Monthly Archives: September 2011

Arms, China and the Obama Administration

Arms, China & the Obama Administration

Foreign Policy In Focus Blog

Conn Hallinan

Sept. 20, 2011

The recent decision by the Obama Administration to sell $5.8 billion in arms to Taiwan is a bit of a head scratcher, rather like the hunter who goes into the woods with one bullet. Seeing a deer to his left and a turkey to his right, he shoots in the middle. It will annoy Taipei, irritate Beijing, stir up the China bashers in the U.S., and increase tensions in a region of the world that is already pretty tense.

So what’s the point here?

The plan would upgrade Taiwan’s 140 U.S.-made F-16 A/B jet fighters, plus supply Taipei with Blackhawk helicopters and anti-ballistic missiles. The Obama administration has more than doubled the Bush administration’s arms sales to Taiwan, and this sale would bring that figure to slightly more than $12 billion.

Taipei had asked to buy 66 new F-16 C/Ds, but the White House turned that down, annoying the Taiwanese. “These years, China is showing stronger and stronger reaction to U.S.-Taiwan arms sales,” complained Taipei’s deputy defense minister Andrew Yang, and that has turned Americans “more wary with arms sales.”

While PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing “firmly opposes the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” China’s reaction was generally low key, certainly more so than when a similar arms sales went through in 2008. Then Beijing canceled joint military consultation with the U.S. and put capitol-to-capitol relations into a deep freeze for many months. After a similar arms sale in 2010, Chinese military leaders went as far as to suggest that China cash in some of American’s $1.1 trillion debt to Beijing.

While the White House can’t get bi-partisan agreement on the budget, it brought Republicans and Democrats together on this issue. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx) have joined hands to introduce legislation demanding that the administration sell the new F-16s to Taiwan. The Taiwan Air Modernization Act cites the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for providing defensive weapons to Taipei and resisting any effort by the PRC to forcibly reunite Taiwan with the mainland.

Cornyn thundered that the decision to upgrade rather than sell was “capitulation to Communist China” and a “slap in the face to a strong ally and a long-time friend.” In language straight out of the Cold War, a Coryn-Menendez letter to Obama—signed by 13 Democrats and 23 Republicans—warned that a failure to sell the new fighter aircraft means “Taiwan will be dangerously exposed to Chinese military threats, aggression and provocation, which pose significant security implications for the United States.”

A similar letter, signed by 181 House members, also demanded that Washington approve the sales of new F-16s.

Tucked in amidst the “red dragon” scare rhetoric is pork: “We are deeply concerned that further delay of the decision to sell F-16s to Taiwan could result in closure of the F-16 production line,” the letter argues. Lockheed Martin, maker of the aircraft, has a plant in Cornyn’s Texas, and the company employs 750 workers in Menendez’s New Jersey. The company is the largest arms manufacturer in the world and has a formidable lobbying presence in Washington.

In many ways the whole matter seems mired in the past, particularly the letter’s warning that Taiwan risked losing its “qualitative advantage in defensive arms.” Taipei has not had a “qualitative advantage” over the PRC in any category for the past two decades. Even the Taipei Times writes that “Taiwan would have at most only a few days to hold off China and get help from the outside, most likely the U.S., if they were going to stand any chance.”

According to the Pentagon, the PRC’s fighter aircraft fleet outnumbers Taiwan’s 1,680 to 388, and many of the latter’s planes are obsolete. Besides the 140 F-16 A/Bs, Taipei’s forces include 1962 vintage F-5s (its day is long past), 60 aging French Mirage 2000s (vintage 1982), and 130 domestically produced, but underpowered, Indigenous Defensive Fighter, the “Ching-Kuo.”

The PRC’s fleet features Sukhoi-27 and Sukhoi-30—the latter a match for the U.S.’s premier fighter, the F-15—and China’s domestic fighter, the J-10. A J-20 stealth fighter is in the testing phase but will not be deployed until 2017. Upgrading the F-16s, or even selling Taiwan new ones, will not alter this balance.

The PRC maintains that Taiwan is part of China (and virtually no country in the world, including the U.S., disagrees) and reserves the right to use military force if Taipei tries to establish independence. But “reserves the right” is very different than ramping up the landing craft. Indeed, China has carefully lowered nationalist rhetoric around Taiwan and cross-straits ties are warmer than they were three years ago.

Current Chinese President Hu Jintao has pushed rapprochement with Taipei, but as the Financial Times points out, “his approach to Taiwan is not uncontested within the Chinese Communist Party,” and it notes that “the Party is also preparing to elect a new generation of leaders next year.”  That new generation tends to be more nationalistic than the older generation.

The PRC’s armed forces mirror currents in the Communist Party, with a wing that advocates a more assertive role—at least in local waters like the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea—and a more cautious wing that wants to avoid a confrontation with the U.S.

Similar currents exist within the U.S. military establishment, although the Pentagon’s “caution” wing has recently gone silent because of all the talk about cutting military spending. Much of the recent “China threat” talk is aimed at derailing efforts to cut the huge military budget, and, to that end, generals and admirals have closed ranks behind “the dragon is coming, the dragon is coming” gang. One suspects the American hawks have counterparts among the Chinese chiefs of staff.

The arms deal will make President’s Hu’s job more difficult, although he will probably portray the F-16 upgrade as a compromise. Of course, all bets are off if Congress throws a monkey wrench into the deal and insists on new aircraft that won’t change the military balance, but will worsen an already charged diplomatic atmosphere.

The White House is nervous about January elections in Taiwan, which will pit the nationalist Kuomintang Party against the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP’s leader, Tsai Ing-Wen, apparently had a recent falling out with Obama administration officials over the independence issue. One U.S. official told the Financial Times, “that while she [Tsai] understood the need ‘to avoid gratuitous provocations’ of China, it was ‘far from clear…that she and her advisors fully appreciate the depth of [Chinese] mistrust of her motives and DPP aspirations.’”

DPP leader Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s president from 2000 to 2008 pushed for formal independence and cut off formal negotiations with Beijing during his administration.

If this all seems like a terrible muddle, that’s because it is.

On one hand Washington insists on a robust military presence on China’s doorstep, and continues to supply arms to Taiwan. These are not minor matters. If there is a confrontation between Taiwan and the PRC, and it pulls in the Americans, it will pit two nuclear powers against one another.

The growth of the Chinese navy—Beijing got its first aircraft carrier this year, albeit one half the size of a U.S. flat top—is being portrayed in Washington as a threat to U.S. naval power in the Pacific and Indian oceans. But the PRC’s buildup is about protecting its oil and gas supplies—80 percent travel by sea—and recent history.

The PRC is still smarting over having to back down when the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits in 1995 during a particularly tense standoff between Taipei and Beijing. The increase in China’s military spending dates from that confrontation, although Beijing’s budget is still only about one eighth of what the Americans spend.

On the other hand, the White House is leaning on the DPP not to push independence and watering down the arms package to Taipei.

Bi-polar diplomacy anyone?

It is clear that Washington and Beijing are of two minds about their relationship. Both are riding conflicting internal political currents, and over the next decade, threading a path between cooperation and competition promises to be tricky. Arms sales accomplish little more than pushing China’s nationalist button. The jobs they create in the U.S. are marginal (and the same amount spent on civilian projects produce more employment), and the tensions they create are real.

It is time to revisit the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, a piece of legislation that reflects a very different world than the one we live in now.

Conn Hallinan can be read at



Filed under Asia, China, FPIF Blogs, Military, Pacific

Of Kabul and Tet and Generals

Of Kabul & Tet & Generals

Dispatches From the Edge

Conn Hallinan

Sept. 15, 2011

“Now we can see [success in Vietnam] clearly, like the light at the end of a tunnel”

–Gen. Henri Navarre, commander French forces in Vietnam, May 20, 1953

“A new phase is starting…we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view…there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

–Gen. William Westmoreland, commander U.S. forces in Vietnam, November 1967

“Yesterday’s attack [in Kabul] was a fleeting event; it came and it went. The insurgents are on the defensive.” The performance of Afghan security forces should tell Afghans “they can sleep well at night.”

–Gen. John Allen, North Atlantic Treaty Commander in Afghanistan, Sept. 14, 2011

Dear Lord, what is about generals that seem to make them so particularly immune to history’s lessons?

Gen. Navarre had a sure-fire plan to draw the Vietnamese insurgents into a great battle that would end the war. Worked like a charm. On May 7, 1954 the French army surrendered at Dien Bien Phu.

In November 1967, Gen. Westmoreland was making the rounds in Washington, talking up “body counts” and “pacification,” and how the U.S would have this little matter in Vietnam wrapped up pretty quickly. Ten weeks later, on Jan.31, 1968, the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive that put the U.S. Embassy in Saigon under siege, seized the city of Hue, and shattered the myth that the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam.

And now Gen. Allen says the attack on Kabul indicates the Taliban are on their last legs.

For NATO this year has been the deadliest in the decade-old war, and the Kabul assault suggests that the Taliban are hardly on the ropes. As Matthew Green of the Financial Times put it, “The attack was among the most sophisticated insurgents have launched on the capital and exposed the inability of Afghan forces to guarantee security even in the most heavily defended districts.”

A “fleeting event”? I suppose that depends on how one defines “fleeting.” Seven Taliban pinned down NATO and Afghan security forces for 20 hours, scattering Embassy officials, and pretty much paralyzing a major part of the capital. It was the 26th major attack on Kabul since 2008, assaults that have killed 225 people.

What generals don’t get (it tends to be above their pay grade) is that wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan— wars of occupation—are political, not military affairs. The U.S. military continues to claim that the Tet offensive was a huge military victory because it killed lots of insurgents, and the U.S. took back all the cities it lost. But Tet was less a military offensive than a political undertaking aimed at derailing the myth that the U.S. was “winning” the war in Vietnam. And that is exactly what Tet did. Regardless of what the generals thought, the American people concluded that they had been lied to, and that the war could not be won.

During the Paris peace talks to end the war in Southeast Asia, an American colonel confronted his North Vietnamese counterpart and told him that the U.S. had won every battle in the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese officer nodded, “Yes, that is true, but also irrelevant.” I doubt the American officer got the point.

General Allen’s line about “the insurgents are on the defensive” can now join former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s dismissal of the growing Iraqi insurgency as nothing but Saddam Hussein “dead-enders.”

As for Kabul residents being able to “sleep well at night” because of the performance of the Afghan security forces:

“The nature and scale of today’s attacks clearly proves that the terrorists received assistance and guidance from some security officials within the government who are their sympathizers,” Naim Hamidzai, chair of the Afghan parliament’s Internal Security Committee, told the New York Times. “Otherwise it would be impossible for the planners and masterminds of the attack to stage such a sophisticated and complex attack, in this extremely well guarded location without the complicity of insiders.”

The Afghan Army saw its desertion rate more than double in the first six months of this year. Between January and June, some 24,590 soldiers deserted, compared with 11,423 who left in the same period in 2010. The Afghan army is supposed to reach 195,000 by October 2012.

The Afghan army has also been unable to recruit Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan, the heart of the insurgency. According to a recent study by the New York Times, Pashtuns from Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Zabul, Paktika, and Ghazni make up 17 percent of the population but only 1.5 percent of the army. In short, the Afghan Army in the south is essentially a northern army of occupation, which explains why no one in the southern provinces will join the army, and virtually no Taliban have switched allegiances to the government.

To shore up security, the U.S. has been recruiting and arming militias that, according to a recent Human Rights study, have killed, raped and stolen from local villagers. U.S. Special Forces recruit the militia members, who then shift their loyalties to local warlords. This should hardly come as a surprise. The Soviets tried exactly this tactic during their occupation, which ended up fueling the growth of the warlords and led to the devastating 1992-96 civil war.

Of course General Allen might have had something else in mind when he talked about getting a good night’s sleep.

According to the United Nations, this year will be a bumper crop for opium. Prices for dry opium increased 306 percent this year, from $69 a kilo to $281 a kilo. As Jean-Luc Lemahieu, an official of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, told the New York Times, “This is not business as usual. There is no crop that can compete with those prices.”

Smoke enough opium you can sleep through anything.

For the last 10 years we have bombed, shot, incarcerated, and water-boarded a lot of people in Afghanistan. We have allowed opium to become the country’s major source of income, and we are currently bringing back the warlords and their armies. Afghanistan is a far more dangerous place today than it was a decade ago, and the only tunnels are the ones in which the Taliban store their weapons and supplies.

It seems time to resuscitate a line from another decade and another war: “Out now!”



Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, FPIF Blogs, Military

The New Scramble For Africa

The New Scramble for Africa

Foreign Policy In Focus

Aug. 31, 2011

Is current U.S. foreign policy in Africa following a blueprint drawn up almost eight years ago by the rightwing Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative think tanks in the world? While it seems odd that a Democratic administration would have anything in common with the extremists at Heritage, the convergence in policy and practice between the two is disturbing.

Heritage, with help from Joseph Coors and the Scaife Foundations, was founded in 1973 by the late Paul Weyrich, one of the most conservative thinkers in the U.S. and a co-founder of the Moral Majority. While the Moral Majority whipped up the culture wars against abortion and gays, Heritage lobbied for an aggressive foreign policy and American military supremacy.

In October 2003, James Carafano and Nile Gardiner, two Heritage Foundation heavyweights, proposed a major shift in U.S. military policy vis-à-vis the African continent. Carafano is a West Point graduate who heads up the Foundation’s foreign policy section, and Gardiner is the director of Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

In a “Backgrounder” article entitled “U.S. Military Assistance for Africa: A Better Solution,” the two called for the creation of a military command for the continent, a focus on fighting “terrorism,” and direct military intervention using air power and naval forces if “vital U.S. interests are at stake.” Such interventions should avoid using ground troops, the authors argue, and should include the participation of other allies.

Almost every element of that proposal has come together over the past year, though some pieces, like African Command (Africom) and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, were in place before the Obama administration took office.

The Libya war seems almost straight off of Heritage’s drawing board. While the U.S. appeared to take a back seat to its allies, NATO would not have been able to carry out the war without massive amounts of U.S. military help. It was the U.S. who took out the Libyan anti-air craft systems, blockaded the coast, collected the electronic intelligence, fueled the warplanes, and supplied munitions when NATO ran low.

While the UN resolution forbade using ground troops, U.S. special forces and CIA teams, along with special units from Britain, France, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates organized the rebels, coordinated air strikes, and eventually pulled off an amphibious operation that sealed Tripoli’s fate.

The Heritage scholars were also clear what they meant by vital U.S. interests: “With its vast natural and mineral resources, Africa remains strategically important to the West, as it has been for hundreds of years, and its geostrategic significance is likely to rise in the 21st century. According to the National Intelligence Council, the United States is likely to draw 25 percent of its oil from West Africa by 2015, surpassing the volume imported from the Persian Gulf.”

It was a sentiment shared by the Bush Administration. “West Africa’s oil has become a national strategic interest,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Walter Kansteiner in 2002.

The UN tasked NATO with protecting civilians in Libya, but France, Britain, the U.S. and their Gulf allies focused on regime change. Indeed, when leaders of the African Union (AU) pushed for negotiations aimed at a political settlement, NATO and the rebels brusquely dismissed them.

The NATO bombing “really undermined the AU’s initiates and effort to deal with the matter in Libya,” complained South African President Jacob Zuma. More than 200 prominent Africans released a letter Aug. 24 condemning the “misuse of the United Nations Security Council to engage in militarized diplomacy to effect regime change in Libya,” as well as the “marginalization of the African Union.”

The suspicion that the Libya war had more to do with oil and gas than protecting civilians is why the AU has balked at recognizing the rebel Transitional National Council. For much of Africa, the Libya war was a “shot heard ‘round the continent,” and there is a growing unease at the West’s “militarized diplomacy.”

Though the Defense Department’s African Contingency Operation Training and Assistance Program, the U.S. is actively engaged in training the militaries of Mali, Chad, Niger, Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Gabon, Zambia, Uganda, Senegal, Mozambique, Ghana and Malawi, and Mauretania.

In June 2006, NATO troops stormed ashore on Sao Vicente island in the Cape Verde archipelago in operation “Steadfast Jaguar” (an odd choice of monikers, since jaguars are natives of the New World, not Africa). The exercise, which brought together a host of nations, including France, Germany, Spain, Greece, the U.S. and Poland, was aimed at “protecting energy supplies” in the Niger Delta and Gulf of Guinea.

Major oil producers in the region include Angola, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Mauritania.

Protecting energy supplies from whom?

In the case of the Niger Delta, it means protecting oil companies and the Nigerian government from local people fed up with the pollution that is killing them, and corruption that denies them any benefits from their resources. Under the umbrella of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), locals are waging a low-key guerilla war that at one point reduced oil supplies by 20 percent.

MEND is certainly suspicious of American motives in the region. “Of course, it is evident that oil is the key concern of the U.S. in establishing African Command,” says the organization’s spokesman, Jomo Gbomo.

The Nigerian government labels a number of restive groups in Nigeria as “terrorist” and links them to al-Qaeda, including Boko Haram in the country’s north.

But labeling opponents “terrorists” or raising the al-Qaeda specter is an easy way to dismiss what may be real local grievances. For instance, Boko Haram’s growing penchant for violence is more likely a response to the heavy handedness of the Nigerian Army than an al-Qaeda inspired campaign.

Terrorism and the protection of civilians may be the public rationale for intervention, but the bottom line looks suspiciously like business. Before the guns go silent in Libya, one British business leader complained to The Independent that Britain was behind the curve on securing opportunities. “It‘s all politics, no commercial stuff. I think that is a mistake. We need to be getting down there as soon as possible,”

The Spanish oil company Reposal and the Italian company Eni are already gearing up for production. “Eni will play a No.1 role in the future,” says Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. Almost 70 percent of Libya’s oil goes to four countries, Spain, Germany, France and Italy. Qatar, which is already handing oil sales in Eastern Libya, will also be on the ground floor as production ramps up.

A major loser in the war—and some would argue, not by accident—is China. Beijing had some 75 companies working in Libya and 36,000 personnel, and accounted for about 11 percent of Libya’s pre-war exports. But because China complained that NATO had unilaterally changed the UN resolution from protecting civilians to regime change, Beijing is likely to suffer. Abdeljalil Mayouf, information manager of the rebel oil firm AGOCO told Reuters that China, Brazil and Russia would be frozen out of contracts.

Brazil and Russia also supported negotiations and complained about NATO’s interpretation of the UN resolution on Libya.

For Heritage, keeping China out of Africa is what it is all about. Peter Brookes, the former principal Republican advisor for East Asia on the House Committee on International Relations, warned that China was hell-bent on challenging the U.S. and becoming a global power, and key to that is expanding its interests in Africa. “In a throwback to the Maoist revolutionary days of the 1960s and 1970s and the Cold War, Beijing has once again identified the African continent as an area of strategic interest,” he told a Heritage Foundation audience in a talk entitled “Into Africa: China’s Grab for Influence and Oil.”

Beijing gets about one third of its oil from Africa—Angola and Sudan are its major suppliers—plus important materials like platinum, copper, timber and iron ore.

Africa is rife with problems, but terrorism is not high on that list. A severe drought has blistered much of East Africa, and, with food prices rising, malnutrition is spreading continent-wide. The “war on terrorism” has generated 800,000 refugees from Somalia. African civilians do, indeed, need help, but not the kind you get from fighter-bombers, drone strikes, or Tomahawk cruise missiles dispatched at the urging of right-wing think tanks or international energy companies.


Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Asia, China, Europe, Middle East, Military, Oil, Policy