Remembering The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: 50 Years Later

The Buzz

The first week of August marks not only the centenary of the guns of August 1914, but also the fiftieth anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was as near as the United States ever came to a declaration of war in Vietnam. It’s worth reflecting on why the events of August 1964 still remain the subject of intense controversy.

The root of the matter was the U.S. constitution, which designates the president as commander-in-chief but requires congressional approval for the country to wage war. Conflict between the executive and legislative branches over war powers has been a feature of administrations from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama.

On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had made two unprovoked attacks, on August 2nd and 4th, on the USS Maddox patrolling in international waters around the Gulf of Tonkin. The Administration immediately sought a congressional resolution which, in sweeping terms, gave the president the right to commit American forces to the defense of any Southeast Asian nation threatened by communist aggression or subversion. Based on the reports of the two attacks, Congress passed the resolution on  August 7th  by overwhelming majorities, 88–2 in the Senate and 416–0 in the House of Representatives.

The political context was all-important. Johnson, who’d unexpectedly become president following the assassination of President John Kennedy in November 1963, would face election in his own right in November 1964. He wanted a substantial majority that would enable him to introduce a program of civil rights and other domestic reforms. The brewing conflict in Vietnam was still a second-order issue in the United States. Johnson wanted to keep it there, while showing that he would respond with appropriate but limited force to any unprovoked challenge from the communists. He could thus present himself as the candidate most likely to keep American boys out of a land war in Asia, especially after the Republicans rejected the moderate Nelson Rockefeller and chose the hawkish Barry Goldwater as their candidate.

The Tonkin Gulf resolution suited Johnson’s tactics admirably: he won the election in a landslide. But from 1965 onwards, as the war escalated, the death toll mounted and a “credibility gap” emerged over Johnson’s handling of the war, his critics thought it had all been too convenient. Opponents challenged the resolution’s validity. Leading Democrats who emerged as prominent critics of the war, such as Senator William Fulbright, believed they had been grossly misled about the facts of the incident and Johnson’s intentions.

They raised three major charges. First, it was claimed that at least one, perhaps both, of the alleged attacks hadn’t actually taken place. Second, the administration was alleged to have deliberately provoked an attack, in order to gain congressional authority for the subsequent escalation of the commitment, which was already being planned in secret. And third, Johnson had allegedly misled Congress over his intentions and the way in which he would use the resolution.

Even after fifty years, much remains disputed, but the following seem to be the most credible responses to those charges.

First, the attack of August 2nd did take place; the alleged second attack almost certainly did not.

Second, the episode was as much a blunder as conspiracy. Two separate programs were under way in Vietnam, overseen by different agencies in Washington. Operation 34A involved provocative, but ineffectual, missions by CIA-backed South Vietnamese agents into North Vietnam, while the U.S. Navy conducted electronic eavesdropping missions called Operation DeSoto. The North Vietnamese understandably thought the Maddox was involved in a 34A attack. It wasn’t, but the extent of co-ordination between its DeSoto mission and the 34A attack remains unclear. Some hawks in the Johnson Administration had prepared a draft congressional resolution, but the administration’s intention was to introduce it later in the year, possibly after the election. Instead, in a hasty and opportunistic reaction to the alleged attacks, it was brought before Congress while the reports of the alleged attacks were extremely confused and contradictory.

Third, and most important, Johnson clearly gave the impression that his intentions were strictly limited, and that he would consult Congress further before any major escalation of the war. When Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote in his 1995 book In Retrospect that he and his colleagues had been “wrong, terribly wrong” on Vietnam, he asserted that Johnson’s error wasn’t deliberate deception in August 1964, but gross misuse of the resolution’s authority in subsequent years. While an important insight, that doesn’t fully excuse Johnson’s behavior in an episode which, half a century later, stands as a reminder of the enormous impact on world affairs of hasty actions, unduly influenced by domestic party politics, bureaucratic confusion and interagency rivalries.

Peter Edwards is an adjunct professor at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute of Deakin University. He is the official historian and general editor of the nine-volume Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975.  This article first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here. 

TopicsVietnam RegionsAsia-Pacific

Why Japan Will Never Be a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council

The Buzz

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent tour of South America, Central America and the Caribbean has been characterized by the international media as an attempt to match—if not outdo—Chinese President Xi Xinping’s own attempts to build economic relations in Latin America.  Yet Abe’s trip was not solely about spheres of economic influence: diplomatic and security issues were never far from the agenda, particularly regarding Japanese membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Next year, Japan hopes to be elected as a non-permanent member of the UNSC.  First elected to the council in 1958 and last a member in 2010, Japan (along with Brazil) has spent more years on the UNSC than any other state, testament to the value that Japanese leaders have for generations placed upon membership of the UN’s chief security forum.  Obtaining the prize of representation has always required some expenditure of diplomatic—and economic—capital.  It is nothing new, then, for Abe to use his meetings with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to shore up votes for next October’s elections, which will take place within the UN General Assembly where every country has an equal vote.

Japan’s ambitions go far beyond recurrent non-permanent membership of the council, however.  Instead, Japan has long argued that the permanent membership of the UNSC—currently the Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States—should be expanded to include itself, Brazil, India and Germany, the so-called “Group of Four”.  Last week, Abe and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff restated their joint case for reform (a March 2011 pamphlet from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo gives further details on the Japanese position).

Although the objective of permanent membership is longstanding, Abe’s diplomatic push ahead of October 2015 inevitably will be seen abroad in the same light as his other foreign policies, several of which have been criticized as hawkish by neighboring governments—not least of all the Chinese, which bitterly opposes the Japanese bid.  Far beyond the unwanted symbolism of a fully rehabilitated and “normal” Japan on the UN Security Council, the very real powers that permanent membership would afford Tokyo are simply anathema to Beijing’s interests.

Unlike Abe’s others attempts to bolster Japan’s international security posture, however, the bid for permanent membership of the UNSC is something that China is able to block with relative ease. As an existing permanent member of the council, China wields a veto over any proposals to alter its composition.  Japan’s permanent membership is therefore not possible without Chinese consent.

As such, Japan’s membership of the P5 is a non-starter, but Japanese ambitions on the world stage will nevertheless redound to the fraught Sino-Japanese relationship.  During previous discussions about reform of the UN in April 2005, “tens of thousands of demonstrators marched on the streets of major Chinese cities, throwing stones and other objects at the Japanese Council’s Office and vandalizing Japanese stores and restaurants.”  A decade on, domestic disgust at perceptions of Japanese hawkishness—stoked by state-controlled media—have hardly abated in China.

For years, Japan has proceeded cautiously and relatively successfully when it comes to pressing its case for reform of the UNSC.  Tokyo has the support of many nations large and small, and has made common cause with both Brazil and India (and Russia, for that matter)—China’s supposed allies in the BRICS bloc.  But Japan’s efforts never will be enough.  There is only one vote that matters when it comes to determining Japan’s future as a prospective permanent member of the Security Council and it is to be found in Beijing, not anywhere in Latin America.  Another round of non-permanent membership is thus the best that any number of Abe’s diplomatic offensives can buy.

Image: Flickr/CC 2.0 License. 

TopicsUnited Nations RegionsJapan

Forget the South China Sea: China's Great Game in the Arctic Draws Near

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Twenty years from now China’s gaze will not focus upon the South China Sea or the Central Asian steppes to fuel economic growth. Instead, Beijing will look to a far more inhospitable place to satiate its appetite for natural resources. The vast, barren northern part of the planet called the Arctic Circle holds about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas. Greenland, sitting on the rim of the Arctic Circle, boasts of one of the world’s most abundant supplies of rare earths. By September of 2030, when many scientists believe the polar ice cap will have melted, the region may offer a bonanza for natural resources. By that time a new Great Game will have already enveloped the world’s most northernmost region. We can be sure that China will be eager to play.

Although it is the world’s second biggest economy, China depends on imports for many of the raw goods it needs to fuel its relentless pace of economic growth. In the coming decades, it will have to look for natural resources farther and farther away from the mainland if it is to continue on its current pace of development. This explains China’s recent moves into the South China Sea (SCS) and its interest in resource-rich Africa. But China still risks a catastrophic supply shock if war were ever to break out in the SCS since most of its trade passes through the Straits of Malacca. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) that passes through the Arctic Circle thus offers China an unprecedented opportunity to diversify its trade routes and tap into untouched natural resources. Furthermore, trade between China and Europe via the NSR will be faster and cheaper: the NSR shortens the distance between Rotterdam and Shanghai by some 3,000 miles and saves thousands of dollars on fuel. Some scenarios suggest that 5-15% of Chinese trade could pass through Arctic waters by 2020. It is no wonder that China has been making great efforts to improve its relationships with Arctic Circle states.

Yet despite all its advances into the region China is not an Arctic Circle state and it does not sit on the Arctic Council, which currently consists solely of Arctic Circle states. So far this has been to China’s benefit. As a neutral observer of the Arctic Council, China has avoided the kinds of disputes Russia has had with member states—like one that erupted when Russia planted its flag at the North Pole in 2007—that have hurt its influence on the council. China has stuck to its scientific and environmental projects to build credibility.

In fact, China is going to spend $60 million dollars a year on polar research at its new China-Nordic Arctic Research Center in Shanghai. A commitment to conducting rescue missions in the Arctic has also helped improve its image. But for all its efforts in science it is clear why China is in the Arctic: natural resources and trade. Strengthening bilateral relationships with Arctic Council members is, therefore, of paramount importance to Beijing. China prefers these types of relationships because it can bring its economic might to bear on smaller states separately. A new free-trade deal with Iceland and $500 million dollar currency-exchange support program for Icelandic banks are just the beginnings of this strategy. The more economically dependent these smaller states are on China the more likely they are to give Beijing a permanent seat on the Arctic Council, even if it is not an Arctic border state.

Recent world events also point in China’s favor as the Great Game in the Arctic becomes an ever more real phenomenon. It looks as if Russia will become isolated from the West as a result of the Ukraine crisis. This will have major implications for Russia’s position in the Arctic. As the new Sino-Russian gas deal shows, China is Russia’s most natural partner in the East when it comes to energy and large-scale trade. Russian companies, isolated from western partners, will have to turn to Beijing for money and assistance in the Arctic. Indeed, China National Petroleum Corporation already has made a deal with Rosneft, the Russian energy giant, for Arctic oil exploration. Joint deals like this one will be crucial if China is to access the region’s untapped oil reserves because most of the oil along the NSR is within Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. These trends will only continue as China’s energy needs grow.

The Great Game in the Arctic Circle is just beginning. For now, it will continue to be shaped by events far away from the polar ice cap. Soon that may change. The West should recognize China’s ambitions; the Far North may not remain cold forever.

TopicsChina RegionsArctic Ocean

Ghosts of 1914: The West Risks Creating a "Central Powers 2.0"

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One hundred years ago last Wednesday, an aide informed German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg that Russia's Tsar Nicholas II had mobilized 1.3 million soldiers against Germany.

This was not how the July Crisis was supposed to end: for weeks Berlin had wholeheartedly supported its Austro-Hungarian ally in the belief that a conflict, if it came, could be confined to the Balkans. Now a general European war between the Central Powers and Russia and France was unavoidable. On August 4, the British Empire's 400 million subjects joined them.

The reasons for the division of Europe into opposing armed camps were many.

But, as the best new research on the war's origins - and in a sea of timely publications, Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace stand out - shows, one of the most striking features of European diplomacy in the lead-up to the First World War was the declining ability of other powers to credit the strategic interests of the great power - Austria-Hungary - that would eventually plunge the continent into war.

This collapse of sympathy for the Habsburg Dual Monarchy - the “corpse on the Danube,” as its detractors called it - was especially pronounced on the part of Britain, a power that had otherwise few reasons to fall out with Vienna and many to maintain its traditionally friendly posture: with a strategic location in central Europe, Austria had been a useful lever against France; and the Habsburgs shared London's overriding interest in forestalling Russian designs on the Straits and their Balkan approaches.

France, too, until Bismarck's German empire dragged its attention back to Europe, worried about Russian designs on Ottoman Turkey. In the Crimean War, Britain, France and Austria worked together to prevent its destruction.

By 1900, however, France, infatuated with its Russian ally, was increasingly deaf to Austria's interests, most fatefully in the Balkans, where French armaments firms were increasingly out-competing Austrian ones - and where, during the July Crisis, Paris gave St. Petersburg unfailing (if not recklessly provocative) diplomatic support.

