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The South China Sea Crisis: Impossible to Solve?

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Seated across the table, China’s representative railed against the Americans for a litany of offences. The Vietnamese, Philippines, and Indonesian representatives looked on, their thoughts obscured by a mix of smirks and smiles. This wasn’t, however, a meeting at this month’s ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar. Rather, it was a South China Sea simulation at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

Divided into groups, attendees—a mix of Asia hands and novices—represented South China Sea claimants, along with the United States and not-quite-claimant Indonesia. Participants strove to hammer out a joint communiqué encompassing the parties’ varied interests while absorbing conflict resolution and negotiating skills. Complicating the matter, the talks were set against the scenario-injected backdrop of the Chinese construction of an artificial island in Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Although I flatter myself as educated in the basics of the region’s maritime disputes, the evening still proved educational. Readers might be interested in five distilled rules:

1. Chinese plays to Asian solidarity ring hollow

Assigned the role of a proud representative of Vietnam, I sought to halt construction of China’s artificial island and secure assurances against future infringement of our national sovereignty under the recognized principles of international law. That was a non-starter for the Chinese negotiating team. However, they did attempt to buy me off through vague promises of infrastructure investment before launching into a lecture on the U.S. In their view, Americans were destabilizing the region, were themselves unable to provide stability from half a world away, didn’t believe in international law, were interested only in a new breed of colonialism, and should acquiesce to a sphere of influence similar to their own dominance of the Caribbean.

I’ve witnessed this attempt at building an exclusive Asian rapport at other forums. Then, as in this instance, it was undermined by the accompanying mix of veiled threats and seeming indifference towards the neighbors’ real concerns. My rebuttals to China’s points—that its investments often led to little local hiring and spawned resentment, and that Vietnam cared less whether a nation signed UNCLOS than if it followed the principles therein (i.e. not parking an oil rig in someone else’s EEZ, for example)—received sympathetic concurrence from other claimant states.

2. Wild cards are unlikely to change the situation

In the run-up to the exercise I asked colleagues to suggest "wild cards" that could be played to shake-up the negotiations. Unfortunately many of those turned out to be outside my bounds as a country representative (and I’ve covered them in a CIMSEC post here).

In the event, it was revealed that the Indonesian moderator had been meeting and potentially dealing with China on the sidelines of the talks. Yet that did little to alter the negotiations. Similarly, I sought out "win-win" proposals, with a bid for joint economic development deals, as in the Gulf of Tonkinafter a freeze on new construction, claims, and resource exploitation—essentially the elusive ASEAN Code of Conduct and a reflection of Vietnam’s real position. At the same time, I noted that, if the United States was having difficulty maintaining its vessels in the region, the deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay could be refurbished for a renewed American presence. Unfortunately, the joint-development proposal was rebuffed by China, as most were in the course of negotiations. Rule four explains why those wild cards and proposals failed to change the calculus.

3. Conflict transformation doesn’t always work

Indonesia tried to tap into "conflict transformation" to propose parts of the disputed waters be made ecological or resort preserves. I suggested bringing in Australia and New Zealand as disinterested third parties to oversee a fishing-rights management scheme preserving stocks until a final resolution on the dispute was made. Those ideas, and the desire for our communiqué to contain language affirming regional commitment to the peaceful settling of disputes under the principles of international law, were all scuttled in turn.

4. China has little to lose from torpedoing negotiations

The reason for those failures mostly stemmed from a single assessment. Because China didn’t appear to face any negative repercussions for continuing its policies of tailored coercion and salami tactics, it had the least incentive to alter the status quo. Therefore China had a strong position or, in negotiation theory, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, should the negotiations fail. That meant China could effectively wield a veto due to its ability to walk away without fear of losing much. Little surprise that 5 of 6 teams failed to produce a substantive communiqué.

5. ‘If at first you don’t succeed…

…change the definition of success. After attempting to find "small wins," such as paying lip service to regional peace, the Indonesian moderator grew frustrated with Chinese vetoes of the rest of the agenda and decided to create a "unanimous minus one" list of items all other negotiators agreed to.

… agree to keep meeting. Students of international relations will be heartened to learn that we did agree not only to meet again, but also to develop a new regional forum to focus solely on dispute resolution. After all, negotiators need to ensure they stay gainfully employed.

Simulations such as this won’t by themselves solve seemingly intractable issues. (For a look at lessons learned from the real-life negotiations between Indonesia and the Philippines over their maritime boundary, see this article from The Diplomat.) Nevertheless, simulations can serve a useful purpose by sparking novel approaches to well-worn squabbles.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the US Navy Reserve and the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). This piece was first published by ASPI's The Strategist here. 

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

Germany's Challenge: Ensuring Democracy in the Western Balkans

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The high-level Western Balkans Conference, organized in Berlin today, August 28, will be wisely used by Germany to launch a renewed European Union focus towards the Balkans, a region that fluctuates between aspiring to become a part of the EU and fueling a system of “managed democracies”, the term now widely used to describe illiberal political systems that control their societies but provide the appearance of democracy.

