China’s “Maritime Militia” Raising Stakes for South China Sea Clash

This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP, May 10, 2019

For years China has avoided direct military-to-military clashes in the South China Sea through the use of fishing vessels backed by the Chinese Coast Guard to enforce its territorial claims. This “maritime militia” strategy may have exhausted its effectiveness now that the U.S. considers these irregular forces to be under the command of the People’s Liberation Army and Navy (PLAN). 

Photo:AP

U.S.-China military dialogues need to increase to match this rising risk of small-scale skirmishes leading to broader armed conflict. Prospects for dialogue, however are dimming as tensions across a range of bilateral issues show no signs of easing.

It was no trivial distinction when, as has been recently made public, U.S. Admiral John Richardson told Chinese Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong in January, 2019, that militia and Navy would be treated the same.

A larger-scale conflict almost occurred as recently as December, 2018, when China sent 100 maritime militia ships to contest the Philippine-occupied Thitu reef located between the island of Palawan and Vietnam. By April, 2019 the number had grown to over 200 ships. Under the new calculus if the Philippine military were attacked by any of these vessels, the treaty-bound U.S. would be obligated to strike back. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reassured Philippine President Duterte of this commitment.

Though small in size, unarmed fishing boats, and armed Coast Guard vessels routinely approach ships in the region and ignore warnings to keep their distance. Any one of these could pose a serious threat as the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which resulted in the death of 17 sailors and the injury of 39, clearly illustrated. 

Without stronger and more regular contact, the threat of even simple harassment activities that have been tolerated in the past may quickly turn to armed conflict.

This change in military operational protocol comes at a time of increasingly tense relations between the U.S. and China as political forces in both countries test the strength of the status quo. U.S. President Trump’s hardline National Security Adviser John Bolton appears ascendant in the administration’s often haphazard foreign policymaking process, often leading public messaging from the White House. He’s taken aggressive stances against Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea with an excessively bellicose approach to international affairs. 

Recent racist comments from State Policy Planning Director Kiron Skinner certainly don’t help bilateral relations either. In a recent Washington speech at a security event sponsored by the centrist New America think tank, she stated that the challenge posed by China is one of a different ethnicity and civilization and a “non-caucasian” great power competitor. 

With this type of xenophobic theorizing posturing as serious policy, more contact and strong lines of communication between the U.S. and China are more important than ever.

Chinese aggression is also on the rise as naval forces have continued to strengthen. A “near miss” occurred as recently as September, 2018 when a Chinese warship deliberately came within 45 yards of the U.S. warship Decatur, forcing the ship to alter course and avoid a serious collision.

Mediating these conflicts used to be the domain of military-to-military contacts at the highest levels of government. Formal dialogues were regularly held under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  The peaceful resolution of a 2001 mid-air collision between a Chinese jet and a U.S. P-3 surveillance plane, which resulted in the death of a Chinese pilot and the emergency landing of the U.S. crew on Hainan, provides ample evidence of the value of continued communication.

Without stronger and more regular contact, the threat of even simple harassment activities that have been tolerated in the past may quickly turn to armed conflict. As history shows, what starts out small and contained can quickly escalate in ways neither country can easily control. 

Facts at sea are not going to change anytime soon. The U.S., as well as other countries, will continue Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea in areas globally recognized as international waters. 

Image: Central Intelligence Agency – Asia Maps — Perry-Castañeda Map Collection: South China Sea (Islands) 1988

China is strengthening its artificial islands and their naval harbors, airstrips, and radar installations even though Xi Jinping specifically said he would not militarize the South China Sea back in 2015. 

International and regional responses to these provocations have been exceptionally muted.

Despite a 2016 ruling by a UN tribunal, which declared these installations illegitimate, China has continued to build, occupy, and arm its South China Sea outposts. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, makes clear that artificially constructed islands cannot be used as justification for territorial claims. 

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), comprised of 27 nations, has been unable to address concerns over China’s conduct in the South China Sea. An ARF member, China routinely blocks attempts to address these issues.

Which leaves bilateral relations as the main driver of discourse. 

As China’s ambitions expand economically and politically around the globe, its military reach will inevitably grow as well. The build-up, including several aircraft carriers and plans for several more, as well as advanced submarines speak to ambitions that go far beyond China’s coast. 

Without an effective and regular mechanism for two of the world’s largest military powers to address their issues in a peaceful manner, the greater the risk of conflict. Neither country should let this situation devolve further. There’s already too much at stake in a relationship that grows more tense with time.

Trump’s Limited Options on Venezuela

A version of this op-ed first appeared in the SCMP on 4/22/19. Since publication an uprising led by opposition leader Guaidó against Maduro’s rule began..

Opposition leader Guaidó rallying against Maduro.
Credit: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

The U.S. announced enhanced sanctions against Venezuela in April targeting the Bank of Venezuela, cutting off its access to the U.S. financial system. The move, intended to further isolate Nicolás Maduro’s regime, comes after months of tough talk to end his grip on power. More sanctions are expected in May to further curtail Venezuela’s trade in oil, their main export and foreign currency earner.  

President Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton have continued to call for Maduro’s ouster, repeatedly saying that “all options” are on the table. While grandstanding for adoring crowds may be Trump’s specialty, Maduro’s generals and allies have not been moved by the threat of armed conflict, especially Russia and China, who continue to back him despite the increasing risk of defaults on tens of billions of dollars in loans.

Trump has very limited, if any, “hard” military options due to both conditions on the ground and domestic and international political constraints. Invasion, blockade, or arming an alternate military force of defectors are extremely unlikely. If the administration is truly interested in supporting Venezuelan democracy, they are going to have to abandon their go-it-alone strategy and build strong alliances to assist in ending Maduro’s destructive rule. That means toning down the war-like rhetoric.

In a reversal of goodwill shown for decades, perceptions of the U.S. among countries around the world have plummeted during Trump’s tumultuous presidency. According to a February, 2019 Pew Research Center report, forty-five percent of nations surveyed regard U.S. power and influence as a “major threat.” The highest percentages, and largest changes in negative sentiment, came from Germany, France, Mexico, and Brazil. 

Trump also targeted major trading partners and allies with unilateral tariffs including Canada, Mexico, the EU, and Japan. Most recently he’s rescinded aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador over illegal immigration concerns. For the past two and a half years the White House has done nothing but excoriate Latin America on immigration issues. That’s done little to endear the region to U.S. concerns about democracy in Venezuela.

Photo credit: Reuters

Any military intervention is complicated by Russia reportedly sending troops and material to help prop up Maduro’s failing government. While their numbers may be small compared to the U.S. Southern Command, their presence hampers potential military options with the threat of direct U.S. – Russian conflict in Latin America.

Trump has very limited, if any, “hard” military options due to both conditions on the ground and domestic and international political constraints.

In addition, there’s been little sign that Maduro’s generals will defect. Hopes rose when Air Force General Francisco Yanez switched his support this past February to Juan Guaidó, the main opposition leader.

Since then there’s been limited signs of military support for the opposition save for rank and file soldiers complaining about harsh economic conditions. Along with Maduro’s political elites, top members of the armed forces remain one of the greatest beneficiaries of government largesse while the rest of the population struggles to survive. Cuba is reportedly assisting Maduro as an additional military wing to keep his troops in line.

Even in the U.S. there’s questionable support for military intervention after decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump’s “America First” rhetoric is founded on unwinding U.S. involvement overseas, not starting new ones. With the U.S. presidential election cycle about to kick off in earnest, Trump will be preoccupied with campaigning. A controversial military conflict unpopular with his isolationist base would likely drag on his re-election efforts.

While the U.S. has targeted Venezuela’s oil exports, its main source of revenue, the campaign has met with limited success. State-run Venezuelan oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) continues to export almost one million barrels per day, with most going to China, Russia, and via Singapore to other destinations.

China, which lent heavily to Venezuela with oil-backed loans starting in 2007, is still due an estimated $20 billion. If sanctions curtail oil production, those loans are at increasing risk of default.

The next round of sanctions are expected to target companies and financial institutions involved in the oil trade, cutting them off from the U.S. banking system. That’s significant leverage on Venezuela’s sales of oil. Some countries, including Russia, are willing to barter refined fuel for the oil, subverting the global financial system. There’s little to stop that trade from continuing.

Still, a further tightening of Venezuela’s access to hard currency will have some effect on the economy, but will it be enough to turn the political tide? In principle the lack of cash should weaken Maduro’s ability to pay his generals, fomenting unrest and eventually leading to defections. That hasn’t worked so well against North Korea. Largely cut off from the international system, the Kim regime is still able to import luxury goods and supply its expanding missile and nuclear arsenal. 

On the diplomatic front, fifty-four countries now recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela, after an election widely considered illegitimate by western countries. Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and Cuba continue to back him.

While the U.S. has tried to engage UN support for new elections, allies including France, the UK, and Germany objected to including security concerns in the resolution. Russian and Chinese vetoes, as permanent members of the Security Council, killed the proposal.

Despite the limited external political support for Maduro’s ouster he still holds on to power. Riots over food, electrical outages, and shortages of medicine along with an inflation rate of over one million percent that forced millions to flee the country, have not been enough to end his reign. The UN expects 5.3 million Venezuelans displaced by the end of 2019, nearly one-fifth of the population.

Which leaves the Trump administration with few options. 

If the White House wants democracy restored, then threats about military action, which alienate allies, don’t serve that purpose well. Rather, a focus on brightening Venezuela’s future and curbing the plundering of the country’s resources might bring an end to the suffering sooner rather than later.

White House Eagerness for a Deal Gives North Korea the Upper Hand


IN A MINUTE | Trump Loses Edge with North Korea

Agreeing to meet without deal gives Kim the advantage


Trump claimed in last weeks’s State of the Union address that if it weren’t for him, the U.S. would be at war right now with North Korea. His self-praise for merely engaging the North telegraphed an eagerness for a deal that will be hard to justify should talks not deliver full and irreversible North Korean denuclearization.

Many now argue that North Korea will never give up their weapons and the U.S. should just accept that and move on, but the stakes are high for U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, the most susceptible to a North Korean provocation. If North Korea keeps its nuclear capability, Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, will certainly move to counter that threat, triggering a regional arms race.

There’s been precious little indication that Kim is willing to give up anything for another meeting with the U.S. President, a completely predictable outcome when Trump showed so much eagerness to meet in Singapore without a major breakthrough in talks.

A presidential meeting should only come after an agreement has been reached, not the other way around.

During the lapse in diplomacy since last summer’s Singapore summit, North Korea has been expanding its weapons program, not decreasing it. Recent reports and commercial satellite imagery show that the DPRK not only continued to build missiles, but there have far more weapon sites than previously disclosed. 

While North Korea has not overtly tested a missile or engine system since talks began, even the most novice global affairs observer knows delays are not concessions. Kim can fire up a test whenever and wherever he wants. Blowing up wooden sheds and exploding a mountain entrance were, at best, window dressing.

Trump has been far more adept in his trade negotiations with China and refused to meet with Xi Jinping until more details are ironed out. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are headed to China soon.

By refusing to say he’ll meet with Xi until he finds out what happens in the latest round of negotiations he maintains his advantage. A presidential meeting should only come after an agreement has been reached, not the other way around.

Which begs the question, why did Trump commit to meeting Kim before his Special Envoy, Stephen Biegun, finished negotiating any of the numerous and contentious details? After Biegun returned from Pyongyang Trump officially announced his Feb. 27-28 visit to Hanoi, but preparations were already underway for that visit. One can only surmise that Kim understood he had the advantage.

Up for grabs are a litany of economic, political, and military gives including the minimal lifting of some U.S. sanctions, a declaration to formally end the Korea conflict, establishing an interest section or Embassy in Pyongyang, and at the extreme, a reduction in U.S. troops and/or weapons systems on the peninsula.

Additionally Trump has already said he wants a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, but his vanity should not drive what may amount to a bad deal.

For any of these U.S. concessions, Trump must insist on full, verifiable denuclearization. Otherwise the bait-and-switch game will just go on while North Korea continues to build its arsenal. Transparency has always been the problem, and so far Kim has shown no more propensity to open his reclusive nation than his father or grandfather before him.

That may change if Kim is more interested in massive personal wealth and global recognition that followed Chinese and Vietnamese reform and opening. If so, Trump must press hard on eliminating the North’s ability to make and weaponize fissile material.

The worst thing that could happen in a real estate deal gone bad is bankruptcy. But an impulsive approach to high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea could mean risking regional and U.S. national security.


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“Brand America” Falls Out of Favor With Foreign Investment

Trump understands that brand matters, and the latest version of brand America is failing badly. At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, business executives expressed not only concern, but outright dismay, over the investment climate in the U.S. And they aren’t just sitting on their capital waiting for better days.

Investors are voting with their money and heading for other countries. The statistics for Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S. (FDIUS) show a troubling trend. In the second quarter of last year FDI turned negative, a reversal of fortune not seen in years. That followed a drop of 41% year-on-year to $277 Billon in 2017, after peaking at nearly $472 billion 2016, according to U.S. government data.

Cyclical Decline in Foreign Direct Investment to the U.S.

Companies including Tesla, Unilever, and Foxconn are looking elsewhere to invest due in part to the uncertainty around the U.S.-China trade war. Imports and exports have been hit along with supply chain disruptions. While the upcoming trade talks in Washington were bathed in a positive light from governments on both sides of the Pacific, the outcome has been thrown into serious doubt after the Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Huawei and its CFO Meng Wanzhou. 

She is currently detained in Canada on an extradition request that is now sure to move forward. Trump has said he may intervene in her case if it serves the trade talks and U.S. national security. What he can actually do, politically or legally, remains unclear.

Trump Has Few Options
on Huawei Sanctions Trouble


The souring on brand America isn’t just about China trade disruptions. Trump’s immigration policies, his tacit acceptance of jingoistic and racist dog whistling by his most ardent supporters, and the perception that the U.S. is retreating from global affairs is turning away international students that might otherwise invest in a coveted U.S. education.

Enrollment in undergraduate programs dropped for the second year in a row with a 6.6% fall for 2017-2018. That’s putting new strains on colleges and universities that have grown accustomed to full-tuition paying foreign students.

The longer term cost to the U.S. will show up in worker shortages, primarily in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines. These professions are already woefully short on trained graduates and unfilled jobs create a drag on economic growth.

While the administration touted $1.5 trillion dollars in corporate tax reductions that began in 2018, a survey by the National Association of Business Economics shows that companies are not in fact spending more. Trickle-down economics didn’t work under Reagan and it certainly isn’t working now even with a new, slick cover promising to make America great again.

A brand is only as good as what it delivers and so far Trump’s promises made continue to be promises broken. The U.S. accumulated a lot of good will over the decades. That hard-earned reputation is now at risk of being destroyed in only a few years.


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U.S.-China Trade Deal Already in Doubt

 

Trump Chaos Rattles China Trade Negotiations Before They Even Begin

Just days after President Trump claimed success in trade disputes with China, disagreement over the details have emerged. That rings with a familiar tune.

The Trump-Kim Summit this past June in Singapore raised similar doubts about what, if anything, was actually accomplished. It turns out that even with a loosely worded document we now know that nothing was formalized after that highly touted success.

While North Korea continues to develop missiles and possibly more nuclear weapons, Trump complains he hasn’t been offered the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. 

The Saturday Trump-Xi dinner in Buenos Aires didn’t even offer anything in writing and journalists were left guessing why applause erupted from behind closed doors as the dinner ended. There was no press conference or photo op to clear up the issue as Trump & Co. headed for the airport.

