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Tensions in Asia are Rising: How Strong is the U.S.- Australia Relationship?

The Buzz

With the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) recently concluded in Sydney, it’s a good time to reassess the broader Australian–US strategic relationship. I want to frame that assessment here by employing a SWOT analysis. The methodology is clunky but simple enough to allow a set of insights about the relationship’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I’ve allowed myself three of each, as follows.

Three strengths: familial closeness, shared grand strategies, and a solid foundation. First, closeness. The Anglosphere’s our international family, and while it’s easy to mock the importance of belonging to an international family, states that don’t belong to one (like Japan) would beg to differ. Ties of blood and culture run deep. Second, grand strategy: the best long-term allies are those who essentially want the same thing. In grand strategy, Washington and Canberra both want a stable, liberal, prosperous global order. And that’s a good basis for long-term cooperation—because the tie isn’t just of blood but of interest. Third, the foundation: we both enjoy an alliance that’s over 60 years old and is as close today as it’s ever been. Both allies are still looking for new ways to cooperate in order to make the alliance more relevant to the 21st century.

Three weaknesses: time, place, and strategic personalities. After the Global War on Terror the U.S. is a weary Titan. That effect might last another five to ten years, but—over the longer haul—U.S. vigor will wax as well as wane. There’s a second, longer-term “time” factor, and that relates to the broader pattern of regional transformation: while the US rebalance to Asia is good, Washington’s rebalancing at a time when Western influence in the region is slipping because of the rise of regional great powers. Second is geography. At the best of times, Australia’s not Washington’s top priority—geographically we sit too far back from a strategic order essentially built along the Eurasian rim lands. True, the shift of strategic weight in Asia is changing that, to some degree—but we’re never going to be as relevant as front-line U.S. partners. Finally, personalities: the U.S. and Australia are two different strategic personality types: Americans are Extroverted, Intuitive and Feeling; Australians are Extroverted, Sensing and Thinking. In short, we‘re British empiricists, they’re the City on the Hill. There’s a messianic core to U.S. strategic policy that isn’t replicated in ours.

Three opportunities: a more receptive Asia, a U.S. more interested in Southeast Asia, a treaty with an in-built capacity to engage. Evidence of the more receptive Asia abounds. Regional countries want to do more with both the US and Australia. Japan’s the obvious example, but others aren’t as far behind as some think. It wasn’t always thus: remember, we couldn’t do much more with Japan before Abe, nor much more with Indonesia before SBY. A second opportunity, a shifting U.S. perception of Southeast Asia. Washington has traditionally seen that sub region as a set of sea-lanes, and after 9/11 as a possible second front in the War on Terror, but it’s finally coming to see it as a set of influential players at the intersection of two key oceans. Third, both the U.S. and Australia are classic networkers. And the ANZUS treaty already gives them scope (in the unused Article 8) to do more networking together in the regional context. I’m amazed we aren’t doing it.

Three threats: complacency, category mistake, and distraction. Let’s start with complacency, because that’s the most insidious threat to the relationship. There’s something of a danger on both sides of the Pacific that capitals will treat the relationship as “business-as-usual.” Oddly, the simple regularity of AUSMIN actually increases that danger, reducing high-level political commitment to the alliance to an annual ministerial meeting. We need to work to sustain a broader base of political engagement. Second, the threat of the category mistake: that we come to see ANZUS as a barrier to our closer engagement with Asia, rather than an enabler of such engagement. It’s a simple mistake to slip into, and it typically follows from seeing ANZUS as a strategic hangover from a different era. And finally, there’s the threat of distraction. Distraction can come to both capitals from a range of sources. Washington can easily be distracted by more urgent priorities, both domestic and international; but so too can Canberra. Despite the excitable tones in which the future of our strategic partnership with the U.S. is sometimes debated, the real threat isn’t that our relationship will be ruined by disastrous war, nor even that it’ll be traded away to accommodate China: it’s that the relationship will be eaten out from the inside, leaving a hollow, reactive partnership in the place of a substantive, proactive one.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist, where this article first appeared here

Image: U.S. Sec. of State (Flickr) 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

The U.S. Military's Ultimate Fear: Are Aircraft Carriers Too Big To Fail?

