates in international naval exercises like RIMPAC, it has (in the opinion of Australian naval officials) been less than enthusiastic about integrating into common international naval logistics systems. International cooperation on submarine rescue is particularly sensitive, given the opportunities it affords for rival naval personnel to observe the characteristics of Chinese hulls and systems.

Yet China must find a way to be able to rescue its submariners. The political impact of failing to rescue a downed submarine can be immense, as Russia learned during the Kursk incident. In China's 2003 Ming incident, the PLAN's failure to find the doomed submarine for more than two weeks created sufficient political heat that then Chinese President Jiang Zemin was prompted to personally visit and investigate. A decade later, public scrutiny is more intense, as shown by the response to the 2011 high-speed train crash. The pressure on a Chinese government seen as unable to rescue submariners would be intense.

Broadly, there are two ways to achieve the rescue of sailors trapped in a disabled submarine. Both rely on the availability of diving bells (or submersibles) able to dock with the submarine and transfer crew to the surface. Both rely on a response that can locate and reach a downed submarine within 72 hours.

The first method is to position submarine support vessels, or submarine tender ships, within a reasonable range of operating submarines. This is the approach China has taken to date to support submarine operations close to home. In 2010 the PLAN launched a Type 926 submarine tender optimized to carry a UK-constructed LR7 submersible, the most advanced of its type in the world. But the tactical difficulty in using tenders for submarine rescue is that their presence affords competitor navies a reasonable estimate of where China's submarines are operating.

The second method of submarine rescue is to rely on a network of international partners who allow you to fly in a rescue submersible to the port nearest a disabled submarine, and then have the logistics necessary to transfer the submersible to a ship able to steam to the accident site. This was the principle behind the 2004 development of ISMERLO, the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office. ISMERLO provides a hub to standardize submarine rescue procedures and equipment, coordinates submarine rescue exercises like Bold Monarch, and is a platform to coordinate real-time submarine rescues. China has been an observer since 2010, though has done little to deepen its involvement and provides no details of its submarine rescue capabilities to the ISMERLO database.

There may still be opportunities for international engagement as China weighs how to provide submarine rescue capabilities further afield. In a 2010 address to the Royal United Services Institute, the PLAN's then Northern Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Tian Zhong concluded that "international coordination for submarine rescue may be the best way of saving the submarine and avoiding nuclear leakage," and signaled that China was "looking forward to more extensive cooperation" in the submarine rescue field. Subsequently, Chinese naval observers attended ISMERLO, NATO, and US submarine rescue exercises. But to date China has neither fully participated in any combined submarine rescue exercises nor concluded any international agreements that establish logistics channels necessary for fly-in submarine rescue.

So when the "Great Wall 0329" operates through the Indian Ocean it will be accompanied by the Changxing Dao', a Type 925 submarine support ship. China has yet to resolve the dilemma of how to underwrite the safety of its submariners far from home. How it manages this problem will indicate much about the sort of international power China plans to be.

This piece first appeared at the Lowy Institute's Interpreter site here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

China's Climate Change Challenge

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At the UN Climate Summit this week in New York, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli said it all: “China will make greater effort to more effectively address climate change;” announce further actions “as soon as we can;” and achieve “the peaking of total carbon dioxide emissions as early as possible.” According to oneWestern environmental NGO official, “China’s remarks at the Climate Summit go further than ever before. Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s announcements to strive to peak emissions ‘as early as possible’ is a welcome signal for the cooperative action we need for the Paris Agreement.” Other media outlets trumpeted: “China pledges to cut emissions at UN climate summit” and “China shifts stance on climate change.”

Really? In the face of such facts as China now emits more tonnes of carbon than the United States and European Union combined (not surprising since it consumes more coal than the entire world put together and its population is greater than that of the United States and EU combined) and, more surprisingly and less understandably, posts higher per capita emissions than the EU, Zhang’s statement seems to be an understatement. Indeed, it amounts to little more than Beijing will do as much as it can whenever it can, without providing any indication of what or when that might be. As Diplomat writer Shannon Tiezzi has noted, China’s biggest actual commitment was to pledge $6 million to promote south-south cooperation on climate change, by any measure a drop in the bucket. How is it that such a vague statement of intent can provoke such positive assessments? Without delving into the reasons that some observers are prone to jump the gun when it comes to applauding China for statements of intent as opposed to observable measures, the real question is whether there are any facts to back up such an optimistic outlook for China’s contribution to meeting the global climate change challenge.

There are indeed some positive signs. As journalist Matt Sheehan has pointed out, both Chinese coal imports and consumption dropped for the first time in a decade, and the country continues to increase the weight of nuclear, solar, wind, and natural gas in the country’s energy mix. The bad news is it isn’t clear whether the drop in coal is primarily from environmental measures to reduce coal consumption domestically (from setting coal caps and deploying tough new fines for coal miners that exceed national production levels) or from slowing Chinese economic growth; if the latter, coal consumption may well rebound if and when the Chinese economy does. Moreover, as Sheehan has reported, the drop in consumption was so slight that some analysts are reluctant to attribute any staying power to it. Also, as China shuts down power plants and coal mining in the eastern provinces, they are planning to move the plants and mines to the country’s western regions. Thus, while some of China’s major coal-related initiatives will do much to improve domestic air pollution in the coastal provinces, they won’t produce the same benefits for climate change.