Between 1900 and 1914, German industrial and military power grew with leaps and bounds. And both liberal Britain and Republican France might have found in an aristocratic, but far from autocratic, Austria a useful counterweight - if not as an ally, then at least in preserving Vienna as an independent pole in the European state system.

They didn't.

Instead, a certain closure of Anglo-French imagination pushed Austria-Hungary into a growing reliance - indeed, dependence - on neighbouring Germany, a power that had humiliated it on the battlefield in 1866, and destroyed, for the sake of its own unification, Vienna's centuries-old leadership of the German states.

Despite the differences that remained between them (Austrian diplomats often found German diplomacy provocative and ham-fisted), the marriage of convenience proved surprisingly strong and effective: inferiority in manpower and industrial production notwithstanding, the Central Powers came close to winning the war (see now Alexander Watson's Ring of Steel).

Today, as China's growing power draws America ever deeper into a great-power standoff in East Asia, the West's tone deaf policies in Western Eurasia risk midwifing a Sino-Russian alliance of the contained and sanctioned - a 'Central Powers 2.0' on a hemispheric scale.

For the more the West isolates Russia, the more Moscow's "axis of convenience" with Beijing will become one of substance, if not dependence. As Ali Wyne, arguing from the other side of the table in The Strategist, has put it:

By further isolating itself from the West, Russia has given China even more leverage in their already asymmetric relationship. China increasingly regards Russia as a declining power, not a strategic partner. To stay in its good graces, Russia will feel compelled to supply China with energy, weapons systems, and other vital commodities at discounted prices. Add diplomatic subservience, and this won't be great for Russia.

But whether you blame the West or Russia for their estrangement, it nonetheless represents an opportunity for a huge increase in potential Chinese power. The geopolitical fallout from the EU's courtship of Ukraine could deliver the world's most destructive nuclear arsenal and the hydrocarbons and minerals beneath one sixth of the earth's land surface into the lap of the Chinese Communist Party.

From competition for power and influence in Central Asia (already becoming a Sino-Russian condominium) to the worrying demographic imbalance on either side of their long Siberian border, there's plenty to pull Moscow and Beijing apart.

But if pushed together, on almost every measure of potential power, Russia and China would be a formidable combination.

As Chinese power grows, therefore, it makes sense for the West to ensure that a cooperative relationship with Russia remains possible. Yet the enactment of sanctions could sour relations for decades to come.

In four centuries, Russia hasn't yet reached the view that Ukraine is peripheral to its interests.

During the July Crisis a century ago, Austria-Hungary and its powerful ally ultimately decided that, despite the risks, the defense of interests that other powers discounted justified the actions they adopted. The Central Powers lost. But the price the Allies paid for victory was high.

The Second World War was about many things, but one of them was the nigh impossible decisions the Allied peacemakers had made when, faced with maddening historical, ethnic, linguistic and folkloristic arguments, they dissected the Austro-Hungarian corpse.

Even in defeat, Austria-Hungary is a powerful warning of why the West should avoid pushing too gleefully on the Russian door. From Grozny to Vladivostok, via Muslim Tatarstan, Buddhist Tuva and neo-animist Yakutsk, a Russian implosion would create an even greater nightmare.

Whether as an ally of an increasingly assertive, authoritarian China, as a source of Chinese energy and resources, or as a failed state, therefore, Russia and its 21st century geopolitical disposition is of critical interest to every Western government - especially if, in the same way Ottoman Turkey threw its lot in with last century's Central Powers, an isolated and embittered Iran joins them.

A course of action that sets out to contain or sanction the better part of Eurasia is likely to fail.

Let's return to 1914.

When Vienna's sternly-worded ultimatum to Serbia came, London couldn't understand the political and strategic considerations that had shaped it - to Churchill, "the most insolent document of its kind ever devised." In its humiliating conditions, London saw a thinly veiled declaration of war on Belgrade - though, as Clark notes, Vienna demanded a less substantial surrender of Serbian sovereignty than NATO's 1999 ultimatum over Kosovo.

Fostered by years of indifference to Austrian interests, London's incomprehension was largely hypocritical, of course. For centuries, the British Empire had grown as a result of colonial infractions far lesser than the assassination of an archduke.

Our perspective on events is rarely neutral, but its consequences far-reaching.

After a more than decade of war against "rogue states" in Afghanistan and Iraq, the West might better appreciate today Vienna's determination to crush the state-sponsored terror that, modern research now shows, had slipped its fingers about the levers of power in Belgrade.

Of course, today's Ukraine is not the quasi terrorist state Austria-Hungary faced. But, to Moscow, its creeping admission to a hostile Western bloc is probably far worse.

On the threshold of a century that will test the West's 500-year global dominance, Western diplomacy would score a massive own-goal if its blindness to Russia's interests in western Eurasia gave rise to a Central-Powers-style bloc at the heart of Mackinder's famous "world-island".

The warning from 1914 is that if we pick our enemies blithely, even in victory, the future can always be worse.

Matthew Dal Santo is a freelance writer and foreign affairs correspondent. He previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia. This article first appeared in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's The Drum here

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsHistory RegionsEurasia

Chinese Assertiveness Has Asia on Edge: How to Respond

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A recent Pew Research Poll made clear that publics in East Asia are increasingly uneasy about the destabilizing effects of China’s maritime assertiveness. Among the eight countries surveyed—including China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam—majorities in each country said they were concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighboring countries could lead to a military conflict.

Rather than “China threat theory,” an oft-used phrase in Beijing to deride anxieties about China’s rise, it appears we’re now seeing “China threat reality.” 

Though difficult to poll with similar fidelity, there is little question that governments in the region are at least as concerned as their publics and have already begun taking measures to prepare for, and if necessary defend against, further Chinese attempts at economic, military and diplomatic coercion.

Strategies for responding to Chinese assertiveness certainly differ from capital to capital, but all can be characterized as portfolio strategies that simultaneously pursue multiple avenues to deal with a country that has overwhelming advantages in size and wealth. 

The principal elements of these portfolio strategies include the following:

1. Military modernization: Countries throughout the region are stepping up efforts to develop their militaries in ways that reflect growing concerns about Chinese assertiveness, as underscored by the Pew survey. Given rapid military modernization in China, a number of countries are garnering asymmetric capabilities to deal with China’s overall military advantage, as exemplified by Vietnam’s acquisition of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Japan is meanwhile developing greater amphibious capabilities to defend “remote islands” like the Senkakus. 

2. Enhanced cooperation with the United States: U.S. allies and partners are moving to deepen security cooperation with the United States in order to supplement weaker, and in some instances nonexistent, capabilities. Countries on the frontlines of China’s territorial disputes—including Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—have all reached out to Washington in recent years for stronger military ties. 

3. Intra-Asian security partnerships: A critical trend in the Asian security landscape is the rise of bilateral security ties within the region. Given combined concerns about the rise of China and the durability of the U.S. commitment to the region, countries are increasingly working together on building capacity and developing joint strategies to manage the China challenge. Such efforts include Japan’s outreach to the Philippines, Australia and Vietnam, as well as among the South China Sea claimants—particularly Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam—meeting more frequently to coordinate and devise joint responses. CNAS research has described how these intra-Asian cooperative arrangements are on balance beneficial to U.S. interests and regional stability.

4. Regional institutions and international law: Smaller ASEAN countries have at times appeared to internalize the mantra of “hang together or hang alone.” The point being that only as a collective can Southeast Asian states have sufficient economic and political heft to deal on equal terms with Beijing. Similarly, the Philippines has sought multilateral arbitration mechanisms in an attempt to move its maritime disputes with China from a deeply asymmetric bilateral dynamic to one that implicates international law and the international community. 

5. Engagement with China: Despite deep concerns about the potential for China to use coercive measures to settle political disputes, it is also the case that countries in the region, largely for economic reasons, are striving for stable, if not positive, relations with Beijing. This reflects the reality that, unlike the United States who can come and go as it pleases, China will remain a geographic reality in Asia. The result is that engagement with China has been a key feature of most Asian countries’ efforts to manage their concerns about China’s rise. 

While none of these approaches is, in and of itself, likely sufficient to shape China’s behavior, multifaceted portfolio strategies may harbor the potential to contribute to a more stable and peaceful region.

Ely Ratner (@elyratner) is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (@CNASdc). The following article first appeared on the CNAS Blog: The Agenda here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina