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Understanding UNRWA

The Buzz

The Palestinian refugee issue has been around since 1948. UNRWA, the United Nations institution dedicated to their preservation, has been in existence since 1950.

With the recent re-approval of UNRWA’s mandate for more than three years, it is worth asking: how long have Western policy makers understood that UNRWA was a tool for Palestinians and Arab states to perpetuate the “refugee crisis” and that Palestinians would never accept anything except repatriation to Israel, an attitude that guarantees hostilities in perpetuity? The answer is, since the beginning. That is why after more than sixty years, British diplomatic documents on UNRWA and the Palestinians are still classified by the Foreign Office.

UNRWA was established to “carry out in collaboration with local governments the direct relief and works programmes as recommended by the Economic Survey Mission.” This mission, under the leadership of former Tennessee Valley Authority administrator Gordon Clapp, had recommended vocational training and regional development as the means to facilitate “reintegration” of Palestinian refugees, either through repatriation to Israel or resettlement in surrounding countries. Arab states clamored for regional development aid, hinted repeatedly that they would accept Palestinians, and throughout the 1950s, billions were poured into aid schemes that improved their infrastructure. But no Palestinians were ever resettled.

The game was apparent early on. In May 1952, the Foreign Office received a remarkable report forwarded by British diplomat Sir Edwin Chapman-Andrews that noted “Everything has been sacrificed to [UNRWA director John Blandford’s] lone effort to “sell” the three-year plan to the Arab states—and SYRIA in particular—while measures which might influence the success of the negotiations are left undone.”

The report lamented UNRWA’s lack of educational and vocational training programs, the lack of a public-relations effort, or any successful agricultural programs in Jordan. Refugee relief was well-organized, but anything related to reintegration was subject to “stagnation, waste and misuse of money and manpower.”

The report concluded, “much stress has been laid by the Director on how the three year plan should be described. It has been called successively ‘Reintegration,’ ‘Resettlement,’ ‘Self-Support,’ … The play with words hoodwinks nobody…” Everything not related to relief was understood as “settlement”—that is, relocating Palestinians to Arab states.

The British representative to UNRWA, Sir Henry Knight was unimpressed and in a handwritten note commented, “This is a poor report.” According to the covering note, the report had originated with “the Friends friends,” pointing to a Quaker group, American Friends Service Committee, which had provided refugee relief in Gaza from 1948 to 1950.

But the rest of the report was taken out of the National Archives in 1982 by the Foreign Office, which for over a year refused to declassify it on the grounds that “it remains sensitive under Section 23 of the FOIA (information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters).”

Finally, after a year of Freedom of Information Act requests, a redacted page was provided with two or three words blacked out, the name of an intelligence source who passed on yet more rumors regarding an underground organization, this one urging Syrian dictators Shishakli and Selo to arm the refugees. Whether the source was Quaker remains known only to the Foreign Office.

But the problem for the Foreign Office is not long-dead intelligence sources named in an ancient memorandum. Rather, it is the fact that the Foreign Office, and indeed all Western chancelleries, knew by the early 1950s that UNRWA could only maintain the Palestinians in stasis.

Then, as now, Palestinian refugees would accept nothing other than full repatriation to Israel. In the interim they demanded loudly that “The world owed them a living,” as a variety of UNRWA officials put it at the time. Indeed, a banner displayed at a 1949 Gaza protest demanded “1. Send us back home. 2. Compensate us. 3. Maintain us until we are refreshed.”

If there were any misapprehensions the Foreign Office had only to listen to Lt. General Sir Alexander Galloway, the retired British High Commissioner for occupied Austria, who had become UNRWA’s head in Jordan in 1951.

Galloway was fired at the demand of the Jordanian government the next year when he refused to dismiss Western employees and hire locals. In August of 1952, he published a blunt op-ed in the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post that lambasted UNRWA, the Arab states and the refugees themselves:

What is the solution? Of course the problem is difficult. Refugee settlement, except under dictatorship, is a long, expensive business. Somehow or other the Arab Governments, the United Nations, UNRWA and some of the refugees have got to face facts. There is a need of a change of heart and a better atmosphere. There is need to distinguish between a tempting political manoeuvre and the hard, unpalatable fact that the refugees cannot in the foreseeable future return to their homes in Palestine. To get this acceptance is a matter of politics: it is beyond the function of UNRWA. Second, a determined effort should be made to get the ‘host’ countries to take over relief from the Agency, thus freeing it to get on with the much more important task of resettlement.

Since then, rather than admit UNRWA was a failure and publicly confront an historically unprecedented situation—a group of refugees who refuse to relocate and host countries who refuse to permit refugee resettlement—the West has simply accepted the devolution of UNRWA into a vast and expensive welfare mechanism. This is a role that UNRWA enthusiastically embraced.

Privately, some clarity prevailed, at least at the outset. But it was accompanied by decades of lying to Western publics that foot the bill for UNRWA about the temporary nature of the project, and then about its supposedly vital and permanent reality. Alternatives, notably turning over responsibilities and funding to Arab states and the Palestinian Authority have never been seriously contemplated.

Lies to the Palestinians also abound—about their own responsibilities, as well as those of their Arab hosts. That the “right of return” remains one of the central obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement (along with Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state) demonstrates that little has changed in sixty years. In the meantime, UNRWA has thrived as the internationally funded health, education and welfare system for the Palestinians, something sacrosanct and permanent rather than provisional and temporary. By embracing its role as provider to generations of Palestinian “refugees”, UNRWA forestalled the Palestinian encounter with reality.

Claims about UNRWA’s permanence or indispensability no longer go unchallenged, but British and American policy makers are, if anything, less honest today about UNRWA than they were in 1952. Keeping an ancient report classified is symptomatic of this larger dishonesty. The recent renewal of UNRWA’s mandate is too.

Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Romirowsky and Joffe are co-authors of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsUNRWA RegionsPalestinian territories

Iran, Russia, and the Ukrainian Crisis

The Buzz

The Ukrainian crisis poses a threat to cooperation between Russia and the West on many issues of international security and, above all, to the dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program. The dialogue with Iran is led by the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany) with the goal of preventing Iran from creating an atomic bomb. In November 2013, thanks to the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, these negotiations achieved their first success:  an interim agreement called the “Joint Action Plan.” The parties are scheduled to complete work on and then sign a comprehensive agreement in July 2014.

The crisis in and around Ukraine, in which Western sanctions have already been applied against Russia and relations between Russia and the West have started to resemble the Cold War, could seriously complicate further negotiations. There remain in Iran influential political groups and organizations that aim to reach the “nuclear threshold” and continue to advance toward this goal, using any conflicts between the countries of the P5+1 to their advantage.

Dilemmas of Russian policy

Russia is undoubtedly against Iran developing nuclear weapons. Russia is also not a supporter of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, as it wants to sell Iran its own nuclear fuel for Iran’s Russian-built nuclear power plants (one reactor was put into operation at the Bushehr power plant, and a minimum of two more, and in the long term up to eight, reactors are planned). In 2006-2010, Russia voted in favor of six UN Security Council resolutions (including four with economic sanctions) designed to punish Tehran for continuing its nuclear program.

However, Moscow has never officially shared opinions about the military nature of the Iranian nuclear program and always prioritized diplomacy rather than economic sanctions or, especially, military force for resolving this issue. During the last several years, Moscow as aimed to play the role of a mediator between Iran and the United States, convincing Washington that it could incline Tehran to make concessions. This was one of the Russian political “trump cards” in relations with the West. However, in actuality, Iranian concessions came as a result of the election of a new president under conditions of economic crisis created by the oil embargo and financial sanctions of the United States and Europe.

During all the previous years, the Iranian issue was the subject of an intense struggle within Russia between enemies of the West, supporters of traditional ties with Iran and other Asian neighbors, and advocates of cooperation with the U.S. and strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime.  It is clear that, due to the Ukrainian crisis, the position of the latter group has weakened significantly.

