The Big Question: Who Wants to Defeat ISIS More--Iran or the U.S.?

Paul Pillar

The bursts of criticism—from those who inveterately oppose any dealing with Iran, and those who inveterately oppose anything Barack Obama is doing, which include some of the same people—of a letter Mr. Obama reportedly sent to the supreme leader of Iran can readily be dismissed for multiple reasons. There is, to begin with, the spectacle of critics getting up in arms about a letter the contents of which none of us outside the administration, including the critics, have seen. We only have a general sense, from the Wall Street Journal report that broke this story, of the message the letter conveyed.

There also is the old notion that merely communicating with another party, whether face-to-face or in writing, somehow shows weakness and/or is a reward to the other party. It is neither; communication is a tool for us to express and pursue our own preferences and objectives, and to explore ways to attain those objectives. As Farideh Farhi notes, most of the people who are objecting to letters being sent to the Iranian supreme leader previously objected in the same way to having any diplomacy with Iran at all—diplomacy that already has achieved major restraints on Iran's nuclear program that years of non-communication were unable to achieve.

Then there is the crude, unthinking primitiveness of slapping a label of enemy on someone and acting as if the mere label is sufficient reason not to do any business with, or even to communicate with, that someone, with no attention whatever being given to the best ways to pursue our own objectives. Thus we have John (“bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain saying that “they [Iran] are our enemy” and that any U.S. foreign policy that deals with Iran is “off the rails.” And we have Mitt Romney saying that sending the letter was “so far beyond the pale, I was stunned. I was speechless. The right kind of approach in dealing with Iran is that we consider them a pariah, their leaders are shunned...” The label-making approach to foreign policy, represented by these comments, helps to satisfy the urges of those who for their own reasons need an enemy and for whom Iran has long filled that role, but it certainly is not a good way to advance U.S. interests.

Before we move beyond this most recent bit of primitivism, however, there is a lesson here regarding linkage, leverage, and the deployment of U.S. resources on matters on which U.S. interests parallel those of other states. When last year the United States with its P5+1 partners began serious negotiations with Iran after Hassan Rouhani became the Iranian president, the two sides wisely agreed to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear program and the nuclear-related sanctions. Each side has plenty of grievances with the opposite side on other matters, and if the agenda started expanding it would quickly continue to expand into an unmanageable smorgasbord of issues. But each side is, and should be, aware of how completion of a nuclear agreement would help to open the door to doing mutually beneficial business on other matters in the region on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel.

Awhile ago someone in Iranian officialdom commented publicly about how completion of a nuclear deal could lead to more effective Iranian and U.S. action against the newest Middle Eastern threat du jour, the group sometimes known as ISIS. The comment was a cue for opponents of the Obama administration in Washington to once again accuse the administration of being weak and allowing itself to be leveraged into making a bad deal. There is absolutely zero evidence in what is publicly known about the negotiations and U.S. negotiating behavior that this accusation is true. Besides, the Iranian comment was not even explicitly an attempt to exert leverage but rather a correct statement about some of the likely possibilities that completion of an agreement with open up.

Although we do not know the exact content, the sense that the Wall Street Journal report gives us about the recent letter to Ayatollah Khamenei is that it was an effort to persuade the ayatollah to endorse the additional Iranian concessions necessary to complete the agreement. As part of that effort at persuasion, the letter reportedly alluded not only to direct benefits to Iran that would be associated with a deal but also the prospect of more effective action against ISIS—in other words, the same sort of comment, conveyed in the reverse direction, as was heard from Tehran earlier. Domestic U.S. opponents who hopped on that earlier comment ought to be pleased that the Obama administration is turning the tables and that, if there is implicit leverage to be exercised, the United States is exercising it.

Which side succeeds in such maneuvers depends on who cares more about the issues at stake. The United States lost the Vietnam War because the Vietnamese adversary, riding nationalist sentiment in favor of uniting their country and freeing themselves from foreign domination, cared more about the outcome than the United States did.

To the extent we can make such comparisons (and admittedly we can make them only indirectly by inference, because direct inter-nation comparisons, like interpersonal comparisons, of utility are not really possible), it appears so far that Iran is the party that wants a nuclear deal more. The best indication of that is the Joint Plan of Action that was reached last year and in which Iran clearly made most of the concessions, freezing or rolling back the parts of its nuclear program that mattered most in return for relatively minor sanctions relief.

It also appears that Iran cares more about stopping and rolling back ISIS. The Iranians have been far more active on the ground, at higher cost and risk, in assisting the Iraqi government in combating ISIS than the United States has been so far. That is unsurprising and appropriate. The Iranians have better reason to be concerned about ISIS than we do. They live in the same neighborhood and have interests more directly threatened by ISIS than do we, who are more likely to be threatened only as a consequence of our own involvement against the group and the revenge that would flow from it.

The preceding set of facts makes for a state of affairs that ought to please us. Not only are we better positioned to play the game of implicit leverage; we can also see Iran do more of the heavy lifting against ISIS, both now and after a nuclear deal, but with even more opportunities for effective coordination of such anti-ISIS efforts in the wake of an agreement. Some Americans, however, are allowing their Iranophobic, label-directed approach to foreign policy to lead them to look this gift horse in the mouth.

We also lose some of our advantage each time we say or do something that makes it look like we care more about the fortunes of ISIS than the Iranians do. President Obama deserves criticism not for sending letters to the ayatollah and for mentioning ISIS in them but instead for saying things and moving troops in ways that foster the impression that ISIS is more important to us than to Iran. And American hawks deserve criticism the more they push Mr. Obama in this direction, which undercuts their own claim to be concerned about enhancing negotiating leverage against Iran. This is yet another example of a recurring tendency in American foreign policy, which is to insist on getting the United States so far in front in addressing problems that allies as well as adversaries become free riders rather than doing what ought to be their share of the pedaling.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.            

TopicsIran Iraq terrorism RegionsMiddle East

Tale of the Tape: Comparing Chinese and American Strategies in Asia

The Buzz

What does President Obama hope to achieve during his trip to Beijing for the APEC summit? How does he assess his ability to accomplish his China agenda?

There is no shortage of issues to discuss with Xi Jinping.   The two countries ostensibly share concerns about an unstable nuclear North Korea, Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, and the failing old order in the Middle East. But little progress has been made.  While Xi talks about a “new-type of great power relationship,” he seems to mean the U.S. should come to China as a supplicant, as National Security Advisor Rice did recently, asking for China’s help on the Middle East—now of equal importance to Beijing and Washington.  

The presidential visit comes at a perilous time for Sino-American relations. Washington has not adequately answered China’s continued aggression toward Japan and Southeast Asian nations. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army is continuing to harass the U.S. military operating in Asian seas.

U.S. Asia policy is not progressing because both Washington and Beijing are now overestimating China’s rise and underestimating the sustainability of American power.  This is a dangerous trend in perceptions with some grounding in reality. From Washington’s perspective, the Sino-American relationship will be unproductive if both sides think the balance of power now favors China.

Better policy outcomes require a reassessment of the balance of power that goes beyond straight counts of military forces and capabilities.  Trends in the military balance must be viewed in the context of each country’s preferred approach to the region as well as an accounting of the internal political obstacles hindering each side’s strategy.   The key questions are: What is each country trying to accomplish? What is each country’s strategy?  How well is each side implementing its strategy and what are the obstacles in the way of the outcomes for each country?

Competing Strategic Visions: America’s Strategy

Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has pursued a strategy of primacy.  Successive U.S. presidents have found that a “preponderance of power” best served its Asian interests, which have included:

1.  Defending the U.S. homeland far forward. In the post-Pacific war period, the U.S. created what used to be called the “defense perimeter,” now referred to as the First Island Chain.  The forward U.S. defense posture begins along the island chains and territories from Korea through Japan and the Ryukus, and the Luzon Strait down through the Philippines;

2.  Preserving a favorable balance of power in Eurasia, so that no power can dominate the continent;

3.  Ensuring free military and commercial access to maritime and continental Asia;

4. Maintaining and continuing to refine the liberal international order consistent with the “U.S. way of life,” as the framers of the U.S. Cold War strategy put it;

5. Supporting a network of allies who assist in reinforcing that order.

America’s grand strategy of primacy has been a success. It has tamed security competitions between historic Asian rivals and created the conditions for economic growth and peaceful transitions to democracy throughout Asia.  Countries that had the capacity to develop nuclear weapons were persuaded not to do so.  Asia’s rising wealth and power is not a coincidence.  Rather it is the result of wise decisions by Asian elites, the hard work of Asians to better their lives, and U.S. primacy.  It is no wonder that successive presidents have stuck with primacy.  

The Military Structure of Primacy

U.S. primacy in Asia has required a forward basing posture for combat aircraft, large numbers of SSN and SSBN submarines, and carrier strike-groups to project power in Asia.   These assets provide a continual deterrent against conflict. U.S. “boomer” submarines, armed with ICBMs, lurk underwater ready to act should the U.S. face an existential threat. Carrier strike groups serve as highly visible symbols of U.S power to deter would-be aggressors.  Depending upon the global security situation, the Navy can have up to five carriers strike groups base in Japan and along the U.S. Pacific coast.

These air-sea forces allow the U.S. to control the commons when necessary. [1] The ability to take command of the air, sea, and space has allowed the U.S. military to summon overwhelming force anywhere and anytime it needs.  For the U.S. to continue to be the prime player in Asia, it must retain the ability to command Asia’s commons.  This requires that alliances are maintained, new partnerships are cemented and the “infrastructure” of command— the tankers, airlift, and large surface ships necessary for the quick deployment of U.S. forces—is modernized and ready.

China’s Strategy

As China’s wealth and power increase, its influence and ambitions in the Asia-Pacific expand.  The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) march towards achieving regional hegemony is driven by the CCP’s paramount goal of maintaining its grip on power.  That does not mean an inward turn, as many misinterpret.  While Beijing faces  “internal” challenges such an increasingly dynamic and wealthy populace, and a restive empire that includes Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, keeping a grip on power requires far more:  

1. Ensuring that the world remains “safe” for autocracies.  At the very least it must stop any attempts by the U.S. to press for Chinese liberalization, and prevent the formation of democratic groupings in Asia;

2. Pursuing national rejuvenation.  The CCP argues that it is the vanguard of the Chinese project to regain prime status atop the political hierarchy in Asia, and reverse the “century of national humiliation” that it endured.  The CCP pours salt on this national wound in order to bolster its case to the Chinese public for a continued monopoly on power;

3. Continuing China’s economic growth, which now means defending China’s growing international economic interests. The PRC’s coastal areas house a large percentage of the country’s manufacturing and financial sectors.   Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the removal of a major threat to China’s land border, the PLA has been freed up to extend China’s southeastern maritime perimeter. The PRC wants greater maritime strategic depth, as well as an outlet into the Pacific and Indian oceans in order to protect its far-flung economic interests.

Military Strategy of the Aspiring Hegemon: Coercion and Counter-intervention

The CCP military strategy for regional hegemony has been the deployment of coercive combat power and counter-intervention (also known as A2/AD) capabilities in maritime East Asia.

U.S. military campaigns during the 1990s and early 2000s played a profound role in shaping the PLA’s regional security strategy.  In the two Gulf wars, the U.S. military displayed its unmatched precision strike regime.  The U.S. could deploy massive force to the region on its own timeline, because the U.S. military commanded the commons and American forces gained access to the states bordering Iraq through effective diplomacy.

During the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the CCP was horrified by its inability to contest the U.S.’s offshore military presence.  President Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier groups off of Taiwan’s coasts in what must have been a haunting reminder of Western powers’ 19th century gunboat diplomacy against China.

Later in 1999 Chinese military officials warily observed the U.S. launch a 78-day air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic from carriers and land-bases.  

The CCP realized that, even as it carried out a long-term naval modernization plan, it also needed to develop counter-intervention capabilities to prevent the U.S. from repeating its actions in the Gulf and the Balkans off of China’s seaboard.

The PLA has created contested zones in its “near seas,” allowing it to deny the U.S. access to the parts of the commons closest to China.  The PLA can now threaten the U.S’s logistical supply lines and the use of bases in Japan.  It can also contest space and cyberspace.  China’s military build-up includes a precision guided-missile force, undersea warfare, integrated air defense, counter-space and cyber capabilities, and bombers and aircraft that could deliver additional firepower against U.S. and allied assets.

Learning from the past two decades of U.S. wars, this military strategy is meant to exact a serious cost on U.S. military forces attempting to project power in the first island chain or the mainland.   For example, in the event of conflict, carrier strike groups, the iconic symbol of U.S. power projection, could face swarms of Chinese hypersonic cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles (or what are called in the press “carrier-killers”), and packs of diesel electric submarines.  The PLA air force’s increasingly modern aircraft provides China with additional range in striking U.S. bases and carrier groups. This strategy has undermined the foundations of U.S. primacy.

China’s same “counter-intervention” forces are also employed for a regional coercion strategy.  The CCP’s main target for possible military action remains Taiwan.  Its own precision strike regime – cruise and ballistic missiles launched from land, air and sea knit together with an increasingly sophisticated C4ISR system – could inflict the kind of pain on the island that NATO forces exacted on Serbian forces in Kosovo. The China that bemoans the gunboat diplomacy once practiced by the Western powers is now employing the same strategy against its neighbors.

Assessing the Balance: Command of the Commons Vs. Aspiring Hegemony

The military strategy supporting China’s bid for regional hegemony is now well developed.  The PLA can contest U.S. command of the commons and deliver a decisive first strike against U.S. forward bases and surface ships with missile salvos and air sorties. Following a first strike, China may be able to consolidate a defense perimeter in the first island chain, daring the U.S. to fight its way back in.  Within that perimeter, China can use coercive force against its neighbors to achieve desired military objectives, such as the unification of Taiwan or the seizure of disputed maritime territory.    

In a global context, the U.S. military clearly possesses greater capabilities. But total military power outside the context of specific political goals misses the point. Since the U.S has global interests, its military strategy in Asia relies upon command of the commons to mobilize forces into theater across long air and oceanic expanses. China has raised the costs of this strategy.  

Primacy Challenged: The U.S. Response

China’s challenge to American primacy in Asia prompted the U.S. to move additional forces into the Pacific and strengthen its alliances in the early parts of last decade. In 2011, the U.S. announced the continuation of this long-standing process to bolster its military posture in the Pacific.  With much fanfare, the Obama Administration placed its own imprimatur on this process as the “pivot” or also called the rebalance.

Building upon the upgraded Japan alliance that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush began, a trilateral security relationship among Japan, Australia, and the U.S., a closer security partnership with Taiwan, and force reposting in South Korea, the administration announced several additional military cooperation initiatives.  The U.S. plans to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia and encourage Australia to participate in an Asia missile ballistic shield it is developing with Japan.

The U.S. will station four U.S. littoral combat ships (LCS) in Singapore on a rotational basis. Additionally, the U.S. and the Philippines may expand the U.S. military presence in the country.  The building blocks are now in place for a tighter network of alliances and partnerships in the region, which is key to continued U.S. primacy.

Air-Sea Battle: The Operational Concept for Primacy?

The U.S. military is beginning to respond to China’s coercive and counter-intervention strategy. The February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) made overcoming area-denial an essential part of U.S. strategy. In August 2011, CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenhert and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton formed the Air-Sea Battle office at the DOD in order to develop the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept, which requires close cooperation between the Air force and Navy to “overcome the challenges posed by emerging threats to access like ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced submarines and fighters, electronic warfare and mines.”

The basic idea behind the ASB concept is to foster greater air-sea cooperation, allowing the U.S. military to operate in China’s contested zones, and regain the ability to command the commons.  The surface fleet will be equipped with countermeasures against cruise and ballistic missiles. U.S. stealth fighter-bombers will be able to thin out precision-guided strikes by targeting command and control nodes and air bases. ASB requires the development of more long-range bombing capabilities, harden forward bases to withstand missile salvos, and continue investment in advanced SSNs.

ASB is a means to bolster a grand strategy of primacy.  If implemented, U.S. forces will be able to operate in contested zones, and still bring overwhelming power to bear on Chinese forces.  A peacetime presence is just as important, as it acts as a formidable deterrent.  The more U.S. equipment, airman, soldiers, sailors and marines that are deployed forward in Asia, the riskier it becomes for China to attack allies and friends.

Absent from the current debate about how to retain U.S. primacy, is the future of U.S. nuclear forces.  The uncomfortable fact is that deterrence, reassurance and war fighting all require a nuclear strategy accompanying conventional forces. China must be reminded that U.S. has provided nuclear guarantees to its allies, that attacks on carriers would kill thousands of Americans and that what China calls the second island chain—a potential Chinese outer defense perimeter—includes U.S. territory.

The U.S. must remember that its preferred military strategy includes attacks on mainland-based forces and that China also is a nuclear power with mobile missile launchers and SSBN submarines capable of providing a secure second-strike.  It follows that a U.S. strategy of primacy requires nuclear primacy – an upgrading of U.S nuclear forces in very close coordination with allies on nuclear issues.   It also follows that alongside such moves the Sino-American military relationship must move beyond the niceties of “building confidence” and discuss issues of escalation control and crisis stability.

Obstacles to the US Strategy: Funding Primacy

The “rebalance” to Asia is a resource intensive endeavor. Yet the U.S. military is faced with deep budget cuts.  That leaves a dangerous gap between U.S. military’s resources and stated objectives.

Sequestration-level budgets threaten to hollow out the U.S. Navy, which traditionally provides a lion’s share of the power projection needed to sustain U.S. primacy. According to the National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 QDR, the navy is on “a budgetary path to 260 ships or less” under current defense spending levels. By comparison, various internal naval reviews have stated that an effective fleet should field between 323 and 346 vessels.

Admiral Greenert is attempting to reorganize his service in line with the administration’s “pivot,” but sequestration has handcuffed his efforts.  The Navy had planned to increase its Pacific Fleet from 50 ships to about 65 ships by 2019. However, the Navy has admitted that this plan is untenable under sequestration-level budgets.  The service is left with a grim choice. It can under-resource U.S. forces in Asia, or cannibalize its other fleets to boost the number of ships deployed to the Pacific.  With Putin’s Russia on the move, ISIS threatening to take over Iraq, and China’s aggression in maritime East Asia, neither option is tenable.

Obstacles to a Strategy of Regional Hegemony

The CCP faces three main roadblocks to its own strategic vision. First, China must confront the inherent instability of its political-economic system. China’s investment-based, export-led growth strategy is coming to an end.  But, the CCP is failing to implement comprehensive reforms that would help move it toward a consumption-driven economy. Second, China has grown increasingly dependent on overseas economic interests, and it wants to secure its maritime supply lines.  If the U.S. successfully responds to China’s regional coercive strategy and China’s economy continues to slow, the CCP will face very tough choices about what kind of military it can afford. Third, the CCP must deal with a host of internal challenges to its legitimacy, including from its restive empire.

The Future of Chinese Growth and China’ Maritime Interests

China’s current seven or eight percent annual growth is unsustainable  The Chinese economy has depended on large-scale investment and exports.  Today, global demand is stagnant, China is highly indebted and investment is drying up.  China’s needs a new model of consumption led growth but has not implemented the liberal reforms required to restructure its economy. Without badly needed reform, China risks slipping into the middle-income trap.

The IMF recently reported that China has passed the U.S. as the world’s largest economy on the basis of purchasing parity.  But for purposes of assessing the balance of power these numbers are useless.  GDP is a picture of yearly production, including wasteful production.

