Today is the U.S. Marine Corps’ 239th Birthday: 4 Big Challenges Ahead

The Buzz

Today the United States Marine Corps celebrates its 239th birthday.  Marines and their families will remember the illustrious history of the Corps and renew their commitment to serve the nation, “In every clime and place.”  Marines will also reflect on the status of their beloved Corps.   The Marines’ mission in Helmand Province has just ended and General Joseph F. Dunford has taken his post as the thirty-sixth Commandant of the Marine Corps.

With the completion of the mission in Afghanistan and a new Commandant, many Marines and observers are asking, “What next?”  The months ahead promise to be busy as the Marine Corps addresses challenges on many fronts.  The most significant of these challenges are:

-Resource Uncertainty: Although the Bipartisan Budget Agreement provided some relief, the potential for a return to “full” sequestration is looming on the horizon.  In a time of fiscal austerity, the Marine Corps must carefully balance readiness, manpower and modernization.

-Reduced Structure vs. Operational Requirements: The Marine Corps is in the middle of a drawdown from a wartime strength of 202,000 to 182,000.  Events around the world (sustained instability in the Middle East, continued threats from violent Muslim extremists, strained relations with a resurgent Russia, a rising and increasingly confrontational China, Ebola in Africa) remind us there is no peace dividend as commitments in Afghanistan shrink.  The Marine Corps will continue to deploy traditional Marine Expeditionary Units and rotational units to the Western Pacific as a part of the unit deployment program (UDP) while concurrently deploying new Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) for crisis response to support USAFRICOM and USCENTCOM.  These commitments must be met with a force that is 20,000 personnel leaner than the 202k than the one developed to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

-Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan: The Marines learned many critical lessons during fourteen years of sustained combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In an uncertain world, the challenge to institutionalize lessons learned about counterinsurgency and stability operations looms large—all without neglecting the skills needed to conduct conventional warfare and amphibious operations against traditional state actors.  The American people rightly expect the Marine Corps to be prepared to fight and win across the entire spectrum of conflict.  The Marine Corps does not have the luxury of focusing exclusively on either “small wars” or on the skills needed for a more traditional combined arms campaign; the nation’s “911 force” has to be ready for everything.

-Relationship with the U.S. Navy: The Marines continued to deploy Marine Expeditionary Units with the Navy during the fourteen years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at times the focus on combat operations resulted in less emphasis on the traditional relationship between the two services (Navy and Marine Corps).  As a maritime nation, a reinvigorated relationship between the Navy and Marine Corps is important.  The availability of amphibious shipping (adversely impacted by sequestration) remains a serious concern for Marines working to maintain institutional expertise in amphibious operations.  The use of other types of shipping has been suggested to mitigate scarce amphibious warships but these alternative platforms do not remove the requirement for a healthy amphibious ship building program and money to maintain them in a high state of readiness.

In working to meet these challenges, the Marine Corps has gone back to its roots and will ensure  it is most ready when the nation is least ready.  Maintaining the Marine Corps in a high state of readiness to respond to crises is priority number one.  Modernization of equipment, infrastructure maintenance and quality of life efforts will be reduced to sustain readiness today.   This means the long-term health of the Corps could be placed at risk for the sake of near-term readiness if the disaster of sequestration is not fixed.

In a time of fiscal uncertainty at home and unrest around the world, the Marine Corps will need to return to its roots in other ways.  In addition to focusing on near term readiness for crisis response, innovation and leadership will be required to meet the challenges facing the Corps—the same sort of innovation displayed by the Marine Corps following World War I when it developed the doctrine and expertise needed to execute the amphibious campaign in the Pacific during World War II.

The Marine Corps has been in challenging positions before, resulting in some of its greatest achievements.  As the Marines toast the Corps on their 239th birthday, they know that much work lies ahead in their 240th year.  Most importantly, the Corps knows that success in the future will ultimately depend on the quality of its greatest asset—the character, strength and skill of the individual Marine.

Colonel Stephen Liszewski, U.S. Marine Corps, is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before coming to CFR, he served as Commanding Officer, 11th Marine Regiment.  His combat deployments have included Iraq in 2007  and Afghanistan in 2012. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This piece first appeared courtesy of CFR’s blog Defense in Depth.