Today the fundamental dilemma of Moscow’s policy lies in whether it is worth cooperating to achieve a comprehensive agreement with Iran under conditions of confrontation with the West over Ukraine. After all, such an agreement would primarily be a success for the United States and its allies’ policies, and would improve their relations with Tehran and sharply increase their influence in the Near and Middle East. In the course of a new Iranian president and in public sentiments, after over thirty years of isolation, pro-American attitudes and hopes for wide cooperation with the West are growing (according to a poll from September-October 2013, 80-90% of Iranians consider the reestablishment of relations with the United States necessary).

Furthermore, the removal of sanctions against Iran and the appearance of Iranian oil and gas in the world market would lead to a decrease in hydrocarbon prices or, at a minimum, would create serious competition for Russia. And hydrocarbons are Russia’s main export product, the fundamental source of its budget income, and the most important instrument of its foreign policy, including during the Ukrainian crisis.

On the other hand, the breakdown of negotiations with Iran would even more severely strain relations between Russia and the West, and would likely lead to a new war in the Persian Gulf—with extremely destructive economic and political consequences for the region and the entire world, including Russia. And, apart from the threat of war, the continuation of sanctions against Tehran harms Russian economic interests in Iran. Finally, the negotiations’ failure would not bring back Russia’s political “trump card” of a special relationship with Iran.

Historical background of relations

One must not forget that relations between Russia and Iran are much wider than the question of Iran’s nuclear program and have several hundred years of history.  Iran is the main state in the extremely unstable region neighboring Russia. Tehran has significant influence over events in the Near and Middle East, the South Caucasus, and Central and South Asia (including Afghanistan). Developments in this wide zone directly affect Russian national security, for which Islamic radicalism and terrorism remain a top threat. Additionally, Iran is a country with a largely young population of 80 million people, significant potential for economic development, and enormous reserves of oil and gas.

Shia Iran is regarded in Russia as the only counterbalance in the region to the increasing influence of the United States, Turkey, and Sunni extremism (Wahhabism and Salafism), which is particularly active in the Russian North Caucasus and in neighboring Central Asia. The unprecedented current tension in relations between Russia and the U.S./NATO has made the value of Iran as a partner even greater in Moscow’s eyes.

Additionally, Tehran is Moscow’s only ally in supporting the government of Syria, where the United States, its European partners, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Al Qaeda all take the side of the armed Sunni opposition. From the beginning of the Syrian crisis until 2013, Iran provided the regime of Bashir al-Assad (an adherent to Alawi Islam, a form of Shiism) financial assistance of $17.6 billion, including a loan for purchasing Iranian oil. Tehran also provides Damascus with weapons, and military specialists from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps command operations by units of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Syria.

Syria under the leadership of Assad is one of Russia’s few remaining political partners in the Middle East, buys its weapons, and provides the Russian Navy its only international base in both the Mediterranean Sea and the world (Tartus).

Economic interests

Trade and economic relations with Iran are of great interest to Moscow. In the years before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, more than 60 large infrastructure projects including hydro- and thermal power plants, gas pipelines, metallurgical factories and machinery plants were built in Iran with the help of the USSR. In recent years economic relations between the two countries plummeted due to UN, EU and U.S. sanctions. Iran's share of Russia's foreign trade has dropped to historic lows, and in 2013 amounted to less than 1% ($ 1.6 billion). Major oil field development projects were canceled by Russian companies including Lukoil, Norsk Hydro and Gazprom Neft.

The interim P5+1 Agreement with Iran from November 2013 and prospects for a comprehensive agreement along with the complete lifting of sanctions offer an opportunity for Moscow to significantly expand economic relations with Tehran. Russian exports to Iran are dominated by metals (46%), food (28.2%), machinery and equipment (6.4%). Russian imports from Iran consist mainly of agricultural raw materials (71.2 %) and chemical products (10.8%) with a plan in place to buy oil products in exchange for manufactured goods (to start at 500,000 barrels a day - 12% of Iran’s oil production). A permanent bilateral commission has been created to coordinate economic relations between governmental agencies and companies in both countries.

