A Ceasefire, But Nothing More, in Gaza

Paul Pillar

Nick Casey of the Wall Street Journal, reporting from Gaza, noted one indication that the latest announced ceasefire in the war there may actually stick: a salvo of outgoing rockets launched shortly before the starting time for the ceasefire. Belligerents often try to get in a last lick before a ceasefire they expect to take hold, so that evidently was the expectation of Hamas. This brings back memories of being at Tan Son Nhut airbase near the end of the Vietnam War, when the Viet Cong unleashed a rocket barrage on the base 90 minutes before the ceasefire negotiated between Washington and Hanoi was due to begin.

Israel's timing in wrapping up its operation may be part of the natural rhythm of the Israeli lawn mower. Operation Protective Edge has been somewhat larger, but not greatly so, than Israel's last previous big assault on the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Cast Lead went on for 23 days, about a week less than Protective Edge. The number of Palestinians killed in Protective Edge appears to be just short of 1900, compared to about 1400 in Cast Lead, with most of the dead being unarmed civilians in both cases, although with perhaps even a larger proportion of them being so in the latest assault. The biggest difference between the two episodes has been in Israeli military casualties. In Cast Lead ten Israel soldiers died, four of them from friendly fire. In Protective Edge 64 have died; we do not yet know how many of those were from friendly fire. Israeli civilian deaths in the two conflicts were the same: three in each case.

Although there is a basis for near-term optimism that the suffering that already has occurred will not be compounded by additional bloodshed tomorrow or next week, there are grounds for little but pessimism about anything else that is likely to ensue from this tragedy for the foreseeable future.

One could conceive of possible agreements that would involve some kind of monitoring of access to Gaza (to keep out munitions being acquired by Hamas) in return for allowing at least some legitimate imports. Israel has given Hamas almost no incentive, however, to change its positions or to take any risks in making any concessions. It is hard to imagine Hamas agreeing to something that could be called demilitarization when it and the civilian Palestinian population have just sustained a highly destructive month-long assault, there will be no demilitarization involving the Israeli forces that conducted the assault, and those forces already are getting their depleted stocks of munitions replenished with U.S. help. Moreover, the principal demands that Hamas has been making—to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip and to release the Palestinians who were incarcerated in mass round-ups in the West Bank last month—would involve Israel living up to commitments it already made in previous agreements and on which it later reneged.

On the Israeli side, we have observed during this war further indications of longer-term trends—toward hardline militancy, unwavering reliance on force, and hostility toward Palestinian Arabs—that have been in evidence for some time. This has been reflected not only in the strong domestic support the Netanyahu government has had for this war but in dissents, including from those within the ruling right-wing coalition, that argue—with proposals that chill the spine—for even more extreme uses of force.

It would be nice to think, as relief from the pessimism regarding prospects for the months ahead, that the refreshingly and unusually direct criticism by the Obama administration on Sunday of what was then the latest Israeli military attack on civilians had something to do with the ceasefire. It probably did not. Mark Landler most likely has it right in his front-page article in the New York Times, portraying the Netanyahu government as having the political confidence to swat aside such criticism. Unanimous consent resolutions in Congress speak more loudly than Jen Psaki at the State Department.

The tendency to personalize disputes has led to an overemphasis on how much U.S.-Israeli frictions are an Obama-Netanyahu thing, when in fact there are deeper and more fundamental conflicts of interest between the United States and Israel that will continue—especially as long as an Israeli government with anything like the coloration of the current one remains in power—notwithstanding the political reasons in both countries to try to downplay those differences. The Israeli government can look past 2016, however, and anticipate that the next time they crank up their lawn mower either a Republican or Hillary Clinton will be in the White House, and they may not have to put up with even the sort of firmer-than-usual criticism they heard this week.

The whole awful cycle of endless lawn mowing can be broken only by addressing the underlying issues of occupation and self-determination. That would mean, among other things, dealing even with the hated Hamas, and as a political player, not just as a firer of rockets. But from the perspective of today, even if things stay quiet in the Gaza Strip, it is hard to see much basis for hope that will happen.  

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

America and China's Dangerous Dance in Asia

The Buzz

2010 is a year to remember in U.S.-China relations. Since the second decade of the 21st century, the very strategic foundation of the relationship has undergone incremental erosion – five or so years later the cumulative result is serious.  The vocabulary employed to describe approaches to managing bilateral ties has changed, captured by the decreasing use of an “engagement” vocabulary, a passing transit through the concept of light and heavy “hedging,” on to “deterrence,” and now one hears voices using the vocabulary of coercive diplomacy in both societies.

Some in the China studies field have argued against the proposition that China’s regional policy has become more assertive. I am not among them.  There has been a qualitative change in Chinese regional policy and broader strategic alignment, notwithstanding Beijing’s official protestations to the contrary and the fact that China’s current neuralgias are largely those of the past. Unfortunately, the already-hackneyed characterizations of PRC behavior as “salami slicing” or “nibbling” have an element of truth – Beijing is attempting to peel back the maritime status quo ante in the East and South China seas, one thin layer at a time, without making a move dramatic enough to justify a major response by others at any given moment.  All this is not to say Japan and others have not taken ill-advised actions that have provided openings for, and provoked, Beijing, a most recent example being Tokyo’s renaming islands in the East China Sea.

All this gives rise to several questions:

1. Why (or to what extent) has Beijing changed a successful policy that for more than three decades facilitated a dramatic increase in Chinese comprehensive national power without engendering a proportionate rise in the anxieties of others?

2.To what extent is China responding to the behavior of others and to what extent is it seizing on small provocations to make advances?

3. Why is Beijing jeopardizing the primacy of its internal, economic reform goals by alienating substantial chunks of its periphery and running the risk of an ever-stronger international coalition pushing back?  

4. Why is Beijing allowing itself to be driven into a corner of alignment with Russia, an economic underperformer that violates the PRC’s own 60 year-old-principle of respecting national sovereignty?

5. What are the lessons that we learned from the Cold War about strategy, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy that have applicability in current circumstances in a far different globalized world?

6. Has U.S. policy in any way given added push to negative developments?

7. What are the appropriate (and effective) policy responses available to Washington?  What are clearly disastrous paths that Washington and others should eschew?

I cannot address all these questions, serious research is needed on each, and I am not pushing for specific actions, beyond endorsing the spirit behind Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel’s July 28, 2014, statement calling for “claimant states to define and voluntarily freeze problematic activities” – the tit for tat cycle occurring in maritime Asia needs to be broken. Instead, I wish to make three points as we try to work our way through this precarious period:

- First, the problem we confront in Asia is not simply assertive Chinese nationalism.  What we face in Asia is conflicting, assertive nationalisms.

- Second, we should not simply frame the issue as, “How should the United States respond to Beijing?”  Rather, the regional and international systems have reacted, and are reacting, and this has already imposed meaningful costs on the PRC.  An important question for Beijing is how long does it wish to bear these, and possibly other, growing costs?

- Finally, as we contemplate how to respond, Washington should not take actions that are to everyone’s detriment, not least the interests of our friends in the region, nor should we fail to consider the lessons of the Cold War in developing responses.

Asia is a region in which levels of trust across national boundaries are low, and memories are long. It is a region full of pluralistic societies and polities, many of which seek to garner domestic support by appealing to nationalistic aspirations – this is as true for Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as it is for PRC leaders and others in the region.  As a consequence, while it is certainly true that assertive Chinese nationalism is a problem, the larger challenge is the interacting nationalisms driving many polities and societies in Asia to be assertive.  Washington needs to be careful that in opposing the assertive nationalism of China we are not giving free rein to others.

With respect to the second point (China already is paying costs), the PRC’s relations with its periphery have suffered a net decline over the last five years:  Beijing’s “box score” for bilateral relations shows overall losses, with minuses in Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, India, Singapore, and of course Japan, with South Korea being a complex case, but not a plus for Beijing.  China’s relations with ASEAN as a whole would have to be counted as weaker. Anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam and canceled infrastructure projects in Burma are just two indications of how careful Beijing needs to be in its dealings with its neighbors. Relations with Russia could be counted a plus, but I continue to be impressed by the structural weakness of that relationship. Beyond triangular politics, bilateral security, and energy (which Russia needs to sell in any event), what does Moscow have to offer Beijing over the long haul that would offset the serious deterioration with the U.S. and others?  Turning to Hong Kong and Taiwan, many things could be said but, put most simply, it will be tough to give confidence to the populations living in these two areas if Beijing’s relations sour with the West and much of the region to which they are so intimately connected.

If one sets this net loss against a very heavy and challenging domestic agenda in China, where President Xi Jinping is seeking to move forward on the Third Plenum’s broad economic and social agenda, attack powerful networks of corruption, bring added coordination to a very fractious domestic policy system, and move onto yet another area of change in the upcoming Fourth Plenum in October, it is hard to see how the PRC’s external circumstances mesh with the need for internal focus. Foreign economic ties and foreign policy can, for awhile, proceed on somewhat separate trajectories, but eventually security problems will infect economic relationships.

Addressing the third set of issues (appropriate and effective responses), there are no easy answers.  Also, we need to remember that there are big upsides to cooperation with China that never existed with the Soviet Union, and these are not limited to the economic domain.  Nonetheless, two things are clear: first, we ought to remember some central lessons of the Cold War. And second, we should not add to instability and/or hurt our friends more than positively affecting Beijing’s behavior.

Among the central lessons of the Cold War that Glenn Snyder in part catalogued thirty years ago are:

- Increasing commitment to allies has the possible upsides of reassuring friends, enhancing one’s reputation for loyalty, deterring an adversary, and increasing credibility – if one has the material resources and domestic political will to deliver and the threat is sufficiently potent to offset any possible conception of gains.  The possible downsides are being ensnared by friends into commitments not in your interest, provoking an adversary, underestimating the burdens an adversary will bear, solidifying the adversary’s internal coalition against you, propelling a security dilemma of ever-greater proportions, and of course the problems associated with communicating accurately, in a timely fashion, and with credibility, across cultures.

- There is a distinction between deterrence and coercive diplomacy, with the former using threat to prevent an unwanted future action and the latter using threat to persuade an adversary to undo an action already taken. The former is easier than the latter.

- A challenger’s perception of your capability is important.  Capability includes: the willingness of one’s population to sustain a commitment; the material resources available to sustain that commitment (which includes the political ability to tax oneself to achieve that capability); and, the other domestic and global demands drawing on one’s resources – how stretched does one appear to be?

Also, one should not seek to turn existing zones of relative calm and stability into additional problems for Beijing, in the misguided notion that whatever multiplies Beijing’s problems must be in our interests. This we could call the strategy of asymmetric destabilization.  To seek to fish in the troubled waters of the “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong, or the “Sunflower Movement” in Taiwan, would provoke the worst possible response from Beijing and is not something that those movements would or should want, making them seem to be agents of outsiders rather than the home-grown movements they are.

To summarize, if Beijing wants to improve relations with Washington, the easiest, quickest, and most mutually beneficial path is to improve relations with its own periphery.  For its part, a portion of the U.S. management approach needs to be constructively shaping the behavior of U.S. allies and friends and recognizing that Asia’s problem is not simply China, but rather the conflicting nationalisms and insecurities of many countries in the region.  Managing U.S. rhetoric, matching resources to objectives, improving our own governance and comprehensive national power, and minimizing the siren song of martial and values discourse in what has become the perpetual U.S. political campaign are not the least of the challenges facing the United States.  In the end, however, Washington needs to find ways to address the nibbling strategy of Beijing without sliding into escalation, doing great damage to the regional (and global) economy, or taking on more than the US people are willing to bear.  An open-ended, deteriorating security and economic environment is a tragedy for the US and the region, and a catastrophe for China. One is hard-pressed to avoid concluding that both China and the US need this deteriorating circumstance like a hole in the head.  That may be the most compelling strategic argument of all to change course.

David M. Lampton is a professor and director of China Studies at SAIS. He is the author of the recently published, Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping (University of California Press, 2014). This article originally appeared in CSIS:PACNET Newsletter here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsChina RegionsAsia-Pacific

Remembering The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: 50 Years Later

The Buzz

The first week of August marks not only the centenary of the guns of August 1914, but also the fiftieth anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was as near as the United States ever came to a declaration of war in Vietnam. It’s worth reflecting on why the events of August 1964 still remain the subject of intense controversy.

The root of the matter was the U.S. constitution, which designates the president as commander-in-chief but requires congressional approval for the country to wage war. Conflict between the executive and legislative branches over war powers has been a feature of administrations from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama.

On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had made two unprovoked attacks, on August 2nd and 4th, on the USS Maddox patrolling in international waters around the Gulf of Tonkin. The Administration immediately sought a congressional resolution which, in sweeping terms, gave the president the right to commit American forces to the defense of any Southeast Asian nation threatened by communist aggression or subversion. Based on the reports of the two attacks, Congress passed the resolution on  August 7th  by overwhelming majorities, 88–2 in the Senate and 416–0 in the House of Representatives.

The political context was all-important. Johnson, who’d unexpectedly become president following the assassination of President John Kennedy in November 1963, would face election in his own right in November 1964. He wanted a substantial majority that would enable him to introduce a program of civil rights and other domestic reforms. The brewing conflict in Vietnam was still a second-order issue in the United States. Johnson wanted to keep it there, while showing that he would respond with appropriate but limited force to any unprovoked challenge from the communists. He could thus present himself as the candidate most likely to keep American boys out of a land war in Asia, especially after the Republicans rejected the moderate Nelson Rockefeller and chose the hawkish Barry Goldwater as their candidate.

The Tonkin Gulf resolution suited Johnson’s tactics admirably: he won the election in a landslide. But from 1965 onwards, as the war escalated, the death toll mounted and a “credibility gap” emerged over Johnson’s handling of the war, his critics thought it had all been too convenient. Opponents challenged the resolution’s validity. Leading Democrats who emerged as prominent critics of the war, such as Senator William Fulbright, believed they had been grossly misled about the facts of the incident and Johnson’s intentions.

They raised three major charges. First, it was claimed that at least one, perhaps both, of the alleged attacks hadn’t actually taken place. Second, the administration was alleged to have deliberately provoked an attack, in order to gain congressional authority for the subsequent escalation of the commitment, which was already being planned in secret. And third, Johnson had allegedly misled Congress over his intentions and the way in which he would use the resolution.

Even after fifty years, much remains disputed, but the following seem to be the most credible responses to those charges.

First, the attack of August 2nd did take place; the alleged second attack almost certainly did not.

Second, the episode was as much a blunder as conspiracy. Two separate programs were under way in Vietnam, overseen by different agencies in Washington. Operation 34A involved provocative, but ineffectual, missions by CIA-backed South Vietnamese agents into North Vietnam, while the U.S. Navy conducted electronic eavesdropping missions called Operation DeSoto. The North Vietnamese understandably thought the Maddox was involved in a 34A attack. It wasn’t, but the extent of co-ordination between its DeSoto mission and the 34A attack remains unclear. Some hawks in the Johnson Administration had prepared a draft congressional resolution, but the administration’s intention was to introduce it later in the year, possibly after the election. Instead, in a hasty and opportunistic reaction to the alleged attacks, it was brought before Congress while the reports of the alleged attacks were extremely confused and contradictory.

Third, and most important, Johnson clearly gave the impression that his intentions were strictly limited, and that he would consult Congress further before any major escalation of the war. When Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote in his 1995 book In Retrospect that he and his colleagues had been “wrong, terribly wrong” on Vietnam, he asserted that Johnson’s error wasn’t deliberate deception in August 1964, but gross misuse of the resolution’s authority in subsequent years. While an important insight, that doesn’t fully excuse Johnson’s behavior in an episode which, half a century later, stands as a reminder of the enormous impact on world affairs of hasty actions, unduly influenced by domestic party politics, bureaucratic confusion and interagency rivalries.

Peter Edwards is an adjunct professor at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute of Deakin University. He is the official historian and general editor of the nine-volume Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975.  This article first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here. 

TopicsVietnam RegionsAsia-Pacific

Why Japan Will Never Be a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council

The Buzz

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent tour of South America, Central America and the Caribbean has been characterized by the international media as an attempt to match—if not outdo—Chinese President Xi Xinping’s own attempts to build economic relations in Latin America.  Yet Abe’s trip was not solely about spheres of economic influence: diplomatic and security issues were never far from the agenda, particularly regarding Japanese membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Next year, Japan hopes to be elected as a non-permanent member of the UNSC.  First elected to the council in 1958 and last a member in 2010, Japan (along with Brazil) has spent more years on the UNSC than any other state, testament to the value that Japanese leaders have for generations placed upon membership of the UN’s chief security forum.  Obtaining the prize of representation has always required some expenditure of diplomatic—and economic—capital.  It is nothing new, then, for Abe to use his meetings with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to shore up votes for next October’s elections, which will take place within the UN General Assembly where every country has an equal vote.

Japan’s ambitions go far beyond recurrent non-permanent membership of the council, however.  Instead, Japan has long argued that the permanent membership of the UNSC—currently the Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States—should be expanded to include itself, Brazil, India and Germany, the so-called “Group of Four”.  Last week, Abe and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff restated their joint case for reform (a March 2011 pamphlet from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo gives further details on the Japanese position).

Although the objective of permanent membership is longstanding, Abe’s diplomatic push ahead of October 2015 inevitably will be seen abroad in the same light as his other foreign policies, several of which have been criticized as hawkish by neighboring governments—not least of all the Chinese, which bitterly opposes the Japanese bid.  Far beyond the unwanted symbolism of a fully rehabilitated and “normal” Japan on the UN Security Council, the very real powers that permanent membership would afford Tokyo are simply anathema to Beijing’s interests.

Unlike Abe’s others attempts to bolster Japan’s international security posture, however, the bid for permanent membership of the UNSC is something that China is able to block with relative ease. As an existing permanent member of the council, China wields a veto over any proposals to alter its composition.  Japan’s permanent membership is therefore not possible without Chinese consent.

As such, Japan’s membership of the P5 is a non-starter, but Japanese ambitions on the world stage will nevertheless redound to the fraught Sino-Japanese relationship.  During previous discussions about reform of the UN in April 2005, “tens of thousands of demonstrators marched on the streets of major Chinese cities, throwing stones and other objects at the Japanese Council’s Office and vandalizing Japanese stores and restaurants.”  A decade on, domestic disgust at perceptions of Japanese hawkishness—stoked by state-controlled media—have hardly abated in China.

For years, Japan has proceeded cautiously and relatively successfully when it comes to pressing its case for reform of the UNSC.  Tokyo has the support of many nations large and small, and has made common cause with both Brazil and India (and Russia, for that matter)—China’s supposed allies in the BRICS bloc.  But Japan’s efforts never will be enough.  There is only one vote that matters when it comes to determining Japan’s future as a prospective permanent member of the Security Council and it is to be found in Beijing, not anywhere in Latin America.  Another round of non-permanent membership is thus the best that any number of Abe’s diplomatic offensives can buy.

Image: Flickr/CC 2.0 License. 

TopicsUnited Nations RegionsJapan

Forget the South China Sea: China's Great Game in the Arctic Draws Near

The Buzz

Twenty years from now China’s gaze will not focus upon the South China Sea or the Central Asian steppes to fuel economic growth. Instead, Beijing will look to a far more inhospitable place to satiate its appetite for natural resources. The vast, barren northern part of the planet called the Arctic Circle holds about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas. Greenland, sitting on the rim of the Arctic Circle, boasts of one of the world’s most abundant supplies of rare earths. By September of 2030, when many scientists believe the polar ice cap will have melted, the region may offer a bonanza for natural resources. By that time a new Great Game will have already enveloped the world’s most northernmost region. We can be sure that China will be eager to play.

Although it is the world’s second biggest economy, China depends on imports for many of the raw goods it needs to fuel its relentless pace of economic growth. In the coming decades, it will have to look for natural resources farther and farther away from the mainland if it is to continue on its current pace of development. This explains China’s recent moves into the South China Sea (SCS) and its interest in resource-rich Africa. But China still risks a catastrophic supply shock if war were ever to break out in the SCS since most of its trade passes through the Straits of Malacca. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) that passes through the Arctic Circle thus offers China an unprecedented opportunity to diversify its trade routes and tap into untouched natural resources. Furthermore, trade between China and Europe via the NSR will be faster and cheaper: the NSR shortens the distance between Rotterdam and Shanghai by some 3,000 miles and saves thousands of dollars on fuel. Some scenarios suggest that 5-15% of Chinese trade could pass through Arctic waters by 2020. It is no wonder that China has been making great efforts to improve its relationships with Arctic Circle states.

Yet despite all its advances into the region China is not an Arctic Circle state and it does not sit on the Arctic Council, which currently consists solely of Arctic Circle states. So far this has been to China’s benefit. As a neutral observer of the Arctic Council, China has avoided the kinds of disputes Russia has had with member states—like one that erupted when Russia planted its flag at the North Pole in 2007—that have hurt its influence on the council. China has stuck to its scientific and environmental projects to build credibility.

In fact, China is going to spend $60 million dollars a year on polar research at its new China-Nordic Arctic Research Center in Shanghai. A commitment to conducting rescue missions in the Arctic has also helped improve its image. But for all its efforts in science it is clear why China is in the Arctic: natural resources and trade. Strengthening bilateral relationships with Arctic Council members is, therefore, of paramount importance to Beijing. China prefers these types of relationships because it can bring its economic might to bear on smaller states separately. A new free-trade deal with Iceland and $500 million dollar currency-exchange support program for Icelandic banks are just the beginnings of this strategy. The more economically dependent these smaller states are on China the more likely they are to give Beijing a permanent seat on the Arctic Council, even if it is not an Arctic border state.

Recent world events also point in China’s favor as the Great Game in the Arctic becomes an ever more real phenomenon. It looks as if Russia will become isolated from the West as a result of the Ukraine crisis. This will have major implications for Russia’s position in the Arctic. As the new Sino-Russian gas deal shows, China is Russia’s most natural partner in the East when it comes to energy and large-scale trade. Russian companies, isolated from western partners, will have to turn to Beijing for money and assistance in the Arctic. Indeed, China National Petroleum Corporation already has made a deal with Rosneft, the Russian energy giant, for Arctic oil exploration. Joint deals like this one will be crucial if China is to access the region’s untapped oil reserves because most of the oil along the NSR is within Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. These trends will only continue as China’s energy needs grow.

The Great Game in the Arctic Circle is just beginning. For now, it will continue to be shaped by events far away from the polar ice cap. Soon that may change. The West should recognize China’s ambitions; the Far North may not remain cold forever.

TopicsChina RegionsArctic Ocean