A better measure of economic size is comparative wealth.  Credit Suisse just released an updated comparison of private wealth: American private wealth stands at $83 trillion dollars compared to China’s $21 trillion.  Even when public debt is factored in, the U.S. remains around $40 trillion wealthier than China.  It is that wealth that can be translated into national power.

If China faces slowing growth rates while lagging behind the U.S. in national wealth, then China will face real dilemmas it protecting its far-flung economic interests. In 2004, President Hu Jintao introduced the concept of “New Historic Missions” for the PLA. Since Hu’s policy announcement, the critical new mission is the defense of China’s sea lines of communication (SLOC). China is now a maritime trading nation, and its imports and exports—including increasing energy imports—must pass through critical chokepoints that it does not control, including the Straits of Malacca. China is growing its fleet of nuclear submarines and flowing them into the Indian Ocean. But to really project maritime power at longer distances China would have to make substantial investments in larger surface ships, global C4ISR, and logistical hubs and fueling stations along the Indian Ocean.  This could prove both too expensive, too risky, as China exposes itself to threats from terrorism, piracy and hostile nations, and too difficult to accomplish diplomatically, particularly if India resists. The CCP has a real problem with one pillar of its strategy—continued economic growth and defense of economic interests.

China’s Internal Unrest

The CCP continues to devote enormous resources to maintain internal stability. China’s heavy-handed tactics in Xinjiang have provoked further violence against China. Recent attacks include a market bombing and several knife attacks. Now China is at risk of further violence from jihadists returning from the ISIS campaign.

Regarding Tibet, China remains highly sensitive to other nation’s interactions with the exiled Dalai Lama, and Tibetans are resisting China’s imperial policies. Taiwan’s de facto independence continues to present a contradiction for Beijing’s “One China” principle.  Beijing reneged on its agreement to allow free 2017 elections in Hong Kong, sparking large-scale protests.  The CCP’s imperial control is more challenging. At the same time, middle class cynicism about corruption is growing and wealth is leaving China.  

Conclusions: What does the balance of power look like?

China has made great strides in its coercive regional strategy and its counter-intervention strategy. It is forcing a response by the United States to regain its primacy.  But the U.S. has not demonstrated the political wherewithal to resource its response.

However, China’s gains and the U.S. slow-footed response is not the whole story.  The CCP’s grand strategy also includes continued economic growth that is increasingly reliant upon maritime trade. Becoming a true maritime power is very expensive, and China faces hostile powers along its periphery. Finally, China’s main weakness is its tenuous political legitimacy. It is ruling over an increasingly restive empire with aspirational citizens demanding more liberty and justice. The CCP has to spend enormous resources on imperial control and domestic security.

The U.S. has structural advantages over China such as greater wealth and a system of partners and allies. But can the president lead a bipartisan coalition at home ready to translate the nation’s advantages into a well-resourced strategy that retains U.S. primacy?  The CCP would have a tough time competing with a U.S. that once again takes primacy in Asia seriously. Indeed, if Washington locks in a favorable balance of power it may even start to see some cooperation from Beijing.

[1] The article borrows from Barry Posen’s “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Primacy” (International Security, Summer 2003) and Dan Blumenthal’s “The U.S. Response to China’s Military Modernization,” published in Strategic Asia 2012-2013.

Dan Blumenthal is Director of Asian Studies and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Eddie Linczer is an Asian Studies Research Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

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

The Buzz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: U.S. Marines Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

An Internet Superpower: China Has 632 Million Internet Users

The Buzz

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

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

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

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

(What You May Also LikeThe Great Debate: U.S.-Chinese Relations and the Future of Asia

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

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

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

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

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

Topicsinternet RegionsChina

Xi-Obama Summit: Son of Sunnylands?

The Buzz

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

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

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

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

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

(You Might Also Like: “China and the United States After Sunnylands”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You Might Also Like: “Chinese Assertiveness Has Asia on Edge: How to Respond”)

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

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

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

TopicsDiplomacyForeign Policy RegionsChinaUnited States