More good news can be found in China’s efforts to launch a carbon trading exchange in four major cities and two provinces. In fact, Beijing has pledged that it will have a national emissions trading scheme twice the size that of the EU by 2020. Yet as a Stockholm Environment Institute study of China’s carbon emission trading plans detailed in 2012, many obstacles to a well-functioning system remain: measuring emissions more accurately, a legal infrastructure with clearly defined emission rights, permit allocation systems, trading rules, monitoring, and enforcement and accountability. The authors ask the fundamental question: “whether a carbon trading scheme—meant to be a strong market-based instrument—can function well without a mature free market economy.” Or as Australian National University climate expert Frank Jotzo has noted in reference to the Chinese system, “…an emissions trading scheme will be effective only if markets are allowed to work.” Already, concerns have been raised about the functioning of the pilot trading systems. Transparency over historic emissions data on which caps are based; the number of allowances granted; and even the names of companies getting the allowances are not always clear. As one carbon trading expert commented to the Financial Times about China’s carbon market: “It’s a black hole.”

Given the opacity and the complexity of China’s political economy, it is impossible to draw a straight line from Zhang Gaoli’s relatively weak call to climate action and anything that is occurring on the ground in China today. There are three stages to understanding Chinese policy on climate change—or on anything else for that matter: statement of intent, policy design, and policy implementation. The important thing to remember, however, is that in the end, only the last matters.

Editor's Note:This piece first appeared on CFR’s Asia Unbound blog here.

Image: Creative Commons Flickr. 

TopicsClimate Change RegionsChina

China's Self-Created Demographic Disaster Is Coming

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China is missing out on its biggest economic asset: its people.

Economist Nicholas Eberstadt estimates that, even if Beijing were to eliminate its one-child policy today, Chinese economic growth would still decline in the 2020s, because the next generation’s working-age population is already so markedly small.

Since implementation in 1979, the one-child policy has reduced China’s population by an estimated 400 million people. In addition to creating a gender imbalance, numerically favoring men over women, the policy also skewed the age demographic.

Economists estimate that China’s elderly population will increase 60 percent by 2020, even as the working-age population decreases by nearly 35 percent. This type of demographic shift is unprecedented and presents serious challenges to the economic health of the nation. Studies suggest that as a direct result of the one-child policy, China’s annual projected GDP growth rate will likely to decline from 7.2 percent in 2013 to around 6.1 percent by 2020.

Projected GDP growth rate is driven by three factors: labor, capital and total factor productivity. The one-child policy has directly impacted two of these three factors by reducing the labor supply and inadvertently decreasing the ratio of working-age population to the elderly population. As the population ages, and there are no able-bodied replacements, total factor productivity will undeniably decline.

Economic tumult in China is, at this point, inevitable—even if the Chinese government reverses the one-child policy today. Why? Because those who will constitute the working-age population of the 2020s and the 2030s have already been born; the size of this particular subset of the population cannot increase.

Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced a relaxation in the one-child policy (allowing some families where only one parent is an only child to have more than one child, as opposed to previous policy that required both parents to be only children), studies estimate that this will allow for only 1 million additional births, a meager increase in the context of China’s typical experience of 16 million births per year.

Declining birth rates also plague many others nations, including South Korea and Japan—two neighboring countries experiencing birth rates even lower than China’s mere 1.55 children per woman.

However, unlike other countries with low birth rates, China cannot rely on immigration to bridge the gap. (The United States, for instance, makes up for its below-replacement-level birth rate through immigration.) China’s decision to implement a closed immigration system and closely monitor freedom of movement (even within the country) makes solutions to the associated economic challenges extremely difficult.

The one-child policy has had several unintended consequences, including a dearth of workers, a reduced female population due to gendercide, and fewer young people to take care of a quickly aging population. Moreover, the policy has created conditions conducive to a severe regional human-trafficking and human-smuggling epidemic to compensate for the lack of Chinese women. It has already facilitated the practice of mail-order brides and created a burgeoning illegal-adoption market.

Failure to recognize the benefits of human capital—the value that each individual brings to the table, inherent and otherwise—will damn China to long-term economic stagnation, and possibly even decline.

On the 35th anniversary of the one-child policy, Beijing would do well to rethink all of its government-instituted population-control measures. Small-ball, patchwork reforms, such as the minor tweak to the one-child policy made earlier this year, are wholly inadequate for repairing the demographic train wreck they have created.

China must revamp its population-control policy, if not for the well-being of its people, then at least for the promise of a brighter economic future.

Image: Flickr/an.yonghua/CC by-sa 2.0

TopicsDemography RegionsChina

Is Australia's Economy Headed for Trouble?

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I don’t often write about Australia, partly because Australian politics are so stable and the country such a solid partner for the United States, but also because Australia has for twenty years basically avoided the ups and downs of the world economy. Alone among rich nations, Australia was basically unaffected by the global economic and financial crises of 2008-9 and the country also has not faced the kind of long-term economic slowdown challenges that confront Europe, the United States, and Japan. Unemployment today in Australia is around 6 percent, and earlier this year it was under 6 percent. Most forecasters project that Australia will grow by at least 3 percent in 2014, which is well above projections for most other developed economies.

The prolonged boom in Australia has led many Australians, including not a few Australian leaders, to think that the prosperity can go on forever, that Australia has found a way to defy some of the challenges that have slowed other rich economies. Any visitor to Melbourne or Sydney or even Darwin, in northern Australia, can see for themselves the enormous boom in residential and commercial construction, and the skyrocketing prices for even the simplest apartments and houses. When I was in Darwin, a city of about 130,000 people, homes and apartments were going up everywhere; Darwin is the closest city to a group of large liquid natural gas processing plants piping in offshore gas. Twenty years ago, when I visited Darwin, it looked like a tiny, run-down Midwestern American suburb, with the only excitement coming from the markets on the edge of town where immigrants from Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands sold their wares.

But a series of recent commentaries and new books reminded me of what that visit to Darwin sparked in my mind – the idea that Australia’s growth, though impressive, seems a little too close to the frothy, wild, speculative growth that happened in Thailand in the 1990s and the United States in the mid-2000s. A new book by consultant and macroeconomist Lindsay David, Australia: Boom to Bust, argues that Australia’s housing market is wildly overpriced and is going to crash, and that overall Australia’s economic base is too narrow–housing, exports of natural resources to China, and (to some extent) financial services.

Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek recently wrote an excellent commentary on the book.  Pesek too notes that Australia is the most dependent of any major economy on China’s growth, which is headed down as China’s economy cools and its own housing market cools. Pesek concurs that, beyond simply being too dependent on China, the Australian economy also has become far too dependent on exporting natural resources and on housing sales. He doesn’t mention another point: Natural resources are not renewable, and dependency on natural resources does little to foster innovation and entrepreneurial activity. Pesek does note that the average price of housing in Sydney as a multiple of average income–a standard metric used to see whether housing is overpriced–now stands at nine. By comparison, the price of housing in Tokyo, hardly a cheap city, as a multiple of income stands at 4.4.

Meanwhile, in the past four weeks a series of major Australian companies and financial institutions also have sounded warnings about the Australian economy. Earlier this week, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance, Australia’s giant coal mining company, cut 7 percent of its workforce because of declining demand for coal from China, which takes in over half of all natural resources exports from Australia. (Two decades ago, China took in only about 10 percent of Australian natural resources.) In addition, earlier this week the treasurer of Western Australia, the Australian state producing the majority of the country’s iron and coal and other resources, expressed significant worry at the declining world prices of these commodities, a decline that stems from oversupply and declining demand in China. In addition to that warning, Australia’s own central bank recently warned that the Australian economy was becoming subject to increasing speculation over housing, speculation that could overheat the economy and cause serious imbalances.

These forecasts should be a warning to Australian policymakers as well–and to Australian home buyers, builders, and the Australian population as a whole. But as Pesek notes in his commentary, when he faced down Australian federal treasurer Joe Hockey in an interview, and asked him about whether Australia faced a property bubble, he got little response. The minister dismissed concerns about the Australian economy and projected continued robust growth for the “lucky country.” “It is just an easy mantra for international commentators and for analysts based overseas to say, ‘Well, there’s a bit of a housing bubble emerging in Australia,’” Hockey told Pesek. “That is a rather lazy analysis because fundamentally we don’t have enough supply to meet demand.”

Indeed, the entire government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott seems in denial about Australia’s vulnerability to any downturn in Chinese growth, and the country’s overdependence on exporting natural resources to China and overpriced housing sales for its decades-long growth. But at some point, probably quite soon, the lucky country’s luck is going to run out, and Abbott’s government will need a real response.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s Asia Unbound Blog here.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsAustralia

Is the "Liberal International Order" Dying?

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President Obama’s speech to the United Nations was a spirited defense of the current world order and America’s role within that order. It was an acknowledgement that the liberal internationalist status quo is far from invulnerable and, in fact, is gravely under threat; and a warning that the widening and deepening of international cooperation, peace and security require good intentions and assiduous effort on behalf of nations.  Today’s relatively benign world order is the result of farsighted decision-making by past leaders, Obama told his audience; its maintenance is now the charge of today’s generation.

Obama’s stark warning was that all is not well at the core of the international system.  The benefits put in place by the victors of World War II are in jeopardy.  Autonomy, territorial integrity, security from predation, the right of self-determination and the conditions for economic growth and social flourishing—all of these supposed benefits of liberal international order are at risk of being taken away.  To blame for this historic threat to international progress (and chief among the president’s bêtes noire) are autocratic Russia and the fanatical militants of ISIS: Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its meddling in Eastern Ukraine are representative of an aggressive way of conducting international affairs that has no place in today’s world, while ISIS’s brand of brutal religious fanaticism is similarly beyond the pale of acceptable behavior.

Against aggression, disorder, division and hatred stand the United States and its allies.  While Moscow engages in conquest and seeks to undermine the security of its neighbors, America devotes its energy towards fighting Ebola.  Russia imposes itself through the force of arms whereas the U.S. is comfortable with the use of diplomacy to resolve its differences with Iran.  The countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are drawn into Russia’s orbit through fear and intimidation but the United States acts as a benign hegemon in the Asia-Pacific, fostering peace and security through the rigid application of commonly understood “rules of the road.”  And although the U.S. is not shy of using its military might, it does so only in service of noble goals—in order to curtail the “horrific crimes” committed by ISIS militants, for example—and even then only with the cooperation of other like-minded states.

