The South China Sea Crisis: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

The Buzz

Forget the crisis in Iraq, Syria, or the ongoing situation in Ukraine.  While those issues and parts of the world are clearly important, when we think about the future of international relations, power politics, or the flows of trade investment there is no issue of more importance than the future trends of Sino-U.S. relations. Considering the stakes--like a $550 Billion bilateral trade relationship, the amount of territorial claims and counterclaims Beijing has with multiple U.S. allies (who we would have to go to war for if things got out of control), as well as China’s growing flirtations with a certain neighbor to the north--nothing else really comes close.  

The solution by and large is also known: finding a way to respect a rising Beijing’s growing interests in the Asia-Pacific and much wider Indo-Pacific without upending the status-quo or sparking a conflict no one wants.

The preferred American option, neatly summarized by Michèle Flournoy and Ely Ratner for the Center for New American Security, or CNAS, was to imesh China into the international system. As they explain in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

“The current approach has been premised on the idea that China’s integration into the prevailing economic and security order not only is in China’s interest but also benefits the United States and the whole world. Washington has supported China’s accession to leading multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, and steadily enhanced bilateral relations with Beijing through a panoply of diplomatic engagements, including the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue that will convene in Beijing in July.”

As a result of this embrace, the theory goes, China’s stake in the international system would increase over time. By virtue of self-interest, it would come to see the benefits of contributing to stability and upholding existing rules and norms, such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, even as it became more capable of violating them. This would eventually lead China to emerge as, to use former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick’s indelible phrase, a “responsible stakeholder.”


Unfortunately, America’s preferred strategy when it comes to the rise of China is finished. As the CNAS duo points out:

Following decades of double-digit economic growth, China’s behavior took a notable turn in the wake of the global financial crisis. Many in Beijing anticipated a rapid U.S. decline, and this triumphalism fused with growing nationalism and wealth to generate a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.”

In the South China Sea, we have perhaps the greatest example of the China challenge--Beijing’s “more assertive” foreign policy--attempts to alter the status quo using non-kinetic methods, a strategy that the U.S. along with its Asian allies have very few ways to negate. China is slowly asserting its claims and authority over an increasing area of this important body of water where trillions of dollars of goods pass through every year, which could also be endowed with plentiful natural resources. Turning the area into de facto Chinese territory would have global ramifications and endanger the very idea of the global commons--something all nations should be concerned about. And while the international community received a bit of good news--that China was ending drilling operations off the coast of Vietnam--Beijing made its position to Washington very clear, according to a report by Reuters: “China told the United States on Tuesday to stay out of disputes over the South China Sea and leave countries in the region to resolve problems themselves, after Washington said it wanted a freeze on stoking tension.”

Several days ago in these pages, I offered the idea of using “lawfare” in the South China Sea as a way to restrain China’s ambitions, a partial answer to the challenge Beijing presents:

“All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions...While even this might not stop China’s moves to enforces its claims in the area around its nine or ten-dash line around the South China Sea, if shaming Beijing is the goal, and considering the stakes (not just who controls sea lanes worth trillions of dollars, but the very idea of the global commons, space that no one owns), this might be just the best way to do it.”

In response to my post, Julian Ku, a Professor of Law at Hofstra University, begs to differ for two reasons:

1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter).  This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal.  There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction.  So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?

2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling.  This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes.  The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties.  This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes.  The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations.  In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ.  Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.

I thank Professor Ku for his smart analysis and contribution to this debate. However, I would argue that Manila or Hanoi don’t need to win a lawsuit against Beijing or even get China to show up to a hearing. China is using means short of conflict such as non-naval maritime assets, “mapfare,” oil rigs and other non-kinetic means to carve out its claims in the South China Sea--essentially winning the perception game over time and wearing down the will of others. Claimants in the South China Sea could use lawsuits in the same way. They need to fight China’s claims in the court of public opinion, using a shaming strategy to get opinion on their side--to enact some measure of costs for China’s actions. Washington could then support those who have filed the claims to seek a solution to the crisis through legal frameworks. If Beijing declines to participate in the process, as they have already in the case of the Philippines, or declining multiple times with possible additional filed claims, this would set Beijing up to lose the perception battle.

While the above strategy is clearly imperfect, it does give the United States and its allies in Asia at least one set of tools to increase the costs of China’s provocative actions. Even if this was to work and Beijing backed off its claims, America along with its allies would still have many more issues with China hampering overall ties. In many respects, the challenge America faces along with Asia as a whole is as old as history itself: the concept of a rising power bent on modifying the international system for its own wants and needs--a long term problem no court or shaming strategy can fix.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Managing Editor of the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula.

