Allies on the High Frontier

English: Backdropped by a blue and white part ...

The unpiloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) approaches the International Space Station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strategic Imperatives for US–Japan Outer Space Cooperation
Crystal Pryor
East-West Center

December 7, 2012

The irony of publishing an essay advocating closer cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in the military sphere on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is palpable, to the point where you wonder if the wags at the East-West Center did this on purpose.

Regardless of intent, Crystal Pryor brings up an issue that is easy to forget in these fraught times in the East China Sea: space. China is on a tear in space, accelerating its manned orbital program and beginning the long effort that will take taikonauts to the Moon. And let’s not forget – China has proven it can take out just about any satellite it pleases.

Pryor calls for closer peaceful cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in space, and little wonder: experience on the International Space Station revealed some avenues for cooperation. But Japan could be forgiven for having a hidden agenda. Space, even unmanned, is increasingly important to national security and economic growth, and Japan cannot defend its orbital interests alone. Overt military cooperation with the U.S. in space would be an outright provocation. Civilian partnerships, though, could lead to deeper ties if events develop.

Japan’s problem, though, is that NASA is in a torpor. It will have to either rouse the beast, or it will need to find ways to build alliances with the growing bevy of private space companies. Near term, bet on the latter.

Viewing the Pivot from the Air


A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission o...

A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, May 30, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Summer 2013 issue of the Strategic Studies Quarterly is out, and the Air Force publication spends most of its space this quarter on Asia, China, and the Pivot. Starting with an excellent essay by David Shambaugh (“Assessing the US Pivot to Asia,”) the publication amounts to a quiet announcement that the Air Force Research Institute (AFRI) is now focused on China.

No surprise. But what is disappointing is the AFRI’s failure to ask the most difficult political question: does the USAF have the wherewithal – in doctrine, in training, in force structure, and (most critically) in equipment – to credibly face off against China in even the coldest of conflicts? Of all the services, this is most important to the Air Force, which was guided in its formative years by leaders who were shaped in the crucible of European wars and hardened during the Cold War face-off with the USSR in Europe. Tactical warfare over vast distances is not in the USAF’s DNA, and it is not in the DNA of the aircraft upon which it has chosen to bet its future.

What one can hope, however, is that the AFRI is leading the Air Force by its nose into a future that demands a different kind of air service by compelling the organization to contemplate its challenges and look itself in the mirror. The odds are long: the AFRI sits under the Air Force, and as such depends on the kindness of the very leaders it should be criticizing.

The USAF lacks what the Navy has in the Naval Institute, an independent forum of officers and senior enlisted people who can have an unimpeded conversation about the future of the service. That’s bad. There are Air Force officers with vision who understand that the future of the USAF as an independent service is on the line. That they must depend on an in-house organ to make their case makes it too easy to pull punches, to step back from the brink of saying what needs to be said.

Pick up the new edition of SSQ. If nothing else, it marks and important beginning of a conversation too long delayed.

Does Thailand Want the US to Pivot?

Thailand guard

Thailand guard (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

“After Obama’s Visit: The US-Thailand Alliance and China”
Sasiwan Chingchit

East-West Center
December 4, 2012

The underlying assumption of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s strategy to shift the focus of the U.S. security establishment away from Southwest Asia and Europe to Southeast Asia is that the locals are going to be happy with the idea. A read of Sasiwan Chingchit’s essay, though, makes you wonder.

The author suggests that despite a long friendship with the U.S. that peaked in the early 1970s, Thai attentions and affections have since shifted north, to China. Little wonder: since China backed the Thai economy during the dark days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the money has continued to flow from China and into the Thai economy in the form of loans, direct investment, and plume of tourists that grows by the year. That one Thai in five is ethnically Chinese probably doesn’t hurt. The message is clear: don’t think you’re going to swoop in here and turn us against our new benefactors to the north.

Chingchit makes a fair point, but the elephant in the room should be obvious to any Thai realist: what happens if the price of Chinese friendship gets a little too high?

Thailand is not alone in Southeast Asia in finding itself caught between two giants. On the one hand, relations with the rising China carry the promise of commercial and economic benefit. On the other, the U.S. presence in Asia stands as a guarantor that limits China’s ambitions to the commercial sphere. Having the U.S. and China at loggerheads on their behalf suits the smaller nations of Asia as the competition between two eligible bachelors suits the coquette.

What happens, then, when the U.S., tired of a low diplomatic return on its security investment, allows the pivot to become a dead letter and leaves Southeast Asia to manage its own fate? The last time the region was without a capable protector it fell under the shadow of Japan’s East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. It does not take a surfeit of imagination to see something altogether similar happening again.

Japan has Territorial Issues with Russia, too

“On Trenin’s Proposal for Russia to Return Four Disputed Islands to Japan”
Hakamada Shigeki
GFJ Commentary
February 28, 2013

As if having to argue with China and Korea over rocks was not complex enough for Japan, a third territorial counterparty is (re)emerging in the form of Moscow. It seems like, since everyone else in the neighborhood wants to clarify territorial issues, the Russians are chiming in as well.

This time, the tone is conciliatory, even though it does not come from the Kremlin. Dmitri Trenin, who directs the Carnegie Moscow Centre, put out a paper in December of 2012 proposing a mechanism by which four islands taken by the USSR from Japan at the end of World War II would be returned to Japanese control.

Professor Hakamada Shigeki of the University of Niigata prefecture is cool to the proposal. While conceding that any such opening is worth pursuing, he is under no illusions about Trenin’s position (a Western-funded think tanker rather than a Kremlin insider) and Putin‘s continuing need to prove to Russians he is a strongman.

To expect Russia to concede territory for nothing would be unrealistic. But Hakamada sees other wheels at work. China looms large for Russia (especially after Xi Jinping’s recent visit) but Putin will not want to close out other options in the region. Working out longstanding territorial disputes with Japan would allow Russia to play the conciliator in a Sino-Japanese standoff, and would keep Japan in the game as an alternate destination for Siberian natural gas.

The source of the suggestion is Machiavellian. To have the suggestion come from the Carnegie Centre could be serving as Putin’s trial balloon, giving him a chance to judge Japanese reaction without committing himself publicly.

The next move, as Hakamada hints, is Japan’s. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Clearly, the diplomatic game is afoot in East Asia.

NOREF – China’s impact on conflict and fragility in South Asia

“China’s impact on conflict and fragility in South Asia
Clare Castillejo
NOREF- Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre
25 January 2013

While the rest of us are focused on East Asia, FRIDE’s Clare Castillejo takes a look at how China’s growing interest in South Asia – particularly Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – is starting to change the field for both India and for the rest of the world.

While I wish she would expand her analysis to include Burma and Bangladesh, Castillejo moves our eyes to a critical hub of activity. India of late has sought greater influence in the South China sea, particularly with Vietnam, and has been seen canoodling with Japan. If China can build a containment field around India’s north, political pressure inside India to refocus defense on the near-abroad would redound in China’s favor in East Asia.

The game is afoot, and China is having to play it on multiple fronts. This paper reminds us that China still sees its most immediate geopolitical rival most clearly when it looks across the Himalayas, not the Pacific.

My Power is Softer than Yours

English: Press room of State Council Informati...

Press room of the State Council Information Office of China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China’s Soft Power in East Asia: A Quest for Status and Influence?
Chin-Hao Huang
National Bureau of Asian Research
January 2013

China has pledged itself to winning the “soft power” game in Asia and worldwide ever since the phrase became a buzzword among international relations literati following the 204 publication of Joseph Nye‘s Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Beijing has spent billions on this campaign, funding schools of Chinese language and culture, big-budget films, and an expanding global media network of foreign language television, radio, magazines, newspapers, and wire services all controlled by the State Council Information Office.

Beijing has done little to help itself in this campaign, especially with its neighbors. Armed belligerence in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, bolstered by questionable legal claims, has made China look less attractive to its neighbors and more like a teenaged dragon out to test the limits of its growing power.

Chin-Hao Huang of USC tells us not to let ourselves get lulled by this ham-handed behavior. China appearing itself in the foot does not mean that the U.S. and Europe can let up their efforts to build attraction and influence in the region. In fact, it doesn’t mean that it is losing the soft-power war, either. Studies indicate that China’s soft power is rated just below that of Japan and the United States by populations in Asia. So, in fact, the U.S.  needs to get better at playing the game right now, both to exploit the current opportunities and as a hedge against the day that China begins playing the coquette again.

We also have to consider the possibility that the elements that invite soft power may vary from culture to culture. We see that in our own efforts to build soft power among Muslim populations worldwide. It may be that by compartmentalizing the Senkakus and South China Sea disputes that China is able to play divide-and-conquer among its neighbors. Or it may be that some cultures respect the might China has created even as that power is aimed at them, especially if China is able to rise at the cost of Japanese and American prestige in the region. Asia for the Asians Redux, if you will.

Whether you buy Huang’s argument or whether you think he is repeating the obvious, he deserves credit for pointing out that just because China is playing the bully doesn’t mean they’re losing hearts and minds, and we need to figure out how to play that game much better in a region that has stymied us for half a century.

Why China will make its own rules

Drawing of an early Chinese soldier lighting a...

Drawing of an early Chinese soldier lighting a rocket (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“More Security for Rising China, Less for Others?”
Denny Roy

East-West Center
January 2013

In this brief but thoughtful paper, Denny Roy suggests that China’s days of playing by international rules are over. He notes that despite China’s assertions that it will play within international bounds and rise peacefully, mounting evidence suggests otherwise.

Specifically, Roy points to two factors that will put an end to the “peaceful rise.” First is a strong sense of Chinese manifest destiny that the nation is the rightful leader (read “hegemon”) in Asia, both among the leaders in Beijing and the Chinese people. The second is the constant stoking of nationalism by a new generation of leaders who, uncertain about the course to chart for the nation at home, is turning to international conflict to keep the country united.

What will determine China’s success, Roy suggests, is not what is said in Washington or Brussels, but what the nations of Asia do in response to China’s efforts. The nations of the region can simply give in to becoming satellite states within an uncontested Chinese sphere of influence, or they can work to stop it.

To date, the region has been happy to let the US fight its battles, but it will be Asia, and in particular India and Japan, who will be compelled to respond to an increasingly aggressive – and entitled – China.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and America’s Pivot

How U.S. Can Secure the New East
Zbigniew Brzezinski

The Diplomat

All too often I find myself on the opposite side of an issue with Mr. Brzezinski, but his recent contribution to The Diplomat is deserving of consideration. His feeling: the U.S. should stay out of direct military involvement of conflicts among Asian powers.

While not altogether unique (I hear echoes of Douglas MacArthur), the warning is timely. With our strategic pivot to Asia, the U.S. looks altogether too ready to leap into a fray over the South China Sea, to give one example. In that there are some twenty unresolved border conflicts involving China alone, we may be writing a check the U.S. armed forces could never cash.

What worries me about Mr. Brzezinski’s advice are telltale signs that Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor has some reasonably large blind-spots in Asia. In describing the strains between India and China, for example, he is oddly silent on the matters of Tibet, the Himalayan republics, and Sino-Indian territorial disputes. Instead, he isolates Pakistan and India’s naval power as the core points of contention.

He suggests getting too close to India would open the door for Russia in Central Asia as America would be “distracted.” All of this, of course, assumes capability that it is unclear lies within the grasp of Putin’s Kremlin and that China and India would sit idly while it happened.

More disturbingly, Brzezinski seems blind to the calculation of the Asian nations who on the one hand are concerned about China’s growing power, but on the other hand want to profit from deep engagement in its rise. Walking this fine line would be served elegantly by drawing the U.S. into the “bad cop” role in Asia, allowing Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines to play off the US and China against one another to their benefit.

He concludes:

Ultimately, the United States’ geopolitical role in the new East will have to be based on mediation, conciliation and balancing and not on military engagement in mainland Asia.

A fine sentiment, but allow us to suggest an alternative formulation.

Ultimately, the United States’ geopolitical role in the new East will have to be based on a careful calculation of our interests, a recognition that, paradoxically, our power and influence in the region may best be served by engagement at a distance.

China’s appetite for regional and global influence far exceeds its current and projected capabilities. A true realist might suggest giving China enough rope to make its own noose.

Engaging Islam in Mindanao


Map of the Philippines showing the location of...

Map of the Philippines showing the location of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Understanding and Engaging the Muslims of the Southern Philippines
Diana Dunham-Scott

Pardee RAND Graduate School

Despite significant progress made in quelling the latent Muslim insurgency in the Southern Philippines, there remains a divide between the people of the region and the agencies, military and civilian, local and foreign, that have been sent to foment peace. Diana Dunham-Scott of the Pardee RAND Graduate School went to the region to find out why. Her conclusions, while seemingly common-sense, have implications that go far beyond Mindanao, and indeed reach into China.

Dunham-Scott discovered that much of the problem lies in the degree to which military, police, and civilians sent to the region are educated about the local culture specifically and Islam in general. This is little surprise in an archipelago ruled from its Roman Catholic capital. At the same time, it is discouraging to consider that sectarian conflict has a long history in the Philippines, and perhaps these lessons are long past their due date.

For all of her soft criticism of local officials, Dunham-Scott aims her most pointed conclusions and recommendations against the U.S. military and civilian agencies operating in the region. With the United States well into its second decade grappling with violent Muslim extremism, the policy failure implicit in sending to the region personnel unprepared to operate there is near unforgivable.

Fortunately, Dunham-Scott is not a polemicist. Instead, she underscores the importance of lessons the U.S. military has learned from over a century of irregular warfare. Know the customs and respect them. Culture matters. Language matters. Power is as likely to come from the pages of a book or the mouth of an aged Imam as it is from the barrel of a gun. It is clear the Yanks are learning, but Dunham-Scott’s meticulous research underscores that more needs to be done.

If it is wise, China is watching. The nation faces a growing challenge administering its own Muslim minority, and the country’s needs and ambitions are taking it far from the Han heartland. If it has hopes to build soft power and influence from among the Muslim populations within and beyond its borders, it needs to learn from America’s mistakes, not repeat them.

The Indian Ocean Pivot

Bathymetric map of the Indian Ocean

Bathymetric map of the Indian Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indian Ocean Rising: Maritime Security and Policy Challenges
David Michel,

The Stimson Center
July 16, 2012

Even as many of us remain focused on the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf as the two “heart-seas” of modern conflict in Asia, the Indian Ocean (or “the IO” to naval officers and maritime wonks) and all that is happening on its periphery is what we should all be watching.

Where Robert Kaplan gave us a ground-level view of why the IO is so important to American policy in his excellent Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, the team at the Stimson Center offers a fascinating deep-dive into why the region will be pivotal for the world in the coming decades.

Rather than try and make a case that the IO is a future cradle of conflict, the authors instead set out to examine the forces that are increasing the importance of, or raising tension in, the region, and let the reader decide. Piracy and terrorism are covered, and so is the region’s naval buildup. It is the book’s focus on security issues in the context energy, international law, natural resources, and environmental pressures that makes this such a valuable read.

Earlier this week, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie spoke to The Hindu during a five-day visit to India. Asked to address claims that China was building naval bases in the region, General Liang was somewhat less than categorical in his denials.

The Chinese are, apparently, ahead of the U.S. and Europe in recognizing that there is a good chance that the 21st Century will be an IO century, not a Pacific century. The Stimson Center has created a good primer into why that is the case.

How Should Europe Dance with India and China?

see Images name

see Images name (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“EU Relations with China and India: Courting the Dragon, Wooing the Elephant
Bernd von Muenchow-Pohl
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
August 23, 2012

As Europe lies all but prostrate in the throes of its creeping crisis, the leaders of the continent are reaching out to the emerging economies of India and China for help. No doubt some Europeans greet this spectacle with a shot of nausea. After all, most of us old enough to remember disco can remember a time when it was the other way ’round.

But I think it was genuine smart strategy and not an reaction to the tides of history that provoked career diplomat von Muenchow-Pohl to write this paper. In it, he urges Europe’s leaders to deal with Asia’s emerging giants with “the right mix of realism and self-confidence.”

What is fascinating here is not the prescriptions themselves, which seem the epitome of level-headed common sense. Instead, what captures the attention is the fact that Dr. von Muenchow-Pohl felt it necessary to give this pep-talk in the first place. As a lifelong diplomat he surely has insights into how Europe’s leaders conduct themselves behind closed doors, and how they frame their negotiation strategies.

The meta-message here is that Europe needs to stop being the supplicant, get some backbone, and deal with China and India in confidence. It won’t be easy: the Asians seem to hold all the cards, and they are surely relishing both their new-found stations and the irony of the role-reversal. But it would do Europe and the world no good to have China and India believe the Old World is weaker than is the case, any more than it would serve to have China and India overestimate what they have to offer.