Image: U.S. Marines Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

An Internet Superpower: China Has 632 Million Internet Users

The Buzz

The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) released its 2014 statistical report on Internet development in China, and here are some of the highlights:

-Numbers have risen across the board. By the end of June 2014, China has had 632 million Internet users, up 14.42 million from 2013. Internet penetration rate was 46.9 percent. China has had 527 million mobile Internet users, an increase of 26.99 million since last year. Students are the single largest population of users, accounting for 25 percent. The weekly average time spent online reached 25.9 hours (by contrast, the U.S. average was 20.4 hours a week in 2013).

-Mobile is the future in China. For the first time, the number of users accessing the web on a mobile device is greater than on a personal computer. Mobile Eats the World, a presentation by Benedict Evans of Andreesen Horowitz,  shows this as a global phenomenon. Reflecting this trend, payment applications were the fastest growing segment of the market in China.

-The rise of online financial instruments. The number of users of Internet financing or wealth management products grew to over 60 million in less than one year. These are funds like Yuebao that are only offered online, usually with no minimum deposit and transactions fees, providing access to small investors. Yuebao is part of the Alibaba empire. Users of Alipay, an online payment system, can invest into Yuebao, which provides better return than the 3 percent found at state-owned banks and is mobile-friendly. By the middle of 2014, Yuebao had $90 billion in assets.

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-Digital divide. There were 178 million rural Internet users, 28.2 percent of the total in China. Or put another way, approximately 450 million people in rural areas are not using the Internet. There is also a growing divide between available broadband speeds in urban and rural areas. Among those who do have fixed broadband access in China, only 18 percent in poorer central and western provinces enjoy speeds of 8 megabits per second or more,compared to 36 percent in the wealthier eastern provinces.

-The decline of Weibo and other social networking sites. The number of microblog users in China was 275 million, decreasing by 5.43 million compared with that at the end of 2013. Utilization rates stayed the same, as users switched to social applications and instant messaging tools like WeChat. This supports reporting that the crackdown on social media has bolstered the shift from more public to more private forms of communications.

The report, which also has some interesting details on online commerce, gaming, and videos, should be read in parallel with this great post by David Bandurski on the ideas of Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar. Much of the discussion focuses on the balance among control, development, and security the Chinese Communist Party tries to achieve domestically, but Bandurski also notes that China is becoming more assertive about its right to define international norms of behavior in cyberspace. A new platform for this will be the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, but the most likely source of  influence be size. Or as Bandurski explains, “China, in other words, wants the influence over global Internet-related decision making that its sheer size warrants.” The CNNIC report gives a sense of that size, and how the size, and perhaps influence, will increase over time.

This piece first appeared on CFR’s blog Net Politics here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

Topicsinternet RegionsChina

Xi-Obama Summit: Son of Sunnylands?

The Buzz

U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping will meet this week, in a state visit by the American president to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the eve of the APEC Summit. Counting side discussions at multilateral conferences, this will be the fourth meeting between the two presidents—a remarkable, and even laudable, track record of top leaders interacting with each other.

Opening lines of communications, having an opportunity to exchange views…these, in the main, are not bad things. The past various meetings have allowed both sides to reiterate points of concern. For the United States, this has meant emphasizing the importance of limiting nuclear proliferation (especially on the Korean peninsula and Iran), military-to-military relations and climate change. For the PRC, it has meant pushing for a “new model of great-power relations” in which the two sides express respect for each other’s “core interests.”

What is problematic is when neither side has much of an agenda. President Obama will be in Beijing for the annual meeting of APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) leaders. Absent this standing commitment of all U.S. presidents, it’s not clear that President Obama has much reason to be in Beijing. As long as he’s there, however, the president is arguably obliged to have a bilateral meeting with Xi. (That it is a “state visit” is probably at the insistence of the Chinese).

Unfortunately, summits for the sake of summits are hardly a productive use of senior leaders’ (and their staffs’) time. Worse is if one side does have an agenda, and the other side either does not, or has a different one. On those occasions, the prospects for misunderstanding or unmet expectations are far greater.