TopicsDefense RegionsSouth China Sea

Dr. Drezner’s Bad Medicine

The Buzz

Dear Professor Drezner,

Thank you so much for vividly reminding me in your little Washington Post parody “What if realpolitik were marketed like a prescription drug?” about why I am happy that I am no longer a college student. Not because I’m uninterested in foreign policy or don’t like to learn about new things. Quite the contrary. If anything, international relations theory was always my favorite subject.

Still, I must confess that the topic always left me frustrated by its inability to provide practical solutions. But of the competing theories, it always seemed to me that realism had the most to offer and, contrary to your gloomy assessment, is actually selling pretty well these days, as Sen. Rand Paul’s surge in the GOP might seem to indicate. But in your post, you suggest that realism needs some marketing help and that it might be effectively marketed as a drug called Realaxil. That Americans can just tune out difficulties. But is this really a realistic message about what constitutes foreign policy realism?

Not a chance.

Realism isn’t about ducking for cover or numbing the senses. Rather, a prescription, of any kind, should be about establishing priorities. Does your foot hurt? There is a pill for that! But wait, you might experience severe nausea and become temporarily suicidal. At this point, you should be asking yourself how much does my foot really hurt? Is it worth these side effects? If you answered yes or no, then congratulations, you just established a set of priorities.

Foreign policy is about prioritizing interests on a national level based on the situation at hand. Establishing a set of priorities requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Realism in this regard has always provided the best framework for describing and understanding conflicts because it holds that each country operates on its own set of national interests. Many of the international conflicts that the Obama administration has been faced with recently are better understood from this realist standpoint.

Ukraine is not a little thing gone wrong. The Ukrainian crisis raised several major issues, which should have the US reassessing its foreign policy in the region and beyond. For example, state sovereignty, legitimate use of force, and reconciling opposition forces. Questions such as how to ensure a democratic transition of power or how to deal with a country when hard power is not an option and soft power is not working just touch the tip of the iceberg. Iraq and Syria are not little things gone wrong. China’s decision to quietly incorporate several disputed territories into an official map, is not a little thing gone wrong. These are all issues that touch at the heart of how the United States prioritizes its national interests.

The wonderful thing about democracy is that these issues are up for debate, but absent of an informed analysis most arguments boil down to knee jerk reactions, which can hurt our overall interests as a nation and lead to much more serious ailments (hopefully none involving radiation as a treatment). Following the Hippocratic oath--first do no harm--is probably the most sensible path we can follow. For there is no such thing as a miracle drug. Every decision has side effects or opportunity costs. If the patient resists advice or refuses to change his habits, there’s little to be done. The best we can do is inform the public. Intervention, medical or otherwise, should be a last resort. Anything else amounts to false advertising.

Katrina V. Negrouk is a Program Associate at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsRealism RegionsUnited States

Is it Time to Bring Containment Back?

The Buzz

Since Russian forces first moved into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in February, the United States’ approach has emphasized threatening Russia with diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. Due to a combination of disagreements with European allies and a desire within the Obama Administration to avoid provocation, these threats have borne limited fruit, as Russia continues arming the separatists and threatening military intervention, even as Ukraine’s military has recently succeeded in dislodging the rebels from Slavyansk and some of their other strongholds.

Not only has the threat of sanctions been undermined by a lack of follow-through, it was always a dubious proposition whether economic pressure alone could change Russian calculations about Ukraine. Instead of concentrating on sanctions whose imposition looks increasingly unlikely, Washington should also develop a strategic response to the crisis, one centered on preventing the expansion of Russian influence in its neighborhood by bolstering the political and economic resiliency of vulnerable states, and providing them the military resources they need to resist Russian intervention. In addition to Ukraine, the highest priorities are Moldova and Georgia, though with a commitment to greater political reform in the future, this approach could also be relevant to states like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, or even Uzbekistan that seek to bolster their sovereignty against Russia.

This approach, whose broad outlines are similar to the containment policy Washington pursued against the USSR for much of the Cold War, has the advantage of costing the U.S. comparatively little, and of avoiding the need to gain consensus among Washington’s European allies, who remain deeply divided on handling Russia.

The U.S., as well as its European allies, has already taken some steps to help these states address their political and economic vulnerability. Ukraine has received billions of dollars in aid, much conditioned on steps to tackle the corruption and market distortions at the source of its weakness. Similarly, the association agreements Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have negotiated with the EU provide for significant reforms to improve governance that will in the long run also strengthen the legitimacy of their governments.

Visiting Kyiv for the inauguration of new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in early June, Vice President Biden announced an additional $5 million of U.S. aid to Georgia and $8 million to Moldova, bringing U.S. assistance to the two countries up to $65 million and $31 million respectively. While this aid is helpful and signals Washington’s growing interest, it remains comparatively small in scale. It also lacks lethal military assistance, which would provide a much stronger signal of U.S. interest and would help these states deter and if needed defeat Russian-sponsored separatism, thereby significantly raising the cost to Moscow of Ukraine-style interventions.

Largely because of their aspirations for closer ties with the West, Georgia and Moldova have come under increasing pressure from Moscow in recent months, even as the Russian-supported insurgency in eastern Ukraine shows no signs of fading.

In addition to ramping up economic pressure, Russia continues funding and supporting separatist movements and political parties throughout the region, whose states Moscow does not accept as fully sovereign. Russian-backed separatists in Moldova’s Transnistria region have appealed for annexation by Moscow. Separatist forces have also conducted military exercises with Russian troops who remain illegally stationed in Transnistria. Similar machinations are underway in Moldova’s Turkic minority inhabited Gagauzia region.

Though Georgia has been comparatively calm, Russia continues efforts to “borderize” the frontier between Georgia proper and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Moscow recognized as independent states following the August 2008 war. Not only do these efforts reduce the likelihood that Tbilisi will ever recover the disputed regions, the Georgians see a creeping annexation of additional territory as Moscow pushes these boundaries further into Georgia. Russian aircraft have also violated Georgian airspace in recent months, while Moscow is covertly funding a range of pro-Russian groups and parties in Georgia.

The United States has an interest in preventing the expansion of Russian influence in the region for both moral and strategic reasons. The spark for Russia’s current de-stabilization efforts was the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian peoples’ attempts to forge a closer relationship with the West and to create more decent governments at home. Despite Moscow’s threats, all three have pushed ahead with their EU association agreements, and all are pursuing political reform, even as Russia goes in the opposite direction.

Yet officials and analysts throughout the region speak of becoming warier about taking risks to support the U.S., as Georgia has done with support for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they increasingly question Washington’s willingness to protect them in turn.

Russian efforts to undo the progress Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have made in the last few years also represent a threat to broader U.S. interests. A Russian proverb states that “the appetite grows with the eating,” and the more Russia succeeds in rolling back U.S. influence in its neighborhood, the more its strategic aspirations will expand, and the more strident its recent anti-American turn will grow. The same is true in with other potentially revisionist powers such as China, who also view U.S. actions in Ukraine as weak.

Facing war weariness at home and an increasingly complex set of challenges abroad, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to offer a forceful challenge to Moscow’s expansionist aims. Administration officials too often present a false dichotomy between the current limited support and fighting a war with Russia. In reality, Washington has more robust options available that fall far short of military action.

Most important is ensuring that Georgia and Moldova, as well as Ukraine, succeed in their efforts to create functional, decent, and pro-Western states capable of maintaining their sovereignty in the face of potential Russian aggression. That means assistance budgets and high-level visits should be increased. It means stronger rhetorical support for these states’ rights to defend their territorial integrity, with force if necessary. Washington should in that sense give strong public support to Kyiv’s “anti-terrorist” operations in the east. It also means providing the Georgia, Moldovan, and Ukrainian militaries the capabilities they need to protect themselves, including especially anti-tank and air defense weapons, along with an offer of stronger military ties both bilaterally and through NATO. Signs that NATO’s upcoming Wales summit will see the alliance bolster its support for Georgia—including possibly deploying air defense systems—are a welcome development.

This policy of strengthening vulnerable states to resist Russian-sponsored subversion has a long pedigree: it was the original basis for the well-known Cold War policy of containment. In his famous 1947 “X article,” George Kennan called for “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” While today’s context is different, that basic approach remains the right one for dealing with a Russia that rejects the legitimacy of both post-World War II international norms and borders inherited from the Soviet collapse.

To the end of his long life, Kennan argued that his ideas were misunderstood by top policy makers, leading the U.S. to get bogged down in conflicts such as the Vietnam War in regions not critical to U.S. national security. Rather than rushing U.S. forces to every country threatened by a Communist insurgency, Kennan believed that Washington should help these threatened states help themselves. In an era of straightened defense budgets and public exhaustion, it is Kennan’s version of containment, not that of his more hawkish successors, that Washington should follow in Eurasia.

