The Buzz

Dictatorships and the Post-American Order: Is Autocracy Safe for the World?

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When Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. into World War One he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”   Since the writings of Kant and the rise of Hitler, the word dictatorship has been synonymous with international aggression.  However, with America’s debacle in Iraq and the onset of the Great Recession, authoritarian regimes have been increasingly asserting themselves.  A recent report from the World Bank predicting that China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s leading economy has made policymakers and pundits alike worry.  If autocracies like China and Putin’s Russia dominate world politics in the twenty-first century, what are we in for? One hundred years of Hobbesian anarchy, or another Concert of great powers?  Dictatorships dominate Washington’s agenda: China’s aggressive behavior in it’s territorial disputes in East Asia; the nuclear talks with Iran; what Putin’s Russia will do next in Ukraine (or Moldova, Georgia, the Baltics, and other countries in the post-Soviet space); and the civil war in Syria.  Wilson’s question needs to be reversed: is autocracy safe for the world?   

A world order shaped by autocracies is nobody’s first choice.  However, it’s not the worst thing that could happen, either. Most dictators are subject to domestic punishments for losing wars. Furthermore,  they face additional punishments after being removed from office ranging from imprisonment to exile to execution.  These sanctions give dictators potent incentives to pick fights they can win and avoid risky ventures they could lose in order to stay in office (and stay alive).  

The Obama Doctrine summed up what has long been the conventional wisdom on democracies and war: they “Don’t do dumb ‘stuff.’” By one influential study’s count, democracies won 93% of fights they started, and 76% of the fights where they are targeted.  Democracies were once believed to (mostly) do “smart” things because their domestic audiences were casualty averse, could easily remove leaders who lost and were informed by an unregulated marketplace of ideas.  And because democratic leaders enjoy staying in office they generally pick fights they can win.  Because autocrats do not pay the costs of war and cannot easily be punished for screwing up, they can be as aggressive as they want.  Dictatorships only won 60% of the fights they started and 34% of the fights where they had been targeted.  Leaders who fought and lost could still cling to power (ex: Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War).  

Historical cases like Algeria, Vietnam, wars in Lebanon, and the second war in Iraq give us reason to be skeptical about the military effectiveness of democracies.  Scholars using quantitative data have suggested that democracies aren’t as smart and tough as we were lead to believe.  

Some fear that as China continues to rise, it will not act as a responsible stakeholder simply because of its governmental structure.  However, these fears are based on a poor understanding of the domestic political constraints that govern authoritarian regimes.  Even many political scientists suggest that if you’ve seen one autocracy, you’ve seen them all which simply is not true.  

Dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Jong-Un are the exception, not the rule.  Few dictatorships are run as personalist regimes centered on the whims of a single individual.  Instead, the majority of are like Nikita Khruschev and Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina: non-democratically elected, but beholden to a clubby group of elites who associate losing wars with foreign policy incompetence.  New data bears this out.  Constrained dictators--non-democratic leaders who do not control the military or intelligence services or access to high office--lose office in two out of six cases where they won on the battlefield; they tended to lose office in seven out of eight cases where they lost.

Even unconstrained dictators are not safe from the fury of their general publics.  While some personalist rulers like Saddam Hussein managed to cling to power in the face of defeat (e.g., after Gulf War One), others have not been so lucky.  Leaders like Nasser and King Hussein managed to cling to power after their humiliating defeat in the Six Day War of June 1967, but not without tremendous costs.  Nasser’s reputation as the champion of Arab nationalism was nearly destroyed while Egypt was rocked by nationwide protests that began in February 1968.  King Hussein’s already tenuous grip on power was further challenged by the influx of Palestinian guerrilla groups bent on using Jordan as a staging ground for attacking Israel.  This paved the way for the Jordanian Civil War of the early 1970s.  Syria was beset by a nearly three-year long power struggle between the two leaders of the Ba’ath Party at the time: Salah Jadid and the Defense Minister, Hafez al-Assad.

Autocrats may miscalculate, just as the U.S. did when it went into Iraq in 2003.  However, domestic political constraints give dictators strong incentives to avoid reckless behavior.  Take Xi Jinping.  China’s truculent stance on its territorial disputes in East Asia has been of tremendous interest to American decision-makers recently.  However, Xi answers to the Politburo and is vulnerable to nationalist/anti-foreign protests getting out of control should he lose one of the fights he picks, neither of which welcomes international defeats.  So far, Xi has picked fights with weaker adversaries that are no match for the Chinese military.  These conflicts appear to have little likelihood of escalating to the point of full-blown confrontations with Washington.  

Many Americans would prefer the unipolar moment never end.  However, America can survive in a world with powerful non-democracies.