The June 2013 Sunnylands summit was touted as a “shirt-sleeve summit”—a summit without talking points or a formal agenda. American officials hoped that Presidents Obama and Xi would “really get to know each other, while exchanging ideas about how best to manage a complex, sometimes combustible relationship.” Yet, rather than bring the two leaders together, the Chinese chose to stay at the Hyatt in town, rather than at the Annenberg estate (the site of the summit)—pointedly questioning the electronic security of the venue. As Edward Snowden had already made his way to Hong Kong, the Chinese decision made clear that they had no intention of engaging in “informal” discussions about things like cybersecurity. This contradicted the entire point of the summit, and was likely not an oversight on China’s part. Indeed, it may well have been part of Beijing’s messaging.

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This week’s summit is likely to be a study in contrasts.

For President Obama, now in the final two years of his final term, the question is what, if anything, can he deliver or promote. That question became even more difficult when the midterm elections gave Republicans control of the Senate.

While the Obama administration has highlighted its strategic “pivot to Asia,” few in Washington think the commitment—with the possible exception of engagement with Southeast Asia—is substantially greater than that of the previous administration. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent far more time in the Middle East trying to broker a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem than in East Asia. Neither Susan Rice, nor Samantha Power, longtime Obama confidantes, are seen as Asia hands, nor as especially focused on the region. With this as background, President Obama will again (like many Presidents before him) be pressed to declare and demonstrate American staying power.

President Xi, meanwhile, is coming out of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, which supported his continuing anti-corruption push by nominally promoting a greater emphasis on the role of the law in Chinese governance. Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption efforts have almost certainly aroused criticism (if not worse) within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but they have also heightened his populist appeal, and are difficult to criticize. (After all, who is for corruption?)

As important, this summit occurs against the backdrop of an overall Chinese strategic offensive across the region. The past year has seen the Chinese: declare an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone; deploy a deep-sea oil drilling rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast; deploy nuclear and conventional submarines to the Indian Ocean; increase their presence around the disputed Senkaku islands and send troops into disputed territory held by India. At the same time, China has pushed for the creation of an Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (which it would dominate) and is promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership plan.

Despite the widely touted “pivot,” the United States, by contrast, appears to be far less sure-footed. Sequestration has meant limits on U.S. deployments and training. The American invitation to China to join in the multinational RIMPAC exercises resulted in not only an official Chinese participating force, but an uninvited Chinese intelligence ship as well. American intelligence flights have been openly challenged, including dangerous approaches to both American ships and aircraft. Meanwhile, President Obama has not employed his “bully pulpit” to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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In this light, one might well hope that the result will be a “Son of Sunnylands,” a meeting about little other than the two sides continuing to get to know each other. But there is a far more dangerous possibility: that this will be a replay of the 1961 Vienna summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. President Kennedy concluded that he had been “savaged” by Khrushchev, who apparently concluded that Kennedy was weak and vulnerable.

President Obama is not a newly elected president. But Xi almost certainly has a better understanding of American politics than Khrushchev did.

Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

TopicsDiplomacyForeign Policy RegionsChinaUnited States

America and Its Allies in the South China Sea: Dangerously Overmatched, Outgunned, and Outranged by China

The Buzz

Three books published this year contemplate Asia's most vexing problem. Taken together, they provide a thorough understanding of the contest in the South China Sea. Still, they leave the reader with one large puzzle.

Asia's Cauldron recounts, in Robert Kaplan's readable travelogue style, the fascinating political and economic trajectories of the nations surrounding the South China Sea. A strategic geographer, Kaplan explains why the South China Sea — which from China's perspective is its “Caribbean” but which a divided ASEAN attempts to keep “Mediterranean” — is so crucial. US$5.3 trillion of trade transits the area annually. Economics underpins Kaplan's insight: the divergent developmental performance of adjacent states has tilted the power balance, and this asymmetry has exacerbated the latent tension of the region.

“Latent” because the rich history of the South China Sea fates dispute. Both Kaplan, and Bill Hayton in The South China Sea describe the Malay and Indochinese civilizations that plied these waters before and after Christ's birth. Deng Xiaoping asserted in 1975 that the islands of the South China Sea “have belonged to China since ancient times,” but he mentioned only islands, and definitions of “belong,” “China” and “ancient” are disputable. The successive Chinese dynasties had vacillating interest in maritime trade. Soon after Zheng He's final epic voyage the Europeans turned up. By the 1600s, Grotius and Selden were arguing the legal basis for open versus closed seas, a debate that has reopened again over the islands, reefs and waters of the South China Sea.

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Ironically, it was the withdrawal of the European (and Japanese and American) colonists in the 20th century that catalyzed today's disputes.

Most consequential was China's submission of the U-shaped Nine Dash Line in 1947 (subsequently reaffirmed in 2009), an abstract, unprecedented claim of “historical waters.” An unseemly scramble for islands, rocks and reefs followed. China now dominates all the Paracels, wrested violently from Vietnam. As Hayton says, “China was a latecomer to the Spratlys party but each time it has occupied a feature, Beijing's negotiating position has become stronger. What practical benefits has it gained though? Only the negative effect of preventing others from making gains.” Hayton himself is doubtful of the oil and gas reserves inside China's claim. Even fish are at risk of being depleted by over-zealous trawler fleets. The South China Sea tussle is really about power, and the ability of China to deny those waters to others. Both Kaplan and Hayton observe that China's nationalism offers little scope for Beijing to retract its claims, in fact its “salami slicing” is upping the stakes. Could a military conflict ensue?

That is the central topic of Robert Haddock's Fire on the Water. His analysis is clear: the US and its allies are increasingly vulnerable, overmatched, outgunned, and outranged by China, which enjoys great material power and the advantage of proximity.

(You May Also Like: America Must Face Up to the China Challenge

His conclusion is that the US must adapt its weapons, doctrine and alliances accordingly. He weighs in on the ongoing American debate about “operational concepts” in the western Pacific. A Chinese conflict with Japan is one scenario; the South China Sea certainly is another. Hayton and Kaplan's readers must question the strategic resolve of the Philippines amid its conflicted, incoherent relations with both America and China. In contrast to steely Vietnam and savvier Malaysia, the Philippines' neglect for its own South China Sea interests is downright provocative. Significantly, it remains the only large country in the region not investing in submarines.

Here is the puzzle: why is Asia buying submarines? Smaller countries view subs as the asymmetric leveler, like Samuel Colt's six-shooter, which “made all men equal.” Even when deployed defensively, subs are offensive weapons in nature, unsuited for, say, fisheries patrol, anti-piracy and disaster relief. No, their purpose is to sink ships (especially merchants), intimidate and thereby achieve sea denial. I'm not a naval expert but a businessperson can guess what every prudent shipping line would do before a South China Sea conflict: clear out. It might not be “fire on the water” as Haddock fears, but the eerie opposite: John Keegan's “empty ocean.”

This would be disastrous for East Asia, which is almost entirely dependent on maritime trade. If one day China does really enforce outright sovereignty over the Nine Dash Line (even permitting innocent passage to continue), this will be taken as a direct challenge to the US and the established rules of the open sea. Japan would feel most threatened. Shipping would be diverted away from the Malacca chokepoint to the straits opposite northern Australia (where, as it happens, US Marines recently established a presence). Hayton draws a barely consoling conclusion: China doesn't want a shooting war in the South China Sea, but it gains everything just short of one. Even that could come at a fearful cost. China's “price of admiralty” might be the loss of trillions of dollars in global trade.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsChina

It's Legacy Time, but History, like Life, Can be Unfair

Paul Pillar

Amid the usual post-election barrages of commentary about what messages the election result supposedly carries and how elected leaders ought to change their behavior in response, it is difficult to find any issue-specific messages about U.S. foreign policy in this week's result. As Michael Cohen points out, the available evidence from polls, including exit polls, is that foreign policy issues did not play a significant role in the outcome. It is true, as Gordon Adams observes, that a “witches' brew, fired up by Republican candidates,” of fears did play a role—fear of getting attacked by an ISIS terrorist, of catching Ebola, and of being swamped by immigrants flooding across the southern border. But as far as presidential policy is concerned these are not matters that were the making of the current president or are translatable into changes of course in his policies.