In the late 1940s, Soviet expansionism, underpinned by Marxist-Leninist ideology, was a global phenomenon. Today, the expansionist tendencies of Vladimir Putin’s Russia are narrower, focused on the states of the former Soviet Union and based on an ideology of not much more than Russian nationalism, while Russia’s economy is not robust. Containment today is thus unlikely to lead to a four-decade Cold War, which Russia can hardly afford, but it can frustrate Putin’s efforts to forcibly drag the post-Soviet region back under Russian influence at relatively little cost to the United States.

Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. He is the author of Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) and a frequent commentator on international security, Russian foreign policy, regional security in the Caucasus and Central Asia, ethnic conflict, and energy security. Before coming to CSIS, he served as an adviser on U.S.-Russia relations at the U.S. Department of State as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. From 2008 to 2010, he was associate director of International Security Studies at Yale University and an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Office of the President, Russia. 

TopicsRussia RegionsEurasia

Breakout, Shmeakout: The Wrong Way to Assess a Nuclear Deal with Iran

Paul Pillar

Pens that diplomats wield can be mightier than swords, but not necessarily because they destroy swords, much less the ability to make them. An agreement reached through diplomacy is a joint affirmation that it is in the parties' mutual interest to behave in certain ways and a joint commitment not to do other things they are capable of doing. Even a surrender by a belligerent defeated in warfare involves a forgoing of continued resistance that would be possible but costly to both sides. In short, international agreements are more a matter of intentions and motivations than of capabilities.

A failure to understand this infects discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and may have infected the U.S. negotiating position. There is a preoccupation with “breakout”—a scenario in which an Iran supposedly determined to violate an agreement suddenly races to build a nuclear weapon—and with stripping away Iranian capabilities in order to lengthen the time required under such a scenario for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon. The fixation with breakout, with the repeated references to it as a supposed reason to be wary of any agreement with Iran, is misplaced for several reasons. One is that any conceivable agreement would entail a longer breakout time than without an agreement. That time already has been lengthened by the preliminary agreement reached last year, under which Iran has eliminated its stock of medium-enriched uranium and stopped making any more of it, as well as capping its supply of low-enriched uranium.

In any event, breakout time is immaterial when, under the extensive and unprecedented monitoring arrangements that will be a central feature of the agreement and a major reason for concluding it, any Iranian cheating in its use of permitted nuclear facilities would immediately be detected. As Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright have noted, whether breakout time is two months or six months or something else makes no difference when any U.S. or other foreign response to cheating, including a possible military response, could be mounted within a couple of weeks. If there were any prospect of Iran using clandestine, undeclared facilities to build a bomb—which is the way all past proliferators have made their bombs—this would be at least as much of a possibility without an agreement, and without the expanded inspections that go with it, than with an agreement.

The most fundamental reason the narrow focus on breakout is misplaced is that it disregards Iranian intentions and motivations. A successful agreement will be one that codifies a shared interest in an Iran whose nuclear program stays entirely peaceful and is a normal member of the community of nations, not subject to the debilitating economic sanctions that the United States has maintained at significant political and economic cost to itself. A successful agreement also will be one that each side, including Iran, will have strong motivation to maintain because it is clearly more in its interests than a breakdown of the agreement would be.

Largely missing from discussion of Iran breaking out of such an agreement is attention to whether Iran would have the incentive to do so. It would not. Doing so would subject Iran to far more disadvantageous conditions than it would have under an accord, without gaining any strategic advantage. A single nuclear device, or even a few, would serve no purpose for Iran when even the mere attempt to flaunt such a device for influence would imply willingness to escalate an issue to the nuclear level, and escalation would face the reality of vastly superior nuclear weapons arsenals owned by the countries Iran would most likely confront.

Cheating, or disavowing the agreement, would immediately—even before completing a single nuclear weapon—throw Iran back into the worst costs and consequences of being an international pariah, from which it has been working so hard to free itself. The U.S. Congress undoubtedly would enact, as fast as clerks could call the roll, anti-Iranian sanctions more severe than ever before. A military attack on Iran also would suddenly become much more likely than before. Those in the United States and Israel who have argued for an attack on grounds that negotiating with duplicitous Iranians is a mistake would now start winning the argument—and the Iranians are smart enough to realize that.

In short, breakout is a scary fantasy, but no more than that. It is a badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position or for evaluating a deal with Iran.

If the nuclear negotiations fail—or if Congress effectively destroys an agreement by interfering with its implementation—because of details about the number of centrifuges spinning or the number of months required to enrich uranium, this would be a major missed opportunity and an unwisely counterproductive pursuit of the objective of keeping the Iranian program peaceful. It also would be a destructively small-minded approach toward the use of diplomacy to pursue U.S. interests.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Fatally Flawed Fragile States Index

The Buzz

Just as “this is not a pipe”, the newly named Fragile States Index (FSI) is not the welcomed change it appears to be. Since 2003 the non-profit research and educational institution the Fund for Peace (FFP) has annually released the Failed States Index–a comprehensive ranking of “178 nations based on their levels of stability and the pressures they face” meant to forecast violence to policymakers—if only to confirm what we already knew: that the world is indeed a dark and scary place. Each year following that release the Fund for Peace has received a slew of criticism dismissing the index for creating a false binary between failed and not failed states, so much so that Krista Hendry, Executive Director of the FFP, justified renaming it The Fragile States Index in this year’s report: “we ended up having more conversations about terminology than substance.” Hendry may slap a more palatable name on it but substance, not an already ambiguous terminology, is the real reason why people will continue to dismiss the FIS. Fragile or Failed, the index maintains an equally dangerous message, which is that the cause of the world’s calamity lies in other states, not our own foreign policies.

The Fragile State Index is derived from the FFP’s Conflict Assessment System Tool. “Guided by twelve primary, social, economic, and political indicators (each split into an average of14 sub-indicators), the CAST software analyzes the collected [primary source documents] using specialized search terms that flag relevant items”, and derives a score “representing the significance of each of the various pressures for a given country.”  Ranking states for their level of economic growth, poverty, inequality, corruption, human rights abuses, access to public services, sectarian violence, and authoritarianism attributes fragility somewhat tautologically to weak state institutions and the people themselves.

FSI dangerously implies, as Lionel Beehner and Joseph Young observe,  “the antidote to many of the developed world’s conundrums related to transnational violence and terrorism is more state-building.” The current report advises states “be prepared to take the necessary actions to deal with the underlying issues or otherwise mitigate the negative effects of state fragility.” In fact, CAST flags foreign military intervention and the provision of military aid as an indication of fragility, independent of other factors.

This misleads policymakers to believe that external intervention can be a proper reaction to rather than a cause of state fragility. Yet if there’s anything to learn from over 350,000 lives killed by violence and $4.4 trillion spent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is that this neoconservative type of state building is not the answer.

In response to former President Bush’s ill-managed and misguided De-Ba'athification policy in Iraq—OPEC’s second largest oil producer—chronic sabotage and looting created massive challenges in access to medical services, sanitation, and electricity that many officials now feel is worse than under Saddam. If we look even wider, it is hard to deny that the U.S. meddling in the Middle East instigated the civil wars sweeping Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and the Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak—a man historically emboldened by U.S. military aid.

Is it any surprise that most fragile states are former colonies or sites of Cold War era proxy wars, if not both? Would further state building by the U.S. have prevented the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) from publicly crucifying eight anti-Assad fighters in Syria, or would it merely inflame this type of sectarian violence into the future?

The flaw with the FSI isn’t terminology. It is that its methodology masks the painful lessons of the past in a stale, numerical ranking of present circumstance. Claire Leigh rightly criticizes, “It gives us no clue why certain countries have the dubious distinction of topping the chart. It offers no policy prognoses or prescriptions.” With recent crises like the current ISIS incursion into Iraq putting the issue of unilateral intervention back on the table and giving think tanks greater currency in policy circles, this lacuna threatens to repeat history to the detriment of our own national interests, regardless of whether or not we call it a Failed or Fragile State. FSI’s name change serves as a reminder of how incomplete analyses can lead us to strategic blunders of the Vietnam and Iraq-type.

This is not to say that intervention is always a bad thing. Rather, all good foreign policies are contextual—historically, culturally, and strategically. Coordinating with, short of deferring authority to, regional powers like Iran may be a better alternative to stabilize a region.

The solution, then, is not to simply make the terminology more digestible or “throw FSI in the policy dustbin.” Instead, we can better inform U.S. interests abroad and refine our development strategies through additional historical and statistical comparisons of what policies worked in the past and saw success in the present rather than just marking off a checklist of “ahistorical” problems to be quickly alleviated.

TopicsFailed States