Dr. Albert Wolf is a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat.  Starting in August, he will be a Fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsGlobal Governance

China and America: Dancing Around the Containment Question

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On his recent Asia trip, President Obama denied that Washington’s expanded defense cooperation with Japan and the Philippines is designed to thwart China’s rise. “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China.”

Earlier this year Secretary of State Kerry visited Beijing where he explained that Washington welcomed China's peaceful rise and has no intention to contain Beijing.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey repeated the theme at the annual meeting of Asian defense ministers in Shangri-La emphasized that recent American moves in the region are not in any way intended to offset or contain China.

Hagel repeated the mantra during his visit to Shangri-La as well:  “This was not a visit to contain China. The rebalance to Asia-Pacific was not a contain China strategy. President Obama has made that point very clear. Secretary Kerry has.  I have.”

Despite Washington’s insistent and coordinated protestation, China’s leaders are not buying it.  As Dempsey put it, “Frankly, I think the Chinese have a different view of that, and I acknowledge that.”  Beijing’s perception derives from a number of different factors.

Washington’s Asia re-focus started in the last two years of the Bush administration and was accelerated and declared as a pivot/rebalancing under Obama. The cumulative effect of its multiple elements over the past eight years undermines America’s not-containing-China assurances.

Components of the strategy include:

--Augmentation of US ground, naval, air, missile defense, and reconnaissance assets in the region;

--Reinvigorated and enhanced defense cooperation with traditional U.S. allies Japan, Korea, Australia, and the Philippines;

--Burgeoning security relations with formerly neutral or even adversarial regional states such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China’s former protégé, Myanmar;

--Military hardware and technology transfers to both sets of states;

--Encouragement of enhanced security roles by individual states and establishment of bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral security arrangements between and among regional states and with the US.

--Most importantly, America has effectively drawn its own red line in Asia, declaring core US interests in a rules-based regional and international order, peaceful resolution of disputes, and freedom of navigation and over flight.

At each phase of the evolving rebalancing, Washington has strived to mollify Chinese concerns that it is pursuing a China containment policy rather than serving some broader purpose peaceful purpose—unwisely conceding the rhetorical point that the former is separate from, and inconsistent with, the latter.

As the president said in Manila,“Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes.”

For years, US officials danced around the dragon in the room, avoiding mention of the powerful state that is violating those rules and norms and posing the second-most serious threat to Asian peace and security after North Korea, China’s dependent ally.  That has finally begun to change.  In recent months they have explicitly called out China for its challenges to the international order.

Going beyond the aspirational euphemisms about welcoming a “strong, prosperous, and peaceful China,” administration officials are more transparent in acknowledging that that is not the China we presently have.  They now sporadically accuse Beijing of acting “provocatively” and “aggressively” even as they continue to pursue the strategy that dares not speak its name.

It is past time for China’s leaders to cease exploiting the century of humiliation. Four modern decades of Western engagement, economic and technical aid, trade, and investment—hardly containment—have helped China achieve its economic success, as well as, perversely, its military power now threatening the region.

Employing its own evasive circumlocutions, Beijing adamantly insists that its territorial and military intentions are entirely normal and purely peaceful.  US officials need to tell their Chinese counterparts in the security realm we will stop not-containing China when they stop not-trying to push the US out of Asia and not-pursuing regional hegemony.

Joseph A. Bosco is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as China country desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and taught a graduate seminar on US-China-Taiwan relations at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

If China and Japan Went to War: What Would America do?

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Editor's Note: The following was first published by the Lowy Institute Interpreter. 

Picture it: It's March 1, 2015. Tokyo and Beijing are headed towards what was once the unthinkable.

Over the last several months China has instituted daily non-naval maritime patrols around the hotly disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Beijing is even sending fully-fledged naval assets within the islands' 12 mile exclusion zone while its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, exercised only 50 miles away from the islands back in February — truly the end of Beijing's small-stick diplomatic strategy.

But on 1 March the plot thickens. Two Chinese SU-27 fighters come within 25 feet of a Japanese P-3 Orion surveillance plane just 10 miles west of the Senkakus (sound familiar?). The Japanese pilot gets nervous. A slight tweak at the controls and the Japanese plane collides with one of the Chinese fighters. Both aircraft crash into the ocean, with no survivors.

Naturally each side blames the other. Beijing accuses the Japanese pilots of violating Chinese sovereign airspace and violating its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. Japan claims the Chinese pilots acted recklessly, flying so close. The media in both countries fan the flames of nationalism. Just 72 hours later, a group of twenty Chinese nationals land on one of the disputed islands under the cover of darkness. Rumors swirl that Beijing knew of the voyage but did nothing to stop it. A Japanese naval task force carrying a small detachment of soldiers is dispatched. Their goal: remove the only residents of the disputed five-island chain.

Beijing threatens force if its citizens are harmed. As Japanese naval forces come within 20 miles of the islands a Chinese J-10 fighter jet buzzes the task force. On its second pass it comes dangerously close to a Japanese destroyer. In a perceived act of self-defense, the destroyer shoots down the aircraft.

Hours later, as Japanese forces begin operations to remove the Chinese nationals from the Senkakus, Beijing fires a warning shot, a DF-21D or “carrier-killer” missile which hits the ocean just 10 miles away from the Japanese task force. Undeterred, Japanese forces press ahead. Domestic pressure on Chinese leaders becomes intense. They feel they have no choice but to escalate, launching a massive saturation strike with ballistic and cruise missiles against the Japanese task force. Three vessels are hit with heavy loss of life. Global media coverage of the burning hulks and bodies in the water reaches a fever pitch. Prime Minister Abe urgently phones President Obama formally requesting America's help under the terms of the US-Japan alliance — a 3am call no president would ever wish to receive. War in Asia seems imminent.

While the above is thankfully fictional, it's what could happen next in this scenario that should have Asia hands pacing the floor at night.

As the Obama Administration has shaped its 'pivot' or rebalance to Asia, one under-appreciated aspect of this strategy is the reinforced security commitments Washington has made to allies, which come at the possible cost of American blood and treasure. During his recent trip to Japan, President Obama for the first time declared that the Senkaku islands, because they are administered by Tokyo, fall under the protective veil of the US-Japan security alliance (various top American officials had previously also made such statements).

As the example above shows, a Sino-Japanese conflict could start from the most unlikely scenario, where one incident builds on another and both sides share the blame. What would President Obama do? Considering his recent speech at West Point, which favors tired idealism over substance and displayed what David Rothkopf called a rehash of Obama's "Walmart foreign policy," can anyone really know for sure?

This drives to the very heart of America's rebalance to Asia and exposes a fatal flaw in its foundations. Would Obama make the case to the American people that its men and women should give their lives to what many pundits would undoubtedly spin as a ploy to protect a bunch of rocks with a funny sounding name, rocks which most Americans could not even find on a map? Considering the President's limited political capital, with only two-and-a-half years left in office, would he make the case under less than clear-cut circumstances for a conflict which many would say is not in US national interests? To put the question differently: short of an unambiguous Chinese invasion of the Senkakus, would he back Japan unconditionally? Or more broadly: under what circumstances would America come to Asia's rescue? 

Ominous questions, for sure. Maybe this is the reason Prime Minister Abe reacted the way he did at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue. And maybe this is why Australians are considering a much bigger role for themselves — or “A Larger Australia” — in the region as well as globally. While American intentions might be there, the will to act may not, even for a treaty ally.

But let's back up for a moment. Say Obama did make the case for intervention in the scenario I outlined above. How would the average American respond? If most Americans would not support US military action in Syria, would they support a war over the Senkakus, or the Second Thomas Shoal, or any other disputed island or reef in the Asia Pacific? Clearly, America's national interests are at stake if the status quo is washed away in Asia. But in an age of quick sound bites and rabid social media, can such interests be articulated so that Americans would be prepared to die for the Senkakus, a reef, or even a hard-to-articulate international order?

As much as I believe in my heart of hearts that America must rebalance its foreign policy towards Asia and that Washington should certainly come to the aid of its allies, absent the loss of American lives or an outright invasion of a treaty ally it is hard to see a scenario in the near future where an American president is able to present successfully such a vision.

To be clear, none of this is to cast a vote in favor of America abandoning its Asian allies in any way, shape or form. I strongly believe the present international order as constructed in the Asia Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific is worth fighting for. American prosperity and security is based on an international order created by Washington and its allies after World War II. If and when it were to be overthrown, Americans would find themselves in a less secure, less stable international environment.

However, Washington's Asia Pacific allies must understand the limitations of America's rebalance to the region. Without such an understanding, Asia might be caught off guard in a crisis.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

As Tensions Rise in the South China Sea: The Philippines' Military Modernizes

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The Government of the Republic of the Philippines is presently engaged in a concerted effort to modernize its military into a force capable of projecting a posture of credible external deterrence. The overarching goal of that transformation is to equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines with the necessary capabilities to protect the territorial integrity of the state, offset evolving foreign defense challenges, and ensure the attainment of Manila’s strategic maritime interests—particularly as they relate to claims in the South China Sea (SCS). To that end, three central innovations have been emphasized in the short-to-medium term.

First is the establishment of “appropriate strategic response forces,” developed in all branches of the military, to undertake integrated defensive missions and deter potential external threats that could harm the country’s core national security interests.

Second is the creation of an enhanced C4ISR system to support the joint command and control of strategic defense operations and improve situational awareness through the faster collection, structural fusion, analysis and dissemination of shared information.

Third is the development of a modern, space-based satellite communications network to work alongside improved C4ISR platforms in availing nationwide coverage for Philippine sovereignty surveillance and reconnaissance.

Two factors, in particular, have been instrumental in driving the reform process:

- A more benign domestic security environment due to diminished (though not entirely absent) threats from Communist-inspired insurgency, Moro Muslim ethno-religious separatism and Islamist jihadi terrorism.

- Heightened territorial competitiveness in the SCS, where China has adopted an increasingly forward-leaning posture to enforce its self-proclaimed historic jurisdiction over the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank.


President Benigno Aquino III has sought to address Beijing’s claims in the SCS by reorienting defense expenditure away from internal to external security. Problematically, his administration’s planned upgrades are unlikely to be enough to credibly deter PRC assertiveness in the short term. And the government has yet to articulate a viable strategy for overcoming the fiscal constraints that a complete re-modeling of the Philippine military would require over the medium term.

One viable solution to that predicament is to revisit current and future procurement plans for advanced aircraft, ship and intelligence capabilities and instead concentrate available national resources on creating an effective land-based system of anti-ship missiles (ASMs). Establishing an integrated network of this sort would be far cheaper than attempting to institute a complete process of defense transformation. It could also be put into service relatively quickly and if properly configured should be able to provide adequate coverage of Manila’s claims in the Spratlys and possibly even the Scarborough Shoal.

The United States has a vested interest in supporting the Philippine government’s current defense transformation plans—not least because it could help to counter Beijing’s assumed intent to exert uncontested sovereignty over the SCS. But actively assisting Manila in procuring advanced aviation, naval and communication platforms in the numbers required to credibly offset China’s own growing military prowess would be both expensive and potentially dangerous in terms of further straining what is already a stressed political relationship between Washington and Beijing. Helping with the establishment of a mobile coastal defense system would be far cheaper and much less contentious. Just as importantly, it would help to engender a capable and self-reliant partner more readily positioned to resist undue pressure from Beijing.

Now that the Philippines has reoriented its defense priorities from internal to external security, should Australia realign its own aid package—which has traditionally prioritized law enforcement capacity building—to a more concerted focus on promoting military force projection? The answer is no, for at least two reasons.

First, the Philippine police and judicial system remains weak, continuing to confront an array of difficulties that include corruption, inefficient case management, intra-agency competition, inadequate investigative skills and intelligence stove piping. Prematurely terminating ongoing Australian initiatives to address those problems would represent a significant waste of resources and could lead to a domestic enforcement void that once again allows internal threat actors to assume prominence.

Second, it could exacerbate tensions with Canberra’s main economic partner—China. Adopting an explicit posture of military support for Philippine claims in the SCS would likely reinforce a perception in Beijing that the current Abbott administration is fully committed to working with Washington in strategically containing the PRC in the Asia-Pacific. At best, that could complicate the consolidation of future economic/trade agreements; at worst, it could encourage China to search for new (non-Australian) sources of energy resources and alternative markets for its exports.

Peter Chalk is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. This post is a summary of Peter’s latest ASPI Special Report, Rebuilding while performing: military modernization in the Philippines, available for download for free here. This article was originally posted on ASPI’s The Strategist Blog here

Image Credit: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth China Sea

Iran’s Power Play in Iraq: Will Shia Militias Save Maliki?

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The territorial advances from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over the past week, including the swift capture of Mosul, Tikrit, and Tel Afar, has caught every nation with a stake in Iraq’s stability by surprise.  Virtually no one anticipated that the Iraqi security forces deployed in the northern, largely Sunni-dominated areas of the country would collapse as quickly as they did, without virtually a fight.  The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers deserted their posts, shed their uniforms, and left their heavy weapons behind is not only a demonstration of the ISF’s failure as a cohesive, reliable fighting force, but a notable political embarrassment for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

While it is difficult to estimate how many fighters ISIL possesses in its ranks, the militant group appears determined to sweep southwards towards the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, most likely with the goal of reigniting the type of sectarian fighting that the city experienced in 2006-2007 (the group does not have the numbers to take, let alone hold, Baghdad completely).  Prime Minister Maliki, despite public statements attempting to reassure the Iraqi public that government forces retain the capacity to defend Baghdad and recapture the swaths of Anbar, Salahaddin, Nineveh, and Diyala provinces that have been lost, he no doubt understands the severity of the situation.  Baghdad is simply too important a prize for Iraqi stability and Maliki’s own political future to assume that the city’s security will easily maintained.

