Where America, the EU and Russia All Compete for Influence

The Buzz

Some see recent trips by U.S. officials to Russia—including a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi—as signs of a budding détente. Yet, the northwestern corner of the Black Sea remains the scene of a three-sided struggle between Russia, the U.S. and EU.

With a party of other analysts, last week I spent a day in meetings with representatives from Romania's Foreign Ministry and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. That Crimea is only 300km from the Romanian coast is a refrain. They see Romania as a front-line state.

“Russia is a European reality. Ukraine is only a piece in a bigger puzzle”, declared one official. “But we have our guarantee’, another concluded, a matter-of-fact reference to NATO's Article Five. “It is our right as a sovereign state to defend our territory. Every state has the right to choose its way of life.”

Yet Romanians seem to have given up trying to defend that way of life themselves.

According to a defense analyst, of the Romanian navy's three frigates, only one is sea-worthy. The other two, retired Royal Navy vessels, lack guns. Its single, Soviet-era submarine is inoperable because Russia no longer produces the batteries needed to run it. Sixty percent of its defense budget goes to salaries and pensions.

Bucharest pins its security on NATO and the $US400 million U.S. missile base at Desevelu that is an integral component of its anti-ballistic missile shield. Russia sees it as a provocation.

A country of 20 million people, Romania has been a NATO ally since 2004 and a member of the EU since 2007. Still a poor country by European standards (average public sector incomes are between €6,000 and €12,000 a year),Romania's GDP has nonetheless increased almost five-fold since the end of Ceausescu's dictatorship.

Historically and geographically, Romania is poised between East and West. Culturally, the country is more conservative than its Western neighbors. “Though we are Latins in a Slav sea”, one young woman from Bucharest insisted, “we are Orthodox. This is very important to us.”

Four times in the nineteenth century — in 1806-12, 1828-9, 1853-6 and 1877-8 — Russian armies rolled back Turkish power in the name of aiding the Sultan's Orthodox subjects. When Tsar Alexander II visited Bucharest in 1877, crowds cheered the Orthodox emperor. To counter Russian influence, Romanian liberals cultivated a Latin identity and fostered relations with liberal France. Even today, in meetings officials regularly recall the country's (distant) Roman origins and its membership of the Francophonie.

Today, NATO and EU membership seems to have encouraged a classic case of freeloading—and a bolder foreign policy than the country's own defenses would warrant. “On Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan membership (of NATO), we must not accept a veto right by Russia”, declared one official. “If we have on our borders a country with different values, different conduct, we are all the losers.”

In neighboring Moldova, however, we found politics divided on relations with the EU. Unlike Romania (with which it shares a language), Moldova (historically 'Bessarabia') was part of the Russian Empire from 1812. A Soviet republic until 1991, it's the object of open rivalry between Russia and the West. Elections last November left power with a Liberal Democratic Party coalition favoring European integration. But, off the record, the Western representatives we spoke to admitted that only dubious election practices prevented victory by the pro-Russian opposition.

Since Brussels launched its 'Eastern Neighborhood Policy' (ENP) in 2009, public support has steadily fallen. Local EU activists lament that only 36% of Moldovans favor EU integration; 42-44% are pro-Russian. Brussels nonetheless signed an Association Agreement with Moldova last June. Owing to a recent banking scandal involving the theft of €1 billion (some 15% of GDP) and a shady businessman with links to the Europe-leaning government, for many Moldovans the EU has itself become synonymous with corruption.

Controversial too is an anti-discrimination law adopted as part of a visa liberalization agreement with Brussels. With 80% of the population identifying with the Russian Orthodox Church, this is seen as the Trojan horse of the Western gay rights movement. The message is reinforced by the Russian television some 55% of Moldovans watch.

Discussions with Moldova's pro-EU liberals quickly reveal the gap between them and public opinion. Like their nineteenth-century Romanian counterparts, they are less representative of society than far ahead of it. To promote Moldova's 'European future', pro-Brussels NGOs have launched an information campaign. It's being funded by the U.S. Embassy.

Remittances from half a million Moldovans working in Russia account for 20% of GDP. But the EU's main problem is that, for the moment at least, Russian conservativism rather than Western liberalism seems closer to the sympathies of a largely apathetic public. In Gagauzia, a poor autonomous region home to a Turkish-speaking but Russian Orthodox minority, a lonely Western-leaning analyst despaired: “Everybody wants somebody to come in and fix their problems—it's just that in Gagauzia, they want Vladimir Putin to do it.”

“People are very nostalgic about Soviet times”, he went on. “That was the last time there was any public investment. I don't like it but it's true. In twenty-four years of independence, the government (in Chisinau) has done nothing.’

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Office of the President, Russia. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Revealed: Where Japan is Pushing Back Against China's Rising Influence

The Buzz

Japan held its 7th meeting with Pacific Islands Leaders (PALM7) on May 22-23. All members of the Pacific Islands Forum were represented, including Australia and New Zealand. For the first time since his coup in 2006, Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was invited and attended.

There was particular interest in whether Japan would expand its foreign aid to the Pacific Islands region in light of evidence of an increased Chinese presence over the last few years and the possibility that China might soon overtake Japan as the region's third-largest donor.

At the meeting, Japan promised ¥55 billion (approximately US$450 million) to the region over next three years. Prime Minister Abe declared that Japan had fulfilled a pledge to spend more than US$500 million over the last three years (2012-14). Because of the fluctuating exchange rate, the amount of Japanese aid has in reality been fairly constant over the past decade.

The fact that Japan hasn't dramatically increased aid to the region in the face of increased attention from China suggests Japan is not seeking to engage in explicit chequebook diplomacy with China in the Pacific Islands. Instead, Japan is trying to position itself as the partner of choice on issues of key concern to Pacific Islanders grappling with the effects of climate change and natural disasters. Importantly, Japan is focusing on issues which matter to the region and where Tokyo’s assistance can make the most difference.

Leaders agreed to seven priority areas for cooperation over the next three years: (1) disaster risk reduction; (2) climate change; (3) environment; (4) people-to-people exchanges; (5) sustainable development (including human resource development); (6) oceans, maritime issues and fisheries; and (7) trade, investment and tourism.

Some media sources are reporting that Japan's entire aid pledge will target climate change and disaster risk reduction, although the communiqué doesn't specify this. In his keynote address Prime Minister Abe said that aid support was to help “foster resilient capabilities that will not be defeated by climate change or disasters.” Japan's assistance to Pacific Islands continues to include support for infrastructure development, such as constructing new port facilities in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and assistance for improving radio broadcasting services in Fiji.

Japan's commitment to assisting the region with adaptation to climate change will be welcomed by Pacific Island states. In addition to bilateral assistance, Japan will also be supporting the development of the Pacific Climate Change Centre and other capacity-building initiatives at a regional level. 

Japan's US$1.5 billion contribution to the international Green Climate Fund last week means the Fund can now be made operational. The Fund needed to raise 50% of pledged funds in order to commence operations. This stands in contrast with Australia's A$200 million commitment to the Fund over four years. Japan's commitment is valuable for the region as the Fund will be an important source of additional funding for Pacific Islands seeking support for adaptation projects. 

Climate change is an issue that unites the region and affects many countries deeply. The priority Japan has placed on it is also symbolic at a time when Australia's approach internationally is ambivalent.

Japan has long been an important partner for Pacific island countries. Development cooperation is a valuable aspect of its engagement but trade and investment is also significant. Japan is also a source of tourists for some countries in the region. Japan is a major client for PNG's LNG and Japanese companies are continuing to invest in Papua New Guinea. Shinzo Abe visited Papua New Guinea last year with a large business delegation.

In another sign that Japan is trying to distinguish its role in the region from that of China, the communique made clear reference to a maritime order that should be “maintained in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” and called for countries to exercise self-restraint and peacefully resolve international disputes “without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

Some Japanese media have connected this language to concerns about Chinese maritime behavior in the Pacific Islands. However, it should really be read as applying to Japanese concerns about Chinese activities in the East and South China Seas. It is likely that the Japanese focus on a peaceful maritime order and a sustainable Pacific Ocean in this meeting is part of its wider diplomatic strategy to counter rising Chinese influence. 

Japan has signaled that it is in tune with the priorities of Pacific Island states and is hoping this will help position Tokyo favorably in the eyes of Pacific Island leaders, who are courted by an increasing number of international partners.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Why China Should Fear America's Great South China Sea Challenge

The Buzz

What should we make of last week's CNN report from on board a U.S. Navy Poseidon P-8 surveillance aircraft, verbally challenged by the Chinese navy ("Leave go") as it monitored China's reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands?