Obama cited this summer’s events in Ferguson, Missouri as evidence that Americans do not always live up to their ideals.  Skeptics in the audience of the UN General Assembly, however, will have been able to think of their own (foreign policy) examples of U.S. hypocrisy: the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the willingness to sanction the independence of Kosovo against a chorus of protestation from Belgrade and elsewhere; the support lent to those who ousted the elected leadership of Ukraine earlier this year; the widespread use of drone warfare in spite of sizable civilian casualties and weighty ethical (and legal) concerns; and so on.

In short, not all world leaders will be won over by the president’s portrayal of America as the knight in shining armor.  The truth is that even some of America’s closest military allies are mere fellow travelers rather than devotees to liberal internationalism; several of Washington’s most valued strategic partners are allies not out of conviction but rather because of a parochial interest in leveraging American power in the service of regional goals: the leaders of Sunni Arab states who fear the expanded influence of Iran, for example, or the nervous governments of East Asia living in the ever-growing shadow of a rising China.  Do these states quake at the prospect of the world losing liberalism as an organizing philosophy?  Or is it the loss of U.S. security guarantees that motivate them?

Finding partners with an indigenous belief in maintaining the core of the U.S.-led international order will be no easy task.  In this sense, Obama and his successors truly have their work cut out for them.  The timid—in some cases, non-existent—criticism leveled against Russia in the wake of its annexation of Crimea (perhaps the most flagrant challenge to liberal norms of recent times) only belies just how fragile support for the current setup really is.  When push comes to shove, who in the world is willing to defend what America and its allies built in 1945?

In the long run, the balance of power between supporters of the American world order and its discontents will come to define international relations.  For his part, of course, Obama has never doubted the importance of U.S. leadership in the modern world.  It is predictable that he would stand up for it. Whether or not his speech will enjoin others to commit to liberal order’s defense in a meaningful way, however, remains to be seen.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurityPolitics RegionsUnited States

Two Videos of American Airstrikes on ISIS That Should Scare Iran

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Credibility in international relations, noted Benjamin H. Friedman in TNI in August, “doesn’t travel well.” Tough actions in one part of the globe don’t necessarily make leaders in another tremble at the sound of our footsteps. Weakness in one place doesn’t necessarily provoke aggression in another. “Historical studies show,” wrote Friedman, “that leaders deciding whether to defy foreign threats focus on the balance of military power and the material interests of the threatening state, not on its opponent’s record of carrying out past threats.” So all the worries that Obama’s false start on Syria last year inspired Russia’s revanchism in Ukraine or China’s pushiness in the South China Sea are overwrought. And the new campaign against the Islamic State will probably have a similarly ephemeral impact on America’s credibility in other confrontations.

But a faraway war can still send shockwaves through national-security establishments around the world. A rival might demonstrate that his forces are stronger than expected; a friend’s hidden weaknesses might come to light. The decisive U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War lit a fire under the Chinese military, which realized the extent of its inferiority. Days after the war, the Soviet Union’s Marshal Viktor Kulikov—formerly commander of the Warsaw Pact forces—told an interviewer that “The military operations between the coalition forces and Iraq have modified the idea which we had about the nature of modern military operations....The Soviet Armed Forces will have to take a closer look at the quality of their weapons, their equipment, and their strategy.” There were similar recalculations after, for example, the 1999 NATO air campaign in the former Yugoslavia.

The air assault on the Islamic State will be no different. And there’s one country that has to be paying particular attention: the Islamic Republic of Iran. US Central Command has released several videos of strikes on ISIS facilities. Two of these videos demonstrate advanced bombing techniques that analysts have noted will be important in an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Writing in International Security in 2007, Whitney Raas and Austin Long dug into the technical side of a possible Israeli strike. Many of Iran’s nuclear facilities, such as the huge centrifuge halls at Natanz, are hardened and buried to make the attacker’s task harder. One bomb—even a “bunker buster” designed for the task—might not be enough to dig through all the dirt and high-strength concrete. “One method” for dealing with this, Raas and Long say, “is to use [laser-guided bombs] targeted on the same aimpoint but separated slightly in release time to ‘burrow’ into the target.” A former Israeli Air Force general said that this method could “eventually destroy any target.” But hitting the same spot again and again takes extreme precision.

And that’s exactly what we see in this footage of a strike on “an ISIL compound” near Raqqa on Tuesday.

Two bombs hit in quick succession—and then two more, right on the same spots. The first two bombs appear to have been “bunker busters” aiming to knock out some bunker that may have been beneath the building—their impacts produce no visible explosion. The second pair may have been intended for the above-ground portion of the structure—we see a lot more smoke and fire, and part of the building collapses.

But Iran’s nuclear facilities aren’t just buried—some of them are big, too. Centrifuges are fragile, but you wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of penetrating Iranian airspace and then penetrating the bunkers, only to leave many of them still functioning. You want to be sure you’ve destroyed them throughout the enrichment hall. Raas and Long use high-explosive blast curves, which show how quickly the destructive power of an explosion (in this case, overpressure) dissipates as distance from the explosion increases. Cold War-era research into the effects of nuclear explosions showed how much overpressure is needed to reliably destroy different sorts of structures and objects. If you know how much overpressure is needed to destroy your target, the radius at which your munition produces that much overpressure, and the area of your target, you know how to space your aimpoints. CENTCOM demonstrates this principle in this footage, also from Tuesday, of a strike on an Islamic State vehicle staging area. Pay attention to the outlines of the property:

About a dozen explosions, spaced throughout the target area. This method gives the attacker confidence that nothing on that property is going to show up on the battlefield again. Raas and Long calculate that about three munitions going off inside one of the big centrifuge halls at Natanz would be enough to ensure destruction.

