"Playing Fort" in the South China Sea and Spratly Islands

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The South China Sea is filling up with surreal ocean castles. Hundreds of miles from land, on rocks and spits of sand, structures of concrete and steel rise straight up out of the water and stand guard over empty, open water. Tiny specks of solid ground like Fiery Cross Reef, Len Dao Island and Ardasier Bank have been turned into miniature fortresses, built to withstand the sea more than any human enemy. Some are circular concrete towers; others are low concrete squares or wooden shacks on stilts. Surrounded by the sea, they are like little worlds all to themselves, inhabited by at most a few dozen marines or soldiers who step out their front door into the middle of the sea.

These strange, lonely structures are physical markers of the claims that China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia make on the Spratly Islands. The geopolitical contest for control of the South China Sea determines their very physical structure: wherever possible, these structures have a solid structural foundation on rocks or reefs, allowing the building nation to make a legal claim based on occupation of a geological structure that connects to surrounding undersea features.    

China’s open-ocean garrisons are the most heavily fortified in the region. They are almost exclusively built of concrete that entirely covers the reefs and rocks they’re built on, equipped with powerful radars, helicopter pads and 40mm antiaircraft guns. At the other end of the spectrum, one Filipino garrison guards its reef from the rusting hulk of a WWII freighter run aground. The Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino outposts are scattered randomly onto as many reefs and atolls as they could occupy throughout the archipelago, reflecting the aggressive, zero-sum nature of these countries’ claims, while Malaysia’s outposts are confined to the sector of the Spratlys that Malaysia claims. 

The very absurdity of building a minifortress on a semisubmerged rock hundreds of miles from land is indicative of how seriously these countries treat this dispute. The Spratlys dispute is about sovereignty, and these countries, just now finding their feet as nation-states and regional powers, are trying to demonstrate that they will go to any length to defend their sovereignty, even if it means fortifying a worthless, shifting sandbar with a force of five men. The reef outposts are objects of great nationalist pride, particularly among small but active groups of citizens. The Filipino and Vietnamese garrisons are partially supplied by civilian patriotic organizations.

All parties to the Spratly dispute are building up their presence in the region. Taiwan is reinforcing the islands it occupies, China is building an airfield on Johnson South Reef, the Philippines is holding large wargames in the area with the United States, and Vietnam has copied the Philippines and appointed a “mayor” to symbolically administer the archipelago. Compared to the diplomacy around them, life in the outposts must be positively tranquil; while the politicians battle back and forth, the marines can just sit back and watch the bright blue waves break. Let’s hope it stays that way. 

Jack Mulcaire is a former researcher for the Center for the National Interest and analyst at Nomadic Capital Partners.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/matthew lee/CC by 2.0

TopicsMilitary Strategy RegionsAsia

Obama's West Point Speech: Words That Could Be Tested

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Last week, President Obama spoke to the graduating cadets at West Point. It was an important address designed to articulate a view of the world and America’s place in it—from a security/strategic perspective.

Like any such speech, this one was set in the context of recent history. America emerged from World War II as the great winner—economically, diplomatically and militarily. But it faced an existential challenge in a Soviet empire bent on global dominion. Ultimately, the United States and its allies prevailed, and the Soviet Union was extinguished—without a war. There was nothing accidental or automatic in this outcome; it was one of the truly seminal achievements in human history. The factors that went into it are obviously multiple, but two are especially worth noting. First, the building and maintaining of armed forces sufficient to deter general war and effectively prosecute more limited conflicts. An obvious and necessary corollary included the willingness of a sufficient number of Americans to serve in the military, to fight and, if necessary, die. We have just completed the annual Memorial Day commemoration for those who did just that. Those same armed forces also served to underpin stability in a number of regions as a kind of neighborhood gendarme. Second, the building and underwriting of international institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund that broadly reflected American values and preferences. But the real key to success of this network of postwar institutions came from the fact that other countries saw in them entities compatible with their own interests. America built an international order with voluntary buy-in from countries old and new around the world. It was a remarkable thing.