For the future, priority has been given to the energy sector. Russian companies are planning major investments in the development of Iran’s large gas fields in order to strengthen the global position of Gazprom in competition with U.S. shale gas exports. Russia also plans to continue aiding in the development of Iranian nuclear energy, having achieved a unique position as Iran’s partner in building the Bushehr nuclear power plant during the county’s international isolation over the last decades. Deals totaling $10 billion have already been outlined for the construction of hydro- and thermal power plants. Space cooperation also looks promising, as Iran has no carriers for launching satellites into orbit and expects to cooperate with Russia on this like many other countries do. Another attractive possibility is investment in the expansion and modernization of Iran's railway infrastructure, an area in which Russia has vast experience and technical capacity.

Arms trade

Military technology cooperation has been of particular importance for Moscow. The sale of arms and military equipment, including nuclear technology and materials, and missiles and aircraft engines is just a portion of Russia’s high-technology exports. However, this trade is about more than money for Russia. It provides international prestige and distinguishes Russia from the community of petro-states.

Starting in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union supplied Iran with large deliveries of armored vehicles and artillery, and built factories for the repair and production of military equipment (in Isfahan, Shiraz, Dorude, and near Tehran). After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Russia's share of Iran’s military imports rose to 60%, and in the 1990s Iran became, along with China and India, a major buyer of Russian weapons, including fighter aircraft (MiG-29, Su-24), helicopters (Mi-17), anti-aircraft missiles (S-200, TOR-1), Kilo diesel submarines, tanks (T -72) and infantry fighting vehicles (BMP-2).

However, military-technical cooperation between the two countries has not always run smoothly. In 1995, during the Russia-U.S. summit, President Boris Yeltsin gave in to pressure from President Bill Clinton and pledged not to enter into new agreements with Iran, a promise which was then formalized in a secret memorandum signed on June 30, 1995 by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Since 2000 when Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has refused to adhere to the Gore-Chernomyrdin protocol but Russian military sales to Iran have not reached their earlier volume.

Another blow to cooperation between Moscow and Tehran stems from a 2007 agreement according to which Russia pledged to sell Iran the famous Russian anti-aircraft missile system S-300 for $800 million. In June 2010, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1929 imposing new sanctions on Iran's nuclear program. As a result, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued an order to cancel the deal with Iran. The Kremlin made ​​this political decision in the context of the "reset" of relations with the U.S. and the signing of a new START Treaty, which resulted in Tehran seeking international arbitration and a penalty of $4.2 billion from Moscow for having violated their deal. So began a new downturn in relations between Russia and Iran, while Moscow's image as an arms trade partner suffered in the eyes of countries that import Russian weapons. Iran still demands the restoration of the S-300 agreement as a condition for the resumption of military-technical cooperation with Russia.

Future alternatives

It is clear that the hope for rapid growth of economic and military-technical cooperation between Russia and Iran depends on the collective withdrawal of UN sanctions and the unilateral sanctions of the U.S. and its allies. For this reason, Moscow remains interested in concluding a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. The economic expectations of Russian big business and government agencies outweigh their fear of widening Western influence in Iran and increased competition from American, Chinese, European and Japanese companies in the Iranian market and over Iranian hydrocarbons.

However, if worsening relations between Russia and the West over Ukraine lead to “crippling” economic sanctions against Moscow, the latter will side with Iran in its quest to ease restrictions on its nuclear program. This will particularly apply in negotiations of an agreement on the acceptable scale of Iran’s uranium enrichment program (Iran insists on the right to have 50 or even 190 thousand centrifuges - ostensibly to provide fuel for Bushehr and future reactors, although Russia is contracted to supply this fuel). It would also affect the closing of the Fordow underground enrichment facility and efforts to answer questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities, its rocket program, and other issues. In such a situation, if the U.S. does not separately reach an agreement with Iran, negotiations will hit an impasse, and a third Gulf War will be inevitable. Moreover, Russia and the West, as during the Cold War years, would be on opposing sides of the front line.

In the case of de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia will seek to play the role of a mediator between Iran and the West in negotiations on the nuclear issue. Counting on the growth of cooperation with Iran, Moscow will try in advance to provide itself with the most favorable political background for relations with Tehran. In the current environment, one can hardly expect from Russia (or China) a hard line in unity with the United States and its European allies to achieve the maximum concessions from Iran on the permissible quantity of centrifuges and other issues—even if it does not allow for the achievement of a comprehensive agreement by the planned date of July 20.

This goal was also apparent during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Iran at the end of 2013, when he said "The main thing is to do is everything we’ve agreed upon, not to seek an extended or narrowed interpretation of this agreement." President Putin's upcoming visit to Iran in 2014 is likely to give new impetus to reaching an arrangement with Tehran for the period after sanctions are lifted.

For Russia, in addition to future economic benefits, the development of relations with Iran furthers a major political goal. According to Moscow’s plan, Iran (after the resolution of its "nuclear issue”) and Syria (after the restoration of peace there) shall be the two main pillars of Russian influence in the Middle East. Together with the dominance of Moscow in the post-Soviet space and the development of relations with China, this is considered essential for the revival of Russia as a global power. This is the principal strategic objective of the Kremlin’s current domestic and foreign policy.

Alexei Arbatov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIran

Israel vs. Hamas, Round Three: What Comes Next?

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For the third time in less than six years, violence directed towards Israeli civilians from Palestinian militant groups in Gaza has forced the Israel Defense Force to plan and execute a coordinated and large-scale operation in the coastal enclave.  The latest operation, initiated in the early morning hours of July 8 and codenamed Operation Protective Edge, is nearly identical to the IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.  However, the intensity of Israel’s current campaign over the first three days—and the countermeasures Hamas has taken—are far more persistent than the eight-day air campaign over Gaza twenty months earlier.

Over the first seventy-two hours of Protective Edge, the Israeli air force has struck approximately 1,752 sites that the army has labeled “terror targets.”  On July 10 alone, the IDF successfully hit 210 targets either affiliated with the Hamas movement or connected to any number of smaller Palestinian militant factions—such as the Islamic Jihad group—in the strip.  The length and scope of Israel’s targeting list, including command-and-control nodes, underground tunnels, rocket launching sites, individual militant commanders, and the homes of senior Hamas or Islamic Jihad members is a robust illustration of how extensive the government’s offensive is.  

Despite the sheer animosity that Israel and Hamas have for one another’s existence, both sides appear to understand that a further escalation of the situation along the Israel-Gaza border could result in a far more unpredictable and uncontrollable situation.  Having experienced a high number of condemnations from the international community over its January 2009 ground offensive in Gaza, the IDF neither desires to mimic the past military plans, nor does it wish to send Israeli combat soldiers into a densely populated and hostile environment.  Hamas, regardless of its public statements and propaganda, is ill prepared for a massive Israeli ground operation in its stronghold, having seen its smuggling tunnels sealed off from the new Egyptian Government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Israel’s vastly superior military capacity assures that Hamas will lose a significant portion of its military prowess and capability in the event of a ground incursion.  Each party is most likely searching for a way out of the current conflict, with the reinstatement of a ceasefire terminating the rocket fire and airstrikes the most obvious solution.

In the absence of a game-changing event such as a rocket or airstrike that claims dozens of lives simultaneously, a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas is still the most plausible option at this point in the conflict.  Although Hamas firmly rejected Egypt’s ceasefire proposal, calling it a “joke” not worth the paper it was written on, the group will have an incredibly difficult time withstanding an expanded Israeli military campaign for weeks on end.

