Most Chinese Say Their Military Can Crush America in Battle

The Buzz

The vast majority of Chinese citizens believe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could seize islands in the East and South China Seas, even if the U.S. military were to intervene in the conflicts.

No less than 87 percent of respondents said that the Chinese military already possessed the capability to take back the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from Japan, according to a recent public opinion poll. When asked whether they still believed the PLA could achieve this objective if the U.S. intervened in the conflict, 74 percent said yes.

The numbers were much the same for the South China Sea. When asked whether they believed the PLA could militarily take back disputed islands in the South China Sea, 85.6 percent of respondents said that China’s military could achieve this objective. Even if the U.S. military intervened on behalf of the Southeast Asian nations, about 73 percent of respondents said they still believed the Chinese military would prevail.

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These were just some of the results of a recent survey published by Andrew Chubb and the Perth USAsia Centre (h/t ASPI’s The Strategist), entitled: “Exploring China’s ‘Maritime Consciousness’ Public Opinion on the South and East China Sea Disputes.” The poll, which was the first in what will be an annual poll on Chinese views of the island disputes, was based on phone interviews conducted with 1,413 adult residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Changsha and Chengdu.

Despite the confidence in their country’s military’s capabilities, a slight majority of respondents said they did not want to go to war over disputed islands in either the South or East China Seas. When asked whether it was in China’s national interest to use military force to take back the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but Beijing also claims, 55.5 percent of respondents said that it was not. Just over 33 percent disagreed while the rest were unsure or didn’t answer.

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Fifty-four percent of respondents agreed that it was not in China’s interest to use military force to take back disputed islands in the South China Sea, compared to 33.5 percent who disagreed. The rest were unsure or did not answer.

The survey participants also didn’t rank the island disputes as particularly important compared with many domestic issues. When the pollsters presented participants with a list of nine issues and asked them to choose the five most important, around 51 percent of respondents selected “island issues with neighboring countries” as one of their choices. Corruption, rich-poor disparity, food and drug safety, moral issues and environmental pollution all ranked higher. Notably, however, the island disputes ranked considerably higher than reunification with Taiwan, which only 22 percent of respondents selected as among their top five issues.

The overwhelming belief that the PLA would prevail in a conflict with the United States in the East or South China Seas could make it easier for Chinese leaders to gain support for aggressive policies. At the same time, it could very well make Party leaders more weary of actually initiating a conflict, given the domestic repercussions for them if China is defeated.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest.

Image: Flickr/sjrankin

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

No End in Sight: Syria's Wicked Civil War Rages On

The Buzz

With over 200,000 Syrians killed, tens of thousands missing or in detention camps, millions displaced, and a generation of Syrians growing up stateless in refugee camps in the region, the world watches as the fourth year of a civil war passes that has left over 80 percent of the country without electricity and a majority of the country’s towns decimated.

Syria’s cultural heritage, notably in Aleppo, has been decimated. Regional government sources calculate the costs of rebuilding Syria to exceed one hundred billion dollars. The effects of this regional conflict increasingly strain Syria’s neighbors’ financially, politically, and socially. While much coverage has focused on Iraq and Daesh’s surge, Lebanon is in a tenuous balance with militants operating in the state, sectarian fighting, and over a million Syrian refugees..

At the same time, the larger diplomatic process is dead--with no definable way forward to bridge the gap, on the one hand, between the increasingly confident President Assad who has expressed his own renewed confidence about winning this four years old conflict and his growing number of opponents. on the other. Syria’s opposition has been pulverized.

What’s more, groups such as Daesh and Al Nusra have consolidated their control over strategic parts of north and eastern Syria and oppose any peace process. While UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura has attempted to broker local cease fires (“freezes”), these efforts have failed so far to make any tangible changes on the ground and arguably, at times, tend to benefit Damascus more so than its opponents.

Outside states, involved in the civil war, also are severely divided over what type of political solution should occur in Syria. Sparring over other global crises, Moscow and Washington remain deeply divided. Against Washington’s interests, Ankara is more focused on overthrowing Assad and containing the Kurds than a sustainable solution to its neighbor’s strife.

The GCC and Iran remain fundamentally divided over Syria. While the U.S. has increased its training of armed opposition on the ground to counter-Daesh, the Obama administration has been wary to get further involved in Syria’s long civil war with no clear path forward on a political process and an absence of partners to work with on the ground.

The situation on the ground, then. has left the possibility of a peace process that might be concluded before the next anniversary between President Assad and the opposition a vain hope. More likely is a protracted civil war in the region that will further pull Syria’s neighbors into its vortex. Washington and its regional allies will need to identify new strategies to manage the potentially decades long conflict’s impact on their strategic interests and address critically the humanitarian cost of this civil war. Such efforts will require enhanced cooperation to contain this civil war. Failing to do so will only leave the region and Washington ever more vulnerable to these growing costs.

Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D is a Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia/Bo yaser


Stop Exploiting Ferguson

The Buzz

The shooting of two officers in Ferguson early Thursday morning will further inflame relations between the public and law enforcement in Ferguson. The shooting comes a little over a week after the Justice Department released a report accusing the Ferguson police department of blatant racial bias and a day after Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced his resignation from the department, effective March 19.

St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar said in a press conference Thursday morning, “I don't know who did the shooting, to be honest with you right now, but somehow they were embedded in that group of folks.” However, some protesters at the scene, including self-proclaimed activist DeRay McKesson, maintain that the shooter was not among the crowd and was actually hundreds of feet away, perhaps atop a hill.

While these may seem like nothing more than premature conflicting witness statements, these two differing accounts mean a lot—a whole lot—especially in Ferguson. McKesson, a twenty-nine-year-old Teach for America and Bowdoin alum and founder of the Ferguson Protester Newsletter, is black. Chief Belmar, an Arkansas State and FBI National Academy alum, is white. It seems that the stage is set for yet another perfect storm in Ferguson.

After all, the Michael Brown case and subsequent protests created an even starker divide in Ferguson between the low-income predominantly black communities and the predominantly white local police force. And there have been many opportunists and interventionists who have taken advantage of this cleaving.

In August, TNI’s John Allen Gay highlighted the various outsiders who traveled to Ferguson apparently to instigate fighting and promote their own respective political agendas. Some of these instigators were also called out by locals in Ferguson. What were (or are) the true motives of these outsiders who intentionally riled up locals? It’s hard to say for sure.

But there is one thing that could be said.

Any such outsiders are not doing the citizens of Ferguson any favors. In fact, anyone that openly and strongly encourages those in Ferguson’s black community to protest is not acting in those citizens’ best interest. That is not to say that anyone who encourages and endorses the protesters has malicious intent and wishes to watch Ferguson fall apart. It does mean, however, that anyone who does this fails to recognize how damaging such instigation can be.

Why? Two reasons. First, this instigation produces nationwide images of a Ferguson full of looters and rioters reinforce the stereotypical views of “angry black protesters” that some on the police force (and others in America) may have. Second, it directly harms Ferguson’s economy and infrastructure.

While there have been many protesters who have voiced their dismay at watching the initially peaceful demonstrations devolve into violent, chaotic situations—such as this morning’s shooting and last year’s looting—unfortunately, for all the numerous peaceful protesters, there are bound to be some who become confrontational, especially where the issues of racial bias and use of force are concerned. And so Ferguson conjured up images of Los Angeles in 1992.

While it is too early to say much about the motives behind this morning’s shooting, it is my sincere hope that this time around, violence will not escalate further, and that someone with substantial public influence, prominence and visibility states that the last thing the citizens of Ferguson need is any outside agitators egging them on and promoting a mass social uprising against law enforcement.

Rebecca M. Miller is an assistant editor and illustrator at the National Interest. She tweets at @RebecMil.

Image: Flickr/ Phobia Films


The Damage to U.S. Interests Abroad of Domestic Political Intemperance

Paul Pillar

Tom Cotton's sophomoric stunt of an open letter to the Iranians telling them not to have confidence in whatever the United States puts on the negotiating table has received the broad and swift condemnation it deserves. Some of the strong criticism has come from editorial pages and other sources of commentary that generally are not very friendly toward the Obama administration in general or even to its policies on Iran in particular. A bright side to this incident that embarrasses and disgraces half of the United States Senate comes in the clarity it provides in terms of what games are being played and what is at stake. Even before this latest antic, Cotton deserved credit for being more honest about his objective than most of his colleagues who are engaged in the same destructive efforts to undermine diplomacy on Iran. Cotton has stated openly and explicitly that his goal is to kill off any agreement at all with Iran. Unlike many others, he has not tried to fool us with the subterfuge that legislative sabotage is aimed at getting a chimerical “better deal” with Iran. Now with the letter, the unwritten alliance between American hardliners and Iranian hardliners in opposing any agreement is made more open than ever.

What is going on here is not just the work of Tom Cotton. The outrageous letter to the Iranians flows naturally from a broader ongoing process. The fact that the great majority of Republican senators signed the letter is the most obvious indication of that. There no doubt is today much regret in the senatorial offices involved, but the fact is that 47 of them signed it. There are a couple of possible interpretations of what took place among the members, neither of which makes those members look good. One is that they are so distracted or careless that they can let a 37-year-old who has been in the Senate only two months rope them into doing something this stupid. The other, which is the more plausible interpretation, is that Cotton's letter was only the latest vehicle for a journey that the whole party has already been taking for some time.