After landing, Trump claimed Chinese auto tariffs were being lifted. The White House has now walked that back. Trump claimed China would spend over $1 trillion on U.S. goods. His economic advisor Larry Kudlow said that was more aspirational than specific and would be determined by private entities and economic conditions. Trump said if China doesn’t make bold moves in ninety days, he’s Mr. Tariff, and then suggested the timeline might be extended.

No one knows what success looks like three months from now, and that’s a serious problem.

Now China has expressed its discontent with the White House version of winning it all. Yet again, Trump excels at undiplomatic posturing while others are left to clean up his mess.

The pattern here is clear. Trump’s erratic words cannot be trusted, only managed, even by those closest to him. It’s another episode of “Promises Made, Promises Broken.”

U.S. markets didn’t like that kind of uncertainty, and along with other negative financial news on Tuesday, they shed over 3% in one of the worst days in their history. 

Making matters worse, US Trade Representative Lighthizer replaced Treasury Secretary Mnuchin as lead negotiator. Lighthizer is a known China hawk, and while having someone strong-willed and skeptical at the table is an advantage, if the lead isn’t considered to be negotiating in good faith that will not end well for bilateral relations or the international trading system.

The biggest risk at the end of February will be China claiming they did everything they said they would do and the U.S. saying whatever they did wasn’t enough.

Chinese state media has already started making the list and announced increased punishments for firms found guilty of IP theft, but will they be implemented?   

If Trump really wants to reduce the trade deficit, protect intellectual property, and remove investment barriers, he and his team are going to have to be far more disciplined than they have been to date, and that seems highly unlikely.

Playing loose and fast with the facts, tweeting exaggerated wins, and painting Chinese negotiators into a corner will not make this relationship work. Both sides have to be able win.

 

G20 – What to Watch

 

 

11/30/18 – Updates on potential Trump-Putin meeting below.

The city center is bulking up on barricades and armed officers as world leaders being arriving for this year’s G20 meeting. Some 22,000 security personnel are being enlisted to keep the peace as anti-globalization and leftist political protests are expected, though they’ll be confined to a largely emptied part of town. The Argentine economy is under significant stress with 45% inflation and the peso more than doubling over the last two years against the dollar. Major parts of downtown will be completely closed, including cafes and shops. 

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman arrived on Wednesday and French President Macron is on the ground today. Trump is expected Friday along with several hundred press in tow. How many are fake news, but real people, will likely be tweeted ad nauseam starting late Saturday as Trump winds up his 48 hour stint in Argentina. 

Here are a few of the potentially most controversial issues to come out of the annual gathering.

 

Will there be a joint statement? 

After the debacle at APEC where the U.S. and China were at loggerheads over the final text and in an unusually thuggish move, the Chinese delegation stormed the offices of the Papua New Guinea Prime Minister’s office demanding changes. In the end there was no agreement over language for a final statement, the first time since APEC’s founding in 2003. 

For context, those final statements are mostly aspirational with very watered down, benign language that all participating countries can sign off on. They aren’t even legally binding. Early drafts are usually negotiated well in advance.

Will the same happen at the G20 with an even more complex set of issues in play including climate change (which Trump doesn’t believe is a scientific fact), migration (U.S. troops still on the border with Mexico), economic growth, health, sustainable development, the international financial architecture, and a host of other issues in addition to an “Action Plan.”

For comparison here’s a link to last year’s statement. 2017 G20 Leader’s Declaration 

 

Lots of Deals, or Not

Part and parcel of G20 gatherings are major business deal announcements and project financing, aka deliverables. Most, if not all of these, have either been in the works for months or already started, but it makes the event look like a venue where things get done. China is funding Argentina’s fourth nuclear power plant and if the proliferation of China’s ICBC bank branches across the capital are any indication, financial ties are strengthening even during Argentina’s economic downturn (Citibank sold its retail operations to Santander in 2016 further shrinking U.S bank presence in the country.)

Teatro Colón (Colón Theatre) in Buenos Aires
Site of cultural event for Leader’s Summit

What, if anything, will the U.S. be announcing in terms of large deals in Latin America? The re-negotiated NAFTA with Mexico and Canada is already old news as is Argentina’s new beef exports to the U.S. China’s financing largesse is likely to overshadow any announcements by Trump unless the numbers are “bigly” and “yuge.” There are no signs of that happening.

Trump-Xi Statement

Rumor has it Trump and Xi are meeting for dinner on Saturday night, with the venue and menu yet to be reported. The outcome of that feast may well determine the near-term future of global trading relations, major stock market movements, and a wave of punditry over the temperature of a new Cold War. Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, tried to strike a positive tone this week suggesting a deal could be made over the tit-for-tat tariffs that have roiled markets, while hedging with a statement that China needs to offer more. Trump, with his illimitable bravado, threatened even more tariffs.

Meanwhile China’s President Xi continues to travel the world (most recently Spain) and continues to tout support for free markets and the allure of China’s growing market. So far there’s been no mention of structural reform and there likely won’t be. State-owned enterprises are a fixture of China’s Communist Party rule despite its turn towards capitalism, and no threat from the U.S is going to change that. 

 

Trump-Putin Meeting

Update 11/30/18 12:54 – Russia says a meeting with Trump is still on as with other leaders. WH says nothing has changed. They may be splitting hairs on what “meeting” means. Technically a “pull aside” is not an “official” meeting since it doesn’t involve a formal sit down with advisors, etc. and can take place for a very short time. A pull aside also doesn’t carry the same gravitas as a formal meeting, but leaders still talk to each other, and usually without press or even a briefing afterwards.

Update 11/29/18 11:45 – Trump tweets cancellation of his G20 meeting with Putin citing Russia’s continued seizure of Ukrainian ships and crew. That leaves door open if they’re released in the next two days, but suspicions swirl that this has to do with more Cohen revelations of pursuing a Moscow deal during the campaign.

Official White House Cancellation of Putin Meeting Announced via Tweet

As of 11/29 the meeting has been cancelled via Trump’s tweet and then on 11/30 Russia says they will still meet. Who knows what “meet” means anymore.

No matter how this pans out, the on-again, off-again announcements make the U.S. look weak and confused. If Trump does end up meeting Putin, even in an “unofficial” pull-aside, he appears to be dancing to Russia’s balalaika (stringed Russian musical instrument.) There will be no time for an in depth discussion of Iran, missile treaties, Ukraine, North Korea, Syria, or a handful of other pressing issues. 

It’s amateur hour in Buenos Aires for the U.S. delegation, in part or by design thanks to Trump’s inability to stay on point and engage with the international community in any strategic way. Have no doubt though that WH Comms will spin this as a series of successful events during an intense two days of high stakes diplomacy.  

. . . It will certainly be a whirlwind few days of summitry, though don’t expect any mountain peaks to be topped with major announcements. 

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Losing Iraq

It should come as no surprise that winning the peace in Iraq after winning the war a decade earlier proves harder in practice than in theory.

After years of occupation, an election and billions of dollars in U.S. funding, the all-inclusive society of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds has failed to materialize. A new military built from the ground up as Saddam’s forces were disbanded turned tail at the first signs of organized radical resistance. Add to the transition equation a porous Syrian border in civil war, well-funded radical groups pursuing a mythologized Caliphate and a stream of foreign fighters eager for a new front — Iraq’s unresolved domestic fissures could only expand.

All of the official optimism about a new pluralistic Iraq, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, flew in the face of what political-military planners, historians and diplomats knew as far back as the late 1990’s when Iraq War I was waged.

Democracy is a tough sell.

In a region where centuries of animosity and mistrust continue to fuel a cycle of violence and counter-violence, pluralism, let alone democracy, has never been an ideal. And no amount of U.S. troop presence would change historical momentum fueled by ideological, ethnic and tribal divisions. Not at least without a new identity forged by the Iraqis themselves.

Why would the Kurds, for decades suppressed, gassed and murdered, find comfort in Baghdad under any rule but their own? The borders of modern Iraq, after all, were lines drawn by the British forcing traditional enemies together into a tentative order.

The Sunnis too, had no home in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new Iraq. Once an oppressor-class under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they were quickly forgotten by the new Shi’ite-dominated government.

There has never been a South Africa-styled national reconciliation. No new equality in the ebb and flow of power and pain in the Middle East. Only old wounds and new scars.

Perhaps the existential threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest in a long line of radicalized groups, and its military rout of Iraq’s major cities, will fuse a fractured nation into a common front. That’s the most the U.S. could hope for (and support) until Iraq’s larger fate can be addressed.

New calls for al-Maliki’s ouster will hardly solve the problem. President Obama has insisted on a “political solution” while ISIS takes Mosul and marches towards the capital. Inclusion certainly helps, but now it must be in the fight for a unified Iraq.

First Iraqis will have to rally under one flag. Then they can decide for themselves whether to create a future of partition or pluralism.

Red Lines in the East China Sea

East China Sea[Short version on CNN GPS]

In many parts of the world the long curve of history continues dragging nations back to the brink of war. Take Northeast Asia where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and resource rich waters nearby has become the latest potential flashpoint.

What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to fire warning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. has weighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan’s administration of the area.

If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.

Neither side shows any signs of compromise with Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s Prime Minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. In a January International Crisis Group report  Stephanie Kleine-Albrandt notes that:

“While neither Beijing nor Tokyo desires a major conflict, their tacit agreement to set aside the dispute has been broken and there is deepening pessimism on both sides over the prospects of a peaceful settlement.”

As Bill Bishop points out in his daily Sinocism report, stepping back from the brink becomes increasingly difficult.

“China’s relentless media campaign since the summer, the anti-Japanese teachings so prevalent in the Chinese education system and the imperative of any new leadership to not look weak, especially toward the Japanese, could mean that if an accident did occur, especially one that resulted in the death of a Chinese citizen, Beijing might have so painted itself into a corner that it would have respond with force…”

The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind including any real shots fired by the increasing number of naval ships (both Chinese and Japanese) now plying the nearby waters or jets flying overhead. Similarly if either side attempts to land on the islands the other side will counter with a landing of their own. Calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.

Complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries it was the trading hub of the region and an imperial power coercing its neighbors into paying annual tribute for peace and security. To be fair, the long arc of Chinese history also includes imperial dynasties that eschewed regional intervention – a fact currently lost on current policymakers.

Schools to this day continuing painting the country as a weak, aggrieved nation. The lesson: China must defend itself against a mythical recurrence of exploitation at the hands of foreign powers. These slights of history dating back to early 1900’s treaty ports (a time of unequal trading relations) are re-lived as if they were yesterday. Yet, the more recent reign of Mao Tse Tung driving the country into devastating famine, financial ruin and global isolation gains barely a footnote.

The cognitive dissonance between present day reality: China as the world’s second largest economy, with one of the world’s largest militaries and more than equal inclusion in the global trading system; and views of a distant, weakened past continue influencing China’s foreign policy. In Japan as well, historical revisionists continue celebrating war criminals at Yasakuni Shrine. The current administration has also contemplated changing its account of the use of sex slaves during World War II.

On a limited but positive note Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell has been making the regional rounds calling for dialogue.

For now at least lines of communication remain open while both sides try to reign in their political extremes. Space for rational discussion, however continues shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol. If push comes to literal shove the damage to the region and international trade could be devastating.

Conflict has never been pre-ordained. It is the result of decisions, by people, to follow a course into crisis. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities and Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets. The past should not be forgotten, but neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that’s not a lesson lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.

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Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

(From CNN GPS – full list here.) Barack Obama has won reelection as America’s president. But while the economy – and avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff – will inevitably take up much of his time, there are numerous foreign policy challenges facing the next administration. GPS asked 10 leading foreign policy analysts to name 10 things that Obama should focus on next. The views expressed are, of course, the authors’ own.

