'Simply Brilliant': China’s Creeping Invasion of the South China Sea

The Buzz

In the past 12 months, China has provoked considerable attention with its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys where it controls seven maritime features.

China’s history of salami-slicing presents a dilemma to regional countries as well as external powers with regional interests: do they escalate an incident each time China slices the salami and risk open conflict, or stand down and allow China to augment its territorial claims.

The million-dollar question remains: who or what will freeze China’s reclamation in the South China Sea? The answer: nothing, really.

It has been proposed, for example, that like-minded states carve out a ‘code of practice’ that would stress the rule of law and mirror the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Another option being considered by the Pentagon is to send U.S. aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-built reefs in the Spratlys, to challenge its influence there.

While useful, such proposals won’t freeze or rollback China’s attempts to change the facts on the ground (or the high sea). China’s reclamation seeks to preempt any decision that would come from the Philippines’ challenge in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea.

It’s noteworthy that China hasn’t only engaged in salami slicing; it has sought to use the attraction of its economy, trade and aid to offset its high-risk behavior.

Following the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident with the Philippines, China launched a charm offensive in 2013, wooing ASEAN with a treaty of friendship and cooperation, stressing that it intended to take China–ASEAN relations from a “golden decade” to a “diamond decade.”

This year, when concerns about China’s reclamation have intensified, China has offered a carrot: U.S. and other countries would be welcome to use civilian facilities it’s building in the South China Sea for search and rescue and weather forecasting, when “conditions are right.”

China has also used its economic weight to deftly tilt the balance (of influence, at least) in its favor. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is attracting long-standing American allies such as Great Britain, Australia and South Korea. China has stolen a march on the U.S. in the battle to win friends and influence people.

And the economic offensive doesn’t end with the AIIB. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a free trade agreement that would involve ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—is seen as a rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is also another lure for peripheral countries keen on leveraging on China’s economic ascent.

Concerted and effective opposition to China’s fait accompli in the South China Sea requires an astute mix of diplomacy and deterrence. It might take the form of a regional effort to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claims based on UNCLOS principles, an ASEAN ultimatum for China to at least freeze its reclamation activities, and joint ASEAN–U.S. patrols near the reefs being reclaimed by China. This looks unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

ASEAN was damaged in 2012, when it failed—for the first time in its 45-year history—to issue a communiqué due to differing views over the South China Sea. ASEAN has recently upped its game by underscoring the dangers of China’s reclamation, but there’s little the group can do apart from pushing for a formal Code of Conduct. A successful conclusion of the code isn’t assured; China dangles the carrot of code negotiations to buy time even as its carries out reclamation.

For all its rhetoric about the need to uphold international law and the freedom of navigation, the U.S. is conflicted when it comes to China. It all boils down to this: will the U.S. risk its extensive relationship with China over a few rocks in the South China Sea? As Hillary Clinton once said: how does the US “deal toughly” toward its banker?

To get a sense of the effect of China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea, one only need look at Vietnam. Faced with China’s challenge to its claims to the Paracel Islands, Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines, reportedly armed with sub-launched land-attack Klub missiles that could threaten Chinese coastal targets. But Vietnam didn’t fire a shot when China towed a US$1b oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam last year. On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnamese scholars told me that Vietnamese military officers urged sterner action, such as firing on Chinese ships, but senior leaders vetoed them, instead deciding to sit back and let China incur “reputational damage.”

Not many people in Asia would agree with what China is doing in the South China Sea. But as it stands, China’s strategy—salami slicing, using offsets to soften risky behavior and accelerating its reclamation activities in the absence of significant opposition—can be summed up in two words: simply brilliant.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Amtrak Disaster: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

Paul Pillar

The fatal crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia obviously is disturbing to those of us who often use the same service; it also is a symptom of a pattern, involving politics, economics, and morality, that is disturbing in a much larger sense. The chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board assesses that had a federally mandated automated system for restricting the speed of trains been in operation on the section of track involved, the crash would not have occurred. Amtrak has been ahead of the rest of the railroad industry in installing the system, but as is often the case, resources are the major factor in more rapid progress in installation not having been made. The day after the crash, and despite that fatal incident, a committee of the House of Representatives rejected a proposal for increased funding of Amtrak. This posture is indicative of a broader neglectful attitude toward America's notoriously deteriorating infrastructure. The anomaly of this situation prevailing within the world's superpower is apparent to any traveler who has enjoyed the use of more modern public services in any of several European countries, with rail transportation providing one of the most glaring contrasts.

