Chinese-American tensions in the South China Sea.

China also established its first overseas military base, conveniently located in Djibouti, near a valuable global shipping lane and just four miles from a U.S. installation. In addition, Chinese warships have been popping up all over the globe, including near Alaska, Japan, and Australia. While their movement thus far has been through international waters, and therefore not in violation of any international law, it is a clear sign of China’s desire to be taken seriously as a global military power. Too bad Beijing doesn’t respect that same right when other countries attempt to exercise their freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas.

and there is this as well.

There is a slight cause for optimism on this front. An exclusive story from Breitbart last week claims the White House has approved a proposed plan crafted by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to conduct regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, or FONOPs. According to an anonymous U.S. official, Mattis wants to change the nature of conducting FONOPs. Instead of sending discrete requests to the National Security Council each time the U.S. Navy plans such an operation, he allegedly outlined a schedule for conducting them regularly throughout the rest of the year.

 

Carrying out FONOPs is a good way to challenge Beijing’s claims on the high seas. Despite China’s aggressive provocation, the Obama administration put an end to FONOPs from 2012 to 2015, and only conducted three in 2016 out of fear of upsetting Beijing (because appeasing a revanchist power always turns out so well). So far this year, the Trump administration has carried out three FONOPs and clearly has plans for several more. Let’s hope the Breitbart story is accurate and these become much more frequent as the year wears on.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Course Correction: How to Stop China’s Maritime Advance

Here is one piece

U.S. policymakers should recognize that China’s behavior in the sea is based on its perception of how the United States will respond. The lack of U.S. resistance has led Beijing to conclude that the United States will not compromise its relationship with China over the South China Sea. As a result, the biggest threat to the United States today in Asia is Chinese hegemony, not great-power war. U.S. regional leadership is much more likely to go out with a whimper than with a bang.

here is another

For the same reason, U.S. President Donald Trump’s idea of reviving President Ronald Reagan’s strategy of “peace through strength” by beefing up the U.S. military will not hold China back on its own. The problem has never been that China does not respect U.S. military might. On the contrary, it fears that it would suffer badly in a war with the United States. But China also believes that the United States will impose only small costs for misdeeds that stop short of outright aggression. No matter how many more warships, fighter jets, and nuclear weapons the United States builds, that calculus will not change.

The publication is Foreign Affairs. I disagree with most of what the author has to say but the piece is well written and worth a read.

You can read the rest here.

History With Chinese Characteristics

Xi’s narrative of rejuvenation has resonated deeply among today’s Chinese. It places the country not only at the center of the international system but also above it, casting the nation as one that inspires emulation by the force of its advanced culture and economic achievements. It also evokes historical memories of a time when China received tribute from the rest of the world, was a source of world-class innovation, and was a fearless seafaring power. And it implies that in the past, China did not need to use force: its virtue alone engendered deference from others.

The subtile of the article is How China’s Imagined Past Shapes its Present and the author is Elizabeth Economy. You can read the rest here.

What Does Xi Jinping Want?

According to Graham Allison, he wants

How will Xi “make China great again”?  After studying the man, listening to his words, and speaking to those who understand him best, I believe for Xi this means:

  • Returning China to the predominance it enjoyed in Asia before the West intruded;
  • Reestablishing control over the territories the Communist Party considers to be “greater China,” including not just Xinjiang and Tibet on the mainland, but Hong Kong and Taiwan;
  • Recovering its historic sphere of influence along its borders and in the adjacent seas so that others give it the deference great nations have always demanded;
  • Commanding the respect of other great powers in the councils of the world.

and then notes

At the core of these national goals is a civilizational creed that sees China as the center of the universe. In the Chinese language, the word for China, zhong guo (中国), means “Middle Kingdom.” “Middle” refers not to the space between other, rival kingdoms, but to all that lies between heaven and earth. As Lee summarized the worldview shared by hundreds of Chinese officials who sought his advice, they “recall a world in which China was dominant and other states related to them as supplicants to a superior, as vassals that came to Beijing bearing tribute.” In this narrative, the rise of the West in recent centuries is a historical anomaly, reflecting China’s technological and military weakness when it faced dominant imperial powers during a “century of humiliation” from roughly 1839 to 1949. Xi Jinping has promised his fellow citizens: no more.

This is from a May 2017 and you can read the rest here.

Why America should withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for over 16 years. As of this writing, America has approximately 8,500 troops there now, mostly regulated to an advisory role. The Trump administration is reportedly sending an additional 4,000 American troops to theater while authorizing the Pentagon to send more if it deems it necessary.

Why exactly are American troops still in Afghanistan? After the twin towers fell, America launched Operation Enduring Freedom with two objectives. One was to destroy al-Qaeda and their terror camps. The other was to punish any organizations that supported the terrorist network which, after they failed to turn over al-Qaeda’s leadership, included the Taliban.

That was in 2001. Since then, the mission in Afghanistan has gradually grown into a state building project. This change in objective was a consequence of the post-9/11 consensus that ungoverned spaces were a threat to American security. In order to keep America safe from terrorism, it was essential that America build a functional and democratic state in Afghanistan.

When evaluating American progress on the task of state building, the metrics are dismal. For starters, a sizeable portion of Afghanistan is either under Taliban rule or contested. As of February 2017, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates that the American supported Afghan government has no control of 40 percent of Afghanistan. The remaining 60 percent of the country is under the command of the democratically elected government but it is clear that it is not being properly governed. Corruption and abuse of power is utterly rampant. Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the third most corrupt state in 2015, the World Bank’s Control of Corruption and Ease of Doing Business ranks Afghanistan 186 out of 190 for both “dealing with construction permits” and “registering property,” and when surveyed by The Asian Foundation, approximately 90 percent of Afghans responded that corruption was a problem in daily life.

Considering that this is what 783 billion dollars and 20,000 American casualties gets the American public, America should determine if it makes sense to escalate America’s longest war.

It is not clear that it does.

For one, al-Qaeda has had a safe haven in Pakistan. Up until his death, Usama Bin Laden had been managing the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda from what some have referred to as the West Point of Pakistan. In his 2015 work The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qa’ida to ISIS, former CIA official Mike Morell writes “Before the raid we’d thought that Bin Ladin’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was running the organization on a day-to-day basis, essentially the CEO of al Qa’ida, while Bin Ladin was the group’s ideological leader, its chairman of the board. But the DOCEX showed something quite different. It showed that Bin Ladin himself had not only been managing the organization from Abbottabad, he had been micromanaging it.” Other core leadership of the terror network have either been killed in Pakistan or suspected of residing there. Al-Qaeda’s presence has become so influential in their post 9/11 home that some even suggest that we have seen the “Pakistanization” of al-Qaeda.

Even if American attempts to eliminate al-Qaeda in Pakistan were successful, it is not even clear that the more dangerous branch of al-Qaeda is in Southern Asia. Under pressure from American drone strikes and special operations, al-Qaeda has become decentralized with arguable more threatening branches emerging in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Writing for The Washington Institute, Aaron Y. Zelin noted that “In many ways, the center of gravity for al-Qaeda has shifted from the AfPak region more to Yemen, Syria, and even Libya…” All three states are essentially ungoverned and if state building in Afghanistan is vital for American security then we should also pursue a similar strategy in these areas.

The truth is that despite having safe harbor in parts of Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Northern Africa, al-Qaeda has not been able to manage another successful terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. Their failure to do so is because of an aggressive anti-terrorist strategy consisting of drone strikes, special operation raids, enhanced intelligence, and the multiple layers of homeland security established after 9/11. Fighting the Taliban and building a government in Afghanistan had little to do with this.

American priorities are mixed up. Washington is sending American men and women to defend a corrupt and self-serving government against an organization that has no larger goal beyond ridding their homeland of Americans. At this point the Taliban are not fighting for a restoration of an Islamic emirate but to expel foreign forces. Therefore, increasing the number of foreign fighters should only be expected to intensify the conflict. The main mission of al-Qaeda, however, has not changed which is to restore a “true” Islamic government in the Middle East. This goal is pursued by committing acts of terrorism against the United States. Al-Qaeda should therefore be defeated yet fighting the Taliban in order to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven when the organization already has several doesn’t seem logical. Instead of sending more Americans in harm’s way to defend a government whose democratically elected Vice President is currently on the run for torturing a political rival, the United States should seek a power sharing agreement with the Taliban and not worry so much about what style of government it leaves behind in Afghanistan.

The Afghan money pit

A recent NYT piece reports

The United States spent up to $28 million more than it had to on camouflage uniforms for the Afghan National Army because of the sartorial tastes of a single Afghan official, an American government watchdog said on Wednesday.

report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstructionfound that the Pentagon needlessly spent millions to license a proprietary camouflage pattern that replicates lush forests. Most of Afghanistan’s landscape, however, is desert, and the Defense Department owns dozens of similar patterns it could have used free, the report said.

“They picked the pattern based on a fashion preference, not by experts, but by the minister of defense,” said John F. Sopko, the special inspector general. “That was a dumb decision.”

And we are sending 4,000 of America’s best and brightest to defend this lot.

Utterly unbelievable.

China as a Rising Power Versus the US-led World Order

That is the title of Suisheng Zhao’s short but informative piece.

Here is the abstract.

Although a rising China is not a status quo power content to preserve and emplace the US-led world order, it is not yet a revolutionary power discontented with and willing to undermine the existing order. Not only is China far from the position to overtake the US power, it has not articulated distinctive values to underwrite the world order. China is a reformist/revisionist power, dissatis ed not with the current order but its position in the order.

You can read the rest here.

On a different yet related note, in Zhao’s footnotes I was directed to David Cowhig’s Translation Blog, a translation blog from Chinese to English or what looks like mainland publications. Very much appreciated service and a Web site I expect to consult often.

Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics.

I argue that these conclusions are premature. China’s grand strategy is clearly aimed at supplanting the United States as the dominant military power in East Asia. But this alone does not mean that Chinese and American interests are incompatible. The real question is what China plans to do with its emerging regional preponderance.

 

Would China use its hegemony to maintain an economically open, institutionalized, and rule-based regional order, even if one that is tilted in its own favor? Or would it seek to fundamentally overthrow these decades-old rules and norms in ways that effectively exclude outside economic engagement and threaten the territorial integrity of America’s regional allies?

 

If the latter, then the costs and risks of a more confrontational policy of “containing” China’s rise may be justified. If the former, then Chinese regional hegemony is perfectly compatible with America’s substantive interests, and may even help reduce the burden of the United States’ expansive global commitments. To date, there are surprisingly few indications that a Chinese-led regional order would be antithetical to core American interests in the region.

The author is Kyle Haynes and you can read the full version at the Diplomat.

My only disagreement with the piece is that he implies that Taiwan is an American core interest. It is not and the balance of interest is vastly in favor of China on this interest.

Do we want China to reform?

Moody’s recently downgraded China sovereign debt, a move which was probably overdue.

The article I link to writes that China “has 70 percent more money sloshing around its economy than the United States does, even though the American economy is bigger.”

As well, “More than half of the bank debt in China consists of loans from state-owned banks to state-owned enterprises.”

This isn’t sustainable and is only one aspect of the fragility of the Chinese economy. Other  issues include rising labor costs (making it increasingly difficult to rely on their workhorse model of exporting labor intensive goods), overcapacity, and a still sizeable amount of party corruption.

All of this suggests that China is headed towards an economic crash.

From a security perspective, most analysis I read imply that it is in American interest for the Chinese to reform their economy. The general line of thought is that Chinese economic reforms will help avoid a future economic crash that leads to some sort of nationalist inspired confrontation between China and the regional players (either America or our allies). Yet from a security perspective, if economic power is the best indicator of state power and China is indeed the next and most probable serious contender to America regional hegemony, it’s not clear that America would want China to reform.

For one, all major wars have been the result of an emerging power seeking to reorder its neighborhood to its likening. From Athens and Sparta to Nazi Germany and Europe, the wars that define eras are from not from the emerging powers stagnating but from emerging powers continued rise.

But two, the biggest geopolitical beneficiary of the American financial crisis of 08 was arguable China. It not only gained persuasive power for its style of politics, but from a pure relative power perspective, 2008 was a blessing to China.

Below are IMF data for the GDP based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP) share of world total expressed in percent of world GDP in PPP dollars. This is obviously crude and it’s difficult to know how much of the Chinese growth captured by the data is genuine but the chart is still informative.

 

You can find the data here.

The Chinese and “White left”

That is the new insult being lobbed among China based netizens.

Although the emphasis varies, baizuo (or white left) is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.

You can read more here.