A cessation of hostilities, depending on the terms being offered, is still in the interest of both Israel and Hamas; both want calm, and have no interest in a full blown war that lasts for weeks or months on end. It’s a pattern that observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have known all too well since 2009:  a period of intense rocket fire and airstrikes eventually produces an arrangement that produces a relative degree of deterrence for both sides.  Unfortunately, it is also a likelihood that any calm produced by a cessation of hostilities will be capitalized by Palestinian militant groups in Gaza--all of which will try to recuperate from their losses and prepare for the next round of fighting.

Without a long-term ground offensive and re-occupation of Gaza that the IDF is unwilling to unleash, the Israel-Hamas standoff will continue in the same way that it began: cyclically, where quiet along the border is at times interrupted with unpredictable and deadly violence, before quiet is restored again.    

Image: Israeli Defense Forces Flickr

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddile East

Job Posting: Assistant Director at The Center for the National Interest

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The Center for the National Interest seeks an outgoing, pro-active, results-oriented individual to serve as its Assistant Director.  The Assistant Director has an important role in coordinating office operations, managing programs, conducting outreach, and writing and editing institutional materials.  The position also offers an opportunity to the highly-motivated individual for independent writing, particularly for the Center’s magazine, The National Interest.  The Assistant Director will support the President and the Executive Director and report to the Executive Director.

Applicants should have a bachelor’s or preferably a master’s degree in international relations or a related field and at least two years’ experience in an operational or program-related role in think tank or in a similar setting.  Strong writing skills and the ability to maintain close attention to detail while simultaneously managing multiple assignments are critical to success.  IT, web and audio/visual experience is a plus.  Please note that this is a hands-on and detail-oriented junior management position with an opportunity for independent writing; administrative skills and an organizational mindset are essential.  The position is best suited for candidates with some relevant experience who are still at early stages in their careers.

Duties include:

· Operations and facilities management

Leading administrative staff to ensure smooth functioning of the office, including implementing office rules and procedures as well as maintaining information technology and audio/visual systems

Producing regular reports for senior management and program directors

Working with building management and vendors/suppliers

Other tasks as required

· Program management

Coordinating the planning and execution of seminars, conferences, briefings, and other meetings to maintain high quality

Writing and editing online meeting summaries

· Outreach

Managing web site updates and drafting regular email bulletins to subscribers

Ensuring that key databases are adequately maintained

Serving as the point-of-contact for media interviews and drafting press releases, newsletter articles, and other materials

Contacting current and potential donors and advertisers

Supporting the president and the executive director in planning annual fundraising events

· Analysis/Commentary

Writing analysis/commentary articles in areas of expertise as other responsibilities permit

The Center for the National Interest is a non-partisan foreign policy think tank based in Washington, DC.  The Center’s principal programs deal with U.S. relations with China, Russia, Europe, Japan and the Middle East as well as with transnational issues like energy, non-proliferation and terrorism.  The Center also publishes the foreign policy magazine The National Interest and its award-winning web site, nationalinterest.org.

To apply, please submit a resume and a cover letter—including salary requirements—and two short writing samples to Paul Saunders, Executive Director, by email at info@cftni.org or by mail at 1025 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 1200, Washington, DC  20036.  No calls or visits please.  If applying by email, please type “Assistant Director” in the subject line.

TopicsJob Posting

The Biggest Threat To China's Growing Military Might

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China’s main geopolitical enemy isn’t Japan. It isn’t Russia. It isn’t even the United States. In lockstep with the rising tensions in the South China Sea, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has begun an internal war against the “flies and tigers” of military corruption, aware of the fact that no matter how many guns you own, their effectiveness comes from the people and institutions who wield them.

Yet his recent expulsion of two high ranking officials from the Communist party for graft—Zhang Youren, the former chairman of Anhui Military Industry Group, and Xu Caihou, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission—highlights the deep, institutional hurdles China’s military establishment still must overcome before they can ever truly flex their military might abroad. As China’s military budget swells and threats emanate in the South and East China Seas, Beijing must begin to seriously question what the military would rather defend: their pockets or their homeland.

According to military historians Millett, Murray, and Watman, “Victory is not a characteristic of an organization but rather a result of organizational activity.” Military effectiveness requires regular dialogue and coordination across the political, strategic, operational, and tactical levels of military activity, or put differently, a strong civil-military structure. A weak link in it can strip a government of its legitimacy, and lower morale and leadership to such an extent that no one is left to fight for their country. Peter Feaver described the civil-military challenge as “how to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask them to do with a military subordinate enough to do only what civilians authorize them to do.” Thus, institutions in which political loyalties and bribes rather than education and experience becomes the basis for promotions inevitably exhibit strategic inefficiencies and in the most dire of cases, war losses.

Nowhere else has corruption become as much a national security priority as in China. General Liu Yuan, political commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, which services the 2.3-million-strong PLA, delivered a fiery speech before his department in 2012 criticizing the unchecked mentality of "malignant individualism” that beset the PLA. Officers openly sold their services at “clearly marked prices,” followed orders only suiting their professional interests, purchased promotions, and blackmailed CCP leaders. While actual numbers are unattainable, corruption has become so profuse that some experts consider it a conservative estimate to assume that even 10 percent of procurement contracts and administrative spending—accounting for 0.65% of China’s $8.27 trillion GDP—are used as kickbacks or bribes, if not simply stolen!

No wonder that corruption has come at a serious toll to the CCP’s legitimacy and national security interests. Joseph Basco explains:

The economic fairness pillar of domestic legitimacy has been crumbling in recent decades. The nation’s remarkable growth in wealth, combined with the CCP’s ongoing monopoly on power and opaque governance, has spawned massive corruption at all levels of political and military authority. Every year, China experiences almost 200,000 public protests against land seizures, environmental degradation, bribery, and other official misconduct.

Corruption at home has created a dangerous disjuncture between the political and military levels that is sure to constrain its international aspirations. This loss of legitimacy underpins the widespread warning now seen across Chinese news sites: “A corrupt army has no ability to fight and cannot win wars.”

As of yet, indictments have proved ineffective at curbing corruption. In 1998, Chinese politician Zhu Rongji complained before the PLA of backroom dealings and smuggling in the General Political Department’s Tiancheng Group, despite a ban on the PLA from engaging in commercial enterprises: “Every time our customs officials tried to snare these bastards, some powerful military person appeared to speak on their behalf.” A year later the Yuanhua Group was found guilty of using military connections, including top officials as high as the Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin and then director of the Intelligence Department of the General Staff Major General Ji Shengde to evade $6.3 billion in taxes—money that could have been invested in research and development. Still, by 2005, the military raided the lavish home of Deputy Director of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, Gu Junshan under charges of extortion, bribery, and misuse of state funds for professional gain, finding a pure golden bust of Chairman Mao and hundreds of boxes of high-end Chinese liquor.

The fact is that despite Xi’s “progress” against corruption, graft is sure to persist in a military establishment obscured from public scrutiny and beholden to a single-party elite rapt in cronyism and money. In a state where the degree of corruption rises with the military hierarchy, as Teng Biao showed, the probability of catching the “tigers” of corruption and the severity of their punishment is slight. Without full-scale civil-military reform, every inch of economic growth will further dislocate China’s military from its homeland and constrain their ability to stage an effectively military presence abroad.

Thus, while Xi’s ongoing campaign against corruption strikes fear into the hearts of some, particularly officials worried about a more effective Chinese military, it should sound some hope for seeking peaceful resolutions with Beijing.

On the one hand, greater civilian participation and transparency in the military would send a positive signal to the U.S. and Japan about their intentions to democratize, in addition to opening channels for mutual understanding, information sharing, and dialogue. On the other hand, further indictments without reforming an institution permissive of corruption will undoubtedly cause China’s military to atrophy over time, if not implode from domestic protest. That’s a scenario that could prove dangerous not only for Beijing, but also the rest of the globe.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsChina

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