The Buzz

Various defense pundits, scholars, and journalists have spent a considerable amount of digital ink debating the various threats to America’s carrier fleet while avoiding a more central question. In the cliché phrase of our time: Are carriers too big to fail? Clausewitz tells us, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Is there any political situation of such gravity that losing a carrier would be deemed an acceptable risk? In other words, how expendable are carriers? The answer to this question has large implications for the tactical and strategic options available to U.S. policymakers.

Total security from all risk is impossible. The aircraft carrier is not invulnerable to attack. The new U.S. Ford-class aircraft carrier will be a floating home to over 4,000 sailors and comes in at the hefty price tag of around $12 billion dollars. In light of the development and proliferation of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weaponry, does this enormous investment of human resources narrow U.S. tactical and strategic options? What are the implications of the sinking of a U.S. carrier?

Political Implications:

Over 4,000 American soldiers died during the recent eight and a half year Iraq war. These casualties played a large role in the extensive domestic opposition to the conflict. Imagine for a moment that a similar number of sailors perish in less than an hour. Such an event would be a national catastrophe and would likely create enormous political pressure to end combat operations. Such a catastrophic scenario is characteristic of naval warfare. In his book Seapower, Naval strategist Geoffrey Till tells us that:

“The nature of forces engaged in maritime operations…are expensive, hard to replace, and even the smallest units represent a sizeable investment in human resources, whose loss can be sudden and instantaneous and very hard for publics and governments to bear.”

The U.S. public is not conditioned to enduring high amounts of casualties. The last time commensurate numbers of U.S. troops died in a single military engagement was in 1950 during the Korean War. Knowing that, what would be the reaction if a U.S. carrier were attacked and sunk?

How it Could Happen:

To those who doubt such a scenario will ever unfold, consider this: Nothing is ever truly invulnerable. The sinking of the Titanic and the Bismarck as well as the passing of the “Battleship” era can all attest to that. Consider the various threats from Beijing’s A2/AD missile arsenal, specifically the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) and YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2013 global defense assessment, The Military Balance, states that the DF-21D has gone through limited testing and has been deployed to the Second Artillery, the branch of China’s military that controls its nuclear and conventional missile arsenal. Managing Editor for The National Interest Harry Kazianis brings up the point that simple math weights in the favor of the attacker when it comes to anti-ship weapons like the DF-21D. The U.S. Navy has a total of 30 ships equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system. Even if Washington utilized every Aegis BMD-equipped ship from across the globe, there is a limited amount of interceptors America could bring to the fight. American ships would be sitting ducks once they ran out. Worse, thousands of such missiles can be expended and not even come close to approaching the cost required to field a fleet capable of taking on the U.S. Navy

Strategic Implications:

The threat of a full carrier-strike group anchoring offshore has always been a cornerstone of U.S. deterrence. The sinking of a U.S. aircraft carrier--possibly by A2/AD style weapons--would likely be the defining moment where the era of perceived U.S. global military dominance would come to an end. Such an event--greatly magnified by a 24-hour global news cycle and the rise of social media--would alter the entire globe’s political and strategic balance. Any regime seeking to carve out local spheres of interest would scramble to seek the means to fend off the U.S. Navy. After all, the U.S. Navy is the single most important force providing security for the globalized economic system. Clearly American security assurances wouldn’t carry as much weight with a carrier sitting at the bottom of the sea.

If the Navy’s worst nightmare came true and U.S. adversaries strengthen their ability to threaten aircraft carriers, how does the Navy reorganize itself to project power?  The entire concept of a carrier strike group (CSG) is based on putting bombs on target by primarily carrier-based planes. This is a large part of the Navy’s new operational concept, Air-Sea Battle. Air-Sea Battle (ASB) integrates forces from all domains: space, air, land, sea, and cyber, in order to defeat “adversaries equipped with sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities.” An asymmetric weapon that can bypass a carrier’s layered defenses and have even a remote chance at hitting a carrier would throw a wrench in a plan that may be costing U.S. taxpayers around half a trillion dollars.

Too Many Eggs in One Basket?

While the chances of a U.S.-China conflict are remote, Beijing is investing heavily in A2/AD weapons. More importantly, in our current age of breakneck technological development and cyber espionage, nobody can predict what military technologies U.S. rivals may have in five or ten years. Those who believe in the invincibility of the U.S. carrier strike group are tempting fate. The U.S. Navy may be limiting its options by putting too many of its eggs--or shrinking defense dollars--in one basket.

Captain Henry Hendrix sums up this fear in a Center for New American Security paper, stating that aircraft carriers are:

“Big, expensive, vulnerable – and surprisingly irrelevant to the conflicts of the time…The national security establishment, the White House, the Department of Defense and Congress persist despite clear evidence that the carrier equipped with manned strike aircraft is an increasingly expensive way to deliver firepower and that carriers themselves may not be able to move close enough to targets to operate effectively or survive in an era of satellite imagery and long-range precision strike missiles.”

There is a considerable amount of inertia behind the carrier program in the United States. In a recent article about China’s DF-21D Time magazine quoted retired Navy Captain naval-strategist Bernard Cole explaining how our Navy, domestic industry, and politicians all have a deep-rooted interest in keeping carriers as the centerpiece of our naval strategy. Indeed, these behemoths have accompanied us during the entirety of our rise to military preeminence. However, our close relationship with the carrier has its drawbacks. Historically, one advantage that developing militaries have is that they get to base their doctrine and fighting methods on current technology in the relative absence of entrenched interests. Conversely, consider the damage that obsolete ideas of warfare wrought during the beginning of World War One. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died before the major European militaries were able to shed themselves of their dogmatic doctrine and antiquated leadership. If aircraft carriers are being eclipsed by various A2/AD weapons systems and asymmetric strategies, the military-industrial inertia behind the carrier program is a strategic disadvantage to the United States.

Carriers Have Been Threatened Before:

Despite very real dangers to U.S. carriers there are very legitimate arguments that caution against overstating potential threats.  According to Chairman of National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and Johns Hopkins SAIS professor Dr. Thomas Mahnken, China’s growing A2/AD abilities and precision munitions are causing the military balance to:

“Go back to a situation in terms of risk that much more resembles the Cold War than the past two decades. So risk will go up, but we’ve dealt with risk before. We are just unused to deal with that type of risk in recent experience. It will be a learning process on our side to develop the appropriate ways to respond.”

Conclusion:

Are carriers too big to fail? If so, U.S. policymakers need to break themselves from the assumption that carriers are the end product of the evolution of naval technology. The United States must maintain its leadership role in military innovation; not fall into the age-old trap of other great powers by absconding modernization and relying instead on time-tested dogma and tradition. In the future our carriers and Navy servicemen may pay the ultimate price due to our complacency and failure to innovate. 

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

The Ebola Effect: A Long Shadow on a Successful Africa Summit

The Buzz

Last week’s unprecedented US Africa Summit brought dozens of African presidents and hundreds of officials and business leaders to Washington. What could have turned into a diplomatic disaster was a solid success, with announcements of new projects and investments. Thirty-three billion dollars in projects and a new group of corporate ambassadors for African opportunities is a definite step forward in changing the perception of Africa in the United States. Yet this forward progress has unfortunately been eclipsed by the Ebola crisis in the eyes of the public, demanding new effort from the US government to reassure investors that African opportunities are worth it.

While President Obama and Jeff Immelt of GE were touting Africa’s fastest growing markets, the majority of Americans were hearing about the hundreds dead in West Africa from the horrific hemorrhagic fever. Though the disease’s spread is more of a function of a lacking health care system than its virological nature, many are just associating it with Africa and Africans in general.

It is against a backdrop of this perception that the United States needs to redouble its efforts to help US companies recognize and develop the dynamic opportunities in markets as diverse as Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. The United States must bridge this persistent perception gap. Ernst & Young’s Attractiveness Survey for Africa revealed a stark difference in views of the region between companies with established operations in African markets and those waiting on the sidelines. The ones operating on the ground in African markets are twice as likely to be positive about the economies’ progress and prospects.

The Summit was a significant step in the right direction in bridging this gap. Blackstone partnered with Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, to finance $5 billion in infrastructure deals. Coca-Cola, IBM, GE, Walmart, and Marriott all expanded their investment plans for the region. The United States certainly wants the $1 trillion that Africans will be spending by 2020 to be spent on US goods and services; it wants US companies to ride the wave of 7-10 percent growth rates to offset the stagnation of the major developed economies; and it wants US companies waiting on the sidelines to jump into the game.  

The juxtaposition of 250 CEOs meeting to discuss African business with an unfolding World Health Organization-declared emergency reflects the complexity that is modern Africa. It is complex in its diversity: fifty-four countries of rich cultures and different economic trajectories. It is complex in its contradictions: many African countries—including Kenya and Nigeria—have grown and continue to grow despite the drag of lingering insecurity and instability, persistent poverty, and pernicious politics. It is complex in its uneven development: while some countries reach middle income status and converge with developed economies, others diverge and slip further behind on all socio-economic indicators. In the coming years, it will very much matter if you are born in a village in Ghana or across the border in neighboring Burkina Faso. The International Monetary Fund expects Ghana to reach full middle income status by the end of next year.  

When US companies look to do business in African markets, they have to appreciate this complexity just as they have learned to do in Mexico, Indonesia, India, and Brazil. President Obama expressed this in an op-ed on the US Africa Summit: “as Africa is changing, we need to change the way we think about the continent.” Extremely rapid economic growth is neither linear nor smooth and firms will make good returns amidst and in spite of insecurity, growing economic disparity, and large scale unemployment. US companies that figure out how to succeed in African markets will benefit and those that do not will be bought by those that do. Those vested in US businesses thriving in Africa must work harder to highlight the opportunities and mark the path forward.

Future US-Africa Business Summits will help, in addition to the day-to-day support given by the US Commercial Service, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Export-Import Bank, and the US Trade and Development Agency. Sustaining the positive buzz around Africa over the long-term will be as hard or harder than creating it. Misperception can be more contagious than Ebola and we all need to work toward a cure.

Aubrey Hruby is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council Africa Center. She has spent ten years helping companies successfully conduct business and invest in African markets.

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsAfrica

The Great Battle for Asia: China vs. America

The Buzz

Editor’s Note: The Australian Policy Institute (ASPI) has recently been debating the future of the Asian security order. We present the final part of this debate:

Well, this has been an interesting exchange and I thank Peter Jennings for launching it, the team on The Strategist for hosting it, and distinguished colleagues for taking the time to contribute. The exchange has helped to clarify the most important underlying points of difference between us about Australia’s interests in the Asian order. And I’m grateful for the chance to offer some brief concluding thoughts.

In fact Nick Bisley put his finger on it: the key difference between my view and many others’ lies in our different ideas about the future of the regional order. I think the strategic status quo in Asia will not last, while others believe it will.

Let me recap why I think the order is going to change—indeed, is already changing. It’s simple. Asia has been stable since 1972 because China has accepted U.S. primacy as the foundation of the Asian order. China did so because it believed it was too weak to contest it effectively. Now China believes it’s strong enough to contest U.S. primacy, and it’s doing so.

Asia’s post-Vietnam order, based on uncontested U.S. primacy, has therefore passed into history. The question now is what kind of new order will take its place. There are several possibilities. None of them would be as good for Australia as the order we have known since 1972, but some would be much better for us than others. We should be trying to nudge the region towards a new order that would work well for us, and away from ones that would be bad for us.

Most of the posts in our debate differ from my position by arguing, or implying, that we should aim to preserve the status quo instead. That case is made in several different ways.

Rod Lyon rightly draws attention to the risks of moving to a new order that concedes a bigger role to China. But those risks must be balanced against the risks of trying and failing to preserve the status quo. If we refuse to accommodate China to some extent, the most likely result is escalating strategic rivalry.