In other words, an Israeli strike would likely combine these two techniques. An American strike, as Geoffrey Kemp and I noted in our 2013 book War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences, would be easier and more likely to destroy the targets. We’d have better weapons—the thirty thousand pound GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, for example—and better infrastructure to back us up. Yet we’d use the same principles.

The Iranians are aware of all of this. They know we can hit their nuclear facilities, and they know the Israelis probably can, too. They also know that we’re hesitant to go to war with Iran if we can avoid it. But their defense planners surely can’t have been thrilled to watch American airmen demonstrate these two techniques in Tehran’s neighborhood.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsDefense RegionsIranSyria

The Next South China Sea Crisis: China vs. Indonesia?

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As Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, prepares officially to begin his term later next month, there remains a degree of uncertainty regarding the future policy settings of his administration both at home and abroad. One thing, though, seems increasingly clear: momentum is building toward the realization of Indonesia’s long-dormant potential to emerge as a maritime power.

The vision of Indonesia as a “global maritime nexus” (poros maritim dunia) gained prominence during the presidential campaign and seems set to become a central focus of the upcoming Jokowi administration. While Indonesia’s emergence as a maritime power is by no means assured—it will face many challenges ahead—we may be witnessing the dawn of a new era in Indonesian history.

The precise details of that maritime vision remain a work in progress, but some preliminary observations can be made. The foundation of the “global maritime nexus” concept is primarily economic: it seeks to increase maritime connectivity and thus economic equality between the various Indonesian provinces. That argument has been convincingly advanced by Faisal Basri, a leading economist and member of Jokowi’s expert team on the economy. Yet according to Basri, the vision of Indonesia as a maritime power isn’t limited to the economic dimension alone, and can also contain a security or defense function, including the protection of state sovereignty.

While Jokowi hasn’t spoken at any length on his own vision of the concept, the vision and mission statement he submitted during the campaign prioritized the protection of Indonesia’s maritime interests. The public statements that Jokowi has made on the issue have repeatedly touched on that priority, specifically the problem of illegal fishing.

In comments made earlier this month and published in the local Indonesian press, Jokowi stated that it was necessary to act decisively against foreign fishing vessels in order to prevent the continued theft of Indonesian resources. “If we do not act decisively, our fish will be stolen by foreign ships,” Jokowi was quoted as saying. Such comments indicate that he may not be as disengaged on foreign policy matters as some have expected; in fact he may be more assertive on certain priorities.

The issue of illegal fishing by foreign vessels is likely to prove a pivotal challenge for Jokowi’s administration, and will almost certainly create tension with another emerging maritime power—China. China is hardly the only country whose fishermen are operating illegally in Indonesian waters. But it’s the only one whose fishermen are directly supported if not encouraged by the coercive power of its state security services at sea.

China’s expanded presence in disputed areas of the South China Sea is increasingly bringing its fishermen, and its maritime security organizations, into direct contact and often confrontation with those of Indonesia. While the Indonesian foreign ministry continues to maintain there’s no dispute between China and Indonesia, China’s actions suggest otherwise.

A number of incidents have occurred in the area since 2010, resulting from what ultimately proved to be unsuccessful attempts by Indonesian security forces to prosecute Chinese fishermen operating illegally within Indonesia’s claimed EEZ. Those efforts to assert Indonesian jurisdiction in its claimed EEZ are beginning to form a pattern of persistent failure, a pattern which, if left unaltered, may eventually compromise Indonesia’s military deterrent posture in those areas, as well as the legal basis for its claims.

The most recent of those incidents occurred in March of 2013. Since I first wrote about that incident late last year new details have come to light, including the apparent use of electronic-warfare capabilities by the Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) vessel Yuzheng 310. Based on the Indonesian captain’s own reporting, as well as subsequent investigation and analysis, it now appears highly likely that during that incident Yuzheng 310 jammed the communications of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) vessel Hiu Macan 001.

Consistent with the KKP captain’s description of events, Yuzheng 310 may have been disabling his ability to receive communications from his headquarters ashore, in an apparent effort to sever the vessel from its command and control (C2) loop. It appears likely Yuzheng 310 would have been calculating that—in combination with other coercive measures—the action would force the Indonesian captain to release his Chinese prisoners. The suite of measures had the desired effect, but might just as easily have proved dangerously escalatory had the KKP captain instead decided not to acquiesce.

Continued patrols in those areas by what is now the China Coast Guard may confront Jokowi with an early test of his leadership, possibly in a crisis scenario not dissimilar to that from March 2013. It remains to be seen whether or not the new administration is even aware of that potential contingency, let alone prepared to respond effectively.

Despite the obvious overlap between Jokowi’s focus on combating illegal fishing and the recent incidents with China in the South China Sea, it’s also unclear to what extent Jokowi is himself aware of that overlap, or the severity of the challenge it presents to his vision of Indonesia as a global maritime nexus. Addressing that challenge will require decisive leadership from the new president and his team, both domestically and abroad.

Scott Bentley is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian Defense Force Academy, UNSW. His research focuses on security strategies in maritime Southeast Asia. This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Creative Commons License 3.0 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Danger ISIS Represents: "It has to be fought differently..."

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This is not G.W Bush’s ill-conceived war against Saddam Hussein.  There is no questionable intelligence driving events.  Nor is it a pre-meditated campaign seeking to alter regional balances or introduce new ones – campaigns which have gone awry in the past or the likelihood of “mission creep” present if President Obama is to believed.

Only the words and actions of ISIS itself provide the motivation to act against them, words that are not filtered or interpreted, but broadcast and distributed directly by ISIS accompanied by actions repulsive to anyone who claims membership in humanity.  

With many fighters coming from Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia and from Canada, there is no reason to regard this as an idle threat.  Several plots have already been apprehended in Europe and Australia.

In response to President Obama’s nascent plan, a consensus is emerging on two broad themes - that airpower alone won't suffice and at some point a ground force; ours or someone else’s will be required.

Second, that ISIS/ISIL/IS - is no longer simply a terrorist movement, or an insurgent group, it is a nascent state.  It has to be fought differently - to not do so, risks taking a Taliban campaign plan against an enemy that is far different - it is akin to applying the last war's tactics to a present war.

Why they are different?

In the cities they control, they exercise governance.  They have established curriculums for schools, provide for the sick, (those they don't kill) and provide for their own rule of law.  They have an economic dimension - you just can't sell oil - even on the black market without having a means of continuing production, and creating an infrastructure that moves it from production to the point of sale.

All of these things are characteristics of a government in being which, unlike previous movements, fully control cities and the swaths of land which connect them.

Their military arm, their army, is disciplined in its own fashion.  Their purposeful killings, executions and massacres are organized - a function of policy vice indiscipline. They patrol, fight and move in a fashion that indicates some level of coordinated training.  And they have weapons that only a quasi-state can support - tanks, field and self-propelled artillery and a few SCUDs thrown in for good measure.

So far, the use of airpower has blunted certain IS advances but certainly didn't stop the flood of displaced to Turkey's borders this weekend.  Targeting will become more difficult as ISIS consolidates in the cities that it holds and rooting them out, from Mosul for example, will not be easy. It will need a conventional force to do that, not just Special Forces operators calling airstrikes.  The ground and the nature of IS forces, require different tactics than those used in Afghanistan.

But the real problem comes in Syria.  If the FSA (Free Syrian Army) must also fight ISIS - good luck!  We set the seeds for them to be fighting a two front war.  Fighting Assad on the one hand, fighting ISIS on the other.

We've simplified it for Assad, he fights anything that isn't the Syrian regime, and we've simplified it for ISIS, anything that isn't dressed in black gets killed.  We've polarized the conflict even more, the risk of not understanding what the effect will be.   Notwithstanding the fact that a coherent "opposition" no longer exists, it is unlikely that FSA and its loose affiliates can prevail over Assad though our attacking ISIS makes limited victories for Assad possible.  It may very well be that some sort of understanding will have to be achieved with Syria, as difficult as that might be for western leaders to swallow.

On the domestic front, unless Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey or Egypt or some other regional power gets seriously involved, both with air and above all a land force, support for the whole effort will disintegrate.  "Why should we be involved if regional countries aren't" will be the prevailing sentiment and rightly so.  There might be support at home for a ground engagement IF there was a coalition including Arab countries or non-Arab ones from the region like the Turks or even the Iranians – without that, we are heading for another long war.

More reflection is required, not because we shouldn't stop the IS but precisely because the strategy is still immature.  Our level of engagement must be dictated by a strategic end state that is clearly articulated.  In this case a clear military objective, with sufficient means to realize it.  If not future failure is encapsulated in the current plan - unless the details are resolved.

What needs to occur?

We need to articulate at home that this is a very different animal we are facing and understand the danger IS represents, at home, to our allies, and regionally. So far, while everyone acknowledges the IS is bad, have not yet made the mental leap bridging the notion of- how bad they are with what action to take.  We are still on the middle ground of acting on the fringes - involved, but not fully or decisively engaged - not helped by our national obsession that advisors represent boots on the ground.

With whatever diplomatic ability we have in the Arab world we need to get the Saudi's, the Turks or the Egyptians seriously involved emphasising that though the IS is Sunni, this is not an anti-Sunni campaign nor a western campaign against Islam.

To that end, diplomacy at home amongst domestic Muslim communities must occur.  On the one hand to starve IS from a stream of recruits and financial support but also to have Muslim voices here reject IS’s toxic ideology.  Imam’s  should be making the case that the IS has distorted their religion and calling for action rather than Western politicians.  Finally, every element of international cooperation should be harnessed to starve the IS of the financial wherewithal to fight – cutting access to oil markets, arms and cutting transfer of funds.

As this develops, some of this will come together, but at present the pieces needed just aren't there.

George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author with Ambassdor Ferry de Kerckhove of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, and in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Cyprus and as and advisor to senior NATO commanders.  The opinions expressed are his own.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurityPolitics RegionsUnited States

Ten Percent of Western Recruits to ISIS are Women

The Buzz

After the grisly execution of American journalist Steven Sotloff by an ISIS terrorist earlier this month, a chilling message from inside ISIS-controlled territory reached tens of thousands globally via social media:

“I wish I did it.”

It came from Umm Ubaydah, a Western woman who had converted to Islam, moved to Syria, married a jihadist fighter, and joined in the ISIS media campaign to drum up support for the movement among English-language Tweeters and bloggers everywhere.

According to estimates by American and European centers for the study of radicalization, Umm Ubaydah is one of hundreds of Western women who have either joined the ranks of ISIS or been intercepted en route to the territory it now controls. Some are converts to Islam: Nineteen-year-old Coloradan Shannon Maureen Conley, arrested in April by the FBI on her way out of the country via Denver International Airport, pleaded guilty on September 10 to planning to join the group. Other female recruits hail from Muslim immigrant communities, such as the two teenage Somalis from Norway and several Somali American women from Minnesota who did make it to Syria. A UK study estimates that ten percent of the thousands of Western recruits to the “Islamic State” are women, while one French estimate puts the number much higher. They are only a small part, in turn, of a much larger number of women from within the Muslim world who have also made “hijra” — religiously-motivated migration — to the area.

Whatever the precise breakdown of national origins and proportion to men, female jihadists carry a significance greater than their numbers. From the cynical standpoint of ISIS and similarly-minded groups, they are a propaganda coup, and a further incentive to men to join their ranks. (By most accounts the organizations do not use the women as fighters but rather “provide” them to male jihadists as mates and homemakers while encouraging them to take to the Twittersphere.) From the standpoint of global security, the fact that foreign recruits to these organizations include both genders adds a layer of complexity to the challenge of mitigating threats potentially posed by jihadist “returnees” to their countries of origin. Thus it behooves Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike, in honing their approaches to “countering violent extremism,” to adapt a gendered approach that takes women as well as men into account — both as part of the problem, and as part of the solution.



Studies of female radicalization have identified a range of causes, some overlapping with men and others unique to women. Mia Bloom of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell sees a combination of factors peculiar to Muslim minorities in the West, ranging from feelings of alienation within the Muslim community to Islamophobia in the broader society. In some cases, both in Western and Muslim countries, radicalization has been linked to personal psychological problems. In others, particularly in the Muslim world, it may be a woman’s response to her own pariah status having been accused of slighting the “honor” of her family through extramarital sex.

Fortunately, a more pervasive phenomenon with respect to women and radicalization is an opposing trend, whereby women are seen playing a disproportionately large role in mitigating extremism and all forms of violent conflict. A UNESCO study on the role of women in war-torn African states found a clear correlation between the degree of their inclusion in peace building efforts and those efforts’ overall success. The study informed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, calling for the recruitment of women to play an integral role in conflict resolution and all efforts at “countering violent extremism” (CVE). Krista London Couture, a former Deputy Branch Chief at the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, recently studied the positive role of women in CVE as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and found that overall, “When women are empowered socially, politically, and economically and when there are higher levels of gender equality, the chances of peace and conflict prevention should increase.”

Couture investigated two Muslim countries in which domestic manifestations of terrorism have been remarkably low in recent years — Bangladesh and Morocco — and found robust government efforts to enlist women in the struggle against extremism.

In Bangladesh, she reports, the ruling Awami League political party, in power since 2008, has won accolades for a holistic counterterrorism strategy into which women’s social and economic empowerment figure prominently. The party has intensified efforts to strengthen women’s financial capacity in impoverished areas through micro-lending programs, improved women’s literacy rates through higher primary school attendance, and taken aggressive measures to bring more women into the work force. “Bangladesh has made significant progress in meeting its CVE objectives and goals,” Couture writes, “and empowered women in Bangladesh are considered crucial to the success.”

The Bangladeshi experience bears emulating in other impoverished Muslim countries. The status of Muslim women is extremely different in the United States, to be sure, where Muslims of both genders tend to rank among the 25% most affluent and educated people in the country. But in Western Europe, there is poverty and disaffection among many Muslim communities — as well as a socioeconomic gender imbalance within them. Thus the relevance of Bangladeshi CVE strategies is not limited to the developing world.

During Couture’s visit to Morocco, she found similar efforts at women’s empowerment in terms of finance, employment, and education. She also found special efforts to improve the legal status of women and, most remarkably, their role in the religious leadership of the country. Against opposition from hardline Islamist factions, King Mohammed VI has instituted progressive revisions to the Moroccan family code (Mudawana), granting women their due divorce and inheritance rights as well as protections within the household. Since 2005, by order of the king, Morocco’s Islamic affairs ministry has begun certifying female Muslim preachers. Navigating the conservative precepts of Islamic legal tradition, the king introduced a new designation known as “Murshidat” (female religious guides), who share with the male imam in responsibility for administering a given mosque. In the course of their work, Murshidat serve to advance Islamic moderation and tolerance and curb radicalization. Couture writes, “This revolutionary development for the advancement of women in Morocco offered an opportunity for women to act as agents of positive change in their communities throughout Morocco.”

The institution of Murshidat is not easy to replicate in other countries: King Mohammed VI enjoys special latitude to innovate Islamic legal rulings through his status as the country’s supreme religious authority. That said, the king of Jordan enjoys a similar status in his country. Some governments in the Gulf have capacities of their own to introduce top-down religious reform via state institutions. Egypt’s venerated Al-Azhar Islamic seminary, a source of guidance and inspiration to Muslims worldwide, also has the requisite power to move the interpretation of Islamic legal precepts forward. Since all these countries have been sources of recruits to the likes of ISIS, and all share an interest in combating it, their respective leaders and institutions should examine the Moroccan model and consider adopting it in some form.

Female Islamic leadership has also been the subject of intense discussion among Muslims in the West. In 2005, American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud ignited a firestorm of controversy by leading Friday prayer for a congregation of about 60 women and 40 men. Though some quarters of the American Muslim community consider her actions a violation of Islamic law, she has also won a growing number of champions in her country as well as an Europe — and even begun to press her case inside the ancient heartlands of Islam. Between progressive efforts like Wadud’s in the West and the beginnings of similar reform in Morocco, it is possible to envision a new dynamic, whereby mainstream Muslim communal life offers an alternative role model to Muslim women — whether Muslim-born, or converts to the faith.

Greater international cooperation to advance all these efforts is an urgent matter in the struggle to defeat jihadists in Syria and Iraq, as well as the ideas they have been promulgating with alarming effectiveness, far and wide.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.

Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author, most recently, of The Honored Dead (Random House, 2011), and is now at work on a book about Arabic media.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

For Some Senators, Politics Doesn’t Stop at the Water’s Edge.

The Buzz

“President Barack Obama is hopelessly naïve, has failed to articulate a well-thought-out strategy to defeat the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, and is tying the U.S. military’s hands by slashing the defense budget at the same time that U.S. soldiers are ordered to save the world. The administration is drastically underestimating the threat that ISIL poses to the safety of Americans, and the president has purposely “insulted” the men and women in uniform when he said that no U.S. combat boots will be deployed to Iraq—despite the very fact that 1,600 troops are already in Iraq serving in dangerous environments.”

If you think this is an overly partisan statement, you would be absolutely right. These are the words (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) that Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, used as the focal point in his opening statement at a committee hearing last week. The topic of discussion, as titled in general terms by the Armed Services Committee, was “U.S. Policy Towards Iraq and Syria and the Threat Posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” It’s perhaps the most serious national security topic that the Obama administration, the Defense Department, and the State Department are dealing with—enough to elicit a fifteen-minute, prime-time national address by the president of the United States.

Inhofe’s remarks, however, reveal the dilemma that the White House is in: whatever they decide to do, there is always going to be someone in Congress (usually a proud conservative Republican) that is either unhappy with the strategy that has been formulated or upset that more firepower is not being used to—in the president’s own words—“degrade and destroy” the Islamic State.

President Obama, of course, is not the only Commander-in-Chief that has had to juggle with this problem. Even before the Monica Lewinsky scandal that almost destroyed President Bill Clinton’s career, congressional conservatives repeatedly questioned his gravitas as Commander-in-Chief. After the loss of eighteen U.S. servicemen in the dusty streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993, Clinton’s approval ratings on the subject were horrible. Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush, was hounded by Democrats (and eventually some Republicans) when the Iraq war turned from a “Mission Accomplished” moment into a quagmire that appeared to have no end in sight. That criticism never left the Bush presidency entirely, and it eventually contributed to a Democratic victory in the 2008 presidential elections.

What seems different in Obama’s case, at least from this author’s vantage point, is that nothing the president does on national security appears enough for the opposing party in Congress—many of whom have no foreign-policy experience themselves and tend to use issues of national security as a convenient way to discredit the Democratic Party during a midterm-election season (and by the way, Democrats do this too when they are in the minority). Not all Republicans are like this: Senator Bob Corker has been relatively pragmatic as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and when he criticizes the administration, it’s usually on legitimate policy grounds. Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the two biggest hawks in the Senate today, have been willing to support President Obama when they thought he was embarking on the right path (McCain and Graham provided the administration with crucial support in December 2009, when Obama announced the Afghanistan troop surge).

Yet if 2009 was a honeymoon period when Democrats and Republicans could at least cut across party lines on matters of national security and foreign policy, 2014 is a year where no one seems to get along and people are content with questioning one another’s motives. Sen. Inhofe’s opening statement is a case in point:

“[A]irstrikes can only be fully effective, especially in the urban areas ISIL is entrenched in, when paired with the skills of a trained air controller on the ground. But the President already ruled out boots on the ground. There was a collective sigh of relief at ISIL Headquarters in Raqqa [Rah-Ka], Syria, when they heard him say that.

His claim of “no boots on the ground” is an insult to the men and women in Iraq today who are serving in harm’s way. We already have boots on the ground in Irbil and in Baghdad and throughout Iraq.

We should ask the pilots dropping bombs over Iraq whether they think they are in “combat” - pilots who face the real threat of having to eject over ISIL held territory.

I’m not advocating for an army division or combat elements on the ground. But it is foolhardy for the Obama Administration to tie its hands and so firmly rule out the possibility of air controllers and special operators on the ground to direct airstrikes and advise fighting forces. It sends the wrong message to our troops, to the enemy, and to partners.”

To Inhofe’s credit, he didn’t criticize the president’s strategy without offering an alternative of his own—deploying U.S. special operators, he argued, will be a critical element if the U.S. Air Force is expected to pinpoint ISIL locations accurately without excessive civilian casualties.

But why add the comment that President Obama is boosting ISIL’s morale by dismissing the deployment of U.S. combat forces? And why suggest that the Commander-in-Chief is insulting the very same people he is ordering into Iraq? Is it the sheer partisanship that everyone talks about obsessively? Is it language that is especially conducive to an election year?

Whatever the answers may be, it is hard to say that all of this helps the country unite in what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has acknowledged “will not be an easy or brief effort.” Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive. Or perhaps the old adage “politics stops at the water’s edge” is truly dead for some members of Congress.

Image: Flickr/USAFE AFAFRICA/CC by 2.0

TopicsThe PresidencyDomestic PoliticsCongress RegionsUnited States