A critical element of Maliki’s defense strategy in the capital has been, and will remain, the enlisting of fighters—preferably members of the Shia Muslim community thought to have more of a reason to preserve Iraq’s current government—outside of the official Iraqi military chain of command.  In addition to seeking a national state of emergency from the Iraqi parliament immediately after the seizure of Mosul from ISIS, Maliki called upon Iraqis across the country to form their own armed self-defense groups in order to guard their neighborhoods, families, and homes.  The establishment of self-defense groups would also allow government forces the time that they need to execute a well-planned and effective counteroffensive in the north.  Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential ayatollah in all of Shia Islam (certainly in Iraq) and a man who has historically called for calm and dialogue, has provided Maliki with critical religious justification for this measure—calling on all Iraqis, regardless of sect, to defend themselves and the country from Sunni jihadists.  Thousands of young Shia Iraqis have heeded the call by signing up for service in Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf.

As the region’s paramount Shia Muslim power, the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to play an instrumental role in any Iraqi Government counterattack.  The continuation of a friendly and pliant Shia-dominated ally next door is simply too important an objective for Iran to sit back and allow the writ of the Iraqi Government to further dwindle.  Tehran also possesses a sense of moral duty to prevent Shia civilians from being massacred at the hands of the same Sunni jihadists who a national security threat to Iran’s own borders. 

Although some reports suggest that 1,500 to 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards-Quds force operatives have entered Iraq to assist Maliki with security, Iran’s real contribution will be in the shadows: that is, fully remobilizing the Shia militias that were once a critical instigator of sectarian violence between and among Iraqis.  Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigades (currently fighting in Syria for the regime of Bashar al-Assad), and potentially Lebanese Hezbollah will all be encouraged, funded, and perhaps armed by Tehran to contribute to the defense of both Iraq’s Shia holy sites and Baghdad’s counteroffensive more broadly.  There are indications that IRGC-QF intelligence operatives are organizing Shia Muslims for precisely this effect.

Assuming that Prime Minister Maliki is eventually able to muster the strength to roll back ISIL gains in the north and the west, the Iraqi Government will find itself even more dependent on Iran than it already is.  A far greater challenge for Baghdad in the short term, however, will be convincing the very same militias they have asked for assistance to demobilize and return to their previous lives once the current violence subsides. 

If Prime Minister Maliki has any chance at forming another coalition government and extending his time in the prime minister’s office, he needs to demonstrate to the Iraqi people—and in particular, the Shia constituency that he kept him in power for the past eight years—that he successfully saved Iraq from a predatory Sunni jihadist movement.  Unfortunately, making these assurances will do nothing to bring the Sunni Muslim community into Iraqi political system as equal partners—the one thing that virtually every serious analyst of the country argues is the ultimate cure to the disease that is rampaging Iraq today.  

Image: Office of the President, Iran

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Beyond the Environment: Obama's Big Pacific Ocean Move

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The Obama administration yesterday announced its intention to designate a vast portion of U.S.-controlled areas of the Pacific Ocean as a nature preserve.  Although packaged as part of the president’s second-term push to enact environmental regulations using his executive powers, the plans also have sizable implications for U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Specifically, Obama is considering expanding the existing boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (MNM), a marine reserve created by George W. Bush just days before leaving office in January 2009.  At most, Obama could extend the marine reserve’s boundaries up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline of the U.S. islands contained within the conservation zone: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, the Johnston Atoll, the Palmyra Atoll and Wake Island.  Doing so would make the Pacific Remote Islands MNM the biggest marine reserve in the world.

Protecting ocean environments is argued to be essential for the long-term health of the planet.  Few dispute this, although in the past MNMs have been lambasted for being mere “paper parks” in which fishing can still take place in practice—more intended for public consumption than true environmental conservation.  Instead, criticism of the plans has focused upon the administration’s use of executive powers.  Republican law-maker John Fleming, for example, already has accused Obama of acting like an “imperial president” for refusing to go through Congress.

Yet beyond these debates about technicality about procedure there are other implications of vast marine protection zones that warrant consideration.  Symbolically, the creation of environmental protection zones in the Central and Western Pacific is a powerful signal of America’s long-term commitment and presence as a Pacific power.  While not as provocative as China’s designation of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, Washington’s marine protected areas do fulfill a similar—albeit non-military—purpose by pronouncing, formalizing and entrenching U.S. territorial pre-eminence in the world’s biggest ocean.

Moreover, it should be noted that many of the islands contained with the MNM system are current or former military bases: Wake Island and the Johnson Atoll both rest within the existing boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands MNM, while other MNMs cover Midway Island (the Papahānaumokuākea MNM) and Guam (the Mariana Trench MNM).  The Pacific conservation zones thus have military implications.  Active bases are given an additional layer of seclusion while mothballed installations are guarded against conversion to civilian use.

This logic of military conservation works on land as well as at sea.  Wildlife refuges cover 17.5 percent of Guam and all of Midway Island, for example.  Written into the environmental regulations are provisions that, should protected land ever be required for military purposes, then the security interests of the U.S. will predominate and the Pentagon will be given authorization to (re)convert territory for military use.  This is currently salient in the case of Guam, which stands to receive thousands of additional U.S. troops owing to the downsizing of bases in Okinawa and thus will likely need to reclaim refuge overlay in order to house the influx of personnel.  Other (former) U.S. bases on Midway, Wake and the Johnston Atoll could similarly be resurrected in the event of a worsening geostrategic environment in the Asia-Pacific.

Whatever the environmental benefits of establishing marine protected areas in the Pacific, then, there are several political and military implications that are worth considering.  That President Obama can even consider 782,000 square miles of ocean into a conservation zone is testament to how expansive and deep is the U.S. presence in that part of the globe; that so many current, former and future military installations operationally benefit from the conservation is a reminder that only one country boasts the real estate to establish effective maritime control there.

America’s marine national monuments are monuments to the country’s gargantuan geopolitical and territorial standing in the Central and Western Pacific as much as anything else.

Image Credit: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsPacific Ocean

If a War Exploded in Asia, What Would Japan Do?

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Big things are afoot in Tokyo, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government nears a milestone in its attempts to make Japan a more normal country on national defense. Abe wants to allow Japan limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense, through reinterpretation of country’s pacifist constitution. His party, the LDP, is in intensive discussions with its coalition partner, New Komeito, in order to get a final deal approved by 22 June. The United States will accept and support whatever results from Japan’s sovereign democratic process—especially as any progress on the long-time sticking point of collective self-defense is better than none. But in a disappointing development, the LDP appears to have made a concession that forecloses an immense opportunity to advance the US–Japan alliance to new levels of coordination, interoperability and, ultimately, efficacy.

At issue is what is called ‘integration with the use of force’ in situations where Japan hasn’t come under direct attack. The question is whether, in a regional contingency—think Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, or even a Malacca Strait crisis—the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) could operate in support of US forces conducting combat operations. Current laws and regulations limit the JSDF to providing ‘rear area support,’ such as replenishment, refueling, and data sharing, only in non-combat zones; as soon as shooting starts, the JSDF must steam away. Abe sought to extend the provision of rear area support to combat zones as well, but he appears for the moment to have given up on this particular point, with the exception of search and rescue operations. Keeping the JSDF almost completely out of contested spaces might make political sense to get New Komeito’s buy-in on this and other important issues, but it foregoes a potential operational windfall for the US–Japan alliance as a whole.

To be clear, no one is talking about the JSDF firing shots after the initiation of hostilities to which Japan isn’t a party. Moreover, the JSDF might yet be able to bring serious capabilities, including minesweeping in international sea lanes, to bear in coalition efforts. But legal walls are preventing the alliance from integrating Japan’s formidable capabilities in a more effective way. In particular, should the Abe government’s ambitious December 2013 defense budget stick, it’ll mean significant upgrades to critical C4ISR capabilities that are by and large interoperable with US forces: the JSF, Aegis destroyers, Global Hawk drones, new or upgraded AWACS and airborne early warning aircraft, and so on. Were the JSDF permitted to support US forces in contested spaces, it could integrate its ‘seers’ into American operations, freeing up US assets to go be ‘shooters.’ Beyond targeting, the JSDF could play an important role in supplementing US capacity for lift, sustainment, replenishment, and repair. That’s particularly important at a time when sequestration threatens future US Navy and Air Force procurements.

The LDP’s combat zone concession to New Komeito likely scuppers any such arrangements during the once-in-a-generation review of the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines, scheduled to end this year. In return, Abe appears to have gotten compromise on streamlined coordination between the national command authority, the Japan Coast Guard, and the Maritime Self-Defense Forces to respond to ‘gray zone’ events, encroachments on Japan’s interests that stay below the military threshold. While that would help to address China’s tailored coercion strategy in the East China Sea, giving up ‘combat zone’ support means relinquishing serious enhancements to joint alliance capabilities.

Negotiations aren’t over until they’re over, but if present reports are accurate, the question then becomes: so what? In the Big Fight—the nightmare scenario involving a certain Asian continental power to the west, which no one wants to see—those distinctions may become irrelevant, as ‘some countries’’ military strategies necessitate attacks against US operational nodes residing on Japanese soil. Or, because the US is unlikely to initiate hostilities in the Asia-Pacific, a hypothetical initial attack against US forces could generate an emergency request for JSDF assistance that may be allowed under the reinterpreted rules. Either way, Japan enters the fray. And as long as Abe can demonstrate some new ability to assist US forces in emergencies, he’ll achieve his goal of demonstrating Japan’s resolve and political commitment to Washington and the alliance.

But the way one plans to fight affects the way one plans and trains, and the demonstration effects thereof: if the US and Japan increase practicing to fight not merely in adjacent areas, but rather in a truly integrated manner, it’ll enhance the deterrent power of the alliance overall. Why should Tokyo take half measures when it can take full ones?

New Komeito and its allies’ commitment to peace is admirable but short-sighted. The common refrain in such quarters is that preparing for war invites war. Still, that approach might be insufficient. Japan’s return to normalcy will and should be incremental. But China’s military modernization is incremental too, only those increments might be much larger (PDF). At the risk of being sententious, Japan might not be interested in war, but war could be interested in Japan.

Alexander Sullivan is a research associate in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His views are his and his alone, along with any errors of fact or omission. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist website here

Image Credit: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

China's Self Made Security Disaster in Asia

The Buzz

A simple question about what China has been doing to its neighbors keeps recurring: How is that smart?

The question came up in dozens of conversations at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific roundtable in Kuala Lumpur. The puzzle of China’s behavior has shaped the previous columns on Shinzo Abe’s "we’re back in Asia security" speech, the differing security doctrines coming from China and the United States, the Australian Defense Minister’s musings on Asia’s potentially catastrophic situation, the loss of regional confidence, and the impact of all this on the nascent Asian security system that has served China so well.

Consider the responses China has produced or helped validate:

1. Japan’s asserting its right to a bigger security role in Asia in ways not heard in 70 years—and this is being warmly welcomed by Australia and Southeast Asia. In a few weeks, Shinzo Abe will come to address the Australian Parliament just as President Obama did in November 2011. That was Obama’s pivot speech, announcing that as president he’d “made a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.” Abe will use the same stage—Australia’s House of Representatives—to offer his own version of that strategic decision.

2. The US President went to Japan in April and stated that the US security treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands. China has pushed so hard over some barren islands occupied by goats that it has produced a specific promise from Obama that the US is ready to go to war with China to ensure that the goats remain Japanese.

3. Traditional fence sitters such as Malaysia and Vietnam are doing exactly what theory says they must do—balance against China by nestling closer to the US. America now proclaims  “comprehensive partnerships” with Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam’s Defense Minister is happily ruminating about the American Navy coming back to use Cam Ranh Bay.

4. The rusty US alliance with the Philippines has a fresh coat of paint and Manila is desperate to add muscle to the rebalance. 

5. For Asia, the US rebalance is central and vital. No explanation is needed for why it matters and why it must be made to work. The only question is about the level of US commitment. Some mordant comfort is taken from the fact that all US military planning now assumes China as the default enemy. Asia is rushing to give new love to the US hub-and-spokes alliance system, with some supporting partnerships added.

How is it in any way smart for China to have done anything to produce such outcomes? As observed by a bearded Canadian strategist who has been cruising Asia for decades: “The principal architect of the success of the US rebalance is Beijing.”

When you talk to Chinese officials, officers and strategists, the standard line is that China is the victim. China isn’t the actor, it’s being acted on. China’s only responding to the provocation of others. China’s being pushed around and has to push back. It’s a strange rendering of the way things look to the number two economy in the world and Asia’s pre-eminent power. China’s reaching for its prerogatives as a great power and feeding the fires of its own nationalism while adopting the tone of a put-upon teenager.

One of the best descriptions of this dynamic was given by Rodolfo Severino, the former Philippines diplomat and secretary-general of ASEAN. Now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Severino told me:

“Although secretly the US is welcome here, publicly one cannot say that because that would be unfashionable. That’s where I think the Chinese are making a mistake. They think that the Philippines and Vietnam are under the thumb of the Americans and it’s not so. By doing what they are doing they are giving the US another reason to be around. So I think it’s a mistake, but one cannot assume that the Chinese have access to the best minds. Although they are very smart but sometimes they don’t think things through.”

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article originally appeared in ASPI's The Strategist website here

Image Credit: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Siren Song of Missile Diplomacy

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Over at Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko is wondering why discussion in the United States over how to respond to foreign policy crises always seems to center on a familiar choice: whether to bomb another country or else do nothing. Not only are other military options (including “boots on the ground”) routinely taken off the table by politicians and their advisers, but nonmilitary alternatives for dealing with crises are too often given painfully short shrift. “The debate shrinks immediately around whether and how to use the tactic of force,” Zenko laments.


The siren song of missile diplomacy is not new. Two decades ago, the Clinton administration also demonstrated a clear penchant for remote warfare. Twice in the Balkans—Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999—did Clinton authorize airstrikes in the name of humanitarian intervention. In December 1998, cruise missiles and B-52 bombers were used to destroy critical infrastructure in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Earlier that year, missile strikes had been ordered against suspected terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s attacks in the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.


Why was President Clinton disposed to use airstrikes and long-range missiles instead of other tools of (military) statecraft? Today, why is President Obama similarly inclined—mostly recently as he ponders his response to the advance of ISIS militants across Syria and northern Iraq?


Political scientist Andrew Butfoy argues that, in part, the preoccupation with missile diplomacy is a product of the military affairs (RMA), which by the 1990s had bestowed upon the U.S. a technical ability to strike from afar that was unprecedented in military history. Yet Butfoy is clear that the technological advances of the RMA by themselves are underdetermining. Instead, presidency-specific factors are essential to explaining Clinton’s foreign policy.


After the loss of eighteen U.S. soldiers in the Battle of Mogadishu (1993), for example, Clinton’s appetite for overseas interventions was severely diminished. At the same time, the criticism leveled against the White House for failing to intercede on behalf of Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994 highlighted the unconscionable limitations of “doing nothing” in response to international crises. In this context, “missile diplomacy” emerged as a way to project power and influence abroad at a relatively low cost to U.S. military personnel and the political establishment.


Obama’s torrid experience of inheriting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can be seen in a similar light, as creating domestic-political incentives to push ahead with downsizing the U.S. global footprint and rely instead on remote warfare—drones, manned airstrikes, missiles—when there are international threats that cannot be avoided. This was evident in Obama’s policies towards Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013 (even if ultimately aborted), Yemen, Somalia and the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Only the Afghan surge stands out as an anomaly.


Like Clinton before him, President Obama is reluctant to sign-off on large-scale deployments of troops for reasons of domestic politics. Yet as commander-in-chief, no president can afford to ignore perceived international crises. Since the end of the Cold War, the concept of the U.S. national interest has become so stretched in the minds of many domestic actors, including politicians from both parties, such that almost all instances of regional instability and humanitarian catastrophe can be considered worthy of military engagement. For the “indispensable nation” to do nothing while the world suffers could easily be political suicide for a president.


In the final analysis, it is this domestic bias in favor of viewing international instability as intrinsically threatening to U.S. national security that makes the White House predisposed towards answering questions of whether the U.S. should deploy abroad in the affirmative. All that remains is the question of how. For all its military inadequacies and ethical quandaries, then, missile diplomacy remains an attractive political option for those charged with crafting U.S. foreign policy. Rightly or wrongly, this political calculus shows little sign of changing.

TopicsSecurityThe Presidency RegionsIraq

ISIS Challenge in Iraq: Why America Should Work with Iran

The Buzz

The US should seize the opportunity presented by the Iraq crisis to reach out and engage Iran. The threat posed by ISIS and radical jihadism as well as the potential for further regional instability represent important areas of mutual strategic concern for both countries.  By engaging the Iranians, the US will gain the critical ability to shape the course of events without getting bogged down in the conflict.  It will also help the US build a working relationship with Iran that could ease the current nuclear negotiations forward and lay the groundwork for future cooperation when a successful deal is reached.

First, US engagement will make certain Iraq does not become wholly dependent on Iranian aid and that the US will play an important role in shaping the operational environment.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are already in Iraq advising and assisting the government on the military operations.  Iran has openly declared its ability and intent to help Iraq, and it has the recent experience of success in Syria to effectively do so. The current conflict means that Iran’s influence and penetration of Iraq will only increase and become more entrenched than ever before. By assisting the Iraqis and working with the Iranians, the US can create mutual dependencies between the groups and enable the US to influence the operation of the fighting and the political balance between the different parties.

Second, the US will be more effective in trying to reach a political solution to the conflict by engaging Iran.  The current crisis cannot be solved simply through military means; it requires a political solution more importantly.  The increasing monopolization of power by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had alienated the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds and excluded them from governance.  To forge a broader and more inclusive coalition to lead Iraq, the assistance of Iran will be critical as it is an influential power behind the scenes.  By engaging the Iranians, the US can shape the political process necessary for the reformulation of power in Baghdad.

Third, the cooperation between the US and Iran will do much to build confidence between the two countries that would serve to help the current nuclear negotiations.  It would also establish the parameters for a future working relationship between the US and Iran should the negotiations succeed.  A history of mutual hostility and the lack of trust between the countries pose important challenges in the current negotiations.  On the Iranian side, for example, whenever I travel to Tehran, hardliners have repeatedly voiced their suspicions of US willingness to engage them to me and frequently raise the issue of mistrust when discussing the negotiations.  Cooperating on such a mission can do much to dispel these ideas and open the environment for more fruitful decision-making on the nuclear issue.

While detractors may claim that by doing so the US will give Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, the US will actually be strengthening its own position in the country.  By not doing so, Iran will be the sole benefactor of the crisis as it begins to assist Iraq just like Syria.  Of course, the US should be highly cautious of providing direct military assistance to the current Iraqi government so as not to appear to have sided with the Shia in the sectarian conflict.  However, by engaging Iran privately and working with all regional partners in reaching a political and military solution to the crisis, the US will be effective in promoting political stability and greater social inclusion in Iraq.

Payam Mohseni is the Iran Project Director and Fellow for Iran Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Harvard’s Department of Government where he teaches on Iranian and Middle East politics.

TopicsISIS RegionsIraq