Category Archives: Korea

Rolling Snakes Eyes in the Indo-Pacific

Rolling Snake Eyes in the Indo-Pacific

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2017

 

With the world focused on the scary possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, not many people paid a whole lot of attention to a series of naval exercises this past July in the Malacca Strait, a 550-mile long passage between Sumatra and Malaysia through which pass over 50,000 ships a year. With President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanging threats and insults, why would the media bother with something innocuously labeled “Malabar 17”?

 

They should have.

 

Malabar 17 brought together the U.S., Japanese, and Indian navies to practice shutting down a waterway through which 80 percent of China’s energy supplies travel and to war game closing off the Indian Ocean to Chinese submarines. If Korea keeps you up at night, try imagining the outcome of choking off fuel for the world’s second largest economy.

 

While Korea certainly represents the most acute crisis in Asia, the diplomatic maneuvers behind Malabar 17 may be more dangerous in the long run. The exercise elevates the possibility of a confrontation between China, the U.S. and India, but also between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed countries that have fought three wars in the past 70 years.

 

This tale begins more than a decade and a half ago, when then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith—one of the most hawkish members of the George W. Bush administration—convened a meeting in May 2002 of the US-India Defense Policy Group and the government of India.

 

As one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, India traditionally avoided being pulled into the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

But the Bush administration had a plan for roping Indian into an alliance aimed at containing China, with a twist on an old diplomatic strategy: no stick, lots of carrots.

 

At the time India was banned from purchasing uranium on the international market because it had detonated a nuclear weapon in 1974 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There was a fear that if India had nuclear weapons, eventually so would Pakistan, a fear that turned real in 1998 when Islamabad tested its first nuclear device.

 

Pakistan also refused to sign the NPT.

 

Under the rules of the Treaty, both countries were excluded from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. While the ban was not a serious problem for Pakistan—it has significant uranium deposits—it was for India. With few domestic resources, India had to balance between using its uranium for weapons or to fuel nuclear power plants. Given that India is energy poor, that was a difficult choice.

 

When the Bush administration took over in 2001, it immediately changed the designation of China from “ strategic partner” to “strategic competitor.” It also resumed arms sales to New Delhi despite India’s 1998 violation of the NPT with a new round of tests.

 

Then Washington offered a very big carrot called the 1-2-3 Agreement that allow India to bypass the NPT and buy uranium so long as it is not used for weapons. This, however, would allow India to shift all of its domestic fuel into weapons production.

 

At the time, Pakistan—which asked for the same deal and was rebuffed—warned that the Agreement would ignite a nuclear arms race in Asia, which is precisely what has happened. India and Pakistan are busily adding to their nuclear weapons stocks, as is China and, of course, North Korea.

 

The 1-2-3 Agreement went into effect in 2008, although it has not been fully implemented.

 

Complicating this whole matter are on-going tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, over which the two have fought three wars, the last of which came close to going nuclear. Rather than trying to defuse a very dangerous conflict, however, the Bush administration ignored Kashmir. So did the Obama administration, in spite of a pre-election promise by Barack Obama to deal with the on-going crisis. ,

 

It would appear that a quid pro quo for India moving closer to the US is Washington’s silence on Kashmir.

 

In 2016, the Obama administration designated India a “Major Defense Partner,” made Japan a permanent member of the Malabar exercises, and began training Indian pilots in “advanced aerial combat” at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

 

The Trump administration has added to the tensions between India and Pakistan by encouraging New Delhi to deploy troops in Afghanistan. While India already has paramilitary road building units in Southern Afghanistan, it does not have regular armed forces. From Islamabad’s point of view, Indian troops in Afghanistan will effectively sandwich Pakistan, north and south. So far, India has resisted the request.

 

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also rolled out a new military strategy called “Cold Start,” which allows the Indian military to attack and pursue “terrorists” as deep as 30 kilometers into Pakistani territory.

 

The danger is that a “Cold Start” operation could be misinterpreted by Islamabad as a major attack by the far larger Indian army. Faced with defeat, Pakistan might resort to tactical nuclear weapons, a decision that Pakistan has recently delegated to front-line commanders. Since India cannot respond in kind—it has no tactical nukes—New Delhi would either use its high yield strategic nuclear weapons or accept defeat. Since the latter is unlikely, the war could quickly escalate into a general nuclear exchange.

 

Such an exchange, according to a recent study by Scientific American, would not only kill tens of millions of people in both countries, it would cause a worldwide nuclear chill that would devastate agriculture in both hemispheres. In terms of impact, as scary as the Korea crisis is, a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would be qualitatively worse.

 

During his recent Asia tour, Trump used the term “Indo-Pacific” on a number of occasions, a term that was originally coined by the rightwing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Japan is currently in a tense standoff with China over several uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and Abe is trying to dismantle Japan’s post-World War II “peace” constitution that restricts Japanese armed forces to “self-defense” operations.

 

Abe is also closely associated with a section of the Japanese political spectrum that argues that Japan was simply resisting western imperialism in World War II and denies or downplays its own colonial role and the massive atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China and Korea.

 

Asia looks like a pretty scary place these days. A rightwing Hindu fundamentalist government in India and a revanchist Japanese Prime Minister are allied with an increasingly unstable administration in Washington to surround and contain the second largest economy in the world.

 

There are some hopeful developments, however. For one, following the recent Communist Party Congress, China seems to be looking for a way to turn down the heat in the region. After initially threatening South Korea for deploying a US anti-missile system, the THAAD, Beijing has stepped back and cut a deal: no additional THAAD systems, no boycott of South Korean goods.

 

The Chinese also dialed down tensions in the mountainous Doldam region on the border of China and Bhutan with an agreement for a mutual withdrawal of troops. There has been some progress as well in finding a non-confrontational solution to China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea, although Beijing is not likely to abandon its artificial islands until there is a downsizing of US naval forces in the region.

 

And in spite of the tensions between the two, India and Pakistan formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this past summer, a security grouping largely dominated by Russia and China.

 

The danger here is that someone does something stupid and things get out of hand. There are those who point out that in spite of similar tensions during the Cold War, all concerned survived those dark times. That, however, ignores the fact that the world came very close to nuclear war, once by design—the Cuban missile crisis—and several times by accident.

 

If you keep rolling the dice, eventually they come up snake eyes.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Asia, China, India, Korea, Military, Pacific

Of Trump, Vipers, and Foreign Policy

Of Trump, Vipers & Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 22, 2017

 

“Chaos,” “dismay,” “radically inept,” are just a few of the headlines analyzing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and in truth, disorder would seem to be the strategy of the day. Picking up the morning newspaper or tuning on the national news sometimes feels akin to opening up a basket filled with spitting cobras and Gabon Vipers.

 

But the bombast emerging for the White House hasn’t always matched what the Trump administration does in the real world. The threat to dump the “one-China” policy and blockade Beijing’s bases in the South China Sea has been dialed back. The pledge to overturn the Iran nuclear agreement has been shelved. And NATO’s “obsolesce” has morphed into a pledge of support. Common sense setting in as a New York Times headline suggests: “Foreign Policy Loses Its Sharp Edge as Trump Adjusts to Office”?

 

Don’t bet on it.

 

First, this is an administration that thrives on turmoil, always an easier place to rule from than order. What it says and does one day may be, or may not be, what it says or does another. And because there are a number of foreign policy crises that have stepped up to the plate, we should all find out fairly soon whether the berserkers or the rationalists are running things.

 

The most dangerous of these is Iran, which the White House says is “playing with fire” and has been “put on notice” for launching a Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile. The missile traveled 630 miles and exploded in what looks like a failed attempt to test a re-entry vehicle. Exactly what “notice” means has yet to be explained, but Trump has already applied sanctions for what it describes as a violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action—UN Security Council Resolution 2231—in which Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear energy program.

 

A 2010 UN resolution did, indeed, state, that Iran “shall not undertake activity related to ballistic missiles.” But that resolution was replaced by UNSCR 2231, which only “calls upon Iran not to test missiles,” wording that “falls short of an outright prohibition on missile testing,” according to former UN weapon’s inspector Scott Ritter.

 

The Iranians say their ballistic missile program is defensive, and given the state of their obsolete air force, that is likely true.

 

The Trump administration also charges that Iran is a “state sponsor of terror,” an accusation that bears little resemblance to reality. Iran is currently fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria, Iraq, and through its allies, the Houthi, in Yemen. It has also aided the fight against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. As Ritter points out, “Iran is more ally than foe,” especially compared to Saudi Arabia, “whose citizens constituted the majority of the 9/11 attackers and which is responsible for underwriting and the financial support of Islamic extremists around the world, including Islamic State and al-Qaida.”

 

In an interview last year, leading White House strategist Steve Bannon predicted, “We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again.” Since the U.S. has pretty much devastated its former foes in the region—Iraq, Syria and Libya—he could only be referring to Iran. The administration’s initial actions vis-à-vis Teheran are, indeed, worrisome. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently considered boarding an Iranian ship in international waters to search it for weapons destined for the Houthi in Yemen. Such an action would be a clear violation of international law and might have ended in a shoot out.

 

The Houthi practice a variation of Shiism, the dominant Islamic school in Iran. They do get some money and weapons from Teheran, but even U.S. intelligence says that the group is not under Teheran’s command.

 

The White House also condemned a Houthi attack on a Saudi warship—initially Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it an “American” ship—even though the Saudi’s and their Persian Gulf allies are bombing the Houthi and the Saudi Navy—along with the U.S. Navy—is blockading the country. According to the UN, more than 16,000 people have died in the three-year war, 10,000 of them civilians.

 

Apparently the Trump administration is considering sending American soldiers into Yemen, which would put the U.S troops in the middle of a war involving the Saudis and their allies, the Houthi, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various south Yemen separatist groups.

 

Putting U.S. ground forces into Yemen is a “dangerous idea,” according to Jon Finer, chief of staff for former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But a U.S. war with Iran would be as catastrophic for the Middle East as the invasion of Iraq. It would also be unwinnable unless the U.S. resorted to nuclear weapons, and probably not even then. For all its flaws, Iran’s democracy is light years ahead of most other U.S. allies in the region and Iranians would strongly rally behind the government in the advent of a conflict.

 

The other foreign policy crisis is the recent missile launch by North Korea, although so far the Trump administration has let the rightwing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe carry the ball on the issue. Meeting with Trump in Florida, Abe called the Feb. 12 launch “absolutely intolerable.” Two days earlier Trump had defined halting North Korean missile launches as a “very, very high priority.”

 

The tensions with North Korea nuclear weapons and missile program are long running, and this particular launch was hardly threatening. The missile was a mid-range weapon and only traveled 310 miles before breaking up. The North Koreans have yet to launch a long-range ICBM, although they continue to threaten that one is in the works.

 

According to a number of Washington sources, Barak Obama told Trump that North Korea posed the greatest threat to U.S. military forces, though how he reached that conclusion is puzzling. It is estimated North Korea has around one dozen nuclear weapons with the explosive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, about 20 kilotons. The average U.S. warhead packs an explosive force of from 100 to 475 kilotons, with some ranging up to 1.2 megatons. It has more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.

 

While the North Koreans share the Trump administration’s love of hyperbole, the country has never demonstrated a suicidal streak. A conventional attack by the U.S., South Korea and possibly Japan would be a logistical nightmare and might touch off a nuclear war, inflicting enormous damage on other countries in the region. Any attack would probably draw in China.

 

What the North Koreans want is to talk to someone, a tactic that the Obama administration never tried. Nor did it consider trying to look at the world from Pyongyang’s point of view. “North Korea has taken note of what happened in Iraq and Libya after they renounced nuclear weapons,” says Norman Dombey, an expert on nuclear weapons and a professor of theoretical physics at Sussex University. “The U.S. took action against both, and both countries’ leaders were killed amid violence and chaos.”

 

The North Koreans know they have enemies—the U.S. and South Korea hold annual war games centered on a military intervention in their country—and not many friends. Beijing tolerates Pyongyang largely because it worries about what would happen if the North Korean government fell. Not only would it be swamped with refugees, it would have a U.S. ally on its border.

 

Obama’s approach to North Korea was to isolate it, using sanctions to paralyze to the country. It has not worked, though it has inflicted terrible hardships on the North Korean people. What might work is a plan that goes back to 2000 in the closing months of the Clinton administration.

 

That plan proposed a non-aggression pact between the U.S., Japan, South Korea and North Korea, and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. North Korea would have been recognized as a nuclear weapons state, but agree to forgo any further tests and announce all missile launches in advance. In return, the sanctions would be removed and North Korea would receive economic aid. The plan died when the Clinton administration got distracted by the Middle East.

 

Since then the U.S. has insisted that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, but that is not going to happen—see Iraq and Libya. In any case, the demand is the height of hypocrisy. When the U.S. signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it agreed to Article VI that calls for “negotiations in good faith” to end “the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

 

All eight nuclear powers—the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel—have not only not discussed eliminating their weapons, all are in the process of modernizing them. The NPT was never meant to enforce nuclear apartheid, but in practice that is what has happened.

 

A non-aggression pact is essential. Article VI also calls for “general and complete disarmament,” reflecting a fear by smaller nations that countries like the U.S. have such powerful conventional forces that they don’t need nukes to get their way. Many countries—China in particular—were stunned by how quickly and efficiently the U.S. destroyed Iraq’s military.

 

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would “have no problem” speaking with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. That pledge has not been repeated, however, and there is ominous talk in Washington about a “preemptive strike” on North Korea, which would likely set most of north Asia aflame.

 

There are a number of other dangerous flashpoints out there besides Iran and North Korea.

 

*The Syrian civil war continues to rage and Trump is talking about sending in U.S. ground forces, though exactly who they would fight is not clear. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent once called Syria a three-dimensional chess game with nine players and no rules. Is that a place Americans want to send troops into?

 

*The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—now America’s longest running war—is asking for more troops.

 

*The war in the Eastern Ukraine smolders on, and with NATO pushing closer and closer to the Russian border, there is always the possibility of misjudgment. The same goes for Asia, where Bannon predicted “for certain” the U.S. “is going to go to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.”

 

How much of the White House tweets are provocation and grandiose rhetoric is not clear. The President and the people around him are lens lice who constantly romance the spotlight. They have, however, succeeded in alarming a lot of people. As the old saying goes, “Boys throw rocks at frogs in fun. The frogs dodge them in earnest.”

 

Except in the real world, “fun” can quickly translate into disaster, and some of the frogs are perfectly capable of tossing a few of their own rocks.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Asia, China, Iran, Korea, Middle East, Pacific

Blundering Into A War With China

China: War On The Horizon?

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 27, 2017

 

In his Jan. 13 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson made an extraordinary comment concerning China’s activities in the South China Sea. The U.S., he said, must “send a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops,” adding that Beijing’s “access to the those islands is not going to be allowed.”

 

President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated the threat on Jan. 24.

 

Sometimes it is hard to sift the real from the magical in the Trump administration, and bombast appears to be the default strategy of the day. But people should be clear about what would happen if the U.S. actually tries to blockade China from supplying its forces constructing airfields and radar facilities on the Spratley and Paracel islands.

 

It would be an act of war.

 

While Beijing’s Foreign Ministry initially reacted cautiously to the comment, Chinese newspapers have been far less diplomatic. The nationalist Global Times warned of a “large-scale war” if the U.S. followed through on its threat, and the China Daily cautioned that a blockade could lead to a “devastating confrontation between China and the US.”

 

Independent observers agree. “It is very difficult to imagine the means by which the United States could prevent China from accessing these artificial islands without provoking some kind of confrontation,” says Rory Medcalf, head of Australia’s National Security College. And such a confrontation, says Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales, “could quickly develop into an armed conflict.”

 

Last summer, China’s commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Wu Shengli, told U.S. Admiral John Richardson that “we will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway.” Nansha is China’s name for the Spratlys. Two weeks later, Chang Wanquan, China’s Defense Minister, said Beijing is preparing for a “people’s war at sea.”

 

A certain amount of this is posturing by two powerful countries in competition for markets and influence, but Tillerson’s statement did not come out of the blue. In fact, the U.S. is in the middle of a major military buildup, the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” in the Pacific. American bases in Okinawa, Japan, and Guam have been beefed up, and for the first time since World War II, U.S. Marines have been deployed in Australia. Last March, the U.S. sent B-2 nuclear-capable strategic stealth bombers to join them.

 

There is no question that China has been aggressive about claiming sovereignty over small islands and reefs in the South China Sea, even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected Beijing’s claims. But if a military confrontation is to be avoided, it is important to try to understand what is behind China’s behavior.

 

The current crisis has its roots in a tense standoff between Beijing and Taiwan in late 1996. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was angered that Washington had granted a visa to Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, calling it a violation of the 1979 U.S. “one-China” policy that recognized the PRC and downgraded relations with Taiwan to “unofficial.”

 

Beijing responded to the visa uproar by firing missiles near a small Taiwan-controlled island and moving some military forces up to the mainland coast facing the island. However, there was never any danger that China would actually attack Taiwan. Even if it wanted to, it didn’t have the means to do so.

 

Instead of letting things cool off, however, the Clinton administration escalated the conflict and sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, the USS Nimitz and USS Independence. The Nimitz and its escorts sailed through the Taiwan Straits between the island and the mainland, and there was nothing that China could do about it.

 

The carriers deeply alarmed Beijing, because the regions just north of Taiwan in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea were the jumping off points for 19th and 20th century invasions by western colonialists and the Japanese.

 

The Straits crisis led to a radical remaking of China’s military, which had long relied on massive land forces. Instead, China adopted a strategy called “Area Denial” that would allow Beijing to control the waters surrounding its coast, in particular the East and South China seas. That not only required retooling of its armed forces—from land armies to naval and air power—it required a ring of bases that would keep potential enemies at arm’s length and also allow Chinese submarines to enter the Pacific and Indian oceans undetected.

 

Reaching from Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in the north to the Malay Peninsula in the south, this so-called “first island chain” is Beijing’s primary defense line.

 

China is particularly vulnerable to a naval blockade. Some 80 percent of its energy supplies traverse the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, moving through narrow choke points like the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia, the Bab al Mandab Straits controlling the Red Sea, and the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. All of those passages are controlled by the U.S. or countries like India and Indonesia with close ties to Washington.

 

In 2013, China claimed it had historic rights to the region and issued its now famous “nine-dash line” map that embraced the Paracels and Spratly island chains and 85 percent of the South China Sea. It was this nine-dash line that the Hague tribunal rejected, because it found no historical basis for China’s claim, and because there were overlapping assertions by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

 

There are, of course, economic considerations. The region is rich in oil, gas and fish, but the primary concern for China is security. The Chinese have not interfered with commercial ship traffic, although they have applied on-again, off-again restrictions on fishing and energy explorations. China initially prevented Filipino fishermen from exploiting some reefs, and then allowed it. It has been more aggressive with Vietnam in the Paracels.

 

Rather than trying to assuage China’s paranoia, the U.S. made things worse by adopting a military strategy to checkmate “Area Denial.” Called “Air/Sea Battle” (renamed “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”), Air/Sea Battle envisions attacking China’s navy, air force, radar facilities and command centers with air and naval power. Missiles would be used to take out targets deep into Chinese territory.

 

The recent seizure of a U.S. underwater drone off the Philippines is part of an on-going chess game in the region. The drone was almost certainly mapping sea floor bottoms and collecting data that would allow the U.S. to track Chinese submarines, including those armed with nuclear missiles. While the heist was a provocative thing to do—it was seized right under the nose of an unarmed U.S. Navy ship—it is a reflection of how nervous the Chinese are about their vulnerability to Air/Sea Battle.

 

China’s leaders “have good reason to worry about this emerging U.S. naval strategy [use of undersea drones] against China in East Asia,” Li Mingjiang, a China expert at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told the Financial Times. “If this strategy becomes reality, it could be quite detrimental to China’s national security.”

 

Washington charges that the Chinese are playing the bully with small countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, and there is some truth to that charge. China has been throwing its weight around with several nations in Southeast Asia. But it also true that the Chinese have a lot of evidence that the Americans are gunning for them.

 

The U.S. has some 400 military bases surrounding China and is deploying anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea and Japan, ostensibly to guard against North Korean nuclear weapons. But the interceptors could also down Chinese missiles, posing a threat to Beijing’s nuclear deterrence.

 

While Air/Sea Battle does not envision using nuclear weapons, it could still lead to a nuclear war. It would be very difficult to figure out whether missiles were targeting command centers or China’s nukes. Under the stricture “use them, or lose them” the Chinese might fear their missiles were endangered and launch them.

 

The last thing one wants to do with a nuclear-armed power is make it guess.

 

The Trump administration has opened a broad front on China, questioning the “one China” policy, accusing Beijing of being in cahoots with Islamic terrorists, and threatening a trade war. The first would upend more than 30 years of diplomacy, the second is bizarre—if anything, China is overly aggressive in suppressing terrorism in its western Xinjiang Province—and the third makes no sense.

 

China is the U.S.’s major trading partner and holds $1.24 trillion in U.S. Treasury Bonds. While Trump charges that the Chinese have hollowed out the American economy by undermining its industrial base with cheap labor and goods, China did not force Apple or General Motors to pull up stakes and decamp elsewhere. Capital goes where wages are low and unions are weak.

 

A trade war would hurt China, but it would also hurt the U.S. and the global economy as well.

 

When President Trump says he wants to make America great again, what he really means is that he wants to go back to that post-World War II period when the U.S. dominated much of the globe with a combination of economic strength and military power. But that era is gone, and dreams of a unipolar world run by Washington are a hallucination.

 

According to the CIA, “by 2030 Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investments.” By 2025, two-thirds of the world will live in Asia, 7 percent in Europe and 5 percent in the U.S. Those are the demographics of eclipse.

 

If Trump starts a trade war, he will find little support among America’s allies. China is the number one trading partner for Japan, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam and India, and the third largest for Indonesia and the Philippines. Over the past year, a number of countries like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have also distanced themselves from Washington and moved closer to China. When President Obama tried to get U.S. allies not to sign on to China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, they ignored him.

 

But the decline of U.S. influence has a dangerous side. Washington may not be able to dictate the world’s economy, but it has immense military power. Chinese military expert Yang Chengjun says “China does not stir up troubles, but we are not afraid of them when they come.” They should be. For all its modernization, China is no match for the U.S. However, defeating China is far beyond Washington’s capacity. The only wars the U.S. has “won” since 1945 are Grenada and Panama.

 

Nonetheless, such a clash would be catastrophic. It would torpedo global trade, inflict trillions of dollars damage on each side, and the odds are distressingly high that the war could go nuclear.

 

U.S. allies in the region should demand that the Trump administration back off any consideration of a blockade. Australia has already told Washington it will not take part in any such action. The U.S. should also do more than rename Air/Sea Battle, it should junk the entire strategy. The East and South China seas are not national security issues for the U.S., but they are for China.

 

And China should realize that, while it has the right to security, trotting out ancient dynastic maps to lay claim to vast areas bordering scores of countries does nothing but alienate its neighbors and give the U.S. an excuse to interfere in affairs thousands of miles from its own territory.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Asia, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Military, Pacific, Philippines

The White House’s Flawed Korea Policies

The White House’s Flawed Korea Policies

Dispatches From the Edge

April 19, 2013

In the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula the Obama administration is virtually repeating the 2004 Bush playbook, one that derailed a successful diplomatic agreement forged by the Clinton administration to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons? While the acute tensions of the past month appear to be receding—all of the parties involved seem to be taking a step back— the problem is not going to disappear and, unless Washington and its allies re-examine their strategy, another crisis is certain to develop.

A little history.

In the spring of 1994, the Clinton administration came very close to a war with North Korea over Pyongyang’s threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expel international inspectors, and extract plutonium from reactor fuel rods. Washington moved to beef up its military in South Korea, and, according to Fred Kaplan in the Washington Monthly, there were plans to bomb the Yongbyon reactor.

Kaplan is Slate Magazine’s War Stories columnist and author of “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.”

“Yet at the same time,” writes Kaplan, “Clinton set up a diplomatic back-channel to end the crisis peacefully.” Former President Jimmy Carter was sent to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea (DPRK) and the Agreed Framework pact was signed, allowing the parties to back off without losing face.

In return for shipping their fuel rods out of the country, the U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to finance two light-water nuclear reactors, normalize diplomatic relations, and supply the DPRK with fuel. The U.S. pledged not to invade the North. “Initially, North Korea kept to its side of the bargain,” say Kaplan, “The same cannot be said for our side.”

The reactors were never funded and diplomatic relations went into a deep freeze. From North Korea’s point of view, it had been stiffed, and it reacted with public bombast and a secret deal with Pakistan to exchange missile technology for centrifuges to make nuclear fuel.

However, the North was still willing to deal, and DPRK leader Kim Jong-il told the Clinton administration that, in exchange for a non-aggression pact, North Korea would agree to shelve its long-range missile program and stop exporting missile technology. North Korea was still adhering to the 1994 agreement not to process its nuclear fuel rods. But time ran out and the incoming Bush administration torpedoed the talks, instead declaring North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, a member of an “axis of evil.”

Nine days after the U.S. Senate passed the Iraq war resolution on Oct. 11, 2002, the White House disavowed the 1994 Agreed Framework, halted fuel supplies, and sharpened the economic embargo the U.S. had imposed on the North since the 1950-53 Korean War. It was hardly a surprise when Pyongyang’s reaction was to toss out the arms inspectors, fire up the Yongbyon reactor, and take the fuel rods out of storage.

Kaplan points out, however, that even when Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 2003, the North Koreans “also said they would reverse their actions and retract their declarations if the United States resumed its obligations under the Agreed Framework and signed a non-aggression pledge.”

But Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Vice-President Dick Cheney, banking that increased sanctions would eventually bring down the Kim regime, were not interested in negotiations.

Ignoring North Korea, however, did not sit well with Japan and South Korea. So the White House sent U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly to Pyongyang, where the North Koreans told him they were willing to give up nuclear weapons development in return for a non-aggression pact. Bush, however, dismissed the proposal as “blackmail” and refused to negotiate with the North Koreans unless they first agreed to give up the bomb, a posture disturbingly similar to the one currently being taken by the Obama administration.

But “the bomb” was the only chip the North Koreans had, and giving it up defied logic. Hadn’t NATO and the U.S. used the threat of nuclear weapons to checkmate a supposed Soviet invasion of Europe during the Cold War? Wasn’t that the rationale behind the Israeli bomb vis-à-vis the Arabs? Pakistan’s ace in the hole to keep the vastly superior Indian army at bay? Why would Pyongyang make such an agreement with a country that made no secret of its intention to destabilize the North Korean regime?

North Korea is not a nice place to live and work, but its reputation as a nuclear-armed loony bin is hardly accurate. Every attempt by the North Koreans to sign a non-aggression pact has been either rebuffed or come at a price—specifically giving up nuclear weapons—Pyongyang is unwilling to pay without such a pledge. The North is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack. From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons.

Indeed, when the U.S. and NATO overthrew the Gadaffi regime in Libya, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official told the Korean Central News Agency that the war had taught “the international community a grave lesson: the truth that one should have the power to defend peace.” Libya had voluntarily given up nuclear weapons research, and the North Koreans were essentially saying, “We told you so.”

There are a number of dangers the current crisis poses. The most unlikely among them is a North Korean attack on the U.S. or South Korea, although an “incident” like the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of South Korean warship, the Cheonan, is not out of the question. More likely is a missile test.

All of the parties—including China and Russia— know that North Korea is not a serious danger to the U.S. or its allies, Japan and South Korea. Which is why China is so unhappy with the U.S.’s response to Pyongyang’s bombast: deploying yet more anti-missile systems in the U.S. and Guam, systems that appear suspiciously like yet another dimension of Washington’s “Asia pivot” to beef up America’s military footprint in the region. Russia and China believe those ABM systems are aimed at them, not North Korea, which explains an April 15 accusation by the Chinese Defense Ministry that “hostile western forces” were using tensions to “contain and control our country’s development.”

While the western media interpreted a recent statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping as demonstrating China’s growing impatience with North Korea, according to Zackary Keck, assistant editor of the Asian-pacific focused publication The Diplomat, the speech was more likely aimed at the U.S. than at Pyongyang. Keck argues that China is far more worried about growing U.S. military might in the region than rhetorical blasts from North Korea.

The Russians have also complained about “unilateral actions…being taken around North Korea.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We believe it is necessary for all not to build up military muscle and not to use the current situation as an excuse to solve certain geopolitical tasks in the region through military means.”

Tension between nuclear powers is always disconcerting, but the most immediate threat is the possibility of some kind of attack on North Korea by the U.S. or South Korea. Conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye told her military to respond to any attack from the North without “political considerations,” and the U.S. has reaffirmed that it will come to Seoul’s defense in the event of war. It is not a war the North would survive, and therein lays the danger.

According to Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press, coordinator of Dartmouth’s War and Peace Studies, current U.S. military tactics could trigger a nuclear war. “The core of U.S. conventional strategy, refined during recent wars, is to incapacitate the enemy by disabling its central nervous system…leadership bunkers, military command sites, and means of communication.” While such tactics were effective in Yugoslavia and Iraq, they could prove counterproductive “if directed at a nuclear-armed opponent.” Faced with an overwhelming military assault there would be a strong incentive for North Korea to try and halt the attacks, “a job for which nuclear weapons are well suited.”

Council of Foreign Relation’s Korea expert Scott Snyder says, “The primary danger is really related to the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, and in this kind of atmosphere of tensions, that miscalculation could have deadly consequences.”

The demand by the Obama administration that North Korea must denuclearize before serious talks can begin is a non-starter, particularly when the Washington and its allies refuse to first agree to a non-aggression pledge. And the White House will have to jettison its “strategic patience” policy, a fancy term for regime change. Both strategies have been utter failures.

There are level heads at work.

South Korea recently praised China for helping to manage the crisis, and Seoul has dialed back some of its own bombast. The U.S. canceled a military maneuver, and a “senior administration” official warned about “misperception” and “miscalculation,” remarks that seemed aimed more at South Korea than at the North. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also says Washington is open to talks with China and North Korea.

But such talks are predicated, according to the U.S. State Department, on Pyongyang proving “its seriousness by taking meaningful steps to abide by its international obligations.” In short, dismantling its nuclear program and missile research. Neither of those will happen as long as the North feels militarily threatened and economically besieged.

In a way, the Korean crisis is a case of the nuclear powers being hoist on their own petard. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was not aimed at just stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, but, according to Article VI, at eliminating those weapons and instituting general disarmament. But today’s world is essentially a nuclear apartheid, with the nuclear powers threatening any countries that try to join the club—unless those countries happen to be allies. North Korea should get rid of its nuclear weapons, but then so should China, Russia, the U.S., Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, and India.

As far as ending the current crisis, one could do worse than follow up on what basketball great Dennis Rodman said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told him: “Obama should call me.”

Good place to start.

 

—30—

2 Comments

Filed under Asia, China, Korea, Pacific

Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 26, 2012

In March 1990, Time Magazine titled an article “Ripples in The American Lake.” It was not about small waves in that body of water just north of Fort Lewis, Washington. It was talking about the Pacific Ocean, the largest on the planet, embracing over half of humanity and the three largest economies in the world. Time did not invent the term—it is generally attributed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Pacific commander during WW II—but its casual use by the publication was a reflection of more than 100 years of American policy in this immense area.

The Asia-Pacific region has hosted four American conflicts—the Spanish American War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—and is today the focus of a “strategic pivot,” although that is a bit of a misnomer, by the Obama administration. The Pacific basin has long been the U.S.’s number one trade partner, and Washington deploys more than 320,000 military personnel in the region, including 60 percent of its navy. The American flag flies over bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the Marshall Islands, Guam and Wake.

It is one of the most perilous regions on earth right now, and, for the first since the collapse of the old Soviet Union, two major nuclear powers are bumping up against one another. As volatile as the Middle East is, one of the most dangerous pieces of real estate on the planet are a scatter of tiny islands in the East China Sea, where China, Japan and the U.S. find themselves in the kind of standoff that feels distressingly like the Cold War.

Tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, however, is just one of several foreign policy challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, each with its own characteristics and history. Japan and South Korea are in a faceoff over an island that Tokyo calls Takeshima and Seoul calls Dokdo.  Moscow and Tokyo are at loggerheads over the Kurile islands, Beijing is throwing its weight around in the South China Sea, North Korea just launched a long-range ballistic missile (and is possibly considering a nuclear test), and Washington is recruiting allies against China, sometimes by turning a blind eye to serious human rights violations.

How the Obama administration responds to these issues over the next four years will go a long way toward determining whether the ocean lives up to its name—peaceful—or once again becomes an arena for tragedy. So far the record is not encouraging.

Washington has stumbled badly in the dangerous crisis over islands that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan calls the Senkaku. The dispute over these uninhabited specks in the East China Sea islands goes back to the Sino-Japan War of 1895 when Tokyo wrested them from Beijing. In 1971, the Americans—caught up in the Cold war and refusing to recognize China— made the whole matter a lot more complex by ignoring two WW II treaties requiring Japan to return its conquests to their original owners, and instead handed the islands over to Japan.

When China protested, Tokyo and Beijing agreed to kick the can down the road and delay any final decisions on sovereignty to some later date. That all changed when Japan—pressed by rightwing nationalists—purchased three of the islands this past summer and altered the status quo. To make matters worse, the U.S. declared that it would stand by Japan in any military conflict, thus raising the ante from a local confrontation between two Asians giants to a potential clash between nuclear powers.

China sees the islands as part of its defensive parameter, not an unusual point of view considering the country’s history. China has been the victim of invasion and exploitation by colonial powers, including Japan, dating back to the first Opium War in 1839. Beijing is convinced Washington is surrounding it with potentially hostile alliances, and that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is part of a U.S. strategy to keep China down. There is an economic dimension to the issue as well. China would like to exploit oil and gas deposits, as well as fishing grounds, in the East China Sea.

Extending the U.S.-Japan mutual support treaty to the islands is a major mistake. China has no intention of attacking its main Asian trade and investment partner, and putting Tokyo under Washington’s nuclear umbrella around this issue has helped unleash a powerful current of nationalism in Japan. For instance, Tokyo is debating whether to put Japanese Self-Defense Forces on Yonaguni Island in the Okinawa or Ryukyu chain. That would put Japanese troops squarely in the middle of China’s first line of maritime defense. Yonaguni is a long way from Tokyo, but on a clear day you can see the mountains of Taiwan from its beaches. The island’s residents are opposed to the Self-Defense Force deployment.

The new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been particularly strident, openly talking of dumping Japan’s anti-war constitution and building nuclear weapons. He comes from a long line of military-minded nationalists. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a member of Japan’s wartime cabinet and considered a war criminal. Rather than going to jail, however, Nobusuke was “rehabilitated” after the war and became a prime minister in 1957. Abe has stonewalled demands by China and other countries in the region to apologize for its brutal policies during WW II.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Abe was asked if there was a “possibility that the two Asian powers could go to war.” According to the Times, “Mr. Abe just smiled and walked away.”

If that exchange does not give Washington pause, it should.

China has a strong legal case for ownership of the islands, and rather than rattling sabers, Washington should encourage the UN and the International Court of Justice to get involved. What it should not do is green light the politics of people like Abe, who might draw Washington into a confrontation with China. In 1914 Austria attacked Serbia. Russia mobilized, and Germany, bound by treaty to Austria, followed suit. That ended very badly.

The disputes in the South China Sea are very different than those in the East China Sea, although some of the actors are the same. Beijing claims that it owns a vast expanse of the Sea, that includes the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and numerous reefs and shallows, also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines. At stake are rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits, as well as a considerable portion of the world’s trade routes.

The Chinese have been rather heavy handed in the dispute, refusing to negotiate with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and insisting on bilateral talks instead. China vs. Brunei is hardly a level diplomatic playing field. The standoff has given the U.S. an opportunity to intervene as a “neutral broker,” a posture that has pushed every paranoid button in Beijing. China has responded by stepping up its patrols in the South China Sea, even sabotaging joint Indian-Vietnam oil exploration near the Paracels.  New Delhi—which has its own tensions with China over its northern border—is threatening to send naval vessels into the disputed area.

The crisis is solvable, but a few things need to happen.

China must back off, because its current claim violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. A place to start is for ASEAN and Beijing to work out a “code of conduct” to resolve disputes peacefully. But Washington should stay out of this fight. Given the strong military component of the “pivot,” one can hardly blame China for assuming that U.S. involvement is not aimed at resolving disputes.

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Washington has shifted naval forces into the Pacific and is in the process of putting 2,500 Marines in northern Australia. While 2,500 Marines are hardly likely to tip the balance of power in Asia, it seems an unnecessary provocation. The U.S. is moving air power into the region as well, including B-1 bombers, B-52s, and F-22 stealth fighters. In early November, 47,000 U.S. and Japanese forces carried out joint military exercises.

Washington is also re-negotiating its Mutual Support Treaty with Japan, which will include the deployment of an advanced anti-missile system (ABM). The ABM is ostensibly directed at North Korea, but China is unhappy because it could pose a threat to Beijing’s modest nuclear missile force. In general, ABM systems are destabilizing, which is why the ABM Treaty was negotiated between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972. The Obama administration should repudiate the Bush administration’s 2002 scrapping of the ABM Treaty and instead focus on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a promise made in 2008 but ignored ever since.

North Korea may be a threat to its own people, but it hardly poses a major danger to the U.S. or its allies, South Korea and Japan. Yes, the country has nuclear weapons, but any use of them would be tantamount to national suicide, and the North Koreans have always shown a strong streak of self-survival. What about the shelling of the South Korean island and the sinking of a South Korean warship? Certainly dangerous acts, but the North does have legitimate grievances over how its coastal waters were divided after the Korean War, and, while Pyongyang probably sunk the ship, there are some doubts. If North Korea seems paranoid, it is partly because each year the U.S., South Korea, and sometimes Japan, carry out war games aimed at intervening in the advent of “instability” in the north.  U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons last year, hardly a strategy to get the Pyongyang regime to give them up.

North Korea mainly serves as an excuse for Japan and the U.S. to militarize the North Pacific and expand their ABM system. But it is a poor, backward country that has trouble feeding its own people. Hollywood’s latest version of the 1950s anti-communist classic, “Red Dawn,” features North Korean paratroopers invading Alaska. Really.

The White House should take a big deep breath, ignore the bombast, stop threatening North Korea with nuclear weapons, retire the war games, and restart aid programs. The only people hurt by the aid cutoffs are poor North Koreans.

Washington sees Indonesia is a potentially valuable ally in the alliance against China, as well as a source of valuable raw materials, and has thus given Jakarta a free pass on its human rights record. But for an administration that trumpets its support for democracy and says it has a moral view of the world, that real politique is unacceptable. The U.S. should finally own up to its role in the 1965 Indonesian coup that killed up to a million communists, leftists, trade unionists, and progressives. It should also halt all military aid to the Jakarta regime until the Indonesians prosecute those who committed atrocities in East Timor and West Papua. The U.S. should have nothing to do with training Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces unit that organized many of the East Timor massacres and is currently trying to crush an independence movement in West Papua.

Some of the White House’s actions have bordered on the petty. The U.S. is organizing an 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that was designed to exclude China, the big dog on the Asian-pacific block. In retaliation, China is encouraging the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that will exclude the U.S.

The U.S. is a Pacific power, but Asia is a very different place than it was two hundred years ago. You can’t dispatch “Chinese” Gordon and a couple of gunboats and get your way anymore. Nor can you deal with rivals by building alliances a’ la Cold War and threatening to use force. The world is too small, Asia is too big, and war would be catastrophic. The Pacific is no one’s “lake,” but an ocean vast enough for all.

—30—

17 Comments

Filed under Asia, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Military, Pacific

Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Dispatches From The Edge

May 18, 2012

Asia is currently in the middle of an unprecedented arms race that is not only sharpening tensions in the region, but competing with efforts by Asian countries to address poverty and growing economic disparity. The gap between rich and poor—calculated by the Gini coefficient that measures inequality—has increased from 39 percent to 46 percent in China, India, and Indonesia. While affluent households continue to garner larger and larger portions of the economic pie, “Children born to poor families can be 10 times more likely to die in infancy” than those from wealthy families, according to Changyong Rhee, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.

This inequality trend is particularly acute in India, where life expectancy is low, infant mortality high, education spotty, and illiteracy widespread, in spite of that country’s status as the third largest economy in Asia, behind China and Japan. According to an independent charity, the Naandi Foundation, some 42 percent of India’s children are malnourished. Bangladesh, a far poorer country, does considerably better in all these areas.

And yet last year India was the world’s leading arms purchaser, including a deal that will spend $20 billion dollars on high performance French fighter planes. India is also developing a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying  multiple nuclear warheads, and buying submarines and surface craft. Its military budget is set to rise 17 percent this year to $42 billion.

“It is ridiculous. We are getting into a useless arms race at the expense of fulfilling the needs of poor people,” Praful Bidwai of the Coalition of Nuclear Disarmament and Peace told the New York Times.

China, too, is in the middle of an arms boom that includes beefing up its navy, constructing a new generation of stealth aircraft, and developing a ballistic missile that is potentially capable of neutralizing U.S. carriers near its coast. Beijing’s arms budget has grown at a rate of some 12 percent a year and, at $106.41 billion, is now the second largest on the planet. The U.S. budget—not counting the various wars Washington is embroiled in—runs a little over $800 billion, although some have estimated that it is over $1 trillion.

While China has made enormous strides in overcoming poverty, there are some 250 million Chinese officially still considered poor, and the country’s formerly red-hot economy is cooling. “Data on April spending and output put another nail into hopes that China’s economy is bottoming out,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics told the Financial Times.

The same is true for most of Asia. For instance, India’s annual economic growth rate has fallen from 9 percent to 6.1 percent over the past two and a half years.

Tensions between China and other nations in the region have set off a local arms race. Taiwan is buying four U.S.-made Perry-class guided missile frigates, and Japan has shifted much of its military from its northern islands to face southward toward China.

The Philippines are spending almost $1 billion on new aircraft and radar, and recently held joint war games with the U.S.  South Korea has just successfully tested a long-range cruise missile. Washington is reviving ties with Indonesia’s brutal military because the island nation controls the strategic seaways through which pass most of the region’s trade and energy supplies.

Australia is also re-orientating its defense to face China, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith has urged “that India play the role it could and should as an emerging great power in the security and stability of the region.”

But that “role” is by no means clear, and some have read Smith’s statement as an attempt to rope New Delhi into a united front against Beijing. The recent test of India’s Agni V nuclear-capable ballistic missile is largely seen as directed at China.

India and China fought a brief but nasty border war in 1962, and India claims China is currently occupying some 15,000 square miles in Indian territory. The Chinese, in turn, claim almost 40,000 square miles of the Indian state of Arunachai Pradesh. While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that “overall our relations [with China] are quite good,” he also admits “the border problem is a long-standing problem.”

India and China also had a short dust up last year when a Chinese warship demanded that the Indian amphibious assault vessel Airavat identify itself shortly after the ship left the port of Hanoi, Vietnam. Nothing came of the incident but Indian President Pratibha Patil has since stressed the need for “maritime security,” and “the protection of our coasts, our ‘sea lines of communications’ and the offshore development areas.”

China’s forceful stance in the South China Sea has stirred up tensions with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia as well. A standoff this past April between a Philippine war ship and several Chinese surveillance ships at Scarborough Shoal is still on a low simmer.

China’s more assertive posture in the region stems largely from the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis that saw two U.S. carriers humiliate Beijing in its home waters. There was little serious danger of war during the crisis—China does not have the capability to invade Taiwan—but the Clinton Administration took the opportunity to demonstrate U.S. naval power. China’s naval build-up dates from that incident.

The recent “pivot” by Obama administration toward Asia, including a military buildup on Wake and Guam and the deployment of 2,500 Marines in Australia, has heightened tensions in the region, and Beijing’s heavy-handedness in the South China Sea has given Washington an opening to insert itself into the dispute.

China is prickly about its home waters—one can hardly blame it, given the history of the past 100 years—but there is no evidence that it is expansionist. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in February “No country, including China, has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.” Nor does Beijing seem eager to use military force. Beijing has drawn some lessons from its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam.

On the other hand, Beijing is seriously concerned about who controls the region’s seas, in part because some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass through maritime choke points controlled by the U.S. and its allies.

The tensions in Asia are real, if not as sharp or deep as they have been portrayed in the U.S. media. China and India do, indeed, have border “problems,” but China also describes New Delhi as “not competitors but partners,” and has even offered an alliance to keep “foreign powers”—read the U.S. and NATO—from meddling in the region.

The real question is, can Asia embark on an arms race without increasing the growing gulf between rich and poor and the resulting political instability that is likely to follow in its wake? “Widening inequality threatens the sustainability of Asian growth,” says Asian Development Bank economist Rhee. “A divided and unequal nation cannot prosper.”

More than half a century ago former General and President Dwight Eisenhower noted that “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies…a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed…this is not a way of life at all…it is humanity hanging from an iron cross.”

Americans have ignored Eisenhower’s warning. Asian nations would do well to pay attention.

—30—

2 Comments

Filed under Asia, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Military, Pacific, Philippines

Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Counterpunch

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 8, 2011

“On his recent trip to Asia Pacific, the President made it clear that the centerpiece of this strategy includes an intensified American role in this vital region,” Financial Times Nov. 28, 2011

–Tom Donilon, President Barak Obama’s national security advisor

“An Indo-Pacific without a strong U.S. military presence would mean the Finlandisation by China of countries in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore,” Financial Times Nov. 30, 2011

–Robert Kaplan, senior fellow Center for a New American Security and author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean the Future of American Power

Donilon is a long-time Democratic Party operative and former lobbyist for Fannie Mae and a key figure in the Clinton administration’s attack on Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Kaplan is a Harvard Business School professor and advisor on the Mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, as well as current U.S. military intervention in the Horn of Africa.

Something is afoot.

Indeed, it is. The Obama administration is in the middle of a major shift in foreign policy—a “strategic pivot” in the words of the White House—in two regions of the world: Asia and Africa. In both cases, a substantial buildup of military forces and a gloves-off use of force lie at the heart of the new approach.

The U.S. now has a permanent military force deployed in the Horn of Africa, a continent-wide military command—Africom—and it has played a key role in overthrowing the Libyan government. It also has Special Forces active in Uganda, Somalia, and most of the countries that border the Sahara.

But it is in Asia that the administration is making its major push, nor is it coy about whom the target is. “We are asserting our presence in the Pacific. We are a Pacific power,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the National Defense University in August, “we know we face some long-term challenges about how we are going to cope with what the rise of China means.”

There is whiff to all this of old fashioned Cold War hype, when the U.S. pumped up the Russian military as a world-swallowing force panting to pour through the Fulda Gap and overrun Western Europe: the Chinese are building a navy to challenge the U.S.; the Chinese are designing special missiles to neutralize American aircraft carriers; the Chinese are bullying nations throughout the region.

Common to Clinton’s address, as well as to Kaplan’s and Donilon’s opinion pieces, were pleas not to cut military spending in the Pacific. In fact, it appears the White House is already committed to that program. “Reduction in defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific,” Donilon wrote, “There will be no diminution of our military presence or capabilities in the region.”

The spin the White House is putting on all this is that the U.S. has been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing China to throw its weight around in Asia. Donilon’s opinion piece was titled “America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules.”

It is hard to know where to begin to address a statement like that other than with the observation that irony is dead.

Asia and the Pacific has been a major focus for the U.S. since it seized the Philippines in the 1899 Spanish-American War. It has fought four major wars in the region over the past century, and, not counting China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it deploys more military personnel in the Pacific than any other nation. It dominates the region through a network of bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Marshall Islands, and island fortresses like Guam and Wake. The White House just announced the deployment of 2,500 Marines to Australia.

The American Seventh Fleet—created in 1943 and currently based in Yokosuka, Japan—is the largest of the U.S.’s naval fleets, and the one most heavily armed with nuclear weapons.

We aren’t “back,” we never went anywhere.

But the argument fits into the fable that U.S. military force keeps the peace in Asia. Kaplan even argues “A world without US naval and air dominance will be one where powers such as China, Russia, India, Japan and others act more aggressively toward each other than they do now, because they will all be far more insecure than they are now.”

In short, the kiddies will get into fights unless Uncle Sam is around to teach them manners. And right now, China is threatening to upend “the rules’ through an aggressive expansion of its navy.

China is indeed upgrading its navy, in large part because of what the Seventh Fleet did during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis. In the middle of tensions between Taipei and Beijing, the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits. Since there was never any danger that China was going to invade Taiwan, the carriers were just a gratuitous slap in the face. China had little choice but to back down, but vowed it would never again be humiliated in its home waters. Beijing’s naval buildup dates from that crisis.

And “buildup” is a relative term. The U.S. has made much of China acquiring an aircraft carrier, but the “new” ship is a 1990 vintage Russian carrier, less than half the size of the standard American Nimitz flattop (of which the U.S. has 10). The “new” carrier-killer Chinese missile has yet to be tested, let alone deployed. Only in submarines can China say it is finally closing the gap with the U.S. And keep in mind that China’s military budget is about one-eighth that of the U.S.

If the Chinese are paranoid about their sea routes and home waters, it is not without cause. Most invasions of China have come via the Yellow Sea, and 80 percent of China’s energy supplies come by sea. China ships much of its gas and oil through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. With major suppliers based on the west coast of Africa, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, it has little choice. Those sea-lanes are controlled by the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and the Seventh in Japan.

China is also building friendly ports for its tankers—the so-called “string of pearls”—and why Beijing is suspicious about the sudden thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations. China plans to build a “pearl” in Myanmar.

Indeed, a major reason why China is building pipelines from Russia and Central Asia is to bypass the series of choke points through which its energy supplies pass, including the straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. The Turkmenistan-Xingjian and Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean pipelines are already up and running, but their volume is not nearly enough to feed China’s 11 billion barrels of oil a day appetite.

In spite of protests, the U.S. recently carried out major naval operations in the Yellow Sea, and Washington has injected itself into tensions between Beijing and some of its neighbors over the South China Sea. In part, China has exacerbated those tensions by its own high-handed attitude toward other nations with claims on the Sea. In responding to protests over China’s claims, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi remarked, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

China’s initial arrogance on the issue has allowed the U.S. to wedge itself into the dispute and portray itself as the “protector” of small nations. Less than 40 years ago it was trying to bomb several of those nations back into the Stone Age, and Vietnam just recorded its 100,000th casualty since 1975 from explosives left over by the American war.

Beijing has since cooled its tone on the South China Sea and is backing away from defining it as a “core” Chinese area.

Why the “strategic pivot?”  Undoubtedly, some of it is posturing for the run-up to the 2012 elections. Being “tough” on China trumps Republican charges that Obama is “soft” on foreign policy. But this “pivot” is more than cynical electioneering.

First, China does not pose any military threat to the U.S. or its allies in Asia, and the last thing it wants is a war. Beijing has not forgotten its 1979 invasion of Vietnam that ended up derailing its “four modernizations” drive and deeply damaging its economy.

Part of this “China threat” nonsense has to do with the power of the U.S. armaments industry to keep the money spigots open. When it comes to “big ticket” spending items, navies and air forces top the list. An aircraft costs in excess of $5 billion, and the single most expensive weapons program in U.S. history is the F-35 stealth fighter.

But there is more than an appetite for pork at work here.

China is the number two economy in the world, and in sharp competition with the U.S. and its allies for raw materials and human resources. It is hard to see the aggressive U.S. posture in Asia as anything other than an application of the old Cold War formula of economic pressure, military force, and diplomatic coercion. From Washington’s point of view, it worked to destabilize the Soviet Union, why shouldn’t it work on China?

“If you are a strategic thinker in China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, “you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China.”

Since U.S. foreign policy is almost always an extension of corporate interests, squeezing China in Asia, Africa and Central Asia helps create openings for American investments. And if such a policy also protects the multi-billion dollar military budget, including the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, so much the better.

It is a dangerous game, first, because military tension can lead to war, and, while that is an unlikely event, mistakes happen. “If we keep this up, then we are going to leave the impression with China that we are drawing battle lines,” Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Financial Times. In fact, the Obama administration has drawn up a plan called AirSea Battle to deny China control of the Taiwan Straits.

The consequences for those caught in the middle will be severe. China has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but it still has a ways to go. An arms race will delay that. For the average American, racked by double-digit unemployment, a vanishing safety net, and the collapse of everything from education to infrastructure, it will be no less of a tragedy.

—30—

6 Comments

Filed under Africa, Asia, China, Korea, Military, Oil, Philippines