Germany’s initiative to engage with the Balkans comes after a decade of retreating U.S. interest in the region and a time of a stated EU “break from enlargement” at least for the next five years, as announced recently by the new European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

However, the European Union cannot allow the existence of “black holes” within Europe, especially in a region where external influences have left the footprints of their civilizations. The Ukraine crisis has rightly raised Germany’s attention to needing to deal more actively with the Western Balkans, even when the EU cannot offer concrete steps toward integration.

Getting the Western Balkans on board is much more than a security issue. The rising influence of Turkey with its neo-Ottoman strategy finds ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo. Contrary to propaganda, this is not a bottom-up project based on culture and religious traditions, but a pragmatic engagement of similar-minded leaders based on economic interest and the attractiveness of a more authoritarian-minded regional power. Serbia, on the other hand, remains isolated, cooperating with Russia and other non-European actors in a tepid attempt to pressure and extract concessions from the EU on Kosovo, and to maintain its former leading role in the region.

The Balkans are also undergoing a period of democratic regress. The main problem of the region today is the state of its dysfunctional democracies. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been shaken by social movements against a nonfunctioning regime. Macedonia preserves the Ohrid Agreement as a facade while interethnic relations become more problematic. Albania is ruled by a clientelist government similar to the “Hungarian” model, which is ruining the balances of power and may influence the rise of social movements in the near future. In Montenegro, the same political elite has ruled the country for more than two decades. In several of the Western Balkan countries, such as Macedonia and Albania, the political opposition regularly boycotts parliament in the hope of raising attention to the loss of democratic principles and institutions.

A state of managed democracy is ubiquitous and seems to please the ruling elites. The liberal democracy that was the inspiration of the Eastern European peoples after the fall of the Berlin Wall is beginning to fade away toward illiberal democracy.

The entrance into the Western Balkans of a leading democracy and global actor such as Germany can help to transform the status quo and raise expectations. It provides new momentum of which both parties must take advantage: Germany to strengthen its leadership role and responsibility within Europe, and the Western Balkans to accelerate integration into the European Union. If this initiative does not generate positive political and economic impacts, there should be no doubt about the direction in which the Western Balkans will head.

Agim Nesho, President of the Albanian Council of Foreign Relations and former Albanian Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Montenegro/CC by-sa 3.0

TopicsDemocracyForeign Policy RegionsGermanyBalkansEurope

Decades-Old Security Council Resolutions Are Holding Israeli-Palestinian Peace Back. It's Time for Something New.

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When Secretary Kerry’s anticipated failure to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement resulted in a complete stalemate of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it was clear it might have severe short and long-term repercussions. On the short term it led to a resumption of the cycle of violence and may threaten the survival of the Palestinian Authority. The kidnapping of three Israeli youth by a Palestinian terrorist group and the escalation that followed it, first in the West Bank and then in Gaza Strip, demonstrated this danger.

Hardly have the parties digested the failure of Secretary Kerry to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the possible ramifications of a political stalemate, and here we are, engulfed in yet another round of violence between Israel and Hamas ending with a cease fire, which may prove shaky, as a first step towards a long-term stabilization of Gaza through its reconstruction and providing the population with a future perspective. In the short run it will help diminish the motivation of Hamas to renew fighting. In the longer run it could be a first step in a renewed attempt to relaunch the political process. In the wake of the latest round of escalation it should be clear to all parties that what was perceived to be a status quo is not tenable, even in the short run. On the long run the continuation of the status quo means a slide towards a binational state that will be neither Jewish nor democratic, while continuing to deny the Palestinian people the right to self-determination.

With no real changes in the basic positions of the two sides, it is difficult to assume that Secretary Kerry will succeed in restarting the negotiations between Israel and the PLO, and even if he were to succeed, there is no reason to believe that the next round of talks would be more successful. It leads to the conclusion that change of leadership in one or both sides is needed for real, results-oriented negotiations to take place, because it seems that even the recent bloodshed and suffering will not lead to the necessary change of heart among the current political leaderships.

Against this grim backdrop, the emphasis should be focused now on the short term on managing the crisis caused by the latest military round in Gaza and avoiding steps on the ground that might preempt a future agreement, such as expansion of the settlements project. For the longer term steps that will set the stage for renewed future negotiations between new leaderships are required. One of the steps that should be seriously considered by the international community (and the parties concerned) is passing a new UN Security Council resolution (different then the resolution that is discussed in the context of the Gaza ceasefire) that will reflect the changing reality since the passing of the last relevant resolution, and therefore, the need for a new reference. Until recently the talks between the two sides where based on two outdated UN Security Council resolutions, 242 and 338. The first one is from 1967 and the latter is from 1973. After more than twenty years of futile negotiations more detailed terms of reference that deal with the specific problems of this conflict are needed. Secretary Kerry tried to mediate an agreement between the two sides on such terms of reference in the form of a framework agreement, to no avail. The international community is the only one that can determine these terms of reference through a new UN Security Council resolution. It should be based on a US understanding of the nature of reasonable terms of reference drawn from the last two rounds of negotiations, during the premierships of Olmert and Netanyahu.

These terms of reference have to deal with the main subjects of the permanent status agreement; borders between the two states, security, Jerusalem, refugees and the finality of the agreement. It should also reflect the fact that although the parties did not succeed in concluding an agreement the gaps between, the positions of the two parties were narrowed down in important areas. They should enshrine some important principles of the permanent status agreement, such as basing the borders on the 1967 line with mutual equal swaps of territories, two capitals in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine as the nation states of the Jewish people and the Palestinian people respectively, security arrangements that will include a nonmilitarized Palestinian state, and a mechanism for compensation to the Palestinian refugees and their rehabilitation.

There should be consideration of the UN chapter on which the resolution should be based. It seems that Chapter 6 that deals with “Pacific Settlement of Disputes” is suitable.

There is no doubt that the mere idea of introducing a new UN security council resolution, which will serve as a new basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be opposed by the parties concerned because the principles that will be included in the resolution will not fully reflect their positions. Key to such a step let alone to its success is the US. But the US alone should not lead that effort. It’s the Quartet (composed of the UN, EU, Russia and the US) that should take the lead in drafting the resolution, leading consultations with the parties concerned and the Arab states. Based on the consultations, a resolution should be put to a vote in the security council. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Since it’s broke, it is about time for the international community to set the stage for yet another attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a new and realistic resolution. Some may argue that there are more pressing issues in the Middle East like the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, but there is no reason to believe that dealing with one of these pressing issues will be at the expense of the others. Eventually it is not possible to escape from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an important side benefit of such a resolution might be also providing a stimulus for internal political changes in the two sides that will serve the purpose of resolving of this protracted conflict.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom and Ambassador (ret.) Shimon Stein are Senior Fellows at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hu Totya. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsDiplomacyUnited Nations RegionsPalestinian territoriesIsrael

Iran and the Nuclear Sanctions Debate

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Whether or not a grand bargain is struck with Iran, we’re likely to have another debate in Washington over whether economic sanctions “work.” Economic sanctions are most likely to be effective where they are least likely to be used: against America’s allies. With a few exceptions, the threat of sanctions serve as an effective deterrent against starting a nuclear program in the first place. However, once states start nuclear programs, economic sanctions are unlikely to reverse their progress.

Sanctions Can Prevent Nuclear Weapons Programs, But They Don’t Stop Them

The biggest successes from economic sanctions come before they are ever used. After China had its first nuclear tests in the 1960s, members of the Kennedy administration feared that it would not only weaken the United States’ position in Asia, but unleash a cascade of proliferation that would ultimately result in West Germany’s acquisition of the bomb.

States that have relied on the United States’ conventional and nuclear umbrellas also relied on access to the open economic order constructed and supported by the United States after the Second World War. A number of states that have fallen under the United States’ “sphere of influence” have eschewed nuclearization—from Japan to South Korea, Taiwan and Germany, because the benefits of the bomb were outweighed by the costs of sanctions (namely, losing access to the international economy). Even where the logic of international anarchy would seem to dictate starting a nuclear program (as in the China case or, more recently, with North Korea’s series of nuclear tests), the prospect of incurring sanctions and losing access to American markets and security guarantees has deterred a number of states from attempting to join the nuclear club.

Sanctions Give Nuclear States Incentives to Redouble Their Nuclear Efforts

Social scientists and historians often focus on what they can observe. Because we seldom see sanctions preventing states from giving up the bomb, we mistakenly equate this with the idea that sanctions never work.

When sanctions are imposed on states pursuing the bomb, they serve as a boon for pro-nuclear lobbies. States pursue nuclear weapons for a variety of reasons: because they have rich supplies of the materials needed to build the bomb, nationalism, domestic politics or the security dilemma. Whatever states’ initial motivations are, nuclear-weapons programs are rich sources of rents. They allow the bureaucracies responsible for developing a nuclear weapon to grab a larger slice of the budgetary pie.

Second, because nuclear-weapons programs invite sanctions from the United States and a number of other states, they provide protection for struggling industries. In a number of instances, these states are pursuing import-substitution as an economic strategy. Sanctions are something to be welcomed, not an instrument of statecraft to be avoided. While Rouhani’s Iran has hinted at wanting to become more open to the world economy, in previous decades Tehran has pursued protectionism over free-market liberalism, as did Saddam's Iraq.

Implications for the Talks with Iran

The book has yet to be written about Iran. Proponents of engagement, such as Trita Parsi, have argued that coupled with the Arab Spring, the economic pressures brought on by the sanctions have rattled the regime. This perspective suggests that Supreme Leader Khamenei prefers to uphold the regime to acquiring the bomb. A successful bargain would ameliorate tensions with a long-standing adversary, prevent the outbreak of a war and could open the door to cooperation across other shared areas of interest between Washington and Tehran. Furthermore, the sanctions responsible for having damaged the Iranian economy (along with Mahmoud Rafsanjani’s mismanagement) were responsible for Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 presidential elections. Should a comprehensive deal be reached in November 2014, the sanctions will have played a significant role.

Some publicly circulated reports in the United States suggest that elite Iranian decision makers have not made up their minds as to whether they want a nuclear weapon. Many hawks in the United States and in Israel disagree, believing that the regime in Tehran is bent on acquiring such a capability and are simply playing for time. According to this perspective, any deal would be used to unwind the sanctions regime as a means of strengthening the Iranian economy. Once prosperity returns, the mullahs will covertly reinvest in the nuclear program.

What Happens After Unipolarity?

Much of the literature on the relationship between the use of sanctions to combat nuclear proliferation has rested upon the preferences of the United States. However, what happens if the United States ceases to be the world’s global hegemon? For instance, what if the world remains unipolar, but America is succeeded by China? Or, if the United States remains a great power, but the world becomes bipolar or multipolar?

Scholars such as Matthew Kroenig have argued that it is force, rather than friendship, that determines states’ attitudes toward nuclear proliferation. Great powers tend to take a hardline toward nuclear proliferation because it interferes with their ability to project military force. Weaker states are more sanguine about the threat because they are relatively unconcerned with their ability to project force.

If the United States continues to decline relative to other states, it is likely that other rising powers will pick up the slack against proliferators. The reason is simple: prospective proliferators’ joining the nuclear club will pose a threat to them in much the same way states like China threatened the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and Iran threatens the United States today.

Dr. Albert B. Wolf is an Israel Institute Fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He is currently writing a book examining the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy in curbing nuclear proliferation.

Image: Iran president website

TopicsNonproliferationNuclear WeaponsSanctions RegionsIranUnited States

The Perplexing Case of Kajieme Powell

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A storm has been brewing in Ferguson, Missouri since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown—but not the storm you think. While the protests that have been taking place in Ferguson have been given extensive media coverage, and are a storm in and of themselves, a more subtle, political revolution may be fomenting.

The fatal shooting of Kajieme Powell may be indicative of this new revolution. Powell’s death is the second Missouri shooting to have gained nationwide attention this month for its controversial circumstances. Had his “suicide by cop” occurred outside of the context of the Ferguson protests, there would be less of a case to be made for the potential politicalness of Powell’s intentions. However, the fact that he committed his suicide a couple of weeks after Brown’s death and in the midst of the Ferguson protests raises the question of whether his suicide was simply an act of opportunity (perhaps he felt that law enforcement would be exponentially more trigger-happy during this time of protest and wanted to take advantage of that) or whether there were deeper, political motivations for his timing his suicide so soon after the Ferguson protests broke out.

The protests in Ferguson are born of objection to police brutality, excessive force and racial tensions. In Michael Brown’s case, some news outlets, such as the Huffington Post, have been focusing on the race issue. This may be a race issue, but it could just as easily be an economic class issue as well, or Brown may have indeed been aggressive towards the cop. Saying that Brown’s shooting was certainly motivated by racism, just because the cop is white and the victim is black is not a compelling argument. It is like saying a male boss who denies a female employee a raise is doing so because he hates women. It is also possible that she simply isn’t a good employee and doesn’t deserve a raise.

At any rate, there have been many issues raised by these shootings that pertain to law enforcement standard operating procedure, autopsy reports, white-on-black violence, protests and riot controlling—the list goes on. However, Powell’s case is distinctly different.  

Here is the full video of Kajieme Powell’s shooting taken by an eyewitness:

After watching the footage, there is certainly ambiguity about what exactly was said between Powell and the officers, how close he actually was to them, if he was brandishing the knife and so on. And the media has been addressing these issues. However, far more interesting is Powell’s behavior leading up to the shooting.

From the beginning of the video, something about the situation seems odd. This was not your run-of-the-mill case of shoplifting. Here is what doesn’t add up: Powell exits the store—and doesn’t run or walk away. What does he do? He walks slowly to the edge of the sidewalk and places the two cans of soda he stole on the ground, side-by-side. The cans appear unopened. He didn’t drink them. Then he paces, seeming somewhat agitated, but not frantic. He paces around with his hand in his pocket (a pocket, we find out later, contained a knife). He knows that the police will be coming, and he waits for them. When the police arrive, they instruct him to take his hand out of his pocket, and he does—he shows them the knife. Now, the police have not started shooting at him yet. He walks towards the police, but doesn’t charge them. He deliberately climbs up on a cement ledge and into an enclosed area, away from police and just as he turns and walks towards them again, the police fire off their shots (at about 1:40 in the video). All the while, it is reported that he was saying, “Shoot me, shoot me already!”

It goes without saying that both these men’s deaths were tragic. However, in Powell’s case, we have been given a rare opportunity—to see a man’s last moments, minutes even, before his death. After analyzing the video, one might conclude that Powell may have been politically motivated. After likely being profiled his whole life, and perhaps feeling that law enforcement is too quick to jump to the conclusion that a seemingly low-income black man is up to no good, he may have purposely staged the whole incident with the intent of being shot to prove a point to American society, giving his suicide a political edge.

Revolutions and protests by suicide are nothing new to the world. There are the famous cases of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tibetan monks and Jan Palach, to name a few. But before being quick to say that Powell’s case is nothing like these cases, consider for a moment that political protests can indeed take many shapes and forms. For example, in April 2013, a man in Rome attempted suicide by cop by opening fire and yelling “Shoot me, shoot me!” Some suggested that the tense political climate in Italy motivated his actions.

Kajieme Powell may have had much deeper and complex reasons for acting the way he did. Automatically labeling him insane or simply suicidal seems too easy. Insanity is too often misused as a band-aid explanation for someone’s actions when we are too complacent to investigate a person’s motives any further. Just because we cannot imagine ourselves doing what Powell did, does not make the man insane. Conversely, he could have had political motivations and also been insane; the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, Powell’s actions seemed calculated, planned and intentional, not rushed, haphazard or random. Perhaps Powell did not plan on being political. But one should at least entertain the possibility that Powell intended to evoke a social revolution of another kind in his community.

Image: Flickr/Shawn Semmler/CC by 2.0

TopicsSocietyDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Janet Yellen's Reserved Monetary Insight

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In her speech at the central bank retreat in Jackson Hole, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said something remarkable for an economist—the labor market data lacks clarity, is confusing, and is sometimes contradictory. Yellen admitted the Fed is having a difficult time understanding precisely what is happening in the labor markets, and the difficulty of understanding the data has been magnified following the Great Recession. Some variables appear to have lost some of their meaning or ‘predicative power’, while others do not seem to have been affected much at all. This requires a shift in interpreting some data, and not necessarily extrapolating past tendencies and correlations to the present.

In the speech, Yellen subtly argues some data her colleagues are relying on should be interpreted with care. Some may not be relaying the same information about the labor market (and output, and wages and so on) as before the Recession. One to be wary of is the number of people working part-time for economic reasons. Yellen points out that there are “structural”—permanent—forces at work here, such as the shift to a services oriented economy where part-time employment is more common. But there is also a “cyclical”—temporary—component and Fed policy should be effectual here.

The Fed caused itself a problem by stating that monetary policy would be tightened as the unemployment rate dropped and inflation stayed within bounds. This is causing some issues now, as some at the Fed believe the unemployment rate—what the Fed has tied itself to—is not a good measure of the labor market. So Yellen proffered an idea about how to avoid the problems that using a single data point to determine policy could wreak:

“I believe that our assessments of the degree of slack must be based on a wide range of variables and will require difficult judgments about the cyclical and structural influences in the labor market. While these assessments have always been imprecise and subject to revision, the task has become especially challenging in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which brought nearly unprecedented cyclical dislocations and may have been associated with similarly unprecedented structural changes in the labor market—changes that have yet to be fully understood.”

The critical element embedded in this statement is the use of a wide range of data to understand an economy vastly different from the one we knew before.

To drive her point home, Yellen gives a few examples of what happens when data is not properly understood. Are more job vacancies a good sign for the labor market? Maybe:

“Given the rise in job vacancies, hiring may be poised to pick up, but the failure of hiring to rise with vacancies could also indicate that firms perceive the prospects for economic growth as still insufficient to justify adding to payrolls. Alternatively, subdued hiring could indicate that firms are encountering difficulties in finding qualified job applicants.”

Job vacancies and hiring are linked, and not understanding this link could render an analysis useless. Or, simply looking at the rise in job vacancies could lead to an inaccurate assessment of the labor market and the number of workers being demanded.

Other variables may not be so difficult to understand, even now. The quit rate—the number of people who quit their jobs as a proportion of the workforce—is one of those. As more people quit their jobs, the better the labor market is assumed to be. It indicates workers’ confidence in finding alternative employment, and how broadly firms are competing for talent. But, as Yellen points out, the quit rate is still “somewhat depressed,” and this could be a sign the labor market is not as dynamic as some think. While many of the variables may have been deeply affected by the Recession, the logic behind quitting a job is unlikely to have changed.

Yellen is a labor economist—this is her territory. It is disconcerting when she admits there is uncertainty regarding the state of the labor market, and how the Fed should react to it. But today Yellen did something truly brilliant. Instead of providing economists and Wall Street with specific policy plans, Yellen gave economists and Wall Street a lesson on how to acknowledge a lack of clarity in the data. This may not sound like a monetary policy, but it is. By allowing for uncertainty and calling for a broad range of variables to be used in the determination of policy, Yellen is allowing for almost any policy to be justified by data. After all, the data could be good, it could be bad, but it is certainly indeterminate.

Image: Flickr/DonkeyHotey/CC by 2.0

TopicsEconomicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Newsflash: There Is No “Wonder-Weapon” When it Comes to Modern War

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As Herman Göring might have said, “when I hear the name Carl von Clausewitz, I reach for my gun” (he actually made the comment about the word “culture”.). Particularly when the reference occurs early on in a speech and when it’s followed, in short order, with a machine-gun like spray of other military theorists—finishing up with Azar Gat. There was, however, method in  Australian Air Marshal Geoff Brown’s dinner speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the reference to Gat (who believes traditional war is in decline in today’s world) was certainly not accidental.

The Chief of Air Force began with a discursive explanation of how airpower had begun, during World War One, as little more than an ancillary to the real protagonists deciding the result on the ground. Then came the almost obligatory development of his theme, the transition from appendage to enabler in World War Two.

Perhaps I’ve listened to too many after-dinner speeches. I’d almost begun to drift off and count the rosettes on the ceiling. “Now,” I thought to myself, “there’ll be an elaboration of how the RAAF has subsequently become the decisive factor in the military equation.” That was a mistake.

When Brown turned to the present he suddenly became specific. Gone were the broad brush-strokes with their theoretical references; replacing them came details and particulars. But, and much to my surprise, there weren’t any references to the third generation of war—one where airpower reigned supreme. Instead the Chief emphasised something we journalists find it difficult to get our heads around: there are no simplistic answers in modern conflict. It requires a team to achieve the objective, and every player has their part.

It’s interesting to hear this sort of talk from one of the three service chiefs, particularly at a time of increasing financial stringencies. While it’s true the announcement that Australia is going to buy the Joint Strike Fighter means the RAAF has already been given its Christmas and birthday presents for many years to come, technology is developing fast.

The big question, of course, is how rapidly unmanned systems will develop. As long ago as 2011, even the Economist was predicting that the piloted plane could soon become a thing of the past. But, and as Brown pointed out, that’s misreading the lessons of history.

His message was that there is no silver bullet. Military effects are created by a system of systems. Brown had just as much time in his speech for the maintenance engineer as he did for the unmanned drone.

We don’t reflect on that often enough. It’s in our nature to look for the sensational breakthrough technology; the wonder-weapon. Those don’t exist. That’s probably not the message Brown wanted us to take away from his speech—but it’s not a bad one. And it’s a relief to see that even the head of the RAAF’s capable of understanding that airpower alone never wins wars.

Apart, of course, from Bosnia.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 


China vs. America: The "Freedom of Navigation" Debate

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Comments by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting recently highlighted the futility of the US-China dialogue over the freedom of navigation. In remarks to the press, Wang challenged Washington’s call for unhindered navigation of the high seas by arguing that the ‘current situation of the South China Sea is generally stable, and the freedom of navigation there has never seen any problems.’ The circular nature of this debate makes it clear that support for the US by third parties, such as Europe, will be necessary to break the logjam and reinforce a principle that Europe also relies on for its prosperity and security.

What was not apparent in Wang’s remarks is that the dispute between the US and China over the freedom of navigation is not about commercial ships, but military ones. According to Beijing’s interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), military activities within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – which extends 200 nautical miles seaward from a state’s coastline – are banned. Washington argues that this is a distorted understanding of the law, and is supported in this view by the majority of states worldwide. Only about two-dozen countries openly agree with China’s interpretation.

There are many facets of China’s disputes with the United States over the South China Sea, but none generates more rancor than the question of military activities within an EEZ. This dispute has been the source of most US-China flashpoints in the region, including China’s harassment of the surveillance ship USS Impeccable in 2009 and the near-collision of a Chinese vessel with the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens earlier this year. Following China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea in 2013, it now appears that Beijing is seeking to exert sovereign control over the skies as well, and given China’s tendency toward harassment and coercion, mid-air confrontations with the US cannot be ruled out.

Yet while the US has defended its right to conduct military activities during recent crises, Washington is coy about raising the issue on a routine basis, favouring instead a vaguer call for ‘freedom of navigation.’ This could be due to a lack of support in the region for the US position. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Japan have all expressed reservations over the rights of foreign military vessels to operate in their EEZs. While these countries are all vigorous proponents of UNCLOS, and are skeptical of the legality of China’s historically based maritime claims, they are largely silent over the EEZ issue. This of course adds to the potency of Wang’s recent comments: they suggest that the US is an outlier in the region and has a policy that is not recognized by others.

Some countries believe that unfettered military activities in coastal waters may invite gunboat diplomacy or threaten their resource sovereignty. Others, such as Japan, are hedging directly against China. Amid doubts over the US ability to uphold the principle of the freedom of the high seas, Tokyo believes that the proscription of military activities within its EEZ may be one day come in useful in deterring intrusive activities off Japan’s own coastline.


The stakes in this dispute are clear. First, while the freedom of military navigation within EEZs has undoubtedly contributed to the US Navy’s global supremacy, it has also ensured the security of merchant traffic from the predations of state and nonstate actors, and underpinned the stability of world shipping lanes for centuries. The days of piracy, arbitrary taxation, and trade monopolies are long over – partly because navies around the world are free to conduct constabulary operations.

Second, for any law to be effective, it has to be clear. Freedom of the high seas should be, as the British saying goes, ‘exactly what it says on the tin.’ Exceptions to this rule muddy the waters over what is permissible and impermissible behavior. To paraphrase Thomas Schelling, theoretically, limits can be set on the freedom of navigation, but only on terms that are qualitatively distinct from the alternatives. ‘Freedom of navigation’ is clear and easy to understand. ‘Freedom of navigation under some circumstances’ is more problematic, and leaves ships open to selective enforcement of the law by the coastal state.

Third, freedom of the high seas is important in achieving stability among major powers. While the EEZ question has led to spats in the past, in general, the regime has fostered predictability, knowledge of one’s adversaries and awareness of conflict ‘red lines.’ Throughout most of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union conducted maritime surveillance operations in each other’s EEZs and while these operations were never welcomed, they were tolerated as a part of an open global system. This attitude explains why the US accepted a Chinese spy ship shadowing the RIMPAC exercises last month, and why Washington is disappointed that Beijing is not returning the courtesy.

What should Europe do?

As the world’s largest economy, Europe has benefited from freedom of the high seas as much as the United States, and it is within its interests to defend it. The continentalist vision of maritime security, in which states can dominate the sea in the same way they do the land, would not only put an end to uninterrupted maritime traffic, but also see the extension of territorial disputes to the sea, where strong states would carve out their spheres of interest at the expense of the weak.

The US can achieve any number of its security objectives in East Asia through the commitment of military hardware, diplomatic effort, and economic resources. Yet it cannot shape global norms alone. Freedom of the high seas is a norm that grew out of international recognition, not the efforts of one country. If it is to be sustained, it must enjoy similar levels of support. This is a role that likeminded partners such as Europe should play.

Europe could assist in a number of areas. It should invite emerging powers such as China and India to take a greater stake in ensuring security of the maritime commons. This means continuing to conduct joint operations in counter piracy, disaster relief, and civilian evacuation. It would also mean accepting China and other big regional players need powerful navies with expeditionary capabilities, but this is a price worth paying.

Second, Europe should seek to engage China in a discussion about its desire for a closed maritime system. China has historical reasons for this approach – some of which are fed by a contemporary sense of insecurity – but there is no proof that the current system is not working in Beijing’s interests, and lots of proof that it is. As one senior Chinese official made clear at the 2014 Shangri La Dialogue, as a global trading nation ‘freedom of navigation is important to China […] we are very much dependent on it.’ How would China cope in a system in which these benefits would continually be under threat?

Third, and most importantly, Europe must come out in open support for the freedom of military activities with EEZs. This would embolden Washington to state its position more clearly – force Beijing to do the same – and would reassure other countries in the region that the principle is being fought for and not forgotten. Europe is accustomed to feeling powerless in East Asia, but on this question its role could be vital.

Edward Schwarck is a research fellow in the Asia Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). The following article first appeared in CSIS: PACNET here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

A Time for Deterrence

The Buzz

American politician and poet Eugene McCarthy once said that the media are like blackbirds on a telegraph pole. Once the impulse goes through, they all jump in the same direction. Fortunately for McCarthy, the Washington punditocracy was not as developed then as it is now.

No sooner did Washington and the European Union announce that they were considering new sanctions on Russia for its war in Ukraine then the Beltway cognoscenti sprang into action with a new line. Unfortunately, it is the same line echoed by Moscow, consisting of the following arguments: First, the new sanctions will not work or really hurt Russia, but will push Moscow and Putin into a corner from where Putin might lash out and stage an even bigger invasion of Ukraine than has hitherto been the case. Second, and related, is that we therefore have to negotiate with Russia over the future of its role in the lands of the former Soviet Union.

Moscow has added to this line of reasoning through its own arguments. Not only do Russian spokesmen breathe defiance and dismiss Western sanctions as ineffectual, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has complained disingenuously that Moscow does not know what Washington wants of it. He has further added that even if there had been no Ukrainian crisis, NATO would, in any case, have found new ways to commit aggression against Russia.

The fallacies of these arguments are obvious. First, they do not square with the facts. It is quite clear what the West wants: namely, an end to the invasion of Ukraine, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the cessation of all acts of belligerency against Ukraine and neighboring states, and the recognition of the new Ukrainian government.

As well, in the wake of mounting sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has doubled down, sending more weapons to Ukraine, evidence suggesting the shelling of Ukraine from Russia, and dispatching more of Moscow’s “specialists”, including Vladimir Antufeyev.

As a result, there is nothing to talk about. It is abundantly clear that Moscow does not accept existing borders or respect the sovereignty of the countries of the “post-Soviet space,” despite a host of treaties that it has signed to that effect. Offering negotiations that might reward its aggression only strengthens Putin’s belief that he is dealing with weak, corrupt governments lacking in the courage to defend their interests openly.

Classical deterrence theory teaches us that it is necessary to make the deterrent threat to an aggressor sufficiently credible and palpable so that he can readily see that that his costs will escalate out of control unless he reverses course. Having bet his future and that of Russia in a struggle over Ukraine, Putin can be stopped only by a deterrent threat of sufficient magnitude—such as providing Ukraine with the military weapons and financial assistance it needs to expel the invaders and begin to set its house in order. Only such a step will register in Moscow as a sign of unmistakable resolve on the part of the United States and Europe.

It is the collective fault of Western governments that to date they have been too timorous and concerned for their investments to grasp this state of affairs. Their hesitation has allowed Putin to bring us to this point, at which the threat of a wider war in Europe now lurks in the wings. But it is not too late for us to regain the policy initiative and take the steps necessary to not only sustain Ukraine, but also preserve Europe and bolster international security in the process.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Should Asia be Afraid? China's Strategy in the South China Sea Emerges

The Buzz

China continues to play a long game in asserting its territorial claims and hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea (SCS). After its confrontation with Vietnam over the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in May this year, Beijing has recently announced that it intends to build lighthouses on five islands in the SCS, two of which appear to be in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Indeed, China’s traditional position of “strategic ambiguity” regarding its willingness to compromise on its territorial claims within what it calls the ‘nine-dash line’ looks increasingly obsolete.

Its assertiveness in the SCS needs to be seen as part of a new framework of Chinese foreign policy emerging under President Xi Xinping. China watchers point out that the new leadership appears to have conducted a reassessment of China’s security environment, its relative position and policy responses. Predecessor Hu Jintao’s description of the international environment as a “harmonious world” has disappeared. So too has Deng Xiaoping’s guideline to “hide our capabilities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership.” Instead, the security environment is assessed to be “under a new situation” and according to Xi, China “needs to protect and make the best use of the strategic opportunity period to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests.”

From a Chinese perspective, the “new situation,” characterized by the U.S. strategic shift to Asia and growing tensions over maritime territorial disputes, requires “proactive assertiveness” in the SCS. And the leadership is optimistic about winning a decade-long game for hegemony there. Bonnie Glaser and Deep Pal succinctly outline the thinking behind that approach:

“Beijing’s proactive economic diplomacy [in Southeast Asia] is part of a larger strategy aimed at binding its neighbors in a web of incentives that increase their reliance on China and raise the cost to them of adopting a confrontational policy towards Beijing on territorial disputes. At the same time, China continues to engage in a steady progression of small steps, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in its favor. In the near term, China’s leaders anticipate some resistance. Over time, however, they calculate that their growing leverage will be sufficient to persuade weaker and vulnerable neighbors to accede to Chinese territorial demands.”

Can this strategy succeed? If regional and external players display a lack of political will and coordination to raise the costs for China, it well may. It’s difficult, for instance, to counter Beijing’s tactic of using swarms of fishing vessels backed by heavily-armed coast guard vessels to intimidate weaker neighbors.

But that outcome isn’t inevitable. So far, China hasn’t attempted to use military force to occupy disputed islands, which would be a dramatic escalation. It’s reasonable to assume that Beijing is aware of the significant reputational damage it would incur through such a move. There’s also the risk of unwanted escalation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, states do go to war over territorial disputes that seem devoid of strategic value. The end of strategic ambiguity in the SCS provides China’s neighbors with a clear understanding about its intentions and the need to respond strategically. That response should include both investments in military capabilities (such as maritime domain awareness and asymmetric denial assets), as well as paramilitary, civilian and political tools to raise China’s reputational costs in the event of a major crisis.

It has also encouraged Southeast Asian countries to develop (or revitalize) stronger defense ties with external actors. More than ever, the region looks to the U.S. for strategic support. Sensing the broader challenge to its leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. has stepped up its rhetoric against China’s ‘nine dash line’ and has intensified its Southeast Asian defense engagement as part of its “rebalance.” China can’t exclude the possibility that attempts to settle the territorial disputes by military force could well draw in the U.S. Moreover, major external Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea now engage in regional defense capacity building, aware that what happens in the South China Sea will matter for maritime Northeast Asia.

Thus, China’s strategic success in the SCS is far from a done deal. Somewhat paradoxically, the end of China’s strategic ambiguity might increase regional stability by forcing all players to signal their intentions more clearly. Greater strategic competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it helps to define the parameters of mutual restraint in conflict situations.

What does that all mean for Australia? The Abbott government is on the same page as the U.S. and Southeast Asian nations about the need to manage maritime disputes peacefully. Australia also has a major interest in strengthening Southeast Asia’s strategic resilience against coercion by outside powers. Whilst that doesn’t mean sending warships or fighter aircraft into the region, the ADF should, for instance, offer its expertise in maritime-domain awareness to countries such as the Philippines. Moreover, it should seek to utilize the U.S. alliance more actively as a vehicle for multilateral regional defense engagement. Careful playing of the long game in Southeast Asia must become a priority for Australian strategic and defense policy.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist website here.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina