The South China Sea Crisis: Impossible to Solve?

The Buzz

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

Intervention in Libya, and It Wasn't American

Paul Pillar

Within the past week the United Arab Emirates, aided by Egypt, conducted airstrikes against Islamist militias in Libya. The targeted forces are among the contestants in the surging turmoil and civil warfare in Libya. The airstrikes do not appear to be part of a large and bold new initiative by Egypt and the UAE, which did not even publicly acknowledge what they had done. Nonetheless the strikes were, as an anonymous U.S. official put it, not constructive.

The incident—along with some questions about whether it had caught the United States by surprise—has led to some of the usual hand-wringing about how U.S. relations with allies are not what they should be, how there supposedly is region-wide dismay with a U.S. failure to do more to enforce order in the region, and how if the United States does not do more along this line there may be an interventionist free-for-all. This type of reaction is inappropriate for at least two reasons. One is that it fails to take account of exactly how differences between putative partners do or do not make a difference. Sometimes such frictions matter for U.S. interests and sometimes they don't. Assuaging an ally is good for the United States if there is some payoff, not necessarily immediately, for its interests in behavior from the ally that is different from what it otherwise would be.

The other reason is that to the extent the United States may have encouraged interventionist free-for-alls, it is because it has done too much rather than too little. The United States's own penchant for military interventions has been probably the biggest factor in a breakdown of previous noninterventionist norms in international relations. The United States also has acquiesced in similar norm-breaking behavior by others that is easy for the Egyptians and Emiratis to see. As former ambassador Chas Freeman notes, “Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us. They’re saying, if Israel can use U.S. weapons to defy the U.S. and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

Three valid observations are worth making about this episode. One is that the turmoil in Libya to which Egypt and the UAE are reacting followed directly from regime change in which Western intervention was instrumental. The United States played less of a leading role in that intervention than some other Western states did, and according to the Pottery Barn rule it does not own the resulting wreckage by itself. But that background is worth remembering.

Second, the airstrikes are a reminder that if forceful things are to be done in the Middle East, the United States doesn't necessarily have to be the one to do them. That principle applies to more constructive uses of force than hitting the Libyan militias. The UAE has a pretty good air force; maybe next time it can use it for more worthwhile purposes.

Third, the episode is a demonstration that even partners or allies are apt to be moved to action not to protect interests they share with us but to pursue objectives we do not share. Both Egypt and the UAE have reasons related to their own domestic politics and shaky legitimacy for taking sides in the Libyan internal war against the Islamists. The United States, by contrast, has no good reason to weigh in one one side or the other in that war. If friends and allies of ours get impatient with us for not doing more on behalf of goals that are important to them but not to us, tough.                         

TopicsLibya Egypt UAE RegionsMiddle East

Germany's Challenge: Ensuring Democracy in the Western Balkans

The Buzz

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.

The Buzz

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

The Buzz

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