CNN's video footage of China's reclamation activities in the Spratlys underscores the game-changing potential of these artificial islands. The scale and speed of construction—a panning shot reveals a runway control tower and other structures already looming above Fiery Cross Reef—is daunting. A flotilla of naval and civilian ships criss-crosses busily as the dredgers operate around the clock. For sheer effect, static imagery falls short by comparison.

More dramatically, the report revealed that eight separate radio challenges were delivered by the Chinese Navy over the course of the flight, warning the crew that they were entering a “military alert zone” and ordering the aircraft to leave. It seems clear from the P-8 crew's reaction that this was not the first time that approaching aircraft have received such warnings. Despite China's official claims that the reclamation projects are for search and rescue and hosting other civil infrastructure, this footage will strengthen the impression that the PLA is behind the reclamation projects—and effectively calling the shots in the South China Sea.

This was also a case of the U.S. Government delivering its messages via CNN.

Granting media unprecedented access to operational imagery and audio transcripts from the P-8 points to an intensified policy effort to wrest control over a public narrative in the South China Sea that Washington increasingly fears is slipping out of its grasp as China seizes the initiative and foreign policy attention is distracted by crises elsewhere.

More immediately, it suggests U.S. officials are preparing the American public for a tougher line in the South China Sea. Indeed, the CNN report predicted that U.S. warships as well as aircraft may soon be involved in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a course of action that reflects the uncompromising mood in Washington towards China.

Putting America's surveillance of China's land reclamation in the South China Sea into the public realm chimes with a broader U.S. emphasis on promoting transparency in the South China Sea, a concept that plays to U.S. advantages in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Surveillance platforms are generally considered less provocative to deploy, although the P-8 is primarily a submarine hunter and close-in U.S. intelligence-gathering missions by unarmed U.S. vessels and aircraft have long been a bone of contention between Washington and Beijing, reflected in their polar opposite interpretations of international law on this point. (Longer term, the prospect remains for China's navy to adopt a more congruent position on freedom of navigation as it acquires global interests.)

Past U.S.-China confrontations on this narrowly defined issue of freedom of navigation and overflight have mostly occurred close to Hainan island, the site of China's primary naval base in the South China Sea. Last year the U.S. and China agreed an MoU on military encounters in the wake of what US officials described as a “dangerous, unsafe and unprofessional” intercept by a Chinese fighter jet of a US Navy P-8.

China doesn't yet have the capability to perform aerial intercepts over the Spratlys, much less to enforce a South China Sea-wide ADIZ. Yet if Beijing continues to build up its military facilities in the Spratlys, including possibly with one or more operational airstrips by 2016, the inevitable consequence will be the spread of Sino-US military competition across the South China Sea at large. U.S. Navy ships are already regularly shadowed there by PLA Navy counterparts.

While in the final analysis small islands have inherent defensive weaknesses, U.S. concerns that China's reclamation projects will tilt the psychological balance vis-à-vis rival claimants decisively in Beijing's favor have led U.S. policymakers to reconsider their options. This appears likely to play out in a more muscular and assertive U.S. approach on freedom of navigation and overflight in the weeks and months ahead.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Photo: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

A Missed Nonproliferation Opportunity

Paul Pillar

Last week the latest quinquennial review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) ended as a failure, without issuing a formal statement or report. The single biggest snag concerned whether to call for the convening of a conference on a Middle Eastern nuclear weapons free zone (MENWFZ). Fingers of blame were pointed in various directions, including at Egypt for pushing some procedural changes regarding the convening of such a conference that some other delegations regarded as needless complications. But the procedural issues were not much of an obstacle and could have been resolved. The more fundamental roadblock was the same one that has been decisive every time the subject of a MENWFZ has come up. Israel doesn't like the idea, and the United States, acting as Israel's lawyer (Israel itself, not being a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was only an observer and not a full participant in the review conference), blocked approval of the draft statement that was on the table.

Israel doesn't like the idea because Israel itself would naturally be the chief focus of any discussion of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, given that it has kept itself outside the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and is the owner of what just about everyone in the world believes to be the only nuclear weapons possessed by any Middle Eastern state. Israel's official position regarding a conference is that discussion of nuclear weapons can only take place amid a discussion of “the broad range of security challenges in the region,” and it says it would consider joining the NPT only if Israel were at peace with the Arab states and Iran. That position is, of course, a formula for putting off the subject of a MENWFZ indefinitely, given that the Israeli government has sworn eternal hostility toward Iran and is determined—all the more so in the Israeli government's latest post-election configuration—not to settle its conflict with the Palestinians and therefore will not be at peace with most Arab states either.

None of this is altogether new. The 2010 NPT review conference did produce a recommendation to convene a regional conference by 2012, and considerable preparatory work was done under Finnish leadership. But the Israeli government was infuriated by the whole idea, and on its behalf the United States helped to throw enough dirt into the diplomatic gears for the regional conference never to take place.

What makes this month's failure to make progress on this front even more unfortunate is that another set of negotiations has made the opportunity for progress toward a MENWFZ greater than ever. These are the negotiations that are close to completing a comprehensive agreement to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program. Although Iran evidently has not decided to build nuclear weapons anyway, the impending agreement, if completed, would be a major accomplishment on behalf of the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. Iran is a significant country in this regard given that it is one of the largest countries in the Middle East, it has a substantial nuclear program, and it probably has in the past actively considered building nuclear weapons. The agreement currently being finalized provides for major restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities and a system of international monitoring of those activities that is more extensive and intrusive than what any other country has ever voluntarily imposed on itself. The agreement thus provides a very useful model for extending the cause of nuclear nonproliferation throughout the Middle East, while embodying the NPT's principle of reconciling the widespread peaceful use of nuclear energy with stringent safeguards to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. It provides a model, and it provides momentum. And despite the many sharp disagreements between Iranians and Arabs, a MENWFZ is one concept on which they agree.

The potential for the Iran agreement to serve as a region-wide model is underscored by how many of its provisions (as revealed in the partial “framework” agreement announced last month) resemble recommendations of a recent report from an independent group of nuclear experts on controlling fissile materials in the Middle East. These provisions include limiting enrichment of uranium to specified low levels, prohibiting the stockpiling of enriched uranium, banning the reprocessing of plutonium, and adhering to international safeguards such as the Additional Protocol for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

All this potential gets swept out of sight by the campaign of those who for other reasons oppose reaching any agreement on anything with Iran and would have us inhabit an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which we are supposed to believe that placing major restrictions on someone's nuclear program is a blow against rather than in favor of nuclear nonproliferation. It is in the same topsy-turvy world that leading the charge against this agreement is the most prominent nuclear outlaw state in the Middle East.

All of this is regrettable, but doubly so when it means blowing a good opportunity to make progress toward keeping nuclear weapons from being part of this conflict-ridden region. 

TopicsIran Israel Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

Get Ready, China: America's Lethal B-1 Bomber Might Have a New Home

The Buzz

Greg Sheridan writes recently that, despite last week's controversy when Pentagon official David Shear 'misspoke' about U.S. Air Force's B-1 bombers being placed in Australia, the bombers are probably coming to Australia anyway.

I think that's right. As James Brown wrote at the time, the U.S.–Australia Force Posture Agreement hammered out in 2014 ensured that:

...U.S. Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.

(Recommended: 5 Places Where World War III Could Start)

Sheridan criticizes Shear for giving the impression that the B-1s would be based in Australia. But, says Sheridan, “There are no American forces based in Australia. A range of American forces rotate in and out of northern Australia, which is not the same as being based there.”

We're in the realm of wordplay here. The U.S.-Australia Joint Defense Facility at Pine Gap is not really a 'base', but it is a permanent facility run by Australia and various U.S. spy agencies. And while the U.S. Marine presence in Darwin is described as a 'rotation', with Marines cycling through on short training deployments, it is a permanent arrangement between the two governments. As James Curran explains, this is in fact the culmination of a long-standing desire by Australian governments to entrench the U.S. military presence in Australia.

Sheridan then writes:

The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.

Again, I think that's right. The reason the PM came out within hours of the story breaking to deny Shear's testimony was because of the damage it might do to the China relationship.

But this is revealing of our national dilemma, which Tom Switzer describes aptly on the same opinion page today: we have a major trading partner (China) whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with those of our major ally. And increasingly, we're being forced to choose between them. Yet if Sheridan's account is right, the Government seems to believe that we can get around this dilemma by simply not acknowledging it publicly. We can host U.S. strategic bombers, Sheridan seems to be saying, just as long as we don't say publicly that it's China-related.

(Recommended: China's Greatest Fear - The 1991 Gulf War)

Does that sound at all convincing to you? No, me neither.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia