China and the New African Great Game

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, China, and Africa
Conference Papers
May 13, 2013

There is a massive literature on China in Africa, and over the next few weeks I am going to be posting links to some of the better, more interesting resources in that regard. This particular Brookings conference paper, which frames a “trilateral” dialogue between the US, China, and Africa, is thought-provoking piece. Africa’s challenges are certainly large enough that they must be addressed by the locals and the world’s two largest powers, and even then, there is no guarantee that they would be addressed.

Despite points of light like South Africa, the continent seems to have fallen into something of a holding pattern. Progress remains, well, moderately paced. Poverty, AIDS, environmental degradation, and politics that put Byzantium to shame offer China a fertile field for political and commercial engagement, but the problems that hold the continent down remain intractable.

You could start a good fight at a cocktail party in Beijing by suggesting that China is just the latest boot on the collective neck of the people in Africa. Yes, the assertion is hyperbolic, but it raise the question of whether Beijing’s engagement has been any better for the people of Africa than colonial exploitation or the misguided foreign aid regime promulgated by the US since the 1960s. Indeed, a read through this paper offers the unappealing suggestion that just as we in the west are questioning the value of aid, China is doubling down on handouts. China, it seems, has not learned much about what works in Africa since its own ill-fated ventures there in the 1960s. If what China is practicing in Africa is not some variety of mercantilist neocolonialism, I would be pleased to know what to call it.

And the US is no white hat, here. In fact, it is starting to look like we have already passed the high-water mark of engagement with Africa beyond the ongoing terrorist hunt. The Obama-Hegel review of defense spending makes it apparent that the Department of Defense will gut the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the coming years, and I would bet on the DoD standing down the command before 2020. As it must be: given the resources available the US is arguably best off returning to a hemispheric strategy, allowing Beijing (and possibly Delhi) to fall into the Imperial Overreach trap.

As recent events in Libya and Mali demonstrate, Europe remains better positioned historically and otherwise to engage in Africa than the US. But ongoing economic issues – and Russia’s growing adventurism – means that the focus of European defense will most likely shift east again, even if the economies of Europe and Africa become increasingly interlocked through immigration and trade.

The real story for Africa will be how to balance the growing influence of China with that of India. The Middle East, while the destination of many African exports, is (as Europe) set on its own Via Dolorosa as the politics of the region evolve. India and China, with robust economies and growing competition, look to be the next players in the African Great Game.

The question now is what form that great game will take. Brookings is appropriately concerned that the continent will become increasingly dependent on its emerging market trading partners. The nations of Africa need political stability, economic growth, and a population able to spend money. Those things will not happen if Africa once again finds itself on the wrong end of a mercantile economy, in particular if corrupt elites and bureaucracies can lean on their opportunistic Chinese and Indian patrons for support.

China’s Assertiveness: Seven Years in the Making (At least)

Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics? Reading and Re-Reading China’s 2006 Defense White Paper
Mike Metcalf
NI Press
September 2011

Flag ~ China - People's Liberation Army

Flag ~ China – People’s Liberation Army (Photo credit: e r j k p r u n c z y k)

Mike Metcalf, a member of the faculty at the National Intelligence University in the US, has spent a lot of time parsing China’s seminal 2006 Defense White Paper. China has issued such signalling documents in the past. What distinguishes this one, according to Metcalf, is that it points Beijing toward a national security posture that goes beyond territorial defense.

In the publication, Metcalf provides his own overview of the white paper, then offers two translations of the analysis of the paper by the man considered its pricipal drafter, Dr. Chen Zhou of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, as well as Metcalf’s own analyses of Dr. Chen’s point of view.

It is a rare treat to have an informed and scholarly discussion on Chinese source material made available in a format the rest of us can digest. All the more so given that the import of this book is to prove that China’s assertive nationalism is not a product of Xi Jinping’s making, but something that has been in the works for nearly a decade. As such, it is hard to expect this direction to be fleeting: we are looking at what is likely to be a lasting trend in Chinese international relations.

Prospects for the Shanghai FTZ

The Role of Economic Development Zones in National Development Strategies: The Case of China by Wang Xiao is a doctoral dissertation submitted to the Pardee Rand Graduate School. The author takes a methodical, data-driven approach to determine the extent to which economic development zones actually helped China’s development, when they did so, when they were less helpful, and what makes for more effective zones. The conclusions offer a hint as to the prospects for Shanghai’s much-ballyhooed Free Trade Zone to help in China’s search for an economic second wind.

For the PLA, Has War Already Begun?

“China’s ‘Three Warfares’ and India”
Abhijit Singh
Journal of Defence Studies
October-December 2013
pp. 27-46

Cymraeg: Sun Tzu. mwl: Sun Tzu. Português: Sun...

Sun Tzu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The author, who is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, offers up a highly readable paper with a fascinating proposition: China is already at war with India.

Singh calls out what he calls China’s “Three Warfares” (3Ws) strategy, by which China wages war against an adversary by influencing public opinion, conducting psychological operations, and laying the legal groundwork to support its territorial claims. The PLA, through “work regulations” issued in 2010, is now focusing that effort on India.

It does not demand much effort to see that China is pursuing the same approach in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. What is disturbing is that this effort is not directed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but by the PLA. This is not diplomacy as far as the Party is concerned: this is asymmetrical warfare.

The paper is a fascinating, short, and essential read for those looking to understand China’s near-abroad foreign policy, and who inside of Beijing’s guarded compounds is actually running the show.

The PLA’s Political War

The People’s Liberation Army General Political Department: Political Warfare with Chinese Characteristics, by Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao, offers look at how the PLA has updated its doctrine of political warfare to target not just Taiwan, but countries all around the world. The book also examines how the PLA’s General Political Department/Liaison Department engages in political warfare, and why the GPD/LD should not be lumped together with China’s intelligence apparatus.

China’s Cloud

We have made the point often and publicly that China wants to create its own, separate cloud for both commercial and security reasons. The United States – China Economic and Security Review Commission gets that, and commissioned Defense Group, Inc. to study why China is creating its own cloud and how it is doing it. The result is Red Cloud Rising: Cloud Computing in China. Much to my personal pleasure, the study vindicates my point of view, but it goes further, assessing the impacts to US security and the economy, and making recommendations as to what th US needs to do about it. As with many such efforts, it is not a casual read, but a scan of the text offers interesting nuggets aplenty.

Not Enough for the Navy

Retired Naval War College professor Marshall Hoyler reviews Aaron Friedberg‘s A Contest for Supremacy; China America, and the Struggle for Supremacy in Asia, seeing the work as an extended case to support long-range procurement of expensive Navy and Air Force weapons programs. Hoyler, a navalist, acknowledges that Friedberg makes some good points. However, he suggests that if this is all the technical services have to offer for an argument to defund the ground-pounders in favor of jets and ships, then both services are in trouble.

How Deep are China’s Investments in the Carribbean?

English: Map of the Caribbean by the CIA World...

Map of the Caribbean from the CIA World Factbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China’s Rising Investment Profile in the Caribbean:
Richard L. Bernal
Inter American Dialogue Economics Brief
October 2013

While we hear a lot about China’s focus on Latin America, especially Peru, Chile, Venezuela, and Cuba, you don’t read quite as much about China’s efforts in the Caribbean Basin at large. that is starting to change.

In this paper, Richard Bernal, former Jamaican ambassador to the United States and a permanent representative to the Organization of American States, is largely symathetic to China. He notes that investing in small island republics is probably not as attractive to China as plays on the Latin American Mainland, and statistics back him up. Chinese mining companies have already pledged over $7 billion in direct investment to Per, but total investment in the 13 nations in the Caribbean, including Cuba, has been a comparatively paltry $2.6 billion since 2003.

Bernal admonishes regional leaders that they must work harder to make their countries more attractive to Chinese investment. He’s right, of course, but one wonders whether state leaders in the Caribbean all share Bernal’s implicit optimism about the upside of Chinese FDI.

Hardball on the Water

“How the U.S. Should Respond to the Chinese Naval Challenge,” Dean Cheng’s policy brief for the Heritage Foundation, offers few original policy recommendations, (“fully fund the Navy’s shipbuilding program, invest in strong R&D, strengthen ties with allies, and uninvite China to RIMPAC“) and does not even begin to address the fiscal or diplomatic impacts of the ideas it offers. It does, however, present a clear case for playing a game in the region that the Chinese will understand – and respect. The soft approach won’t work with China, Cheng asserts. Time to play hardball. Tell that to the crew of the USS Cowpens – they’ll say that’s exactly what they’re doing.

SSQ: Can We Get Along?

Strategic Studies Quarterly, volume 7, number 4. The Air Force is, unsurprisingly, increasingly fascinated with China, and we reap the benefits again in the Winter 2013 installment of the journal. The lead article asks whether China and the US are looking at an inevitable conflict, or greater cooperation. An op/ed by a retired Air Force lieutenant general delves into whether and how China can join the world’s nuclear arms control regime. Finally, the University of Michigan’s Philip Potter delves into the roots of terrorism in China, and how it is changing China’s approach to security.

Africa Three-Way

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, Africa and China is the proceedings of a private conference organized in Beijing by the Africa Growth Initiative and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, with the Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The question was whether there was room for cooperation between the three sides to address Africa’s challenges. The conference identified common interests. Will that be enough to drive cooperation?

China’s Military Build-Up

If you haven’t come across Breakout, Reuters’ series on China’s evolving defense posture, treat yourself – it will be worth your time. The series – which will ultimately reach eight parts in total – is not a primer as much as it is a focus on eight different aspects of China’s rise, sort of like a Robert Kaplan book. My favorite piece so far, “The Chinese Navy Dismembers Japan,” focuses on Maneuver 5, a large-scale exercise involving much of the PLAN designed to simulate a showdown between the PLAN and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Losing our Sinocism

Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius.

Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began covering China and writing a monthly newsletter in the early 1990s (the long-gone and unmourned “China Business and Economic Review,”) daily coverage of the region was scant and very general. As late as 1996, I was able to keep a weekly clippings file on all China coverage in the mainstream english media. (I did this with scissors, glue, and manila folders.)

Things have changed. Coverage of China has exploded, and keeping up with it all is a job I now leave to professional clipping services. But those services, whatever their virtues, do not give me or anyone an idea of what in this avalanche of copy is important, or how it all fits together.

For the past 18 months, Bill Bishop has tried to do that and more with his outstanding Sinocism newsletter. Fluent in Chinese and able to read through both the mass of English and Chinese coverage, Bill has provided a daily roundup of all of the news worth reading on China, curating all sources, clustering them as topics, and adding his own thoughtful annotations that put everyting into context.

For many of us, his was a vital resource. We stepped out into the day fortified with at least a feel for how things were going in China, all without having to slog through our RSS feeds or a stack of newspapers. Given how fast things move in China, that daily feel for the market was a lifeline for those of us whose jobs depend on knowing what is going on.

Today that all ends.

Despite having over 14,000 email subscribers, such a tiny percentage of those readers actually paid the paltry $5 per month for the service that Bill could not make a go of it. Bill has folded the daily publication, returned any prepaid subscription fees (did I mention he’s a mensch on top of everything else?), and out of pure passion has gone to a weekly publication.

China is a vexing place, I suspect no less for Chinese than for those of us born in parts far flung from the People’s Republic.
No single viewpoint will ever be sufficient to understand this complex place. But to lose the glasses provided by an astute observer like Bill Bishop is a mighty loss indeed.

I hope he will find some other way to continue his service, and that more of us will see fit to dig deep and support it. I fear, however, that Bill is destined to have his insights privatized and put to work for a small coterie of wealth managers and high net worth clients.

He would only be continuing a trend. One by one, the wiser heads on China have been snapped up by organizations willing to pay them for their insights. In the process, they have either slowed their published sharing, curtailed it, or placed it behind a paywall. Those wise heads receive the compensation they richly deserve. We, on the other hand, are left at a growing disadvantage to those of greater means.

This is something for us to contemplate the next time a Bill Bishop comes along. We can either shell out to support wisdom and insight, or we can lose out to those who will.

Toward a More Humane PLA

The PLA and International Humanitarian Law: Achievements and Challenges
Lt. Col. Wang Wenjuan
Institute for Security and Development Policy
Stockholm
October 2013

English: A Chinese soldier with the People's L...

English: A Chinese soldier with the People’s Liberation Army waits to assist with American and Chinese delegation’s traffic at Shenyang training base, China, March 24, 2007. Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even leaving aside the tragic events of June 1989, speaking of the humanitarian record of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seems almost an oxymoron. We simply do not think of the PLA in those terms.

Wang Wenjuan does, though, and in her paper she makes a clear case that China’s military leaders are at least going through the motions. She documents the understanding international humanitarian law (IHL) at the highest levels of command, the degree to which it is integrated into PLA training and indoctrination programs, and the fact that the PLA is even engaged in “research” into humanitarian law.

What matters, of course, is the behavior of the force on the battlefield and in the administration of areas captured and occupied in combat, or areas administered under a peacekeeping mandate. In the two decades during which Wang suggests that the PLA has been in compliance with IHL, the force has never faced a true test of its resolve. And there lies the rub.

In language designed carefully not to place her career in jeopardy, LTC Wang makes clear that more effort is needed to ensure that the PLA behaves in the field according to its professed ideals. History has proven that this is a tall order even for the armed forces of democratic powers (Amritsar, My Lai, and Abu Ghraib, for example.) The PLA has much to prove, and Wang understands that the PLA has a long way to go before it can face such a test.

The PLAN and Mahan

Alfred thayer mahan

China’s new strategist? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is no coincidence that the officers of the Chinese navy have taken to studying the writings of American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and in particular his 1890 opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1773. That Mahan’s thesis – that countries with greater naval power will have greater global influence – strikes a chord with these officers is understandable: China’s navy has been the nation’s junior service since long before the revolution, and the Sino-sailors would probably like that to end. (The official name of the force alone is testament to the naval arm’s third-class status: “People’s Liberation Army Navy.” Cue sympathetic cringe.)

But there is more to this than inter-service rivalry. What makes their fascination important to note is that it reflects a much deeper change in China. Mahan’s focus on control of commerce by sea is cut to fit a nation that is increasingly dependent on inputs from abroad and manufactured exports. Consider the facts:

  • China’s most developed regions lie on or near the coast or its major riverine arteries. In an age of standoff weapons, defending those shores needs to take place far from shore.
  • Despite huge investments in domestic road, air, and rail transport, coastwise shipping still carries a huge percentage of China’s internal trade. Unlike the US, China faces other nations across its coastal seas, some of which are latently hostile;
  • Fishing and aquaculture are becoming more important to the nation’s effort to feed itself, but the defilement of coastal fisheries by pollution and toxic runoff has forced the nation’s fishing fleet to range well beyond coastal waters;
  • China can no longer feed itself, finding itself thus increasingly dependent on the flow of foodstuffs arriving by sea from Canada, Australia, Africa, and the U.S.
  • China is becoming increasingly dependent on energy from abroad. While a good portion of that is from Eurasia (think Iran and Iraq,) regional instability makes overland shipment impractical.
  • Many of China’s key industries are reliant on from inputs from abroad. Some comes by air, but minerals and commodities flow in by sea.

Look at that list carefully, and you realize that as the PRC emerges from its underdevelopment and its generation-long stint as the world’s factory floor, it has become something different. It is now looking more like the US in the late 19th century and Japan in the early-mid 20th century than many of us recognize. China is now a mercantilist economy.

Xi Jinping gets the implications. Zach Keck at The Diplomat quotes Chinese state media summarizing part of one of the president’s recent speeches in a tone that nearly apes Mahan word-for-word: “In the 21st Century, oceans and seas have and seas have an increasingly important role to play in a country’s economic development and opening up to the outside world.”

China has been – and remains – a continental power focused on its long land frontiers. It is across those borders that have come nearly all of its historic enemies, with the notable exception of the European powers during the declining days of the Qing empire. But that history is not destiny. China is more dependent on the outside world today than it ever has been, and that realization cannot but focus the minds of China’s leaders and defenders as they start to understand the new importance of coastal defense, sea frontiers, and protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

Recognizing necessity, The PRC has set itself on the course to become a maritime power. The last Asian nation to set itself on a Mahanian course was Japan. Anyone interested in understanding where China and Asia are headed could do worse than read Mahan, if not his books, than his more readable journal articles.

Friday Special: The FBI Investigation Manual

English: The Seal of the United States Federal...

English: The Seal of the FBI. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manual of Investigative Operations and Guidelines (MIOG)

I’m on a plane somewhere over the Pacific at the moment, but thought I would share this.

From the wonderful people over at the Black Vault, without question one of the world’s top two sources of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, the complete Manual of Investigative Operations and Guidelines used as the core textbook by the FBI.

Hold onto your hats if you decide to start downloading – the manual is some 3,700 pages long and will comfortably occupy a little over 180mb of storage. But if you are a serious otaku or just really curious, this is a little treasure.

What the World Thinks about China and the US

America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s
Pew Global Attitudes Project

July 18, 2013

The Pew Research Center has released the full text and backup materials for a report that the Center interprets as saying that the US is still largely seen in a better light than China worldwide.

The entire report is worth a read, but I came away with a few interesting tidbits after diving into the data a bit.

There are chunks of Asia that view China more favorably than others, and that view the US more favorably. Distance, it seems, lends enchantment: Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, and Australians prefer the US, while the Indonesians, Malaysians, and Pakistanis favor China. The reasons for these preferences are likely complex, but they hint at the possible emergence of rival spheres of influence in the region.

It is also fascinating that the nations preferring China are predominantly Muslim. This gets even more interesting when you note that China is viewed far more favorably than the US in the Middle East – and in no other region. At first blush, China seems to have avoided Muslim approbation for its handling of its Uighur population. At the same time, the comparison is deceiving. Diving into the data, it is clear that the people of the Mideast are divided at best over whether China is a positive or negative influence.

One other matter that caught the eye was that Europeans believe that China is already the world’s dominant economy, but the rest of the world agrees that China has not yet passed the US. Again, divining reasons for such perceptions is difficult, but recent Chinese dollar diplomacy in the EU could not have hurt.

The report is available for free download, but for those without a lot of time, there is a slideshow available for a quick peruse.

India and Japan Grow Closer

The Expanding Indo-Japanese Partnership”
K.V. Kesavan

East-West Center
July 10, 2013

K.V. Kesavan of the Woodrow Wilson Center writes that the growing institutional ties between Japan and India lay the groundwork for closer economic, political and even military ties. No doubt China will be less than happy to hear it.

Why TPP is Not a Four-Letter Word

Strategic Implications of TPP: Answering the Critics”
Ellen Frost
East-West Center 

July 9, 2013

The East-West Center’s Ellen West explains how TPP is a good thing not only for Japan and Korea, but for the entire region. In so doing she explains – concisely – why we shouldn’t be worried about Beijing’s reaction to the treaty.

Do U.S. Overtures to ASEAN Matter?

English: A screen shot from this White House v...

President Obama attends a working lunch with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations around the United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“US-ASEAN Relations: Advances Made But Challenges Remain”
Prashanth Parameswaran
East-West Center
December 13, 2012

As a part of his “grand pivot tour” last fall, Barack Obama engaged with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in an effort to rejuvenate ties that had gone fallow for nearly a decade and a half.

While progress was made, as the author of this paper points out, the bigger questions are the continuing relevance of both the U.S. and ASEAN to the futures of the nations in the region. Regional trade ties are supplanting both Europe and the United States in economic importance. The U.S. realistically does not have a lot of diplomatic bandwidth for the region. And in the face of a series of more relevant groupings, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP,) ASEAN is starting to look dated, much as SEATO became in the wake of the fall of South Vietnam.

All of this complicates U.S. foreign policy, but it plays into the hands of a China looking to define Asia outside the grasp of the United States, Russia, and Europe. For the first time since the Second World War, then, the region is starting to wonder what it needs America for in the first place. Perhaps it is time the U.S. began reassessing our own interests in the region.

Pushing Away from Peace

An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century
Dan Blumenthal and Phillip Swagel
AEI Press
November, 2012

As the friction between Beijing and Washington simmers, we assume that China bears the heaviest responsibility in the decline of the relationship. Dan Blumenthal and Phillip Swagel of the American Enterprise Institute aren’t buying the easy answer. Instead, they dive into what makes the Sino-American relationship works. What they find is unsettling: two giants locked in an embrace in which neither is comfortable, yet that neither can break.

For the authors, the economic ties hold the key to continued peace, or, by their decline, the cause of war. In an article in The National Interest, Blumenthal and Swagel note:

A dispute that upended this web of trade and financial ties would have serious negative consequences for both nations. For the United States, this would lead to higher prices for everything made in China—which at times feels like nearly everything—and steeper interest rates on debt for business and government. These negative impacts would be felt by every American. For China, the loss of the United States as a major export market would mean weaker growth and slower job creation, and thus undermine political and social stability. This instability is the ruling party’s nightmare and thus the source of leverage for the United States.

Ironically, we are urging China to take steps for its economy that will make it less dependent on foreign direct investment and exports. At the same time, we are finding more reasons, both commercial and economic, to shift the locus of our manufacturing away from China. Finally, with a few notable exceptions, we are making it clear to China that America’s assets are not for sale – at least not to them.

Without realizing it, then, we are weakening the regime of economic and commercial codependency that has been the primary guarantee of peace between the two nations. And we are doing so even as China faces domestic instability, reaches an apogee of military power and diplomatic influence, and is stoking nationalist belligerence.

Blumenthal and Swagel have crafted a poignant portrait of Sino-American interdependence. In the process, they remind us of the danger of proferring simplistic solutions to the challenges that plague this key relationship. The more Washington and Beijing let domestic politics guide international relations, the closer they bring conflict.

Also at Amazon.com.

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.