Drop China ambiguity

By Brian Klein

Brian P. Klein is a global strategist and former U.S. diplomat. He blogs at Klein’s Commentary.

China’s economic rise and increasing military assertiveness have pushed U.S. strategic ambiguity to its limits. If a decisive position isn’t taken soon, allies and friendly countries will question whether the U.S. can back up its Asia pivot talk with action. Focusing on realistic trade liberalization, increased military contacts with China and firm engagement rather than the blame and shame tactics of the past must become a priority.

Meanwhile, the once vaunted Arab Spring, so full of promise and democratic zeal, shows signs of entering a long dark winter. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy whittles away at reforms in the marginally secular republic, while Syria’s civil war now threatens regional stability, with conflict overflowing into Turkey and Lebanon. Boots on the ground may not be an option, but a focused effort to influence, if not completely resolve these destabilizing trends will be essential to restoring peace.

Is Fox News A National Security Risk? A Benghazi Lessons Update

Is Fox News A National Security Risk? A Benghazi Lessons Update

It was supposed to be a conspiracy of epic proportions. The U.S. government knew about the threats in Benghazi and did nothing, even when pleas for help came from the Consulate. No other major news organization would follow the story. The CIA called for back-up but was told to “stand down”. U.S. government officials said it was a mob action following the release of a third-rate anti-Islam internet movie, and then changed their story. Could it be any clearer? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it?

In “The Real Benghazi Lessons” on CNN’s website I wrote about the need to de-politicize this issue and the realities of incomplete information, especially during a crisis. Over 100 comments poured in full of conspiracy theories and anti-Obama screeds. These replies, it turns out, were parroting the very same set of narrow criticisms that Fox News has been broadcasting at increasingly louder volumes in the run-up to election day.

And now the mainstream media swings back with detailed reporting on what actually happened. The Wall Street Journal dove deep into the confusion of the night itself, multiple attacks, a DoD drone brought in to provide real-time pictures (yes, the military did try and help), and squabbling between the State Department and CIA over who was ultimately responsible for security of the main Consulate building.

According to the New York Times the CIA “played a pivotal role in combating militants . . . deploying a rescue party from a secret base in the city, sending reinforcements from Tripoli, and organizing an armed Libyan military convoy to escort the surviving Americans to hastily chartered planes that whisked them out of the country.”

The response occurred within an hour of the reported first attack. Thirty people were successfully evacuated, including support from U.S. military assets. An unnamed official also stated that no one was told to “stand down.”

So why no detailed account until now?

Because so much of what was apparently going on in Benghazi was under the radar and classified. That’s how you fight terrorism and dictatorships, not in the headlines or the fanatical press chasing ratings. The risks to Libya’s fragile democracy, a hallmark of the Arab Spring uprisings, still remain high. Now, thanks to all of this talk of a cover-up U.S. foreign policy operations have been dealt a significant blow. Fox’s unrelenting politicizing of the issue has thrust these operations onto the public stage,  jeopardizing future U.S. government operations in Benghazi and elsewhere.

Are there real concerns over the security at forward operating diplomatic posts? Of course. And Congress is following up on their October showmanship of a hearing with a detailed investigation. They even set a post-election Nov. 8th deadline for a full accounting of what happened (State is also conducting another review according to an article in Foreign Policy.)

Exposing troubling and sometimes illegal U.S. government activity (say in the possible use of torture or the subversion of democracy in Watergate) certainly provides a critical and necessary check on authority. That’s the power of a free press.

This shouldn’t be confused with prime time personalities slinging unsubstantiated conspiracy claims and peddling innuendo as if it were real news. In the end Fox’s irresponsible coverage has generated a politically motivated blame game damaging U.S. national security in the process.

Related posts:

De-Politicizing Benghazi (also on CNN’s GPS as The real Benghazi lessons)

Muslims Didn’t Kill Diplomats in Benghazi

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