So the choice we face isn’t the one Rod weighs, between accommodating China and preserving the status quo. It’s between accommodating China and confronting it as a rival. I think Rod, like others, tends to underestimate that risk because he assumes that when faced with our resolve to preserve the status quo China will simply back off.

That isn’t a confidence I share. Bob O’Neill gives an important insight into why China is so serious about changing the status quo when he traces the Senkaku dispute back to the Treaty of Shimonoseki, thereby connecting it to the century of humiliation which the Chinese feel so deeply. Bob has reminded us that we won’t understand what’s happening in Asia if we don’t see how things appear from what Liddell Hart called (quoting the Duke of Wellington) “the other side of the hill.”

True, that only matters if China is strong enough to fulfill its ambitions. Andrew Phillips doesn’t thinks so, and neither does Bill Tow. Andrew thinks the current order is too strong for China. Bill suggests that China isn’t really focused on competing with America for influence in East Asia because its attention is drawn more to Central Asia and it can’t afford to do both.

I’m not sure that’s so. There are limits to China’s power, of course, but I think it’s possible that China can significantly undermine U.S. leadership in Asia quite cheaply by undermining the credibility of U.S. regional alliances, and I have argued elsewhere that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.

Andrew O’Neil thinks we can’t be sure what will happen, and it’s easy to agree with him about that. It’s much harder to agree with the implication that we can and should do nothing until we are sure. If we want to have any chance of acting before it’s too late, we have no choice but to act before the outcome is certain, so we have to be willing to back our judgment.

And there are some things we do already know on which we can base those judgments—like China’s economy is already almost as big as America’s, and China’s already showing that it wants a new model of great-power relations. What new evidence is Andrew waiting for that China has the weight and the will to challenge the status quo?

Finally, Peter Jennings (in his second post) is sure that I’m urging Australia to choose between America and China, despite my claims to the contrary. I think I can see where he’s coming from. On the one hand, Peter assumes there could be no new order in Asia in which Australia didn’t have to choose between America and China. On the other, he assumes that we won’t have to choose between them as long as we hold fast to the current order. So according to Peter, arguing for a change in the order, as I do, is arguing to make a choice. And arguing to preserve the old order, as he does, is arguing against a choice.

But I think both his assumptions are wrong. On the one hand, it’s possible for a new order to emerge in Asia in which escalating rivalry between the two great powers is avoided, and in which Australia can therefore maintain close relations with both. That’s why a new order in which they share power would be best for Australia.

On the other hand, it seems to me likely indeed that resisting any accommodation of China in a new order will lead to escalating rivalry, and it seems equally clear that the more rivalry escalates the starker the choices we face between Washington and Beijing. And the closer they come to war, the closer we come to the starkest possible binary choice.

That’s why I think we’re more likely to be compelled to choose between America and China if we try to preserve the status quo than if we encourage a new order based on accommodation. And so, precisely to avoid that choice, we should argue for change. Like a true conservative, I argue for the minimum changes needed to preserve what’s most important.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and author of The China Choice. You can find the original posting of this article over at ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Can the BRICS Dominate the Global Economy?

The Buzz

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa have thrown down the gauntlet at the feet of the West. Last month these five emerging economies launched a New Development Bank - nicknamed the "BRICS Bank" - that combines features of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Meanwhile, China has proposed an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that could compete with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). These initiatives represent the first serious institutional challenge to the global economic order established at Bretton Woods 70 years ago this summer. The psychology behind them is clear, as advanced countries have damaged their own credibility as responsible economic stakeholders in recent years and have failed to fully accommodate the rise of the new powers. Less clear is how much of a substantive improvement these new institutions will make to global governance - or even to the interests of the countries championing them.

At first blush, it is difficult to take the new BRICS Bank seriously. The five founding members were brought together by little more than a clever acronym and a shared desire to send a message to the West. The differences among the five in economic heft, political orientation, and geostrategic interests are cavernous. Moreover, the initial paid-in capital of only $10 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the development challenges the bank is intended to address.

But the BRICS Bank reflects a real grievance on the part of the emerging world about the state of global economic governance, including the recurring financial crises emanating from the United States and Europe in recent years and the failure of advanced countries to reallocate "shares and chairs" to emerging economies in existing institutions such as the IMF. Moreover, if managed well, the BRICS Bank could make a useful contribution to global development. Yet it could also undermine the global rules-based system that has largely served the economic interests of the BRICS well over the past seven decades.

When representatives of 44 allied nations, mostly from North America and Europe, assembled in New Hampshire in July 1944, they had three principal goals in mind. First and foremost was to construct a rules-based international economic architecture that would help prevent a recurrence of the chaos and devastation of the previous 30 years. Second was to rebuild the war-torn economies of Europe and Asia and lay a foundation for long-term global prosperity. To meet these first two objectives, the delegates at Bretton Woods created the IMF to promote macroeconomic cooperation and discourage beggar-thy-neighbor currency policies, the World Bank to oversee reconstruction and development, and the building blocks of what later became the World Trade Organization to discipline global trade. The North Atlantic powers then met their third objective - preserving their leadership in global affairs - by tilting governance of these institutions in their favor.

Arguably, both the BRICS Bank and China's proposed AIIB have been motivated by three similar objectives - only in reverse order. More than anything, the founding members want to establish themselves as leaders in global affairs; they want to sit in the big chair at the head of the table and hold the gavel. Second, they seek to promote economic opportunity, though with a distinctly mercantilist bent favoring their own commercial interests. Making a positive contribution to the global rules-based order is a tertiary consideration at best.

To be sure, the willingness of the BRICS to invest in infrastructure and sustainable development is welcome. The World Bank estimates infrastructure needs in developing countries of around $1 trillion per annum through 2020. If China and other successful emerging economies can share their development experience and capacity with poorer nations, this would add to global welfare.

But are new institutions - especially ones that raise a number of serious governance and operational questions -really needed to meet these ends? The founding members of the BRICS Bank say they intend to share voting power equally within the existing group and to yield shares to new members as they join. Yet unless the BRICS Bank is going to remain a limited experiment, will South Africa really be able to sustain an equal financial contribution with China? If not, will Beijing continue to be willing to give Pretoria an equal voice in running the institution? And what happens when the combined share of the five founding countries hits the declared floor of 55 percent; will they then stop accepting new members, or will the shares of other existing members be diluted?

Operationally, will the BRICS Bank be able to attract top-tier staff to Shanghai? On what terms will the bank lend? Will there be sound financial, transparency, environmental, and other conditions akin to those applied by multilateral banks such as the World Bank and ADB? Will lending be tied to procurement of goods and services from founding-member companies, or will bidding be open to all?

Similar governance and operational questions surround China's AIIB proposal. Indeed, Beijing should be taking an especially hard look at the costs and benefits of these new institutional arrangements. For all the understandable complaints about the existing order, that order has served China's interests well over the past several decades. It has provided open, growing markets for Chinese exports; access to capital, resources, and technology; and discipline as China has forged ahead with its own domestic economic reforms. Some day in the future when Beijing is sitting in the big chair with the gavel, it may rue the day when it agreed to underwrite expensive new institutions with weak governance and lending structures.

Meanwhile, the BRICS Bank is a wake-up call to the advanced countries of North America, Europe, and East Asia. They should strengthen their own economic management to avoid recurring financial and fiscal crises and do more to share power in the Bretton Woods institutions - notably by persuading the US Congress to enact the IMF quota reforms that the Obama administration championed in 2010. Having made a real concession by embracing the G-20, which includes the BRICS as equal members, as the "premier forum for our international economic cooperation," Western powers should work harder to restore the G-20's effectiveness and credibility. But at the same time, advanced countries should remind the BRICS that the existing rules-based multilateral order has served them all well in substantive terms and is worth preserving and building upon.

Matthew P. Goodman holds the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. This article originally appeared on Aug. 6th as part of the CSIS Commentary series and in CSIS: PACNET Newsletter here.

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsBRICS

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