Against this backdrop, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 represented a historical turning point and a new kind of strategic challenge to the world’s sole superpower. The G.W. Bush administration responded with the twin invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time Barack Obama was elected, these wars had already gone on for over seven years—and despite massive effort, the picture was mixed at best and the ultimate outcomes entirely uncertain. And there was the ongoing Great Recession at home and in Europe. It was a situation that demanded a thoughtful, strategic response—with little room for error or illusion. That strategy has evolved and clarified over the last five-plus years. At West Point, the president provided, in effect, a progress report and an update, including the most recent crises in Ukraine, the Middle East and East Asia.

Key elements of the strategy are familiar at this point.

- Terminate the U.S. military presence in Iraq and hope for the best—but there will be no return of American soldiers to that country.

- After a brief “surge” of U.S. forces into Afghanistan, wind down the U.S. military presence on a firm timetable—leaving the future of that country largely in the hands of U.S.-trained Afghan military and civilian personnel. Again, hope for the best while leaving a small residual force for training and counterterrorism.

- Give priority to the post-recession recovery at home and to rebuilding the foundations of U.S. economic strength (energy security, manufacturing, R&D investment) and with it, the foundations of U.S. power internationally.

But the bulk of the West Point speech was devoted to the future—and particularly to where military power fits into American strategy going forward. Key points:

- America’s international leadership—its status as the “indispensable nation”—is a given.

- It serves no purpose to talk of a binary choice between muscular intervention abroad and neoisolationism. U.S. military power will be used when American “core interests” (including the security interests of allies) are threatened—and it will be used unilaterally if necessary. But it will not be used cavalierly: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

- Alternatively, when events outrage our conscience or threaten global order, the response should be in concert with other nations and preferably diplomatic.

The president noted that he last spoke at West Point to announce the surge into Afghanistan. Four cadets in the audience at that time gave their lives in the resulting campaign. “I believe America’s security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths . . . . I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

The primary purpose of the speech was to articulate careful, workable criteria for the discriminating use of American power. As such, it was impressive. But was it more than intellect and rhetoric? When core interests are threatened is the president prepared to respond? Two tests already loom. This week the president will be in Europe, beginning with Poland, where he will meet European leaders anxious for reassurance—and evidence—that Washington is prepared to counter Russian designs on eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, China’s piecemeal aggression in the South China Sea continues unabated. Southeast Asian leaders look for evidence that America is ready to draw a line—and enforce it militarily if necessary. Finally, can America lead in the creation of a new set of international institutions and processes—with global buy-in—to confront the next true existential challenge—climate change?

Marvin C. Ott is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.

TopicsGrand Strategy RegionsUnited States

Did the Obama Administration Break the Law to Secure Bergdahl’s Release?

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It took years of on-again off-again negotiations between the United States, the Taliban, and the Government of Qatar, but the Obama administration finally managed to pull it off: Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only known American prisoner-of-war held by the Haqqani Network for nearly five years, is on his way to the United States to be reunited with his family.  The news of his release from the Taliban, who handed Bergdahl over to U.S. Special Forces in a remote section of eastern Afghanistan, caught most Americans off-guard.  But for the many diplomats, administration officials, and military personnel who were involved in the effort, winning Bergdahl’s freedom was a job well done.

Normally, the return of an American PoW would be the end of the story a cause for celebration.  However, Bergdahl’s case is somewhat unique from other American soldiers who found themselves in the enemy’s hands before being released in a classic prisoner exchange.  Indeed, in addition to being the only American PoW in the Iraq and Afghanistan era, Bergdahl’s release from his Taliban captors opened up a Pandora’s box of questions that strike at the core of America’s campaign against international terrorism over the past thirteen years.

For some senior Republicans, like Senator John McCain (who was a PoW himself in North Vietnam for five years), the concern is not that the Obama administration negotiated with terrorists to get an American soldier back home, but the concessions that the administration gave up for Bergdahl’s freedom.  The fact that the White House decided to release five senior Taliban commanders from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility—the prisoners were escorted by Qatari officials back to the Persian Gulf emirate, where they will be unable to travel freely for one year—is a highly controversial move on McCain’s part.  “These particular individuals,” McCain wrote in a statement, “are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands. I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States…”

For Rep. Mike Rogers, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Bergdahl’s release came at a high price that could potentially cause considerable problems for U.S. national security.  “This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages,” Rogers said, and the exchange reverses decades of precedent where the United States refused to negotiate with terrorists of any kind.   The retiring Intel chairman expanded upon that theme Sunday morning on CNN in equally strong terms: every Al-Qaeda group around the world, Rogers commented, now has a greater incentive to kidnap Americans, with the added confidence that they will get something in return.

Politically speaking, the Obama administration can bat away these charges by pointing to a concrete accomplishment: getting a fellow American out of harms way and back to his family.  The White House, however, will have a much more difficult challenge in rebutting criticism from a growing membership in Congress, first leveled by Rep. Buck McKeon and Sen. James Inhofe, that the administration broke the law in order to snatch Bergdahl from the Taliban.  

It’s been well known that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has long placed severe restrictions on what President Obama can do on the issue of the Guantanamo detention facility.  Year after year, Congress has prohibited President Obama from using money appropriated in the defense budget to transfer detainees to the U.S. for incarceration or trial, and funds are barred from being used to construct facilities on U.S. soil that would hold GTMO prisoners.

Yet there is another restriction written into law and signed by the president that requires the executive branch to notify Congress ahead of time before any prisoners in GTMO are released to a third country.  Section 1035 of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act demands that the Secretary of Defense notify the congressional armed services, intelligence, foreign affairs, and appropriations committees 30 days before any GTMO transfers occur.  

Needless to say, that notification requirement was not followed—a fact confirmed by an administration official to The Washington Post.  

To President Obama, the notification requirement and the stringent restrictions that Congress have placed on closing the Guantanamo facility are direct assaults on his constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations as Commander-in-Chief.  In a December 2013 signing statement, Obama strongly indicated that he would not comply with Congressional restrictions on Guantanamo, calling them “unwarranted” provisions that “violate constitutional separation of powers principle.”  In other words, Obama has consistently argued that he reserves the right to overrule what Congress has written into law on this issue.  

Republicans, of course, are not buying this line of rationale.  While it’s easy to simply point to partisanship as the catalyst for their opposition, there are real constitutional questions involved—namely, does the president have the unilateral power under Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution to bypass congressional statute in order to get an American prisoner freed from captivity. 

I’m not a lawyer, nor profess to be, so I don’t know the answer to such a question.  However, you can be sure that additional lawmakers in the coming week will hammer this line of inquiry into the ground, if for no other reason to defend Congress’ prerogative as a co-equal branch of government.  The fact that Chairman McKeon has indicated that his committee will hold hearings on the matter, and a push by Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee to establish a similar inquiry (the committee is scheduled to hold a classified briefing about the details of the Bergdahl-Taliban exchange on Tuesday, June 10), is a flashing red warning sign to an administration that would much rather prefer to use the return of an American PoW as a demonstration of its negotiating acumen.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., and an editor of the Atlantic Sentinel. Follow him on Twitter: @DanDePetris.

Image: Whitehouse Flickr.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

China's Ascent has Asia on Edge. Could International Law Help?

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In his keynote address at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged China’s neighbors to challenge its maritime claims by invoking international law.  He declared early on in his speech and again near the end: “Japan for the rule of law.  Asia for the rule of law.  And the rule of law for all of us.”  Abe called for a “rule of law at sea” that is grounded in three principles: the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, he stated, should “make and clarify their claims based on international law,” “not use force or coercion in trying to drive their claims,” and “seek to settle disputes by peaceful means.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was similarly vocal about the importance of international law in his speech at Shangri-La.  A crucial test for the Asia-Pacific, he said, “is whether nations will choose to resolve disputes through diplomacy and well-established international rules and norms, or through intimidation and coercion.”  Hagel promised that the U.S. would “support efforts by any nation to lower tensions and peacefully resolve disputes in accordance with international law.”

Abe and Hagel’s remarks come on the heels of the Philippines’s decision to challenge China’s maritime claims by submitting a case to a five-member tribunal operating under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Vietnam is reportedly mulling the possibility of joining them, having “exhausted all dialogue channels” with China.  And in February, for the first time, the U.S. officially rejected the legality of China’s self-declared “nine-dash line.”

