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.

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.

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.

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.

 

The Philippines and American credibility.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” These are the words of the Philippines president announcing his “separation” from the United States. A large part of the recent Philippine separation can be explained by the personality of its leader. The man makes Trump look like Winston Churchill. For a list of Duterte greatest hits, see here. Although the statement has been qualified, the “separation” is alarming for the United States and its allies as the bilateral alliance is the bedrock of the American strategy for achieving South East Asian stability. The defection of the Philippines, however, may not be particular to its leader but a consequence of diminished American credibility and the inability to clearly define US foreign policy objectives.

With the Syrian red line, the lament for the ruin of American credibility is rife. See here, here, here, and here. Credibility has an unflattering history in American foreign policy. President Obama complained of the “fetish” for credibility and how it results in “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” In the most notorious example of credibility being pathological, the United States waged what most agree was a meaningless war in Vietnam largely to maintain credibility.

The United States is suffering from a lack of credibility amongst our South East Asian allies, but Syria is not the root cause. The academic literature points to states evaluating their opponents power and interests when judging the credibility of their statements. So backing down from a Middle East quagmire wouldn’t reduce the credibility of the United States in the Far East as the US doesn’t have any strategic or economic interest in the civil war. The lack of American credibility in the Far East results from our inability to clearly state our vision for the region and to successfully implement our stated policies.

Asia is on the cusp of a reorientation of the regional “rules” with a revisionist China offering the middle powers an alternative to the American lead order. What China proposes is something modeled on their past “Sinocentric” tribute system although updated to include modern intuitions such as international financial banks and foreign direct investment. China has the final say on non-domestic regional politics and will not limit its use of power and economic leverage against those who disagree. An obvious example is China’s behavior in the South China Sea. But members of the China led order are offered a deep respect for state sovereignty and China wouldn’t take issue with the tactics used in the drug war of a neighbor. The American order is just the opposite. The United States will largely refrain from great power politics with the regional players yet will involve itself in their domestic matters from time to time. This approach takes shape as a hub and spoke alliance network and multilateral trade agreements. Increasingly, the middle powers are being pressured to choose which camp they are in, the separation being one example of a regional actor defecting from the US.

Why did the Philippines separate from the US? The vital element of the American order is whether or not the region thinks the US staying power is reliable. China does not need to convince any of the regional actors that China is not going anywhere. America does and American credibility for remaining committed to the region is suspect. The sources for the lack for credibility are varied including the failure of congress to approve TPP, the republican nomination of someone who openly complains and questions the wisdom of our regional alliances and the Obama doctrine itself. There never appeared to be any organizing principle of the Obama doctrine but series of ad hoc and inconsistent policy prescriptions. The signature Obama policy in Asia is the pivot which is itself contradictory, attempting to both economically engage China yet militarily contain them. Most actors are left wondering what exactly the US intends for the region and how committed they are towards pursuing whatever goals those are. It’s clear that China’s rise alarms the region and that most members prefer the benign hegemony of America to the great power politics of China. But with the staying power of the US questionable combined with the perception that the Untied States is a declining power, it isn’t surprising that Duterte would take advantage of the political leverage created by the recent diplomatic row with President Obama to bandwagon with China.

The Far East, Perceptions, and Internal Balancing.

Tensions in the Far East are high. China is, apparently, engaging in traditional geopolitics in the South China Sea building artificial military outposts, increasing their troop and hardware presence, and making territorial claims on disputed international waters. What motivates this behavior? Much commentary on the issue discusses Chinas behavior as driven by economics (fishery and energy resources) or political (just the natural power grab of a rising nation). Both explanations can be simultaneously true, but my interpretation is that this behavior is motivated by the logic of threat balancing. The balancing is internal (shifting resources within a state versus external which entails building alliances). The threat China is balancing against is the United States.

How is the United States a threat?

Two ways. One is the general American pursuit of political transformation of foreign lands. During the Cold War, US foreign policy was mostly, but not entirely, focused on the containment and deterrence of Soviet communism. Since 1989, the United States foreign policy has been mostly designed to do one of two things. The first is power projection. The second is the political transformation of other states. The original designs of the post WWII foreign policy were framed as a matter of national security. The dual policies of containment and determent were intended to prevent encroachment of the USSR into areas considered strategic to American security. But whereas during the Cold War the United States was interested in the domestic political arrangements of foreign states as a matter of halting communist expansion, post Cold War policy has largely been geared towards re-engineering the political arrangements of foreign states so to spread western values. China is balancing against the American assertion that “China is on the wrong side of history.” Attempts to nudge China towards liberalism has been embedded in trade agreements, hosting the Dalai Lama, and other soft power initiatives like its annual Human Rights report on China. From the regimes perspective, all of these measures are an attempt to curtail their control and weaken the communist party’s ability to govern.

The second perception of threat is the US pivot. The pivot is a series of diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives that renew American focus on the Pacific. It is generally packaged as the recognition that the future of politics will be decided in Asia and that to be relevant the US must deepen its presence in the area. Yet the pivot isn’t a regional policy as much as it is Chinese policy. From TPP to the lifting of the Vietnamese arms embargo, nearly all associated policies appear designed to contain China. Despite how often the United States assures China that the pivot is not about China but the region, China considers the pivot as a direct attempt of the United States to keep China from becoming a regional hegemon. Add the pivot associated policies with the already substantial US troop presence in the area and its not difficult to understand why China would feel the need to balance.

Americans would do well to consider that this is China’s back yard and that, starting with the Monroe doctrine, we do not tolerate foreign adventurism in our neighborhood. We view the American presence in the Far East as largely benign but, China views America as “a man with a criminal record “wandering just outside the gate of a family home.”” The South China Sea is their Caribbean and we shouldn’t be surprised when our meddling in that area is met with an aggressive response from China. We may be alarmed by the militarization of reefs and the obnoxious territorial claims of the nine dash nine line, but China’s behavior mimics the behavior of a threatened state.