Face-Off in the South China Sea: Conflict or Compromise?

The Buzz

Since 2014, China has attracted tremendous regional and international attention through its land reclamation activities in some features of the Spratlys which it controls, namely Gaven Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Johnson South Reef and Fiery Cross. While many have criticisms and concerns, China feels this reclamation is necessary in order to keep up with others in the Spratlys who have earlier occupied features in the disputed Spratlys and built up military and civil facilities since.

Very little can be said against China’s reclamation activities from the perspective of UNCLOS. Article 60 provides coastal states exclusive right to construct, operate and use artificial islands, installations and structures in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Pending the maritime delimitation of the EEZ and the continental shelf in the South China Sea, land reclamation has been conducted within twelve nautical miles of the four mentioned features, an area which may be defined as within a state’s sovereignty in its territorial sea around these features. More importantly, the artificial islands, installations and structures would not interfere with the legal status of these features. Nevertheless, China may still be blamed for ignoring the duties of “due notice,” “appropriate publicity,” and “undertaking environmental impact assessments.”

But a legal justification does not address the political implications and strategic calculations in this messy portrait of the South China Sea. What puts China “morally on trial,” in addition to explicit criticism from other claimant states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, is overwhelming concern from the United States, which sees itself as a strategic ally of many countries in the region, a protector of the freedom of navigation, and a strategic competitor with China in the Asia-Pacific.

In the most recent report released by Center for New American Security, “Preserving the Rules: Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia”, Patrick Cronin proposes adopting cost-imposing measures to address China’s reclamation in the South China Sea. In this report, several recommendations are presented. These include: Further institutionalizing high-level military and civilian engagement with China; mobilizing regional and international opinion when states use coercion; mobilizing support for positive efforts to foster a rules-based order; building up maritime domain awareness; raising the non-military costs of coercion by moving forward with a binding code of conduct; building the naval capacity of friends and partners.

There are many important points that could be derived from the above statements. Though the United States has openly welcomed a rising China as a constructive competitor and a responsible stakeholder in the existing international order, the long standing territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea have put China in an awkward position in which it has to deal with the United States as an important stakeholder, in addition to its existing burden with other claimant states. Reclamation is not the only, or even the major driver, of the gradual tension in the disputed South China Sea. The divergent legal interpretations of “the legitimacy of military activities in the foreign EEZs” and the perception gap between the legal culture and the maritime dispute settlement mechanisms and what they imply for the South China Sea disputes are specific long-standing issues that need to be addressed by China and the United States. The land reclamation activities just add another keyword to this existing talk-show.

It is certainly not in China’s interest to be labeled a maritime coercer, nor in its interest to see formed a code of conduct that falls outside the framework of China-ASEAN centrality. An increasing U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, in the name of responding to maritime coercion, and an enhanced alliance between other claimant states and non-claimant states led by the United States in the name of taking cost-imposing measures does not line-up with China’s desire to solve the South China Sea issues through negotiations among the claimant states, be they bilateral or multilateral. What then is the best strategic choice for China?

At the February 2015 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the Foreign Minister of China spelled out the elements which China subscribes to in the conduct of its foreign policy: peace and not conflict, cooperation and not confrontation, justice and not hegemony and a win-win and not a zero-sum approach. However, these ideas are easier said than done. The Chinese believe firmly in the above statement and principles. But how to deliver this message to the international community is an important, but challenging task. China’s image has been jeopardized by an international public relations campaign in which China has not done well enough in comparison to other claimant states (states which could easily win the moral high ground as smaller and weaker nations) in the long-standing territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Tremendous legal and diplomatic efforts are needed to achieve China’s strategic goal.

China could unlock the impasse in the South China by using soft power and diplomacy. In 2011, China announced a China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund, with a first paid-up capital of three-billion RMB (about $478,785 USD), primarily to support marine scientific research, connectivity and navigational safety in the South China Sea. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to ASEAN that China would be willing to work together with ASEAN to build a “maritime silk road in the 21st century.” In 2014, China called for cooperation proposals from ASEAN states for the second round of competition for projects for the cooperation fund. China and ASEAN have also declared 2015 the “ASEAN-China Year of Maritime Cooperation.” There are two Chinese strategic considerations behind these concepts: to shape a new pattern of diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, and to create favorable conditions for better maritime cooperation, which in turn will create a benign environment so that China can build itself into a substantive maritime power.

As suggested by the above multilateral proposals, despite potential challenges, there is great hope for China and ASEAN to solve their differences in the South China Sea in their preferred ways. But for China and the United States, it is a different story.  Although the United States has expressed concern with China’s current land reclamation policy, it will do nothing that will undermine its bilateral relations. Washington may, however, upgrade its regional offensive capabilities (presence, operations, force structure, building partner capacity) beyond the strategic pivot policy if China continues its current approach in the Spratlys.

In order to resolve this paradox, China and the United States have no choice but to engage each other and maintain regular consultations on how they can coexist with their respective core interests. After all, the Asia Pacific is big enough for both countries to share and exert their respective influence without constantly being at each other’s throats. While China’s rise stands a good chance of triggering a regional power shift, the United States needs to acknowledge China’s rise and its core interests. Similarly, China must respect the legitimate interests of the United States in the South China Sea, especially freedom of navigation in line with UNCLOS, which in any case is also in China’s common interest. What would work practically in the favor of both countries is to explore the fields of developing maritime cooperation between China and the United States. Joint efforts in anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden have provided one successful example. Providing search and rescue at sea and humanitarian assistance would be the areas for both countries to take a lead in this region with their naval capacity. It will be in China and the United States’ interests to initiate a regional mechanism in line with the safety and security of navigation, e.g. an Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) or a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in this region.

This piece first appeared in the CSIS project website Asia Maritime Project Initiative here

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

Arms Control and the Iran Agreement

The Buzz

Since the early April release of the Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program, commentators have been vocal and divided about its merits and demerits. I’m reluctant to rush to judgment about the deal. The negotiations remain a work in progress, and clarification of the key parameters before final signature at the end of June will have an important role in any assessment of its final value. Moreover, both the US and Iran have presented their own versions of the current level of agreement, which suggests the existing contest in public diplomacy is merely one more round where each is trying to cement the other’s feet in place on contentious points.

But I’d like to offer a few comments about the framework of the framework, as it were. First of all, it’s important to see the deal as an arms control measure, not as a disarmament measure. That’s an important distinction, since half the criticism leveled at the agreement is that it doesn’t lock Iran away from nuclear weapons forever. Arms control agreements codify and stabilize. They create durable expectations. They’re meant to manage a problem, rather than to solve it. That’s what we have here—which also explains why the agreement attracted its fair share of critics. Those deeply opposed to the possibility that Iran might ever have nuclear weapons don’t want the problem managed for a decade or so; they want it solved, even if they don’t have a perfect picture of how a solution might be achieved.

Second, if this is an arms control agreement, then the final agreement itself will bear a close reading. In arms control accords, every word matters. In the New START agreement, for example, one of the principal constraints falls on nuclear warheads deployed on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. The agreement says nothing about non-deployed strategic nuclear warheads, nothing about non-strategic warheads—whether deployed or not. The same rule about close reading applies to the Iranian agreement. The interim agreement shows an attempt to constrain Iran’s pathways to the development of fissile materials—whether by uranium enrichment or by plutonium production. So far, the broad parameters are promising, but the devil will be in the details still to be agreed. As the interim agreement itself notes, nothing is agreed until all is agreed.

Third, the agreement enshrines a new metric for arms control: a proliferation breakout timeline. That timeline—the time it would take Iran to acquire the fissile material for one nuclear weapon—is meant to be kept at one year for the next ten years. The metric’s essentially a by-product of the other technical constraints, but it does set a precedent that other future proliferators might be content to see applied to their own cases. The one-year timeline suggests that any breakout can be addressed by the international community, or at least its principal players, over that timeframe. The ten-year timeframe is not an exemption from Iran’s obligations under the NPT, but some worry that it implies an absorptive capacity within the international community in relation to a future nuclear-armed Iran.

Fourth, if this is an arms control measure and not a disarmament one, we should expect a degree of controversy about the agreement and its contents. One rule of arms control is that it’s most available when least needed. Since some constraints on the Iranian nuclear program are sorely needed, that in itself suggests concluding a final agreement won’t be simple. Arms control makes a virtue of half a loaf when the full loaf isn’t available. In the context of negotiations between two heavily nuclear-armed superpowers, half a loaf’s a good outcome. The virtue of half a loaf is going to be harder to sell in the context of proliferating powers. Treating nuclear proliferation as a management issue is more contentious.

Finally, US policy has long tended to treat each specific proliferation problem as unique. After all, nuclear proliferation comes along infrequently enough that there’s good reason to shape a response that addresses individual motivations. But that approach turns upon a broad acceptance across the US mainstream about the nature of the potential proliferator. I think we’re about to see, over coming months, whether such a level of agreement exists in relation to Iran.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist blog here

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Iran Deal: An Agreement Worth Supporting?

The Buzz

Ahron Shapiro’s critique eloquently expresses the strongest arguments against the P5+1 interim deal. In many ways this debate is “the principle versus the technical.” It’s regrettable that in 2015 the discussion is about how many thousands of centrifuges Iran may continue spinning. The mere fact that we have arrived here reflects a condemnable failure of policy over many years.

Ahron is also absolutely correct in saying that Iran’s nuclear program serves no legitimate civilian purpose. Iran does not require its existing nuclear infrastructure to service its fuel needs. Demanding that Iran dismantle its entire nuclear program on these grounds is therefore a defensible position—just not an effective one.

To say the deal will “legitimize Iran as a nuclear weapons threshold state” is a major overstatement. Once the deal is implemented Iran will have significantly less capacity to build a nuclear bomb than it does now. Although Iran’s nuclear facilities will remain in place, what makes this deal surprisingly effective is the degree to which Iran is surrendering those elements that could lead to a bomb. As Joe Cirincione puts it “Iran gets to keep its buildings. And we get to move out most of the furniture.”

Admittedly, this deal does legitimize Iran’s enrichment activities. This is plainly undesirable and undermines those seeking to limit the kinds of nuclear activities that individual states can legitimately engage in elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the interim deal with regard to enrichment is still quite strong. One risk was that the P5+1 would negotiate a ceiling on the number of centrifuges, while allowing Iran to upgrade its existing cascades with more advanced models. This did not occur. Iran is only permitted to use IR-1s in its enrichment activities, and strict limitations are being placed on Iran’s LEU stockpiles. Ahron’s speculation that Iran may utilize IR-8 centrifuges in its enrichment program is therefore incorrect. Moreover, Foreign Minister Zarif’s claim that Iran may “operate its high-speed centrifuges from the first day” does not contradict this. Iran will be able to undertake “limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges.” Iran will not, however, be permitted to use those centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

Ahron also understandably raises Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missile program, Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and the continued outrages from Tehran denying Israel’s right to exist. These are all serious matters that must be addressed—but the fact is sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program are not in place for this purpose. The interim deal expressly states that “U.S. sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal.”

Finally, Ahron asks two key questions:

1. What happens after the agreement ends?, and;

2. What happens if Iran doesn’t keep to the deal?

When the agreement ends, we will be in another world. The good news is that the interim deal is not one that just allows Iran to bide its time. Another risk in the negotiations was that Iran would get relief from sanctions and achieve acceptance of its nuclear program, only to be in a position to race for bomb on the deal’s expiry date. However the interim deal sufficiently winds back Iran’s existing program in a manner that makes this a difficult proposition. As part of the deal, Iran will be expected to join the IAEA Additional Protocol and comply with an intrusive inspections regime. Once the deal expires those inspections will continue to be in place.

What happens if Iran cheats is perhaps the most important question. I share Ahron’s scepticism regarding the effectiveness of "snap back" provisions for sanctions, especially those sanctions imposed by the UN. For a substantive violation my recommendation would be for a limited military response. For instance, if Iran was found to be secretly enriching uranium then the offending sites should be targeted. Leaving the remaining facilities unscathed (at least at first) would provide Iran with a clear incentive for returning swiftly to compliance. Moreover, a targeted military strike against Iran under those conditions would likely be seen as legitimate by the international community, far more so than any such action would be today.

This is where Israel should have focused its attention. Obtaining from the US clear and specific commitments as to what consequences Iran would face for cheating would have been an achievable and useful Israeli objective.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

TopicsDefense RegionsMiddle East

America's Military Is the Best: What about the Acquisition Process?

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According to Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology—in other words, the Pentagon’s top arms buyer—the state of military acquisition in the United States is fairly good today.

Whether one ultimately agrees or not, this is a welcome antidote to the more frequent media focus on nonperforming weapons, cost overruns, Congressional logrolling, and other narratives that characterize much of the discussion of the state of American military acquisition in the modern world.

Kendall appeared at a Brookings event on Monday April 13, at which he again discussed his “better buying power” initiatives that have characterized his tenure at the under secretary position, a job he has held since 2012.

Eschewing any belief in silver bullets as a way to improve how DoD equips today’s American soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine, he made a pitch for a broad-based, incrementalist approach focused largely on making gradual improvements to the quality of the Pentagon’s acquisition workforce. That is a civilian-dominated group, numbering some 150,000 full-time federal employees, in DC and around the country.

The current version of better buying power, known as version “3.0,” advocates as a key theme further empowerment and education of DoD’s program managers—the individuals who supervise specific weapons buying efforts for the military services.

Kendall gave a grade of “B+, maybe A-“to the overall DoD acquisition process. Many will find that surprisingly good. And perhaps there is an element of “grading one’s own homework” going on; after all, Kendall has been running this effort long enough to want to believe that things are going fairly well.

But in fairness, he made a pretty good case. America’s weapons are easily the best in the world. And while development costs for new weapons frequently exceed estimates, some of that is the inevitable consequence of the fact that invention is a messy and unpredictable process. Once DoD gets into the production phase, it does better, according to Kendall, with weapons cost growth more modest (perhaps 10 percent, in contrast to 30 percent in the R&D phase, he said). These figures are not universally accepted, but the thrust of his comments was certainly credible.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn spoke next at the event. He concurred with Kendall’s grade for how DoD, and the industrial base of private firms making equipment for the American military, perform in regard to major weapons systems. But Lynn was more critical of how the Pentagon handles information technology, saying that DoD tends to have big problems with anything affected by Moore’s Law. (Indeed, Kendall himself had acknowledged that bringing new computer technologies into the arsenal, through faster and more modular approaches, is where DoD can and should improve the most.) Lynn gave this part of the Pentagon system a grade of perhaps C-.

Lynn’s arguments also included the observation that DoD needs to involve a broader community of equipment providers. Since the Cold War ended, it has depended a bit too much on a relatively small number of U.S. firms whose primary focus is defense. These firms are excellent, to be sure. But there is not quite enough back and forth with the commercial world, not enough willingness in the Pentagon to purchase from foreign providers, and insufficient outreach to Silicon Valley. All of this at a time when traditional defense firms are scaling back their own R&D investments and potentially failing to develop and offer up an adequate portfolio of affordable new technologies for the future U.S. military.

Brookings fellow and Coast Guard officer Jason Tama rounded out the discussion, picking up where Lynn left off on the issue of Silicon Valley. He drove home the importance of making information technology and computer firms feel that they can access, and navigate, the DoD procurement labrynth, without risking intellectual property rights or reasonable profit margins along the way.

He also favored a more flexible and adaptable Pentagon civil service, including for the acquisition workforce. According to Tama, that approach should allow people to move in and out of government more easily as a way to induce more talented young people to work for the feds—and along the way, to change its culture in ways that would in fact make Silicon Valley feel more drawn to the military acquisition system.

On the whole, the event produced lots of calls for ongoing, patient reforms. No one proposed any panaceas—say, a new type of federal procurement contract system that would ensure fewer cost overruns, or a new piece of federal legislation that could solve most remaining problems for us quickly and easily.

While the panelists underscored the need for continued improvement and reform, it was also refreshing to hear that at least certain parts of the DoD system merited respectable assessments, in their eyes.

The system needs big improvement in some ways, especially in regard to IT and computers, but at the same time, it is far from broken. In a messy and scandal-plagued world, and a partisan and often gridlocked Washington, that is a nice message to hear—even if it must not be confused with a call to complacency.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Flickr/ U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

Operation Desert Fox: A Blueprint for Crushing Iran's Nuclear Program?

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In an interview with the Family Research Council last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) described what U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear-related facilities would entail:

“The president is trying to make you think it would be 150,000 heavy mechanized troops on the ground in the Middle East again as we saw in Iraq and that’s simply not the case. It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: Several days air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior—for interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions. All we’re asking is that the president simply be as tough in the protection of America’s national security interest as Bill Clinton was.”

Several policymakers and analysts have correctly pointed out that Cotton vastly underestimates the costs and consequences involved with bombing Iran’s nuclear program. Beyond underselling the difficulty of such an attack, Cotton either misrepresents or misunderstands what really happened during the four-day U.S. and UK bombing of Iraq in December 1998. Though Operation Desert Fox is now routinely misremembered as such, in reality, it was not a bombing campaign intended to “take out” Iraq’s WMD program. Rather, it was designed and executed to punish the Saddam Hussein regime by degrading Iraq’s air defenses, killing Hussein’s security forces, and damaging missile and aircraft delivery systems for potential WMDs.

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It is essential to know that the Operation Desert Fox target list was not primarily WMD-related. In fact, when Secretary of Defense William Cohen briefed the press about the scope of targets, he did not mention WMD at all:

• I want to stress that this military action is substantial. It is inflicting significant damage on the seven target categories that we have selected. These are as follows"

• Iraq’s air defense system.

• The command and control system that Saddam Hussein uses to direct his military and to repress his people.

• The security forces and facilities to protect and hide his efforts to develop or maintain the deadly chemical and biological weapons. These are the forces that have worked to prevent the United Nations inspectors from doing their jobs.

• The industrial base that Saddam Hussein uses to sustain and deliver his deadly weapons.

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• His military infrastructure, including the elite Republican Guard forces that pose the biggest threat to his neighbors and protect his weapons of mass destruction

• The airfields and refinery that produces oil products that Iraq smuggles in violation of economic sanctions.

conversation between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that took place one day into the 1998 Iraq bombing was just released by the Clinton Presidential Library. During the phone call, Clinton stated, “The first thing we try to take out is their integrated communications and air defense systems.” Similarly, any bombing of Iran’s known nuclear program would absolutely start with establishing air superiority with a broad-based series of cruise missile and airstrikes against Iran’s integrated air defense system.

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In reality, only 12 percent of Operation Desert Fox’s intended targets were related to Iraq’s possible WMD sites—several of which were under full-time United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) camera monitoring. The one-hundred planned targets included twelve WMD industry and production facilities, and eighteen WMD security sites (the barracks and headquarters for Hussein’s most elite military units that primarily protected regime leadership). The other non-WMD or -missile targets included thirty-four air defense installations, twenty command and control sites, nine Republic Guard barracks, six airfields, and one oil refinery.

Moreover, degrading Iraq’s integrated air defense system and the regime’s command and control capabilities was easy since American and British pilots had been patrolling the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq for six years. The intelligence staffs for Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch had carefully mapped and continuously tracked every threatening air defense radar, anti-aircraft gun, and towed or mobile surface-to-air missile systems that Iraq possessed. In addition, the CIA had penetrated UNSCOM weapons inspection teams, including its communication relay towers, to collect information on Iraq’s military communications. The U.S. military and Intelligence Community (IC) had unique insights into Iraq in 1998, which they would not enjoy in Iran today.

Though the target sets were well known and threat environment minimal, Operation Desert Fox was not a resounding military success. This, despite President Clinton, without prompting, increasing the number of authorized cruise missiles and air sorties initially proposed to him from 300 and 700, to 400 and 800, respectively, according to then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton. There were 275 aim-points (211 of which were partially or fully struck) amongst the one-hundred planned targets: forty-three targets were severely damaged or destroyed, thirty moderately damaged, twelve lightly, and thirteen untouched. Afterward, Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), characterized the bombing as “74 percent successful.” Pentagon and CENTCOM officials wanted to restrike several of these targets, but the White House insisted that the bombing be completed by the start of Ramadan. Sen. Cotton would probably not tout Operation Desert Fox so glowingly if he knew it had lasted only four days out of concern for political sensitivities in the Muslim world.

In total, Iraq’s ballistic missile production capabilities were set back about one to two years, and 1,400 of Hussein’s military and security forces were killed and wounded. Within just fourteen months, U.S. satellite imagery and intelligence reports revealed that Iraq had rebuilt several of the alleged WMD and missile facilities that were damaged. Worse, the IC lost what little direct access it had to these sites when UNSCOM inspectors were kicked out after the four-day bombing ceased. As the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted in its 2004 report on pre-war intelligence of Iraq, “Most of the intelligence community’s knowledge of Iraqi WMD programs was obtained from, in conjunction with, and in support of the UNSCOM inspections…When UN inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, the [IC] was left with a limited unilateral collection capability against Iraq’s WMD…The CIA did not have any WMD sources in Iraq after 1998.”

After several media outlets questioned Sen. Cotton’s assertion last week, his communications director clarified his thinking: “We think Desert Fox is a very close comparison. It serves as an analogy of the intent, execution and objective for that type of operation [long-range strike to target weapons facilities].” Yet, Operation Desert Fox is a poor historical analogy for thinking about bombing Iran’s nuclear program. This is because the 1998 military operation had little to do with Iraq’s WMD program, and everything to do with punishing Saddam Hussein. If Cotton truly desires to (temporarily) punish and coerce the leadership in Tehran, and lose direct insights into Iran’s nuclear sites, then Operation Desert Fox is indeed a useful comparison.

This piece was first posted on CFR’s website here

TopicsDefense RegionsMiddle East