The letter was a natural next step after bringing Benjamin Netanyahu to the Capitol for the express purpose of denouncing and opposing U.S. policy toward Iran. In each case it was a matter of Congressional Republicans enlisting foreigners to try to sabotage a major element of current U.S. foreign policy. Because Israel is considered an “ally,” Netanyahu got to use the podium in the House chamber whereas Iranian hardliners do not get that privilege. But the fundamental nature and purpose of what was taking place was the same.

The impact of all of this on the immediate prospects for completing a nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran is certainly important and has been the subject of much of the immediate commentary about the letter. There is a basis for optimism that this clownish overplaying of their hand by some of those who would like to sabotage the diplomacy will lessen the danger of such sabotage. The episode at least demonstrates why, if one wants U.S. policy toward Iran to be formulated and executed in a responsible and adult way, then for the time being the less Congressional involvement there is the better.

We ought to reflect also, however, on how the kind of irresponsible behavior we have just seen is part of a bigger pattern that goes well beyond policy toward Iran and has deleterious effects on U.S. interests abroad besides what happens to an Iranian nuclear deal. This behavior damages U.S. credibility. There is an irony here in that some of those who signed Cotton's letter have been among those who have bemoaned supposed diminishing of America's international credibility because of other matters, usually involving issues of whether the United States should persist in prosecuting overseas military operations where any direct U.S. interests being protected are questionable. U.S. credibility is not determined by military doggedness in such situations. It is partly determined by the United States living up to negotiated multilateral agreements that are clearly in its interests, as would be the case with a P5+1 agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. Probably the single most remarkable—and egregious—aspect of the Cotton letter is that it was blatantly and expressly designed to damage U.S. credibility. In the future, it will lack credibility for any signatory of this letter to complain about alleged damage to U.S. credibility regarding anything else.

The connection between the sort of behavior we are talking about and the standing of the United States overseas, however, is even broader than that and extends to the handling of domestic policy. Foreigners and foreign governments observe how the United States, the superpower with the world's largest economy, handles its own affairs, and they draw conclusions about how viable and reliable an interlocutor the United States would be on international matters. The foreigners are looking to see whether there is consistency and rationality in how the U.S. political system pursues U.S. national interests. If they do see those things, then the United States is someone they can do business with, whether as a rival or as an ally, even if U.S. interests differ from their own. If they do not see those things, then opportunities are lost for doing business that would benefit both the United States and the foreign state.

A nation does not represent itself as a viable interlocutor, whose execution of policy can be trusted by other nations, if passionate internal divisions supersede sober pursuit of the nation's interests. As an outsider we encounter such situations in, say, Iraq, where sectarian loyalties and hatreds make it impossible to rely on a government in Baghdad consistently pursuing an Iraqi national interest. We also see it in Bangladesh, where the personal animosity between the “two begums” who head each of the major political parties there have made Bangladeshi politics so dysfunctional that in the recent past the military has had to step in.

A pattern that is similar in some respects has, tragically, come to prevail in the United States. Foreigners could hear the then minority (now majority) leader of the United States Senate state a few years ago that his number one priority was not any particular U.S. national interest in either domestic or foreign affairs but instead the prevention of a second term for the incumbent U.S. president. Foreigners then were able to see the senator's party act along the same lines, using extortionate legislative methods to push a partisan agenda even at the expense of damaging the country's credit rating and causing disruptive interruptions to government operations. Once the same party achieved a majority in both houses of Congress there was much talk about how this would lead to newly responsible behavior, but the opening gavel of the new Congress had hardly fallen when once again there was the tactic of holding the operations of a government department hostage to press a specific partisan demand (this time on immigration) in opposition to the president's policies.

Foreigners can see today in the same party an animosity toward the other party and especially to the current U.S. president that is as passionate as the sectarian hatreds in Iraq or the personal hatreds between the begums in Bangladesh, and that leads to at-all-costs efforts to defeat any achievements by this president. The biggest such achievement in foreign policy would be an accord to restrict the Iranian nuclear program—hence all the pulling out of stops, aided by the role of Netanyahu and the Iranian hardliners, to defeat such an agreement. The biggest achievement in domestic policy has been the Affordable Care Act—hence while those proverbial crumbling roads and bridges in the U.S. infrastructure continue to crumble, the House of Representatives spends its time and effort on voting 56 times to repeal the Act. The campaign to destroy Obamacare has become an Ahab-against-the-white-whale obsession that is being endlessly pursued despite mounting evidence of the Act's success; observant foreigners must be shaking their heads wondering how a country in which such obsessions govern the political system ever got to be a superpower.

The closing of eyes even to the performance of public programs within the United States is but one example of an all-too-conspicuous denial of reality on other matters. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, gave another demonstration of this the other day when he tossed a snowball in the Senate chamber to emphasize his disbelief in climate change, a prank that rivals what the youngster Cotton has done in demeaning the world's supposedly greatest deliberative body. The foreign perceptions of all this that matter include not only whether CO2-belching China will live up to its side of international agreements to save the planet but also more broadly what foreigners think about the prospect of doing any business on anything with a government that has a major part of it so far apart from the reality-based community and so disinclined to work responsibly on behalf of its own national interests.

Senator Cotton's letter deserves all the scorn it has received as far as the Iranian nuclear issue is concerned. It also should dismay us because of the bigger problem it illustrates of domestic political passions undermining the standing of the United States in the world and its ability to do business with the rest of the world.                                                   

TopicsIran Congress RegionsMiddle East

How Powerful Is America's Military Really?

The Buzz

Politicians are fond of telling Americans that they have the most powerful military in the history of mankind. However, they rarely can explain how they reached that conclusion.

As it turns out, despite the seemingly endless number of government and think-tank reports being published daily, there isn’t a single index measuring America’s military power. Until now, that is.

Last week, the Heritage Foundation released the first of what will be an annual report on America’s military might. The report, entitled 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength: Assessing America’s Ability to Provide for the Common Defense, is modeled on Heritage's widely successful Index of Economic Freedom.

The new index assesses America’s hard power, which is measured in terms of “capability or modernity, capacity for operations, and readiness,” against threats to vital U.S. interests. It also looks at “the ease or difficulty of operating in key regions based on existing alliances, regional political stability, the presence of U.S. military forces, and the condition of key infrastructure.”

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The conclusion of the report is not exactly comforting: namely, America only possesses “marginal” military strength to defend its vital interests in the current threat environment. “Overall, the Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is adequate to meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities,” the report states. “But it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two, near-simultaneous major regional contingencies,” as successive administrations of both political parties have used as their benchmark for military strength.

The Index also grades each of the services, as well as the Marines and America’s nuclear forces on a five-point scale based on their capacity, capability and readiness. Only the Air Force receives an above-average grade; it is assessed as “strong,” the second-highest ranking on the scale.

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The Index gives the rest of the other services and America’s nuclear arsenal the middle-of-the-pack “marginal” grade. The U.S. Army comes in at the lower end of this spectrum, owing primarily to its low state of readiness. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, exhibits a higher state of readiness but is lacking on the capability front. Capacity is the largest weakness of the Marines, according to the Index, which also gives poor marks to the modernization and readiness of America’s nuclear arsenal.

In assessing the current threat environment, the Index discounts “trouble-some states and non-state entities that lacked the physical ability to pose a meaningful threat to the vital interests of the U.S.” As such, only six threats are considered: Russia, Iran, Middle East terrorism, Af-Pak terrorism, China and North Korea.

All of these actors pose at least an “elevated” threat to vital U.S. interests, with Russia and China judged as especially problematic. As the report explains, “While all six threats have been quite problematic in their behavior and in their impact on their respective regions, Russia and China are particularly worrisome given the investments they are making in the rapid modernization and expansion of their offensive military capabilities.” China and Russia are listed as “high” threats to vital U.S. interests.

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So what kind of military force would be adequate to defend against these threats? The Index goes into great detail about the specific needs for each separate service, the Marine Corps and America’s nuclear arsenal. In doing so, the report not only discusses the force size and structure needed, but also delves into the conceptual role each service—and often times, specific forces—play in defending American interests.

The chapter on the Navy is a case in point. The report notes, for instance, that “the Navy is unusual relative to the other services in that its capacity requirements must meet two separate objectives.” The first of these is to maintain a forward presence around the world during peacetime. The second, of course, is to fight and win wars. “An accurate assessment of Navy capacity,” the report states, “takes into account both sets of requirement” when assessing the size and structure of the Navy.

The chapter proceeds to recommend having thirteen deployable carrier strike groups, thirteen carrier air wings and fifty amphibious ships. It then breaks down the purpose and components of each in terms that civilians can understand.

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In fact, one of the most refreshing aspects of the Index is that it avoids the type of jargon that is usually so prevalent in reports on U.S. hard power. In that sense, it is so simple, even a member of Congress could read it. With sequestration still threatening to erode America’s hard power, let’s hope all of them do.

Image: Flickr/ w4nd3rl0st (InspiredinDesMoines)