At play here are some fundamental issues regarding attitudes toward, and management of, the commons—those assets and resources that are of use and importance to an entire community. The original formulation of the tragedy of the commons, which Garrett Hardin put in classic form nearly 50 years ago, involved how the marginal benefits and costs of any one individual's exploitation of a collective resource leads to excessive exploitation and deterioration of the resource. Each individual owner of livestock gets a net benefit from having his animals graze on a common pasture, but multiple owners following the same logic results in overgrazing and eventual ruin of the pasture. This kind of destructive dynamic is still very much in evidence with some important resources—most notably at the global level with how the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost for individual emitters of carbon into the atmosphere, with an eventual collective result threatening to be ruinous for all.

But at the national and sub-national levels, there also is another destructive dynamic that leads to deterioration of the commons, especially parts of the commons that are man-made. Some such parts can be ruined not only by too much exploitation but also by not enough attention and upkeep. The deterioration of roads and railways comes partly from use, but also from time, weather, ice, and rust. Left alone and given enough time, nature can restore a pasture to life, but nature cannot repair a bridge. The need for positive attention and upkeep is all the more apparent with common resources, such as public education, that are less a matter of physical structures than are roads and bridges.

The destructive logic of the new tragedy of the commons consists of those with the wherewithal to do so ending their own reliance on the commons and relying on privately owned assets instead. This results in less of a base of support for keeping the commons in good shape. It especially means less support from those whose support is especially important because of the wealth involved. The result, as with the first kind of tragedy, is deterioration and perhaps ruin of the commons, immediately to the disadvantage of many but ultimately to the disadvantage of all.

President Obama, at a recent event at Georgetown University, remarked about this kind of withdrawal from the commons and how apparent it has become in recent years in the United States; he made particular reference to wealthy parents keeping their children out of public schools and instead using private institutions for education and extracurricular activities. Also at the event and concurring in the president's observation was Robert Putnam, whose study Bowling Alone documented the withdrawal of Americans during recent decades from many forms of community commitment and involvement. It's not just a matter of schools, tennis clubs, or bowling leagues. One's interest in maintaining mass transportation, for example, declines or disappears if one uses a private jet instead.

In the United States these trends are exacerbated by two other factors. One is growing economic inequality, with an expanding divide between the large numbers who must rely on the commons, including public schools and mass transportation, and a smaller number who have other options. The increased concentration of wealth at the very top makes the private jet option a reality and not just a theoretical discussion point. And in a post-Citizens United world, the opportunities for the very wealthy to manipulate political perceptions in a way that blurs the meaning of the divide is greater than ever.

The other exacerbating factor is the prevalence in the United States of the ideologically driven belief that anything government does is ipso facto bad and that what the private sector does is by contrast good. This attitude ignores how, although markets do many things very well, there are many other important things that by their very nature markets cannot do well. It also ignores the fact that the private sector does not equate with free markets and that sometimes more, not less, governmental involvement is necessary to have a truly competitive free market (antitrust enforcement being an obvious but by no means the only example). Some of the worst consequences come when treating something that actually is part of the commons as if it were instead just another commodity to be traded in the market. Thus we increasingly have chaos and predation in the assignment of web addresses on the Internet. Some similar things have happened with another part of the commons: the part of the electromagnetic spectrum used for communication through the airwaves. Problems here were even a factor in the train wreck in Philadelphia. Delays in installing the automated train control system have been due not only to limited financial resources but also to the need for Amtrak to negotiate with private companies that have acquired ownership of portions of the spectrum that the system needs to operate. That negotiation process has taken years, even though government regulators at the Federal Communications Commission accomplished their part of the approval process in a matter of days.

To get a sense of the direction the withdrawal from the commons can be headed, look at any of many less developed countries in which a wealthy elite lives in effect in a separate world from the masses that surround them. The elite can, and do, rely on private resources for everything from transportation to clean water to power generation. They not only do not depend on the commons; they are barely even aware of the commons. An extreme example of this is the 34-story residence that an Indian tycoon built in South Mumbai and contains just about anything the owner might want. And if it isn't there, he can fly off his helipad to wherever he wants to go without even setting eyes on the streets below.

In those less developed countries, even security has become in large part privatized, with privately employed guards rather than police forces providing most of the security that matters for the residences and businesses of the elite. In the United States we still have a bit more of the sovereign concept of government having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but even that sense has weakened as the country has moved away from the idea that force in the form of firearms should be a matter of, in the words of the U.S. Constitution, well-regulated militias. It is no accident that repeated controversial high-profile incidents in recent years entailing the use of firepower on U.S. streets have involved either public police forces that are undermanned, insufficiently trained, and little respected, or private security elements such as armed neighborhood watch patrols.

For those concerned with the exercise of national power globally, a final observation about differing attitudes toward the commons is that the bifurcated elite/mass arrangements in less developed countries do not constitute a prescription for national power. Such a system may satisfy the immediate needs of the elite, but they are a poor way to mobilize the physical and especially the human resources of the country. That is not the direction that we ought to go. The domestic strength on which power and respect abroad are built must include strength of the commons. Being powerful requires being more like the countries that nurture and respect their own commons, and where trains run not only on time but safely.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0 

TopicsAmtrak RegionsUnited States

Grading Global Governance: Implications for East Asia and Beyond

The Buzz

The Council of Councils (CoC), a network of think tanks that mirrors the membership of the G20, released this week a thought-provoking report card assessing the state of global governance. The report evaluates the performance of global institutions in addressing ten international challenges, ranks the seriousness of these global challenges, and assesses prospects for breakthrough in international efforts to deal with these issues. The report card accurately captures the issue overload and prioritization challenges on the global agenda, provides a compelling snapshot of the scope of challenges to global governance and reveals the major gaps that will likely continue to challenge the international community.

As one considers the rising importance of Asia and the emerging issues the region faces in the context of global challenges, the results are particularly revealing of both potential opportunities and the significant differences embedded in the “Asian paradox” of high economic growth alongside latent and emerging conflicts that could bedevil the region going forward. The Council of Councils gave its highest (albeit low) marks to international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, primarily in response to P5+1 diplomatic efforts to keep Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. However, as Sook-Jong Lee of the East Asia Institute rightly observes, “the North Korean case still challenges the effectiveness of nonproliferation governance.” In other words, in East Asia the failure to prevent North Korea from expanding its nuclear development efforts outside the confines of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty deserves an F.

The inability to resume diplomacy through Six Party Talks as a result of North Korean intransigence points to a closely related vacuum in East Asian regional governance: the absence of regional institutions that are deemed capable of effectively responding to violent conflict between states, which was the top global challenge identified by the CoC. As much as Russian military involvement in the Ukraine represents a setback for European efforts to prevent recurrence of inter-state conflict, the looming maritime tensions in the East and South China Seas underscores the growing prospect that such conflicts may return to Asia and the weakness of available regional institutional mechanisms to respond. Moreover, the emergence of such conflicts will inevitably place at risk the fruits of the region’s rapid economic growth.

The upside of Asian views of global challenges covered by the CoC lies with the top prospect for breakthrough identified in the survey: the idea that expanding trade can create a virtuous circle that can help to address the most serious global challenges. This view was most clearly articulated by Chen Dongxiao of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, who wrote that in order to address global challenges, “more international efforts should be focused on promoting international economic governance, facilitating global trade, and advancing the development agenda.” An economically-driven vision that catalyzes expanding capacity to meet global governance challenges is certainly desirable. If it is to take hold, it arguably would emanate from East Asia.

But for now it seems more likely that the global challenges of preventing international terrorism, preventing interstate conflict, and even the challenge of responding to internal conflicts within states may eventually come to East Asia in ways that accentuate, rather than resolve, the Asian paradox. To this extent, the CoC survey results provide useful forewarning, but provide few grounds for optimism that either regional or global governance will be prepared to meet looming challenges.

This piece first appeared courtesy of CFR. 

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Russia and China: A Great Power Partnership America Should Fear?

The Buzz

The China-Russia relationship is the world's most important, and the best between any two great powers, Xi Jinping told Vladimir Putin a couple of years ago. Last week, at the Kremlin's V-Day celebration, their ties were reaffirmed in grand style.

Some observers dismiss the partnership as an 'axis of convenience' or a charade of camaraderie. Others point to the widening power disparity between the two, and doubt that Russia will accept subordination to China. Some even think that the two countries are bound for conflict as China thrusts into central Asia, or the two will clash over oil and gas supplies. Chinese nationalists haven't forgotten their lost territories, ceded to imperial Russia under the 'Unequal Treaties.'

So the significance of the rapprochement last week is open for debate. One important dimension of the debate must be the towering role of official media in shaping historical consciousness and in constructing the public worldview. Both great powers run formidable propaganda machines that manufacture well-reasoned but emotional, nationalistic truth.

Gilbert Rozman has explored how Russian and Chinese national 'narratives' interweave in certain ways. Where they overlap, the points of commonality are magnified by each state's media apparatus. For example, while the two nations' experiences of communism differ markedly, Putin and Xi tap deep popular roots of socialist solidarity that allude to the patriotic sacrifice of the Party-worker-soldier-hero fighting imperialism, fascism and hegemony. Both countries share a tradition of messianic leaders who remind their subjects (or 'comrades') of the transcendent wisdom and safety of paternal rule.

Points of historic disputation between the two are delicately ignored. Joint grievances are amplified. It is not hard to discern the targets of rage in their shared historiography. Both Moscow and Beijing strongly resented NATO's intervention in the Balkans, they both opposed America's Iraq misadventure, and both suspect Western 'black hands' in the color revolutions. Japan too is an ancient enemy. Together they strive for a multi-polar world order. The Chinese public enjoys the spectacle of Putin 'standing up to' the West in Ukraine. His popularity is as stratospheric in China as it is in Russia.

Officially, the Russian and Chinese citizenry feel quite warmly towards each other. One-quarter of Chinese already see Russia as their best friend.

The two countries offer each other much in terms of collective and collaborative security. And they are economically complementary. As a Chinese analyst bluntly said at a recent conference, “Russia is resource-rich, we are resource-poor; we are industrializing and Russia is de-industrializing.” Dimitri Trenin sees Putin's rupture with Europe as final, with Russia now committing to a 'greater Asia.'

But this region will become China's 'sphere of influence.' A visitor to Vladivostok today would barely recognize it as Russian territory. Elite relations may be 'warm at the top', but social attitudes are 'cold at the bottom' along the dreary borderland. Despite the undoubted force of their entwined national mythologies, there is not much commercial trust or civic interaction other than the mute, one-way shuffle of Chinese goods across the customs posts. Russians and Chinese elites don't dream of each other; their money and their families have flown to the West.

A Tartar professor's private comment is stark: “Russia has only three things in common with China: a long border, a history of communism, and a shared enemy.” America is the mirror into which both societies look for comparative identity. Russia's self-image is as a nuclear peer, defiant, moral and proud. China's reflection is of a noble empire reclaiming world leadership from a chaotic Washington.

But the official Sino-Russian paradigm allows no cross-examination. For all his quixotic Arctic bomber sorties, Putin surely realizes that although the US may undermine his personal rule, it cannot realistically threaten the integrity of his mighty nation. When he looks at China, the reverse is true. Putin is fighting fires on the Western front, dealing with the urgent, while the important looms distantly on his east. Given the Chinese and Russian power trajectories, any formal future alliance would, as Bismarck put it, have a rider and a horse.

But enough prognostication. The truth is, there is great uncertainty in this relationship, and the reason is simple. Russia is ruled by one man, and China increasingly so. The paradox of stability is that succession episodes in such concentrated political power structures can be very fraught.

“Should we expect another Ukraine if Nazarbayev leaves the post of president?,” Putin ominously asked the Kazakhs last year. He could ask the same of his own demise. Things can change radically when a supreme leader steps down. Under new leaders, narratives can be suddenly altered at will, wordviews shattered. How many, after all, foresaw the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, or Nixon's China opening, or the fall of the Berlin Wall? The superpower balance is uneasily fluid, and new powers and southern threats to the China-Russia link may emerge in time.

Xi may be right that the relationship is the world's most fateful, but that is because it is so unpredictable.

This piece was first published in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: The Kremlin. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

Is America's Deadly B-1 Bomber Headed to Australia to Deter China?

The Buzz

Australia woke up to media news this morning that U.S. B-1 strategic bombers would be “coming to Australia to deter Beijing’s South China Sea ambitions.” This referred to a statement made by U.S. Defense Department Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security, David Shear, during a testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. As part of his answer as to what the government was doing in response to China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea, Shear also stated that the US “will be placing additional Air Force assets in Australia as well,” including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft. However, a statement by a spokesperson for Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said that the “U.S. Government has contacted us to advise that the official misspoke.’ Thus, the U.S. Embassy in Canberra is likely to correct Shear’s statement.

There is indeed no reason to doubt that Shear simply confused the B-1 bomber with the B-52 bombers which have already rotated (as opposed to being ‘based’ there) through Australian air bases in the North, as part of the US ‘strategic rebalance’ and the U.S.-Australia force posture initiatives agreed upon in 2011 to make U.S. forward military presence in Asia more flexible and sustainable. His full answer to the question merely lists U.S. force posture activities in the broader region that the U.S. has already announced or implemented. This includes for instance the rotational deployment of up to four Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) by 2018 through Singapore. It also would have been counterproductive for the U.S. government to make a unilateral announcement without first having cleared the deployment with the Australian side. Finally, it’s difficult to see what the rotational deployment of a strategic bomber would do to deter China’s current maritime activities in the South China Sea, particular its land reclamation projects in disputed areas.

For all these reasons, the big news is ‘much ado about nothing,’ triggered by Shear’s confusion between the two types of strategic bombers in the U.S. arsenal. The real news is that the issue over China’s behavior in the South China Sea is heating up. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is reportedly considering sending US warships and aircraft to operate within 12 miles or less of the new islands China is building in the South China Sea. Early this week, the PLA frigate Yancheng also closely trailed the USS Forth Worth (LCS) operating in the Spratly Islands. China’s uncompromising behavior to change the territorial status quo in the South China Sea increasingly puts pressure on its neighbors and other regional countries, including Australia, to formulate a response that practically demonstrates shared interests in unfettered access to the high seas.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia