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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—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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