Australia and the Pivot

“Prospects for Establishing a U.S.-Australia-Singapore Security Arrangement: The Australian Perspective”
Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi

German Marshall Fund of the United States
May 29, 2012

Australia is in a hard place. To its west, India is rising as a power in the Indian Ocean, and to its north, China is beginning to assert an aggressive geopolitical stance unlike any seen in the region since Japan’s rise in the early 20th century, and Indonesia remains restive in an era of Muslim fundamentalism. While Australia is hardly subject to “yellow peril” fever, the situation is disconcertingly familiar for Canberra.

Yet even as the rise of Asia’s emerging nations seems to push for a closer relationship with the United States and other regional partners, Australia remains hesitant to join even loose alliances for fear of annoying its most important trading partner, China.

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi at the Australian Defence Force Academy suggests that Australia needs to prepare now for the possibility that it may have to choose sides in the Pacific, given that its own forces, even if expanded significantly, would be insufficient to address the growing threats in the region.

The problem, of course, is that US commitments elsewhere combine with Australian budget constraints to make the ANZUS alliance inadequate to the task. Hinata-Yamaguchi suggests bringing Singapore into the loop. With its strategic location and crack armed forces, Singapore would be an important addition to the alliance.

Japan’s Coming China Reckoning

“Japan’s China Policy — Engagement, but for How Long?
Victoria Tuke
German Marshall Fund of the United States
May 29, 2012

Japan’s political system tends to place a premium on postponing tough decisions. One such decision, argues Warwick Ph.D. candidate Victoria Tuke, cannot be put off for much longer: the nature of Japan’s relationship with an emerging China.

Tuke argues for a strategy that balances Beijing and Washington without taking sides. It is a persuasive argument and one that Fredrick the Great would have appreciated.

One could argue that Japan in the past has shown little inclination to stand twixt two giants, but this is not the core challenge with Tuke’s thesis. Rather, the question is whether Beijing’s actions – unlikely to be friendly to Japan – will permit Japan to strike such a balance.

China, a River, and Asia’s Water Future

English: Yarlung Zangbo River (also known as T...

English: Yarlung Zangbo River (also known as Tsangpo River and Yarlung Tsangpo River) in Tibet, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Managing the Rise of a Hydro-Hegemon in Asia: China’s Strategic Interests in the Yarlung-Tsangpo River
Jesper Svensson
Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

At some point this century, water will join fossil fuels as a scarce resource. An emerging point of tension lies between the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, and others lie anywhere a river flows from China to another country.

In this pithy analysis, the author looks at the specific case of one river shared by China, India, and Bangladesh and how it is an indicator of China’s future behavior in the region. Svensson’s prediction is bleak: he is convinced that despite cooperative noises, China will dam the river without consulting its neighbors if it makes economic sense for Beijing to do so.

The implications for the citizens of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state and the farmers of Bangladesh are immense, but, as the author points out, the entire region, if not the world, should be watching China’s behavior on this picturesque watercourse.

Is Vietnam the Prussia of the 21st Century?

“The Vietnam Solution
Robert D. Kaplan
The Atlantic
June 2012

Blick auf Hanoi

Blick auf Hanoi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan has spent the last two decades on the ground of the world’s trouble spots, hunting for the untold stories of the conflicts that happen on the edges of globalization and what the US defense establishment calls “The Long War.” His worldview is divorced from both the Pentagon and the Ivory Tower, cleaving more closely to a ground-level perspective that we hear and read all too little.

Kaplan began his post-9/11 writings focused on failed states and non-state actors and how those two created not just an opening but a need for the U.S. to step in and change things. With his recent book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Kaplan began to shift his attention to the emerging great power politics in Asia, and in the June edition of The Atlantic, Kaplan turns full-face toward China.

Coming just as China is starting to flex some muscle in the South China Sea off of Vietnam’s shores, Kaplan’s article offers a view of the Middle Kingdom from Hanoi. It is not a nice view, given China’s growing diplomatic aggression, but it is for Vietnam not a new one: the Vietnamese, Kaplan points out, have been maneuvering against the Dragon to maintain their independence for a millennium.

They have done this because they have become adept at playing regional power politics to keep the Chinese from squashing their country out of existence. Kaplan dubs Vietnam “The Prussia of Asia,” and as I am halfway through Christopher Clark’s superb Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, the point rings true. Vietnam has learned to play a Clausewitzian game as well as anyone in the region.

The article is excellent, and my only quibble is that Kaplan did not ask the hardest question: whether Vietnam’s domestic politics and the direction its economy is taking will allow it to resist being drawn into China’s orbit. This is a non-trivial question for those of us watching the South China Sea. Vietnam remains the wild-card for both sides. But, reading this article, it is clear that this is exactly how Hanoi would like to keep things.

How is Population Hurting Asia’s Progress?

“Population Aging and Economic Progress in Asia: A Bumpy Road Ahead?”
Andrew Mason and Sang Hyop Lee

East-West Center

Andrew Mason and Sang Hyop Lee explain that countries in both developed and developing Asia face a triple threat of an aging population, declining family support for aging family members, and the lack of government programs to support the aging, and tell us why and how that is going to put an end to Asia’s economic miracle. That is, unless the region’s leaders can figure out how to change policy and economic direction to address the issue.

Mines in the South China Sea

“Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas”
Scott C. Truver
U.S. Naval War College Review
Spring 2012

Strategists focus heavily on the aerospace aspects of China’s “access denial” strategy, thinking about how ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and attack aircraft could effectively seal the US Navy out of the Western Pacific. But another weapon remains that could have a similar effect in a much lower intensity conflict: sea mines.

Drop a few dozen cheap and low-technology magnetic mines around the Paracels or Spratleys, sit back, and watch the fireworks. It is an illustration that China has plenty of arrows in its quiver that could prove costly for Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and the U.S. to address, one that demands an equally asymmetric strategy.

Japanese Science: Anything but Foreigners

Kyoto University, one of the most prestigious ...

Image via Wikipedia

“Revamp Math and Science Education, Kazuo Nishimura, AJISS-Commentary

The Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies, a conservative think-tank in Tokyo, has published this op-ed by Kazuo Nishimura, a Professor of Mathematical Economics at Kyoto University.

In the op-ed, Nishimura calls for starting science education earlier, changing the structure of elementary courses, and keeping high-school kids in compulsory science courses longer in High school. More controversially, he also calls for a complete overhaul of the nation’s grading system.

All of these are good proposals, especially the latter, but the one policy Nishimura shies form is the one most likely to make a difference in the near term: allowing greater numbers of foreign scientists to come into Japan to work and offer their efforts to Japanese companies. Indeed, he believes this is the problem.

A fascinating article.

The PLA from a Japanese Viewpoint

China Security Report – The National Institute for Defense Studies.

The better-known analyses of China’s defense posture and its implications for the rest of the world tend to come from American, European, and Australian sources, but the developed country with the most immediate and pressing need to understand China’s intentions is Japan.

This year, for the second time, Japan has issued its China Security Report detailing its view of China’s spending, its strategic and military needs, and its near-term intentions. Being a public document and being from Japan, many of the conclusions are couched in language that is diplomatic and polite, framing its conclusions in terms of China’s concerns. This report is worth the read, both because it is pithy and because it offers a viewpoint that compliments the published assessments at the Pentagon.

Asian Security in the Year of the Dragon


Maritime claims in the South China Sea

Image via Wikipedia

NIDS Joint Research Series No.6: Asia Pacific Countries’ Security Outlook and Its Implications for the Defense Sector – The National Institute for Defense Studies.

Each year, Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies conducts an exchange program that invites national security scholars from around the world to take a collective look at the Asian security environment and offer their points of view on the issues the region faces. This year they have produced another excellent collection, and it is available at the link above.

What I enjoy about this series is the often unexpected perspectives thes authors offer. My favorites from this collection are H.J.S. Kraft’s chapter on “The Continuing Malaise of National Security in the Philippines,” which strikes me as particularly fascinating given the evolving situation in the South China Sea; You Ji’s perspective on how China’s defense posture is evolving in response to America’s “Strategic Shift” away from Europe, Iraq, and Pakistan and toward the Pacific; and, of course, Andrew Erickson’s superb review of U.S. security concerns in the region.

As we ease into Chinese New Year, this would be an excellent time to peruse this collection. The Year of the Dragon promises much change, but a read through these chapters should minimize the surprises.

Holding Burma Together

The 14 states and regions of Burma

Image via Wikipedia

Beyond Armed Resistance: Ethnonational Politics in Burma (Myanmar) by Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung; Honolulu: East-West Center, 2011

Sitting as it does at the geographic crossroads between India, China, and Southeast Asia, Burma (Myanmar) plays a role in the stability of the region that goes overlooked outside of a small circle of Asia wonks. Most of us have forgotten that Burma broke the back of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, made up one corner of the infamous Golden Triangle in the opiate trade, and, as a relic of a colonial era, houses ethnic separatism that often erupts into violence. In some ways, Burma is the Iraq of Southeast Asia.

Most of us see the challenge of Burma as a a matter of easing the Military Junta from power and allowing free elections. It is, apparently, not that simple, and Beyond Armed Resistance gives us a glimpse into the complexities of Burma’s politics via a review of the aspirations of the Kachin, Karen, Mon, and Shan ethnic groups.

Deliberately setting aside armed ethnic uprising, including the Karen people‘s longstanding resistance to the Burmese government, Dr. Thawnghmung argues that the non-violent political activity of these groups is more important to the evolution of the Burmese state than civil conflict. Reading her book also offers an unintended insight into why the military feels obliged to keep such tight control over the country: dormant ethnic tensions could easily sunder the nation. What is more, we begin to see how  Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy would face formidable challenges simply holding the country together if they were to come to power. No doubt, this prospect troubles the leaders of India, China, and Thailand: it should trouble Americans as well.

The junta has become the entire focus of western policy toward Burma. That focus, however correct, has masked the deeper challenges and rifts that plague the country. It must be no longer. Instead, our focus must become the fundamental challenges the country faces on its path to stability and development. Dr. Thawnghmung has argued in other venues that the first focus must be on establishing a national identity under-girded by a shared ideology and vision.

As Asia’s nations begin to expand their influence beyond their borders, weak states will become political and diplomatic (if not military) battlegrounds among the region’s powers. If Burma is to avoid this fate, it must emerge from its current transitional phase as a united, independent, and prosperous country. The well-meaning people around the world campaigning for the NLD would do well to heed the warning implicit in Dr. Thawnghmung’s writings: think beyond liberation, and do so now.

What about Indonesia?

“Developing Trust in Asia Amidst New US Military Deployments: An Indonesian Perspective,” by Maria Monica Wihardja, Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 142, East-West Center, Washington, D.C., December 8, 2011. If we think the Chinese were upset about the announcement that 2,500 U.S. Marines would soon be station on Australia’s north coast, the Indonesians were much more upset. As the US makes more use of Australia as a part of its Pacific defense system, it will need to turn up the public diplomacy in Southeast Asia to counteract the Jihadist agitprop that is certain to be an unwelcome byproduct.

China’s Rough Edges

Managing Instability on China’s Periphery – Council on Foreign Relations.

A fair amount of attention has gone in recent years to China’s growing influence far from its shores, in particular in Africa and Latin America. The western powers are predisposed to hypersensitivity in these areas. Africa is no longer the southern extension of European empires, but the EU is not anxious to allow the continent to fall under the influence of any other power. In the Americas, the Monroe Doctrine is much changed but it is not dead: witness the reactions to Russian or Chinese warship visits to Venezuela or Cuba.

But as five scholars from the Council on Foreign Relations remind us, we would be foolish to forget that where China’s influence is felt strongest is in the Middle Kingdom’s near abroad, in the nations lining China’s extensive borders. What is more, China’s borderlands house some of the world’s most volatile hot spots: North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

The authors of Managing Instability on China’s Periphery seek policy options to try and prevent crises from emerging in those countries and potentially undermining the US-China relationship. The publication, released in September, is timely not simply because of the recent death of Kim Jong-Il and the resultant uncertainty over the Korean peninsula, but because many of us watching China (myself included) underweight the instability in China’s borderlands when analyzing how and why China thinking about the drivers shaping the PRC’s foreign and security policy.

That’s a significant oversight, and this book is a forceful reminder that we must change our calculus. China’s credible ascent to global power depends on the PRC first securing its own borders: if it cannot, the nation will have to focus its arms and treasure on keeping instability out rather than extending influence far from its shores. If, on the other hand, China can arbitrate peaceful transitions for each of these weak states, the nation will gain prestige and influence worldwide.

China understands what is at stake, and will thus view American initiatives in this de facto sphere of Chinese influence with suspicion. This is the minefield the authors seek to navigate for us, and as such their book is an essential read.