This growing emphasis on international law by the U.S. and its allies reflects an emerging reality: along current trend lines, China will increasingly be able to settle the region’s maritime disputes on its preferred terms.  Given the pace at which its military power and economic pull are growing, China has little need to take rash, sweeping actions that would bring about such a resolution in the short term.  It can take small actions that build upon each other and ultimately change the status quo (paraphrasing an insight in Hegel’s Science of Logic, Marx observed that “merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes”).  Abe noted China’s “[m]ovement to consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another.”  The disunity among China’s neighbors also buys it time.  Historical antagonism continues to drive a wedge between Japan and South Korea, and as the Financial Times’s David Pilling observed recently, ASEAN “is divided between countries that have disputes with China—the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam among them—and ones that do not, including Thailand and Cambodia.”

International law is the one relevant theater in which the playing field would appear to favor China’s neighbors.  Leaving aside the likelihood that it will take several years for the Philippines’s case to make its way through UNCLOS bureaucracy—a major consideration to neglect, of course—consider its potential verdicts.  If the tribunal finds the nine-dash line to be legal, it would effectively eliminate the possibility of a successful nonviolent challenge to China’s maritime claims.  In the more likely case that it finds that boundary to be partly or entirely illegal, there are at least three ways in which China could respond:

- Accept the ruling and adopt less expansive maritime claims:  While this possibility may well be far-fetched, the lawyer whom the Philippines have retained cautious against dismissing it outright; Paul Reichler, a partner at Foley Hoag, told the Economist in late May that “[d]ecisions, judgments, and awards by international courts and tribunals are complied with in more than 95% of the cases, including by big powers such as the United States.”

- Ignore the ruling: This possibility seems most likely.  Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, concludes that “China has refused to participate in the arbitration and will disregard any judgment against it.  And that will be that.  The judges can no more compel China to yield the Spratlys or Paracels than they could detach those islands from the seabed and tow them away.”

- Commit to taking the ruling under consideration:  China would effectively be ignoring it without rejecting it.  The trouble with this intermediate course (from China’s perspective) is that it would still give China’s neighbors ample legal and diplomatic ammunition; they would likely frame it as an implicit concession by China that the nine-dash line is illegal.

It would be wrong, however, to place the onus of upholding international law solely on China.  Jerome Cohen, a professor at the New York University School of Law, contends that Vietnam “should make plain its willingness” to “submit to the ICJ [International Court of Justice] its territorial claims over the Spratlys, including those islands and other features that it currently occupies.”  He also notes, approvingly, that the Abe government has not repudiated former Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba’s proposal for China to “test its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by launching a suit against Japan before the ICJ” (Cohen’s words, not Genba’s).  Japan would enhance its credibility as a disputant if it officially advocated Genba’s idea.  Indeed, all six neighbors of China that are parties to the Asia-Pacific’s maritime disputes—Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—should declare their willingness to have their claims evaluated by an international tribunal.

While the U.S. may not be party to those disputes, its pushback against China would be more powerful if it ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty.  The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne explains that:

"Increasingly, America’s absence from the treaty undermines its arguments to China about the supremacy of international law….From the U.S. perspective, the legal counter to China under the treaty is all the more important given the alternatives.  Confronting China with force is an option fraught with incalculable risks.  War between China and the U.S., even a limited one, would be catastrophic….The Law of the Sea isn’t the only answer to the region’s increasingly risky maritime disputes.  But with a lack of better ones, the apparent contradiction in the U.S. position weakens the power of its argument."


It is tempting to dismiss such discussion of international law.  The sixth-century Scythian philosopher Anacharsis lamented that laws “are no better than spiders’ webs, which the strong will break through at pleasure.  So like a fly the poor offender dies, but like the wasp the rich escapes and flies.”  While appeals to international law may not change what increasingly appears to be an inevitable outcome—Chinese primacy in the South China Sea—they could change the way in which that outcome is reached and limit the benefits that China accrues from it.  The Filipino submission to UNCLOS could increase pressure on the Chinese government to articulate a coherent explanation of how it interprets the nine-dash line, something that it has yet to provide. Taylor Fravel, one of the foremost scholars of China’s maritime disputes, notes that

"China has maintained a curious silence on the meaning of the line.  China has never stated what the line depicts, either positively or negatively.  The line could represent a claim to sovereignty over the enclosed land features or it could be much more expansive and represent a claim to an EEZ [exclusive economic zone] or historic rights (both of which would be inconsistent with UNCLOS)."

Challenging China in the court of international law—and, by extension, the court of global opinion—is likely to complicate China’s ascent.  China has long expressed its commitment to achieving a “peaceful rise.”  Today, however, it has managed to alienate most of its neighbors; if UNCLOS finds the nine-dash line to be partly or entirely illegal, and China ignores its ruling, that alienation will grow more entrenched.  Chinese preeminence in the Asia-Pacific that is achieved in opposition—to the wishes of its neighbors as well as the verdict of international law—is likely to prove far more unstable and costly than that which is earned through persuasion.

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsInternational Law RegionsChina

No Clear-Cut Obama Doctrine: Instead, a Roadmap

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President Obama’s commencement address at West Point was designed to offer a conceptual blueprint for understanding the past six years of U.S. foreign policy as much as it was intended to preview the next two.  It appears to have failed in this respect, with most critics confirmed in their belief that the president has lacked—and continues to lack—an overall framework for setting foreign policy.

The problem is not that the West Point address was short on prescriptions for how the U.S. should discharge itself.  Instead, confusion reigns over whether Obama’s various standpoints can be said to comprise a coherent whole.  Critics argue not.  But there is one common denominator—albeit loosely applied and underdeveloped by Obama—that can knit together what otherwise would appear to be disparate and unconnected strands of strategic logic.  It is called liberal internationalism.

First, Obama repeated his now familiar warning against isolationism.  Like every liberal internationalist, the president stressed the theme of interconnectedness, suggesting that crises in seemingly corners of the world can rapidly spill over to affect the United States.  Even if the U.S. today cannot “bear any burden” as John F. Kennedy once promised that it would, Obama’s America must not turn away from overseas engagement lest it jeopardize its own self-interest in the process.

Second, Obama portrayed an external environment populated not only by other world leaders but also by non-state actors, again betraying a thoroughly liberal understanding of international politics.  While he chose to emphasize the challenges posed by this global reality, singling out non-state terrorism as the primary threat to U.S. security going forward, Obama might also have pointed to the opportunities created by the diffusion of power away from the states.  Indeed, Obama demonstrated his willingness to move beyond state-to-state diplomacy very early on in his presidency, his message to the Iranian people and his Cairo speech being two cases in point.

Third, Obama’s plan to create a $5 billion fund to train allied forces in counter-terrorism can be considered a bold (and decidedly liberal) vote of confidence in multilateralism.  The terrorist threat, of course, has dominated the U.S. national security agenda for well over a decade; trusting others to share in this most emotive of policy areas is not done lightly.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Obama mounted a spirited defense of the most recognizable features of the liberal international order that successive U.S. presidents have striven to build and maintain for seven decades—its primary organizations, rules, norms and values—even conflating the survival of liberal international institutions with the plight of the U.S. itself.

Last, liberal internationalism is evident in Obama’s insistence that the U.S. remains central to the maintenance of world order, whether as an organizer of humanitarian relief efforts or as a focal point for international security efforts.  For Obama, America is the liberal linchpin of almost all meaningful international cooperation.  The phrase that Obama chose to describe America’s world role is telling: “the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation,” he declared.

This label, of course, was first used by Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s second-term Secretary of State.  In resurrecting this unmistakably liberal internationalist language, Obama was associating himself with the only other Democrat to have occupied the presidency in the post-Cold War era.  Ever so subtly, the image was conjured that a pattern of foreign policy behavior obtains in the White House; that the Obama administration operates according to a roadmap.  For Obama as for Clinton, liberal internationalism holds sway.

In sum, there is no clear-cut Obama Doctrine.  Certainly, last week did not assist in the revelation of one.  But, in the guise of liberal internationalism, there is at least a guiding philosophy that has shaped (and continues to shape) Obama’s handling of foreign affairs.  His supporters, critics and the American people alike will have to make do.

Image: Whitehouse Flickr.

TopicsGrand Strategy RegionsUnited States