The one thing about Barack Obama that is different now that the election is over is, of course, that not only will he never be running for anything again but also no one else will be running for anything that will change the make-up of the U.S. Congress during his presidency. Some suggest that he still needs to be concerned about affecting the prospects for whoever will be his party's candidate for president in 2016, but that does not really need to be a constraint. Visible distance between Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential candidate will not necessarily hurt the latter and might even help.

So now, more than ever, the president should think and act strictly and narrowly according to what is in his best judgment in the best interest of the nation while excluding from his calculations what is popular or politic. In practice this advice will frequently conflict with another common theme of post-election commentary, which is that the president needs to try more than ever to reach across the party divide to work with the opposition, now that the opposition has won big. The first type of advice should take precedence because we (and Mr. Obama) already have enough experience to know that the second type of advice will in the current circumstances yield few results. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank aptly summarized the political dynamics involved by observing that “Republicans didn't run on an agenda other than antipathy to all things Obama” and that “it was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Obama was for.” An optimistic view is that having majority status in both houses of Congress will impart a greater sense of ownership of policy and an associated sense of responsibility that has hitherto been lacking, but it is unrealistic to think that the target of the unrelenting antipathy that made for a winning electoral strategy is likely suddenly to be perceived instead as a partner in policymaking.

The senior senator from Kentucky, who is in line to become Senate majority leader, declared during Mr. Obama's first term that the number one goal of himself and his party colleagues in Congress was not to improve the state of the economy, to enhance the health and welfare of Americans, to strengthen the standing of the United States in the world, or to do anything else to further the national interest; according to the senator their number one goal was instead to deny President Obama a second term. They failed in that goal but instead did what was the nearest thing to it, which was, in Adams's words, to mount a campaign “to prevent the president from achieving any of his agenda—from health care to climate change to immigration.” Do not expect such habits to change now that a blocking minority in the Senate has become a majority.

In considering what a hypothetical president who is perfectly tuned to what is good for the national interest and not necessarily good politics ought to be concentrating on in foreign policy over the next two years, one should think first in terms of long-term trends and future challenges that are not fashionable fears of the moment such as ISIS, Ebola, or those scruffy immigrants. Climate change certainly deserves to be at or near the top of any such list, but also high on the list should be more of that pivoting to East Asia that so far has been more of a talked-about concept than a thorough addressing of America's future relations with China.

Middle Eastern problems will necessarily continue to limit the amount of pivoting, and within the Middle East the issues deserving priority include one to which Mr. Obama admirably has already devoted considerable political capital—conclusion of an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program—and one to which he gave one shot and then pretty much gave up: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These two issues could appropriately be treated as more linked than they usually are treated, given the motivations of the Israeli government in opposing any agreement with Iran and given how that government accounts for such a large part of the overall opposition to an agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's government ought to be called explicitly to account for the phoniness of its opposition to an agreement, in a way that the United States has not explicitly done. In fact, just about anything having to do with Israel, given the extraordinary role Israel-related issues play in American politics, constitutes a prime area in which our hypothetical president would behave differently from real American politicians.

If Barack Obama is to become more like that hypothetical president who is selflessly guided by a dispassionate sense of the national interest rather than by politics, he will face a tough test in living up to a standard that he has talked about himself: not doing stupid stuff. The test is tough because not doing certain things detrimental to the national interest, as distinct from positively doing things that would further that interest, may run up not only against what is currently politically popular but also against the sorts of considerations that make for a favorably regarded legacy. History tends to treat presidents who accomplish positive and significant things more favorably than it treats presidents whose chief contributions to the republic were to resist pressures to do damaging things. Perhaps the closest thing to an exception was Dwight Eisenhower, who served the republic very well not only through his positive accomplishments but also by avoiding major mistakes even when friends and allies (e.g., Suez 1956) were doing stupid stuff.

If Mr. Obama is to become more like the hypothetical president, he should have begun showing signs of that after his own re-election in 2012. Some believe they see some such signs, but the signs are not clear. The president's policy toward ISIS, for example, looks to a large extent to be a bending to popular will and emotions. But he still has two more years to demonstrate otherwise.   


TopicsElections RegionsUnited States