China and Vietnam Clash in the South China Sea

The Buzz

East Asia was stunned last week when the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) moved its most advanced drilling rig to a gas and oil block 120nm from the coast of Vietnam. Reportedly protected by dozens of Chinese coast guard ships and - according to some reports - navy ships, the move caught Hanoi off guard. Vietnam quickly dispatched its own coast guard ships to confront the Chinese, which resulted in several collisions within the 3nm exclusion zone around the rig. Vietnam's options are constrained by its lack of military allies, ASEAN disunity and its relative naval weaknesses vis-à-vis China. Nevertheless, it cannot condone unilateral Chinese drilling in its Exclusive Economic Zone. In addition to its considerable diplomatic campaign to isolate China, the government of Vietnam should take CNOOC to court in Vietnam in response to China's move.

What Happened?

CNOOC placed the HD 981 rig in Vietnamese waters on May 2. The rig is supported by 80 Chinese ships including seven naval vessels, which should dispel any suspicion that the move is directed by anyone other than the Chinese leadership. Vietnam has sent 29 ships to the site in an effort to delay, disrupt, or otherwise raise the costs to CNOOC of continuing to drill. Collisions between these ships - a standard practice when trying to expel ships from an exclusion zone - have resulted in a number of injuries. The move is surprising because relations between Beijing and Hanoi have been relatively cordial in recent months. Fortunately, channels of communication are open. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh spoke on the phone with State Councillor Yang Jiechi in an effort to defuse tensions, but to no avail. Although both sides claim the waters in which the rig lies, it remains to be seen what, if anything CNOOC will discover of commercial viability. If it discovers natural gas, for instance, it would need to be sent by pipeline to markets, presumably in China, which is quite a distance and very costly. Sustained drilling operations so close to a rival claimant would be a first in the history of the South China Sea dispute.

Vietnam's Limited Options

Despite a number of investments in recent years - including in Russian made kilo-class submarines - Vietnam is ill equipped to confront China militarily. Vietnam is not the Philippines but it is certainly not Japan. It is thus unlikely that Vietnam has the military power or the will to coerce a Chinese withdrawal. Moreover, the economic consequences of a conflict could be devastating given the vibrant nature of Sino-Vietnamese economic ties and the potential for China to attach costs in other areas of a very complex bilateral relationship. On other hand, Vietnam could condone the move and attempt to access CNOOC's operation in cooperation with China, as Japan did at a similar CNOOC site in the East China Sea in 2008. CNOOC may find a partnership with PetroVietam tempting given the field's distance from markets other than Vietnam. However, by doing so Hanoi leaves itself vulnerable to similar moves in the future, which has also been the Japanese experience.

A third option would involve taking CNOOC to a Vietnamese court for unpaid taxes and duties, not seeking the correct Vietnamese regulatory approvals and other violations of Vietnamese law. This option is ideal for three reasons. First, it adds teeth to Vietnam's diplomatic protests by attaching financial costs to CNOOC that could limit that company's ability to do business in Vietnam in the future. Furthermore, it gives Vietnam the legal pretext to seize the rig as collateral should CNOOC be found guilty, although actually recovering the rig raises the issue of confronting China.  Second, it strengthens Vietnam's position on the moral high ground. Although few countries are likely to be swayed by China's claim that the field is within the EEZ of the Paracels, which it occupied by force in 1974, Vietnam remains a non-Western country governed by an authoritarian government. Taking CNOOC to court demonstrates Vietnam's commitment to the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Finally, and most importantly, the move is fully consistent with the preferences of the United States and a number of regional states equally concerned about Chinese behavior. On his recent swing through the region, Barack Obama was able to secure statements from Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia that maritime disputes in the region should be settled by peaceful means including international law and arbitration. In particular, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a regional maritime order based on the rule of law. The Vietnamese move would be fully consistent with the sentiment contained in these statements and, given the current regional context, further isolate China.

In short, using Vietnam's domestic legal processes to isolate China avoids condoning China's move without creating the pretext for further Chinese escalation. Above all, it would be a proactive step that gives Vietnam the initiative ahead of a summer of ASEAN meetings, some of which China will attend. In time Vietnam could work with likeminded states to further isolate China on this basis, up to and including initiating an international legal process or working with the Philippines in the context of their ongoing case against China.

James Manicom is a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada. This article was first published by CSIS: PACNET here.

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsVietnam RegionsSoutheast Asia

Iran Talks: Practical Considerations in a Race to the Bomb

The Buzz

Over at LobeLog, former French diplomat François Nicoullaud lays out the remaining issues in the Iran nuclear talks this week. He calls attention to the important issue of breakout time—how long it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon if it chose to expel international inspectors and rush for the bomb. Leaving Iran with a vast number of centrifuges would allow it to enrich its uranium stockpile to weapons grade more quickly, so the West is eager to limit Iran’s centrifuge capacity. Western nuclear experts typically estimate that Iran’s present capacities would let it make a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium in about two months. Reducing Iran’s centrifuge capacity below its present level could make that time longer, but Iran has resisted dismantling existing capacity. This is an important obstacle to a final deal.


Nicoullaud suggests the fixation with breakout time is misplaced. He correctly notes that “having enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb does not mean having the bomb.” An Iranian nuclear breakout would require constructing the bomb itself—not a simple engineering feat. Iran would also have to develop a way to get the bomb to its target, which would require making a bomb small enough to fit atop a missile—another engineering challenge—or delivering the bomb by a less reliable method, like dropping it from an aircraft (Iran’s air force is in miserable shape) or smuggling it into the target country (very risky). And a truly reliable nuclear deterrent would require more than one device, which in turn requires more enrichment, lengthening the breakout.


Nicoullaud is thus technically right to resist the conflation of enrichment capacity with actually having a usable nuclear weapon. But from the standpoint of practical policy, it’s not so simple. Enrichment infrastructure is a big, relatively easy target for intelligence collection, especially since the international nuclear nonproliferation inspection regime gives leaders a fair bit of information without any major spying necessary. And enrichment infrastructure is hard to hide. All this isn’t true of bomb development or missile development. That means that Iran might develop these other components of a deliverable nuclear weapon in secrecy. Enrichment capacity is, then, the only part of a breakout that can be reliably monitored. It’s appropriate to make it a point of focus.


Nicoullaud also questions the political merit of a longer timeline: “One wonders why the international community would need more than one or two months to properly respond to an Iranian rush for a bomb. If it can’t make it in two months, why would it succeed in six?” In other words, two months should be enough time to mobilize the international community in support of a response firm enough to either make Iran change its mind or prevent it from completing the breakout. Given past statements by American and Israeli leaders, war would likely be an element of that response. And it’d be a nasty war, too. The economic damage could be serious and global. The attacker would thus be risking major diplomatic setbacks, and would want to have as many countries supporting it as possible. (A wide coalition would also make Iran feel more vulnerable to future attacks should it decide to rebuild its destroyed nuclear capacity.)


Forming coalitions isn’t easy, and rushing the process can only make it worse. The United States would need to mount an intense effort in diplomacy, international institutions, and the media to get unsure allies on its side. But we’ve done this before, and it didn’t work very well. The run-up to the Iraq War in the fall of 2002 and early 2003 saw America essentially create an international crisis where none had existed, a crisis serious enough to destabilize domestic politics in places like the Netherlands. Yet America’s power to force other nations to a decision point did not translate into a power to get those nations to support us, or to sustain that support. The “coalition of the willing” was small and flighty, with many participants withdrawing when the war got bloodier and even more unpopular. (And many of the more reliable participants didn’t care much about Iraq, either—they had already wanted to deepen or maintain their ties to America, and saw supporting its war as a way to do that. America presumably could have found constructive, mutually beneficial outlets for those desires—an opportunity foregone.)


A longer breakout time would thus be an asset in avoiding a rerun of that diplomatic disaster in the event of an Iranian rush for the bomb. But Iraq was also a military disaster. Longer breakout times won’t be of much use in preventing another one of those.

TopicsNuclear ProliferationSecurityWMD RegionsIran

A U.S. Policy of Weakness towards Russia?

Paul Pillar

Over the past several weeks of the Ukraine crisis, there has been much commentary in the United States to the effect that the West and the United States in particular has been letting Vladimir Putin run amok.  The commentary has been a sub-theme in a larger theme about Washington supposedly exuding weakness.  To the extent such criticism has been linked to specific alternative policy proposals, the proposals usually include some combination of being quicker in imposing more extensive sanctions on Russia, making threatening military deployments, and giving lethal military aid to the Ukrainians.

Over the past few days, Putin's policy on Ukraine has taken shape in two important ways.  First, he has not embraced the “referendum” organized by dissident leaders in the restive eastern portion of Ukraine.  Before the vote he called for it to be postponed; after the vote his government did not respond to dissident talk about accession to Russia, said it respects the “will of the population” of the eastern regions but did not recognize the result of the vote, and called for the whole matter to be resolved through negotiations with the government in Kiev.  Second, despite ominous military moves near the border, he has not used Russian military forces to invade eastern Ukraine.

Both of these developments are subject to varying interpretations.  Perhaps Putin could do more to influence the behavior of dissidents in Donetsk and Luhansk than he wants us to believe—the White House, based on its public statements, seems to think so—but this is not clear.  Neither do we really know what Putin's intentions were for the military forces that had been conducting maneuvers near the border.  Maybe he did not know himself.  But both of these developments are significant.  Not doing something can represent a decision, and not doing something can be just as important as doing it.

Maybe I've missed something, but there does not seem to be any surge of commentary taking account of these developments, from the same sources that had been wailing abut how we had been letting Putin kick us around.  Why has there not been acknowledgment that maybe the best way to deter additional undesirable behavior isn't to start firing away with more sanctions whether the behavior occurs or not, and that threatening military actions isn't necessarily the best way to get results when what we are threatening is a war that everyone knows we would rather not fight?  Why hasn't there been more updating of the scorecard on policy regarding Ukraine?

I hasten to add two caveats to these observations, lest the observations exhibit some of the same deficiencies as the subject commentary.  First, not everything that the Russian government, or any other foreign actor, does can be attributable to the influence of U.S. policy.  Much that happens is beyond the influence of the United States, and that includes many of the good things that happen as well as many of the bad things.  Second, this whole story is far from over.  Any assessment of policy is necessarily only an interim assessment.  Russian forces could invade Ukraine tomorrow, and the scorecard would need to be revised again.

Most of the criticism about a supposed U.S. policy of weakness giving free rein to Putin has ignored these two realities.  It vastly overstates the ability of the U.S. government to shape events, particularly in an area where U.S. interests are less than those of Russian interests.  And it includes grand judgments as if they will be the final word of history, when really they are only the perspective of a single point in time. 

The criticism also is like much commentary on other subjects in that it pays inadequate attention to non-events.  Non-events can include wars that are not launched, terrorist attacks that do not occur, or unconventional weapons that are not built.  Non-events are the other side of the same coin as events in their impact on U.S. interests.  They constitute important data points in assessing which policies work well and which ones do not.  The tendency to score policy performance only in terms of what has happened, without paying attention to what has not, produces an incomplete and biased scorecard.   

Image: White House Flickr.                         

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

How to Buy a Submarine, American Style

The Buzz

Several weeks ago the Pentagon announced that it had awarded a contract for another ten Virginia class nuclear attack submarines (SSNs). The headline price was US$17.6 billion, or about $1.76 billion per boat, and demonstrates a continuing reduction in unit cost of the Virginias as production ramps up.*

The development of the Virginia class is rightly seen as an exemplar of military procurement done smartly. Its development dates back to the mid-1990s, and followed on from the development of the Seawolf class, another exemplar of military procurement—but not of the good kind. The Seawolf grew out of Cold War requirements for an ultra-quiet but fast attack boat. Due to the noise generated by water flow around the hull and by the propulsion system, speed and quiet are generally an either/or proposition for submarines. Demanding both put the boat firmly on the path of conflict with Augustine’s Law VII: the last 10% of performance generates 1/3 of the cost and 2/3 of the problems.

A speaker at the recent ASPI submarine conference made the observation that ‘no system was too beautiful’ for the Seawolfs. In other words, pursuit of the highest level of performance was given priority above any thought of economical production. The result was inevitable; the Seawolf entered into an F-22-like ‘death spiral’ of higher projected unit costs and lower projected build numbers. In the end only three were built, versus 29 planned, as the 1991 cost estimate was close to US$5 billion per boat in today’s dollars.

So a new way of building submarines needed to be found if the US Navy (USN) was to have any chance of keeping its SSN numbers at the desired levels. Just as the USN surface fleet has been dwindling in size as unit costs rise, so too has the submarine arm. The planned 30 Virginia class (and three Seawolfs) will follow on from 62 Los Angeles class SSNs. While each new boat will be significantly more capable than the one it replaces, it can still only be in one place at a time (numbers matter) and the ‘rule of three‘ means that only a third of the fleet can be relied upon to be operational much of the time.

Nonetheless, the USN will have more Virginias than it would ever have got Seawolfs. So how did it go about designing a submarine that was capable enough for the future environment, but inexpensive enough to build in adequate numbers? The answer is described in a US Naval Institute article from a few years ago. Or, more accurately, the answers, because there was no single factor. The USN was prepared to listen to innovative ideas from the shipbuilders rather than impose requirements-driven solutions. One such was a new approach to sonar arrays that makes them easier to build and maintain but still provides acceptable performance. And weapons systems designed and built for guided missile boats were reused in the Virginias, rather than a new bespoke design.

Building political capital and Congressional trust through consistent messaging was also important, as was finding a cost-effective way to provide productivity incentives to both of the shipbuilders involved in the program. The USN agreed to fund infrastructure and facilities upgrades at the two shipyards, but with strings attached. Half of the money would be paid before the upgrades began—but only on approval of a fully-costed business plan that showed how the yard planned to improve productivity and cut overall program costs. The other half of the money would be paid after those productivity improvements had been demonstrated. Because each yard knew that the other would be making a pitch, it also introduced competition between them for funding. That was a win-win arrangement which gave the shipbuilders a government funded capital boost and the USN a lower overall program cost.

It’s only a partial victory though. As a recent Congressional Research Service report observed:

“The Navy’s FY2015 30-year SSN procurement plan, if implemented, would not be sufficient to maintain a force of 48 SSNs consistently over the long run. The Navy projects under that plan that the SSN force would fall below 48 boats starting in FY2025, reach a minimum of 41 boats in FY2028-FY2030, and remain below 48 boats through FY2034.”

So the Virginias aren’t the complete solution to the USN’s numbers problem. But it’s fair to say that the situation would be even worse without the cost reduction efforts. We’ve reached the point in weapons development where ‘better is the enemy of good enough‘ carries more weight than it used to.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defense capability and director of research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. This article was originally published by ASPI's The Strategist Blog here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr.

*Lest readers disposed towards an Australian Virginia class buy get too excited, that’s the shipyard contract or ‘sailaway’ cost, and lacks many of the costs associated with onboard systems and material needed to operate the boat. The USN budget papers for FY 2015 (PDF, page 45) show a unit procurement cost of various blocks between US$2.5 – $3.2 billion, or about half the projected cost of a Seawolf.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAustralia

Obama, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the US-Japan Security Treaty

The Buzz

The main talking point of President Barack Obama's visit to Japan on April 23-24 has been his declaration that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are subject to Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty. Article 5 of the treaty declares the two states would act against an attack on "territories under the administration of Japan."  This is an important development in US-Japan security relations, as Obama became the first sitting US president to make this coverage explicit and perhaps even challenge the traditional US position of not taking sides in territorial disputes.

Why was Obama willing to make this bold statement? This question is important as the Sino-Japanese relationship is probably at its lowest point in recent history and the statement risks antagonizing China and destabilizing US-China relations that have been on an even keel since the Obama-Xi California Summit in June 2013.

The statement by Obama was a calculation that attempted to gain leverage in bilateral issues involving Japan and restore stability in the East China Sea by eradicating ambiguity regarding the US role in support of Japan in the event of a conflict on the East China Sea.

Obama's statement was exactly what the Japanese leadership has been wishing for since the escalation of tensions in the East China Sea that began in September 2010. For Japan, the strengthening of the US-Japan security alliance is a critical factor in dealing with tensions related to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, along with expanding its defensive capabilities. Though this process started under former Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, efforts to strengthen the alliance saw a significant boost when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power. Abe has taken bold steps to seek resolution of outstanding bilateral issues, such as the relocation of the Marine Corp. Futenma Air Base, started a national debate on revising restrictions on the exercise of the right of collective self-defence so that Japan's Self-Defense Force could assist the US in regional contingencies even when Japan's national security is not challenged, and announced Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Obama statement could be seen as a reward for these significant advancements.

At the same time, he also sought Japanese concessions on two issues. The first concerns Japan's hardened approach to the history issue. The US expressed disappointment when Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. This explicit expression of opposition surprised many in the Japanese leadership. Obama's clear statement regarding Article 5's application to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could be a way for the US to seek a compromise with the Abe government by encouraging them to not raise tensions caused by unresolved history issues. The serious deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations due to the history issue is a serious concern for the US. As "quasi-allies," both states play critical roles alongside the US in ensuring regional stability. To encourage dialogue, Obama initiated a trilateral summit with Prime Minister Abe and President Park Geun-hye at The Hague in March 2014.

Second, the statement also aimed to extract a compromise from Japan to overcome the stalemate in the TPP negotiations. Japan and the US have not reached agreement in the negotiations. Tokyo hasn't agreed to lower tariffs to levels acceptable to the US on two products - beef and pork. According to reports, some headway was made, but no resolution was achieved by the end of Obama's trip to Japan. Significantly, the US has strengthened its leverage in the negotiation process following Obama's announcement.

This statement also contributes to stability in the region even though China has expressed opposition to it. It promotes stability by removing the ambiguity in the US position regarding what it will do in the event of a conflict in the East China Sea. To be sure, Obama's statement was a reaffirmation of statements already made by his two secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and secretaries of Defence, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel. Even though it does not imply a shift in US policy toward Japan, Obama's endorsement removes any ambiguity in this policy.

This statement also contributes to stability as it removed lingering doubts that were prevalent in Japan about the US commitment to Japan and Asia, and its ability to realize the rebalancing strategy toward Asia. The US preoccupation with the Middle East and seeming weakness revealed when dealing with the Syrian and Crimean crises raised questions related to the US role as a security guarantor. Obama's statement makes explicit three points critical to Japanese defense planners: it reaffirms the US commitment to Japan, underscores that Japan continues to be the primary ally of the US in the region, and sends a strong signal that the US is serious about rebalancing to Asia. This applies to other US allies as well. The bold statement about US commitment and will to fulfil its treaty obligations was a much needed message.

Bhubhindar Singh is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Multilateralism and Regionalism Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. The following piece was first published by CSIS: PACNET here.

Image: White House Flickr.

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan