Beyond the Environment: Obama's Big Pacific Ocean Move

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The Obama administration yesterday announced its intention to designate a vast portion of U.S.-controlled areas of the Pacific Ocean as a nature preserve.  Although packaged as part of the president’s second-term push to enact environmental regulations using his executive powers, the plans also have sizable implications for U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Specifically, Obama is considering expanding the existing boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (MNM), a marine reserve created by George W. Bush just days before leaving office in January 2009.  At most, Obama could extend the marine reserve’s boundaries up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline of the U.S. islands contained within the conservation zone: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, the Johnston Atoll, the Palmyra Atoll and Wake Island.  Doing so would make the Pacific Remote Islands MNM the biggest marine reserve in the world.

Protecting ocean environments is argued to be essential for the long-term health of the planet.  Few dispute this, although in the past MNMs have been lambasted for being mere “paper parks” in which fishing can still take place in practice—more intended for public consumption than true environmental conservation.  Instead, criticism of the plans has focused upon the administration’s use of executive powers.  Republican law-maker John Fleming, for example, already has accused Obama of acting like an “imperial president” for refusing to go through Congress.

Yet beyond these debates about technicality about procedure there are other implications of vast marine protection zones that warrant consideration.  Symbolically, the creation of environmental protection zones in the Central and Western Pacific is a powerful signal of America’s long-term commitment and presence as a Pacific power.  While not as provocative as China’s designation of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, Washington’s marine protected areas do fulfill a similar—albeit non-military—purpose by pronouncing, formalizing and entrenching U.S. territorial pre-eminence in the world’s biggest ocean.

Moreover, it should be noted that many of the islands contained with the MNM system are current or former military bases: Wake Island and the Johnson Atoll both rest within the existing boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands MNM, while other MNMs cover Midway Island (the Papahānaumokuākea MNM) and Guam (the Mariana Trench MNM).  The Pacific conservation zones thus have military implications.  Active bases are given an additional layer of seclusion while mothballed installations are guarded against conversion to civilian use.

This logic of military conservation works on land as well as at sea.  Wildlife refuges cover 17.5 percent of Guam and all of Midway Island, for example.  Written into the environmental regulations are provisions that, should protected land ever be required for military purposes, then the security interests of the U.S. will predominate and the Pentagon will be given authorization to (re)convert territory for military use.  This is currently salient in the case of Guam, which stands to receive thousands of additional U.S. troops owing to the downsizing of bases in Okinawa and thus will likely need to reclaim refuge overlay in order to house the influx of personnel.  Other (former) U.S. bases on Midway, Wake and the Johnston Atoll could similarly be resurrected in the event of a worsening geostrategic environment in the Asia-Pacific.

Whatever the environmental benefits of establishing marine protected areas in the Pacific, then, there are several political and military implications that are worth considering.  That President Obama can even consider 782,000 square miles of ocean into a conservation zone is testament to how expansive and deep is the U.S. presence in that part of the globe; that so many current, former and future military installations operationally benefit from the conservation is a reminder that only one country boasts the real estate to establish effective maritime control there.

America’s marine national monuments are monuments to the country’s gargantuan geopolitical and territorial standing in the Central and Western Pacific as much as anything else.

Image Credit: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsPacific Ocean

If a War Exploded in Asia, What Would Japan Do?

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Big things are afoot in Tokyo, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government nears a milestone in its attempts to make Japan a more normal country on national defense. Abe wants to allow Japan limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense, through reinterpretation of country’s pacifist constitution. His party, the LDP, is in intensive discussions with its coalition partner, New Komeito, in order to get a final deal approved by 22 June. The United States will accept and support whatever results from Japan’s sovereign democratic process—especially as any progress on the long-time sticking point of collective self-defense is better than none. But in a disappointing development, the LDP appears to have made a concession that forecloses an immense opportunity to advance the US–Japan alliance to new levels of coordination, interoperability and, ultimately, efficacy.

At issue is what is called ‘integration with the use of force’ in situations where Japan hasn’t come under direct attack. The question is whether, in a regional contingency—think Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, or even a Malacca Strait crisis—the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) could operate in support of US forces conducting combat operations. Current laws and regulations limit the JSDF to providing ‘rear area support,’ such as replenishment, refueling, and data sharing, only in non-combat zones; as soon as shooting starts, the JSDF must steam away. Abe sought to extend the provision of rear area support to combat zones as well, but he appears for the moment to have given up on this particular point, with the exception of search and rescue operations. Keeping the JSDF almost completely out of contested spaces might make political sense to get New Komeito’s buy-in on this and other important issues, but it foregoes a potential operational windfall for the US–Japan alliance as a whole.

To be clear, no one is talking about the JSDF firing shots after the initiation of hostilities to which Japan isn’t a party. Moreover, the JSDF might yet be able to bring serious capabilities, including minesweeping in international sea lanes, to bear in coalition efforts. But legal walls are preventing the alliance from integrating Japan’s formidable capabilities in a more effective way. In particular, should the Abe government’s ambitious December 2013 defense budget stick, it’ll mean significant upgrades to critical C4ISR capabilities that are by and large interoperable with US forces: the JSF, Aegis destroyers, Global Hawk drones, new or upgraded AWACS and airborne early warning aircraft, and so on. Were the JSDF permitted to support US forces in contested spaces, it could integrate its ‘seers’ into American operations, freeing up US assets to go be ‘shooters.’ Beyond targeting, the JSDF could play an important role in supplementing US capacity for lift, sustainment, replenishment, and repair. That’s particularly important at a time when sequestration threatens future US Navy and Air Force procurements.

The LDP’s combat zone concession to New Komeito likely scuppers any such arrangements during the once-in-a-generation review of the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines, scheduled to end this year. In return, Abe appears to have gotten compromise on streamlined coordination between the national command authority, the Japan Coast Guard, and the Maritime Self-Defense Forces to respond to ‘gray zone’ events, encroachments on Japan’s interests that stay below the military threshold. While that would help to address China’s tailored coercion strategy in the East China Sea, giving up ‘combat zone’ support means relinquishing serious enhancements to joint alliance capabilities.

Negotiations aren’t over until they’re over, but if present reports are accurate, the question then becomes: so what? In the Big Fight—the nightmare scenario involving a certain Asian continental power to the west, which no one wants to see—those distinctions may become irrelevant, as ‘some countries’’ military strategies necessitate attacks against US operational nodes residing on Japanese soil. Or, because the US is unlikely to initiate hostilities in the Asia-Pacific, a hypothetical initial attack against US forces could generate an emergency request for JSDF assistance that may be allowed under the reinterpreted rules. Either way, Japan enters the fray. And as long as Abe can demonstrate some new ability to assist US forces in emergencies, he’ll achieve his goal of demonstrating Japan’s resolve and political commitment to Washington and the alliance.

But the way one plans to fight affects the way one plans and trains, and the demonstration effects thereof: if the US and Japan increase practicing to fight not merely in adjacent areas, but rather in a truly integrated manner, it’ll enhance the deterrent power of the alliance overall. Why should Tokyo take half measures when it can take full ones?

New Komeito and its allies’ commitment to peace is admirable but short-sighted. The common refrain in such quarters is that preparing for war invites war. Still, that approach might be insufficient. Japan’s return to normalcy will and should be incremental. But China’s military modernization is incremental too, only those increments might be much larger (PDF). At the risk of being sententious, Japan might not be interested in war, but war could be interested in Japan.

Alexander Sullivan is a research associate in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His views are his and his alone, along with any errors of fact or omission. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist website here

Image Credit: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

China's Self Made Security Disaster in Asia

The Buzz

A simple question about what China has been doing to its neighbors keeps recurring: How is that smart?

The question came up in dozens of conversations at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific roundtable in Kuala Lumpur. The puzzle of China’s behavior has shaped the previous columns on Shinzo Abe’s "we’re back in Asia security" speech, the differing security doctrines coming from China and the United States, the Australian Defense Minister’s musings on Asia’s potentially catastrophic situation, the loss of regional confidence, and the impact of all this on the nascent Asian security system that has served China so well.

Consider the responses China has produced or helped validate:

1. Japan’s asserting its right to a bigger security role in Asia in ways not heard in 70 years—and this is being warmly welcomed by Australia and Southeast Asia. In a few weeks, Shinzo Abe will come to address the Australian Parliament just as President Obama did in November 2011. That was Obama’s pivot speech, announcing that as president he’d “made a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.” Abe will use the same stage—Australia’s House of Representatives—to offer his own version of that strategic decision.

2. The US President went to Japan in April and stated that the US security treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands. China has pushed so hard over some barren islands occupied by goats that it has produced a specific promise from Obama that the US is ready to go to war with China to ensure that the goats remain Japanese.

3. Traditional fence sitters such as Malaysia and Vietnam are doing exactly what theory says they must do—balance against China by nestling closer to the US. America now proclaims  “comprehensive partnerships” with Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam’s Defense Minister is happily ruminating about the American Navy coming back to use Cam Ranh Bay.

4. The rusty US alliance with the Philippines has a fresh coat of paint and Manila is desperate to add muscle to the rebalance. 

5. For Asia, the US rebalance is central and vital. No explanation is needed for why it matters and why it must be made to work. The only question is about the level of US commitment. Some mordant comfort is taken from the fact that all US military planning now assumes China as the default enemy. Asia is rushing to give new love to the US hub-and-spokes alliance system, with some supporting partnerships added.

How is it in any way smart for China to have done anything to produce such outcomes? As observed by a bearded Canadian strategist who has been cruising Asia for decades: “The principal architect of the success of the US rebalance is Beijing.”

When you talk to Chinese officials, officers and strategists, the standard line is that China is the victim. China isn’t the actor, it’s being acted on. China’s only responding to the provocation of others. China’s being pushed around and has to push back. It’s a strange rendering of the way things look to the number two economy in the world and Asia’s pre-eminent power. China’s reaching for its prerogatives as a great power and feeding the fires of its own nationalism while adopting the tone of a put-upon teenager.

One of the best descriptions of this dynamic was given by Rodolfo Severino, the former Philippines diplomat and secretary-general of ASEAN. Now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Severino told me:

“Although secretly the US is welcome here, publicly one cannot say that because that would be unfashionable. That’s where I think the Chinese are making a mistake. They think that the Philippines and Vietnam are under the thumb of the Americans and it’s not so. By doing what they are doing they are giving the US another reason to be around. So I think it’s a mistake, but one cannot assume that the Chinese have access to the best minds. Although they are very smart but sometimes they don’t think things through.”

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article originally appeared in ASPI's The Strategist website here

Image Credit: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Siren Song of Missile Diplomacy

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Over at Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko is wondering why discussion in the United States over how to respond to foreign policy crises always seems to center on a familiar choice: whether to bomb another country or else do nothing. Not only are other military options (including “boots on the ground”) routinely taken off the table by politicians and their advisers, but nonmilitary alternatives for dealing with crises are too often given painfully short shrift. “The debate shrinks immediately around whether and how to use the tactic of force,” Zenko laments.


The siren song of missile diplomacy is not new. Two decades ago, the Clinton administration also demonstrated a clear penchant for remote warfare. Twice in the Balkans—Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999—did Clinton authorize airstrikes in the name of humanitarian intervention. In December 1998, cruise missiles and B-52 bombers were used to destroy critical infrastructure in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Earlier that year, missile strikes had been ordered against suspected terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s attacks in the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.


Why was President Clinton disposed to use airstrikes and long-range missiles instead of other tools of (military) statecraft? Today, why is President Obama similarly inclined—mostly recently as he ponders his response to the advance of ISIS militants across Syria and northern Iraq?


Political scientist Andrew Butfoy argues that, in part, the preoccupation with missile diplomacy is a product of the military affairs (RMA), which by the 1990s had bestowed upon the U.S. a technical ability to strike from afar that was unprecedented in military history. Yet Butfoy is clear that the technological advances of the RMA by themselves are underdetermining. Instead, presidency-specific factors are essential to explaining Clinton’s foreign policy.


After the loss of eighteen U.S. soldiers in the Battle of Mogadishu (1993), for example, Clinton’s appetite for overseas interventions was severely diminished. At the same time, the criticism leveled against the White House for failing to intercede on behalf of Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994 highlighted the unconscionable limitations of “doing nothing” in response to international crises. In this context, “missile diplomacy” emerged as a way to project power and influence abroad at a relatively low cost to U.S. military personnel and the political establishment.


Obama’s torrid experience of inheriting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can be seen in a similar light, as creating domestic-political incentives to push ahead with downsizing the U.S. global footprint and rely instead on remote warfare—drones, manned airstrikes, missiles—when there are international threats that cannot be avoided. This was evident in Obama’s policies towards Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013 (even if ultimately aborted), Yemen, Somalia and the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Only the Afghan surge stands out as an anomaly.


Like Clinton before him, President Obama is reluctant to sign-off on large-scale deployments of troops for reasons of domestic politics. Yet as commander-in-chief, no president can afford to ignore perceived international crises. Since the end of the Cold War, the concept of the U.S. national interest has become so stretched in the minds of many domestic actors, including politicians from both parties, such that almost all instances of regional instability and humanitarian catastrophe can be considered worthy of military engagement. For the “indispensable nation” to do nothing while the world suffers could easily be political suicide for a president.


In the final analysis, it is this domestic bias in favor of viewing international instability as intrinsically threatening to U.S. national security that makes the White House predisposed towards answering questions of whether the U.S. should deploy abroad in the affirmative. All that remains is the question of how. For all its military inadequacies and ethical quandaries, then, missile diplomacy remains an attractive political option for those charged with crafting U.S. foreign policy. Rightly or wrongly, this political calculus shows little sign of changing.

TopicsSecurityThe Presidency RegionsIraq

ISIS Challenge in Iraq: Why America Should Work with Iran

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The US should seize the opportunity presented by the Iraq crisis to reach out and engage Iran. The threat posed by ISIS and radical jihadism as well as the potential for further regional instability represent important areas of mutual strategic concern for both countries.  By engaging the Iranians, the US will gain the critical ability to shape the course of events without getting bogged down in the conflict.  It will also help the US build a working relationship with Iran that could ease the current nuclear negotiations forward and lay the groundwork for future cooperation when a successful deal is reached.

First, US engagement will make certain Iraq does not become wholly dependent on Iranian aid and that the US will play an important role in shaping the operational environment.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are already in Iraq advising and assisting the government on the military operations.  Iran has openly declared its ability and intent to help Iraq, and it has the recent experience of success in Syria to effectively do so. The current conflict means that Iran’s influence and penetration of Iraq will only increase and become more entrenched than ever before. By assisting the Iraqis and working with the Iranians, the US can create mutual dependencies between the groups and enable the US to influence the operation of the fighting and the political balance between the different parties.

Second, the US will be more effective in trying to reach a political solution to the conflict by engaging Iran.  The current crisis cannot be solved simply through military means; it requires a political solution more importantly.  The increasing monopolization of power by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had alienated the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds and excluded them from governance.  To forge a broader and more inclusive coalition to lead Iraq, the assistance of Iran will be critical as it is an influential power behind the scenes.  By engaging the Iranians, the US can shape the political process necessary for the reformulation of power in Baghdad.

Third, the cooperation between the US and Iran will do much to build confidence between the two countries that would serve to help the current nuclear negotiations.  It would also establish the parameters for a future working relationship between the US and Iran should the negotiations succeed.  A history of mutual hostility and the lack of trust between the countries pose important challenges in the current negotiations.  On the Iranian side, for example, whenever I travel to Tehran, hardliners have repeatedly voiced their suspicions of US willingness to engage them to me and frequently raise the issue of mistrust when discussing the negotiations.  Cooperating on such a mission can do much to dispel these ideas and open the environment for more fruitful decision-making on the nuclear issue.

While detractors may claim that by doing so the US will give Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, the US will actually be strengthening its own position in the country.  By not doing so, Iran will be the sole benefactor of the crisis as it begins to assist Iraq just like Syria.  Of course, the US should be highly cautious of providing direct military assistance to the current Iraqi government so as not to appear to have sided with the Shia in the sectarian conflict.  However, by engaging Iran privately and working with all regional partners in reaching a political and military solution to the crisis, the US will be effective in promoting political stability and greater social inclusion in Iraq.

Payam Mohseni is the Iran Project Director and Fellow for Iran Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Harvard’s Department of Government where he teaches on Iranian and Middle East politics.

TopicsISIS RegionsIraq