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America’s Dangerous $5 Trillion Dollar Bet in the South China Sea

The Buzz

Over $5 Trillion dollars of goods move across the hotly disputed waters of the South China Sea on an annual basis—and China seems focused on turning the area into its special sphere of influence.

Tensions have been steadily rising over the last few years in what Robert D. Kaplan has dubbed Asia’s Cauldron, and so far Washington has been unable to find the magic formula to get Beijing to back off. A new U.S. plan reported by the Financial Times will do little to change Beijing’s calculus. In fact, it could make matters far worse.

This supposed new strategy will focus heavily on surveillance flights and what might be dubbed a simple “shaming” strategy. FT reports that Washington will step up its use of surveillance assets in the area which “could be coupled with a greater willingness to publicize images of videos of Chinese maritime activity.”  It goes on to note, “some US officials believe the Chinese might be given pause for thought if images of their vessels harassing Vietnamese or Filipino fisherman were to be broadcast.”

This is not all:

“The US military’s Hawaii-based Pacific command has also been asked to co-ordinate the development of a regional system of maritime information, which would allow governments in the western Pacific detailed information about the location of vessels in the region. Several governments say they have been caught unawares by the surprise appearance of Chinese ships.

The US has supplied the Philippines, Japan and other countries in the region with improved radar equipment and other monitoring systems and is now looking for ways to build this information into a broader regional network that shares the data.

The Pentagon has also been working on plans for calculated shows of force, such as the flight of B-52s over the East China Sea last year after China declared an exclusive air defense zone over the area. The potential options involve sending naval vessels close to disputed areas.”

While such a plan clearly shows Washington is doing what it can to demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region in an attempt to deter Beijing, there are many pitfalls that should be considered—especially when it comes to the wider use of surveillance assets. For one, the U.S. would obviously have to place men and women in harm’s way in contested waters time and time again in order to enact this part of the plan. You don’t have to be a bookie in Vegas to understand the odds of some sort of tragic incident occurring are quite high. In this case, the goal of “doing something” might actually be worse than doing nothing. As history tells us quite clearly, wars can start from a small incident where tensions are running high. The consequences can be dire.

The ultimate challenge for American leaders is that they have devised a plan of action to only deal with scenarios where U.S. and Chinese forces would come into direct, kinetic conflict—the hotly debated Air-Sea Battle operational concept, something I strongly support. However, as Zachary Keck noted in these pages several months back “the problem with ASB (and its main competitors) is that they are only designed for high-level conflict, and thus can only be implemented if the U.S. and China move from a state of tense peace to a state of total war.”  Keck continues, explaining that “unless China takes a brazenly provocative action such as invading Taiwan or parts of Japan, ASB is more or less useless. No U.S. president is going to order the U.S. military to take the extremely provocative actions that ASB would require because of, say, recent actions by China setting up an oil rig in waters that it disputes with Vietnam.”

So far, Washington has been unable to deter Beijing from using a whole host of non-kinetic actions—sometimes referred to as “small-stick diplomacy”—to fundamentally alter the status quo in the South China Sea and make provocative moves to the north in the East China Sea. What to do in an area of the globe where multiple nations have various disputes with China and each other over the waves that control vital sea lanes, small islands and reefs, as well as possible riches in the form of natural resources. The Obama administration has been more focused on the bigger picture, that if the winds of war ever came to the region, Washington would have a plan of action for negating Beijing’s growing anti-access/area-denial arsenal. American can pivot, rebalance or pronounce its intentions to make the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific its main focus all it wants, however, if it can’t prevent China from altering the status-quo, its bumper sticker foreign policy pronouncements are painfully meaningless.

If you want to use the shame game to alter Beijing’s strategic calculus, there might be a better way.  There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions. This may just have the same or greater impact than if the U.S. attempted to use surveillance flights to embarrass Beijing—without the possibility of an incident spiraling into a possible conflict no one wants. While Manila has already filed its own claims against Beijing and Hanoi seems likely to follow suit, a joint claim or multi-party suit would be much more powerful. China should realize its neighbors have the ability to resist its claims without resorting to kinetic means.

While even this might not stop China’s moves to enforces its claims in the area around its nine or ten-dash line around the South China Sea, if shaming Beijing is the goal, and considering the stakes (not just who controls sea lanes worth trillions of dollars, but the very idea of the global commons, space that no one owns), this might be just the best way to do it.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth China Sea

"Iranians are Terrified": Iran's ISIS Nightmare

The Buzz

Iran is stuck between a rock and a hard place on ISIS and Iraq. Taking responsibility for security in Iraq – or even significantly contributing to it – would be a huge undertaking. But a fragmented Iraq on its border is a first-order concern for Tehran - it can’t just sit by with fingers crossed. The choice is complicated by Syria. Iran can’t continue to pursue its interests in Syria at the same level if it is mired in Iraq as well. It is likely that Tehran will have to choose, and it will choose Iraq.

To Iran, Iraq and Syria are similar challenges, except today’s crisis in Iraq is harder to solve and matters more. Until recently, Assad’s Syria has been a good friend and ally to Iran and still today, a conduit to the Mediterranean and Hezbollah. But Iraq is Iran’s backyard.

Iran has a lot to lose in Iraq by inaction. Last time Iraq’s interests were fundamentally opposed to Iran’s, there was a devastating 8 year long war. ISIS threatens Iran’s vast interests in Iraq: its significant influence over politics, in fact the country as a whole, including symbolic religious shrines, and trade, which reached $12 billion in 2013. Unlike in Syria, the majority Shia population in Iraq represents a real constituency for Tehran. Iraqi fragmentation threatens to stir up desires for independence amongst other minority communities, including in Iran, and force Tehran to double up efforts and resources in order to maintain its influence in Iraq. ISIS gains have peaked American interest in Iraq once more. Iran does not want any increased role for its US adversary in neighboring Iraq again. More importantly, the crisis threatens to spill over the 910 miles of porous border, which is poorly defended by the Iraqi police. 

Iranians are terrified. Many question Iran’s involvement in Syria, but they support involvement in Iraq. Syria is an optional war: a crisis where Iran can dial its involvement up or down based on its policy preferences. It is not an existential issue. But ISIS activities in Iraq pose a real threat and a genuine sovereignty concern, something Iran hasn’t seen in a long time.

To date, Iran has invested a great deal in Syria: money, equipment and above all, political capital. While many argue this policy succeeded, it’s clear that the cost is high for Tehran. Iran’s presence in Syria has caused its regional popularity to plummet, discord amongst the elite, and rising discontent amongst ordinary Iranians questioning the use of public funds to prop up a dictator. Iran sustaining a regime it wants in power is part of its capacity to lead in the region, and so far it’s working.

But getting the result Tehran wants in Syria has been difficult. Today, it is a drain on Iranian resources and political capital. It’s no surprise that Tehran doesn’t want a repeat of Syria in Iraq. But containing the crisis in Iraq will be much harder, with many more potential pitfalls.

Today, Iran is trying to broker cooperation between all factions in Iraq against ISIS. But it is also assisting Maliki in pushing ISIS back. Tehran is providing intelligence and advisors, including commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Qassem Soleimani himself since mid-June, and military assistance. Reports confirm Iranian Su-25 aircrafts were shipped to Iraq in early July, while the first Iranian military casualty was reported a few days later. But overt Iranian involvement in Iraq further risks polarizing Iraqis and deepening sectarian tensions. In addition, Maliki’s stubbornness and overly sectarian style of governing no longer makes him a safe bet for the Iranian government, which must now find ways to ensure the survival of the current Shia-led structure.

Iraq is also high stakes because of the impact failure will have on Iran. If Iran has the kind of experience in Iraq that America had in Afghanistan and Iraq - running a shattered country - there won't be a lot left over to do much else. Involvement in both Iraq and Syria will continue to erode resources while making it impossible for Iran to pull out after such investment.

Iran cannot afford to be involved in a long, drawn out conflict on two fronts. While it is improbable that ISIS will sustain its current course, it was also improbable that they would take a quarter of Iraq. But they have and Iran is worried. Tehran can’t afford to let the crisis run its course because the risks are too high. Over the years, Iran has invested patiently in both Iraq and Syria. That's why it’s so difficult for Tehran to give either of them up. But Iran will have to choose because its resources and abilities are finite.  It will likely choose Iraq. 

Image: Office of the President, Iran. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

What is at Stake for China in Hong Kong: Reunification with Taiwan

The Buzz

In September 1982, Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher sat down to discuss the future of Hong Kong. It was neither the first nor the last of their many meetings negotiating the 1982 Sino-British Joint Declaration that set the date for the handover of Hong Kong to China for 1997. The British colony had started as a modest fishing village in the 1840s and was now an international center of finance home to millions of people from across the world. Deng Xiaoping wanted it back. After years of imperial decline, Britain had seen its empire evaporate and its rule of Hong Kong seemed anachronistic to many observers. But the British were not going to let it go easily. They had promised to leave behind the kind of government that Hong Kong had been accustomed to for the past century and a half, namely its capitalist system based on the rule of law. However, Deng was ready to take any steps necessary, including force, to return Hong Kong to China. In what is now a famous conversation between the leaders of China and the United Kingdom, Deng bluntly reminded Thatcher that he could “walk in and take the whole lot [of Hong Kong] this afternoon.” Mrs. Thatcher replied that while he could do just that Hong Kong would not be worth a penny to him afterwards: “There is nothing I could do to stop you, but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.”

Recent developments in Hong Kong, call to mind Mrs. Thatcher’s memorable words. The people of Hong Kong in a pseudo-referendum have showed their resolve—they want more say in how their leader is elected. How the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responds will reveal China’s true nature to more than just the people of Hong Kong. For the Taiwanese, China’s actions in Hong Kong are especially important. If Taiwan is ever to take further steps towards unification with China, China’s record in Hong Kong must be spotless and the Taiwanese people must see how they will be governed and what kind of freedom they will have. Taiwan wants to see whether China will stay true to its promise outlined in the Joint Declaration of fifty years of autonomous rule in Hong Kong. Indeed, Taiwan is sure to think long and hard about the future of any further economic integration—let alone political integration—if it is the ghosts of 1989 and Tiananmen that take center stage and this Hong Kong democracy movement is stifled. The numerous free trade agreements that Taiwan has made with China in the past few years may all be for naught if the protests in Hong Kong devolve into chaos and political repression. Taiwan will be closely watching what happens.

The West will also be watching. Hong Kong wields an enormous amount of symbolic power as a place where English Common Law, free speech, and honest government hold sway. It does not bode well that a white paper released by the Chinese government in early June makes “loving your country” a key attribute of judges in Hong Kong. To trample on Hong Kong’s judicial system would be a direct assault on Hong Kong’s traditions and its legacy of Western rule of law. China should heed the importance of such a legacy. Hong Kong’s success as a financial giant rests on the confidence it instills in people who do business there. Puppet judges will destroy that confidence.  

What’s really at stake for China in Hong Kong, though, is about more than Hong Kong’s symbolic power as a center of capitalism and international finance. Hong Kong’s status as a financial center may be of secondary concern to China because the mainland already has a vibrant economic center in Shanghai.  In some ways, Shanghai has become the more important city.  If you want to do business on the mainland then Shanghai is your destination, not Hong Kong.  This is not to say that Hong Kong is unimportant. Hong Kong is still, along with London and New York, one of the world’s preeminent world capitals of finance and the CCP want to keep it that way. What is really at stake for China in Hong Kong is reunification with Taiwan.  Will the CCP kill the golden goose?  Will the CCP fear Hong Kong’s democracy movement and feel the need to crush it with an iron fist? Or will it allow for some sort of compromise in self-governance for Hong Kong—however much the CCP leadership may dislike democracy—in order to prove to Taiwan that it has a future in greater China? Ultimately, whatever China decides to do will show to, as Mrs. Thatcher famously said, “the eyes of the world … what China is like.”

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDemocracy RegionsChina

Afghanistan Election Crisis: "Likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge."

Paul Pillar

The two contenders in the disputed Afghan presidential election do not present a clear choice for us in the West to decide whom to root for, or root against. Both candidates are experienced, credible presidential timber, and we ought to be able to work constructively with either one as president. Ashraf Ghani is the more westernized of the two. He has a PhD from Columbia University, taught at other U.S. universities, worked at the World Bank, and was finance minister in the post-Taliban government of Hamid Karzai. Abdullah Abdullah is a physician (an ophthalmologist) with establishment roots in pre-communist Afghanistan; his step-father was a senior official under King Zahir Shah. Abdullah's main association with subsequent civil warfare in Afghanistan was as an adviser to America's favorite guerrilla: the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Abdullah served as foreign minister in the same post-Taliban government in which Ghani was finance minister. Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun ancestry, embodies the ethnic heterogeneity of Afghanistan better than Ghani, who is a Pashtun.

Both candidates seem to be reasonable men. Abdullah's current talk about setting up an alternative government may not sound reasonable, but it is hardly surprising in view of the prima facie evidence that there was significant fraud in the runoff election. Abdullah had won a large plurality in the first round and subsequently received the endorsement of the third-place finisher, and yet the announced result of the runoff was that Ghani had won by more than a million votes. Ghani is showing reasonableness by agreeing to a large-scale audit of the vote tally.

The cause of the political crisis in Afghanistan is not, in other words, to be found in the character of the candidates. It is to be found instead in the lack of a political culture that nurtures the habits of thought and behavior critical to the smooth functioning of a stable democracy. Those habits include several involving fairness, inclusiveness, and observance of impartial rules—and confidence that one's political opponents are displaying those habits as well.

A lack, or a weakness, of such a culture is more the norm in most of the world than the exception. Afghanistan is hardly alone in that respect. The habits and confidence required for a stable democracy are fragile and should not be taken for granted. It should be enough to remind us not to take them for granted when we see departures from fairness and from respect for democracy in our own system—such as, in recent years, efforts to make voting more difficult in order to suppress votes that would be cast for the suppressors' opponents.

A failure to recognize the importance of a democratic political culture, its relative paucity in much of the world, and the time it takes to develop one has led repeatedly to the mistaken belief that in a troubled country (be it Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, South Vietnam, or someplace else), if we just pick the right leader and give him enough support, including at times military support, stable democracy will prevail. In Afghanistan today, we have two respectable contending leaders, and more than twelve years of direct military support, and that still hasn't done the trick.

It is hard to predict where the current political impasse in Afghanistan will go. Afghans do have a long tradition of striking ad hoc deals as a way of bridging gaps between conflicting political interests. Perhaps that points to the kind of power-sharing arrangements that have been tried after disputed elections in countries such as Kenya or Zimbabwe. But likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge.

Image: Flickr/ISAF.             

RegionsMiddile East

The New "Special Relationship": Australia and Japan

The Buzz

The rapidly warming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan has drawn considerable attention this week. Some are for it, some are against it. Some see it as a mechanism to reinforce the growth of a responsible Japanese strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Others see it as likely to entangle Australia in an emerging zero-sum strategic contest between China and Japan. And still others believe it’ll enable us—finally—to solve the issue of Australia’s future submarine.

I tend to favour the first of those views, but I want to explore a different side of the relationship here: what does the emerging ‘special relationship’ between Canberra and Tokyo tell us about future strategic relationships in Asia? Since the early days of the Cold War, the Asian security architecture has been characterized by three core elements: a set of US alliances; a range of countries pursuing national, self-reliant defense policies; and (since the late 1960s) a set of multilateral security dialogues. Actual, close, bilateral or trilateral defense cooperation between Asian countries has been rare. Yes, the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) have provided a framework for Malaysia and Singapore to interact, but FPDA tends to be an exception that underlines the more general rule.

As Asian transformation unfolded (and continues to unfold), it was always an open question what effect it would have on that architecture. Obviously, rapid economic growth and industrialization would enhance national defense force capabilities. But would more alliance ‘spokes’ gradually be added to the hub-and-spokes model? Or would there be fewer spokes as US allies gravitated towards actual self-reliance and Washington quietly encouraged greater intra-Asian cooperation? Would the multilateral structures become more influential in shaping the regional order, or less so? And would particular Asian countries form closer bonds with each other and, if so, what might be the nature of those bonds? In short, Asian transformation did more than raise uncertainties over which countries might be the positive security contributors of the 21st century; it raised uncertainties about the shape of future regional strategic relationships.

For a long time, one of those questions—the one about Asian bonding—tended to receive only a glib answer: we would see the growth of ‘strategic partnerships’ in Asia, complementing the other elements of the earlier structure. In reality, though, such partnerships have been difficult to form. True, both Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe have used the vocabulary of strategic partnership when speaking about their new bond. But they’ve also used a more exclusive term—a ‘special relationship’. In the international arena, that terminology is comparatively unusual. It’s a term that’s certainly been used in relation to the US–UK relationship, and sometimes in relation to the US-Germany relationship. It’s a phrase that bespeaks an unusual closeness.

My impression is that the term’s similarly rare in the Australian strategic lexicon and, again—when used in its genuine strategic context, and not merely as diplomatic flattery—tends to be reserved for allies. Some academics have used the term to describe the US–Australia tie (‘the other special relationship’). But, on the whole, Australian strategic policymakers haven’t spoken much about ‘special relationships’ between Australia and Asian countries. That we’ve done so in this case actually suggests a much deeper form of strategic connection between Japan and Australia than some might have imagined.

That connection has been driven by leaders: Abe and Abbott have made the connection happen, overriding the hesitancy of some in their ranks. Abbott gives every sign of being someone who’s not afraid to bite the bullet on Australian strategic relationships in Asia. His early success in strengthening the Australia–Japan relationship might be a harbinger of a more energetic Australian strategic policy towards Asia as a whole, not just towards Tokyo. Given Australian policy towards Asia has been primarily transactional, signs of deeper-level engagement are probably overdue. Meanwhile, Abe has wrought a quiet revolution in Japanese strategic policy, and shows no sign of slowing the momentum of reform running through Tokyo. But if the connection really is going to allow cooperation on something as sensitive as submarine drive trains, or even whole submarines, the degree of Japanese buy-in to the special relationship is indeed extraordinary.

Does that mean we could see other special relationships emerge in Asia as other national leaders grasp the nettle? I suspect not. The unfolding Australia–Japan relationship looks likely to be atypical of what emerges. It’s likely to set a benchmark in strategic cooperation that few other such relationships could achieve. But it does suggest that important levels of strategic cooperation among a select group of Asian states are going to be a part of the new regional architecture. And the government has done well to reach both that conclusion, and the resulting agreement, so adroitly.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. This Article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist blog here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAustralia

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