Archive for ‘China’

September 14, 2012

In a Crazy Week, Whither the Security Council?

After a relatively staid August, the last week has been absolutely exhausting in the amount of foreign policy news that has broken. Not a single day has gone by without some major turn of event happening, in literally every corner of the globe. Peace has been breached in several instances and death counts reported in several of the crises that have sprung up.

Throughout all of this, what has the United Nations Security Council been doing? The Council is, after all, supposed to be the arbiter of the use of force and the protector of international peace and security. So why, in a week of such turmoil, has the Council’s formal agenda for the week’s meetings been so sparse?

The answer is in part that because of the nature of the conflicts at hand the Security Council has no space in which to be an effective, or necessary, player. In other instances, the Council has been seemingly absent, but only because it has literally done all it can short of authorizing force in many of the situations where it has played a role. I’ll run through several of this week’s flare-ups and clarify just why the U.N. has, or hasn’t, taken the actions that it has.


On Monday, Somalia finally managed to lurch out of its transitional phase, with the selection of Hassan Sheikh as President by the newly seated Parliament. The very next day, the al-Shabaab militant group labeled the vote as fraudulent and a “ploy by the West”. Two days into his term in office, President Sheikh was the target of an assassination attempt:

Two of the suicide bombers struck, one near the gate and one at the back of the Jazeera Hotel near the airport as the president was giving a briefing for the news media with the visiting Kenyan foreign minister, Samson K. Ongeri.

Another attacker was shot as he tried to scale the walls of the compound, according to a statement from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

The attack did not interrupt the news conference and the president continued his speech. “This is the Mogadishu we are trying to change,” he said.

Of the many crises that have sprung up in the past few days, none are closer to the Council than Somalia. Indeed, the Security Council has, to put it mildly, been intimately involved with the effort to restore Somalia following its collapse in 1992. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that Mr. Sheikh’s government is replacing had the strong backing of the United Nations writ large.

The Security Council also approved the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to operate under Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter.  In doing so, the Council empowered the African Union to utilize the Council’s Chapter VII use of force provisions in its mission to protect civilians and push back against militants, including those that targeted President Sheik on Wednesday. AMISOM is partially funded and equipped by the United Nations as well.

The mandate of AMISOM was just renewed in February of this year and revised to up the total allowed force to include the forces Kenya sent across the border in October 2011. The election of President Sheikh and the attempt on his life, while both major events in Somalia’s recovery or lack thereof, do little to affect the mission of AMISOM in any way that would require swift Council action. Instead, AMISOM seems to be continuing to protect Mogadishu and its attempts to finally take the port town of Kismayo.

Surprisingly, however, the Security Council has yet to put out a statement, either of the Press or Presidential variety, congratulating Mr. Sheikh nor condemning the attempt on his life. The silence on the matter could be one of tactical silence, due to the overwhelming role that the Council had in supporting the TFG and a desire to not unduly influence the new government. What’s unfortunately more likely, however, is that the passage of such a Statement was deemed a lower priority by the Members of the Council’s missions in the lead-up to the General Assembly. In either case, some word from the Security Council would do away with any notion that Somalia is slipping back into the recesses of the international community’s mind.


The largest news in the United States this week on the foreign policy front has been the attacks on U.S. Embassies and Consulates in various countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These attacks have ranged in size, scale and motive, but have taken the lives of four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. And as of Friday morning, the German and British Embassies have been targeted as well.

The fact of the matter is that these attacks, while particularly heinous, are not the sort of issues that the Security Council deals with directly. Indeed, the question of embassy protection is mostly bilateral in nature and of greater importance to the states in question than the overall maintenance of peace and security. While the attacks, even those in Egypt where no lives were lost, are clear breaches of the Vienna Convention of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, the Council is in no position to act as an enforcer of those provisions. Indeed, any attempt to do more than issue the condemnatory statements against the attacks that it has would be imprudent, save at the unlikely request of one of the countries whose embassies have been sacked.

Anything more the Council can do, it already has. As an example, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was developed in the aftermath of the fall of the Qaddafi regime to provide assistance to the new government in establishing its control of its territory. The Security Council received a briefing by Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffery Feltman on Wednesday, as he was previously scheduled to introduce the most recent UNSMIL report to the members:

“This horrific and tragic attack, together with a spate of assassinations of security personnel in Benghazi, a series of explosive devices in Tripoli, and attacks on Sufi shrines, further emphasizes the security challenge facing the authorities in Libya,” [said Feltman].

In the report itself, the mission highlighted a lack of central control by Tripoli over the many militias still active within Libya and difficulties in bringing the police force up to speed. Also, with the revocation of Resolution 1973’s authorization for countries to use force in Libya for “civilian protection”, any new authorization will have to get through a new vote on the Council, the likelihood of which is somewhere between slim and nil.

Likewise, in Yemen, the Security Council passed Resolutions 2014 and 2051 in 2011 and 2012 respectively to push a political transition in Yemen that would facilitate a changeover from former President Saleh’s regime. Outside of the Council, the Secretary-General appointed as his Special Representative for Yemen Jamal Benomar. SRSG Benomar was due to have been in Sana’a on Wednesday; it’s unknown if he was still in the capital during the protests at the U.S. Embassy, but it will be interesting to hear his next briefing. In any case, there is no useful role the Council could have taken in this incident.

As for Egypt and Sudan, in the former the United Nations has thus far, wisely, kept a hands-off role with the situation that has been developing internally there. The Embassy breach there is a matter for the United States and Egypt solely to work out, a process that is already under way after fits and starts. In the latter, the U.N. Security Council has enough to worry about in its handling of Khartoum to put forward anything more than a strong condemnation, considering it still requires Sudan’s by your leave to operate two peacekeeping missions in the area, one in Darfur, the other in the disputed territory of Abyei.

East/South China Sea 

Last night, going by U.S. time, China dispatched a small fleet of patrol boats near the set of islands in the middle of a dispute between themselves and several other states to provide “law enforcement”. The islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, are little more than clusters of uninhabitable rock in some places, but may hold valuable natural resources off their coast lines. More importantly, the ownership of the islands also helps determine the coastal waters of each country.

Sending out their patrol boats was meant to be a message of warning to Japan over its Tuesday announcement that it will purchase several of the islands from who Japan recognizes as their private owner. The Global Times issued an editorial stressing the need for Chinese unity to prevail throughout its development, noting that “China has no choice but to respond to Japan’s outrageous provocation. This is a vital step for China to consolidate its claims of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas.”

Maritime issues over tiny islands extend beyond Japan and China, with further claims laid by Viet Nam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines to ownership of various portions of island chains throughout the East and South China Seas. Separately from the Chinese and Japanese clash, the Philippines declared this week at the waters near the islands they lay claim to were not within the South China Sea, but rather the “West Philippine Sea”. China was less than impressed. No matter the name of the sea the islands are located in, China’s moving ships into the area to enforce Chinese law raises the ante on the need for a settlement.

As I have noted previously, Asia is, and will continue to be, something of blind spot for the Security Council. These maritime disputes fall squarely within China’s sphere of influence, an area that China has been loathe to bring to international bodies for arbitration. Already, China has been extremely uncomfortable in allowing the South China Sea dispute to be discussed at the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States has been making a concerted push for negotiations on the final status of the islands to be made with ASEAN acting in unison, a move that China views warily at best, an attempt to unite the community against it at worst. Instead, China laboriously insists on concluding settlement over each of the claims bilaterally, where it will have more influence over the final outcome.

The fact is that China would prefer to keep it’s maritime boundaries negotiations as far away from the Security Council as possible. For the Security Council to discuss them would be an admission that actions were being taken that were a potential breach in international peace and security, a charge which could be levied at China itself. Even were the issue to come under debate, which is still possible as there is no way for the PRC to unilaterally block procedural motions such as placing items on the agenda, any resolution that China would find unfavorable to its interests would simply be vetoed.


In summation, despite the hectic view of recent events from the United States, the U.N. Security Council has not been overly negligent in carrying out assigned duties. Instead, in areas where it has space to act, it has done so, or continued to proceed with decisions that had been previously made on the various hot spots. In some areas, however, it is constrained by its very make-up, an issue that could become a much larger problem as Asia becomes more of a breeding ground for state-to-state conflict.

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May 8, 2012

Rough Edges: The Changing Dynamics of the P-5

In the span of a few weeks, Sarkozy is out, Putin is back, and the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council may just be about to get very interesting. Francois Hollande’s victory in the French Presidential election only served to highlight the potential for a shift in the Council’s internal dymanics that 2012 brings. The United Kingdom stands alone of the P-5 in not having to deal with a changeover in government, or the potentiality of such an event, in 2012, thanks to the Fixed-terms Parliament Act of 2011. Of the other four, two have held their elections already, one more of a forgone conclusion than a true race.  The final, arguably most powerful members of the Council, still have several months to go of grappling for power. In spite of these changes, actual and potential, in the upper echelons of their ruling mechanisms, the Permanent Five of the Security Council remain in their seats, constant no matter the guiding foreign policy principles of the individual at the head of the government. Instead, rather than policy, it is the working styles and level of tension between the Five that is prone to be altered the most by year’s end.

Though it was the most easily foreseen shift, the one with the greatest likely repercussion on the Council is the return of Vladimir Putin to the de jure leadership of Russia. While many, myself included, had hoped that Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency was more than just a placeholder, keeping the seat warm for Putin, that was clearly just a pipedream. With his re-ascendancy, there’s a toss-up for the likely foreign policy repercussions. On the one hand, Putin’s return could lead to an increased antagonism with the West, which Russia under Medvedev had seen wane slightly. The “reset”, already under siege on both sides, could shatter entirely with a more belligerent Moscow flexing its muscles.

Such a restoration would mean that the obstinacy showed by Foreign Minsiter Sergei Lavrov and UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin throughout Medvedev’s rule could be turned up to 11. Lavrov, himself a former Permanent Representative, is decidedly more hardline than his now former President, which means his unleashing could be quite the show in Parliament. In a practical sense, the Council’s current debates centered around whether the norms of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention have shifted may have an even sharper divide in the coming six years, as highlighted in a document signed by Putin yesterday declaring  that Russia will “counter attempts to use human rights concepts as an instrument of political pressure and interference in the internal affairs of states”.

Not everyone is convinced that this is the path that Russia will take in the Council, including on matters such as the Syrian conundrum. Thom Woodroofe believes that with Putin back in command, Russia may still serve as the impetus for peace between Damascus and the opposition. Such an event would be in line with the theory that Vladimir’s antagonism towards the West and the United States in particular during his campaign was a trumped-up act to remind Russians of his toughness. Regardless of its intent for domestic consumption, it may prove more difficult than predicted for Mr. Putin to walk back his rhetoric, as indicated in a CSIS paper on the topic. In either case, the Russian playbook in Turtle Bay is unlikely to significantly change, with the rules lawyering and veto threats that are a staple of Russian negotiation remaining constant; the most noticeable alteration will be the regularity with which these tactics are unleashed and against what broad concepts or minutiae they are brought to bear.

Meanwhile, Francois Hollande’s move to the Élysée Palace is unlikely to set off a scramble to determine France’s new position on the Council. While during the campaign, Hollande made much political hay over the style of Sarkozy’s diplomatic repertoire, the substance lay mostly untouched. The largest change that is likely to come from the shift may be seen in France’s interplay with two members of the Council that it has been in close alliance with over the past year and a half: the United States and non-permanent member Germany. The Germans and French have been working mostly in tandem to end the threat of a renewed Eurozone crisis, with Paris following Germany’s lead in calling for further austerity. That attitude is a large factor in Mr. Sarkozy’s toppling, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he would prefer to veer away from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prescriptions for growth. This split over economic matters may spill over into Turtle Bay for the remainder of Germany’s term, as a renewed, though highly moderated, Franco-German tension may be on the horizon.

As for the United States, Sarkozy was often called “Sarko the American” at home for his unabashed desire to ally with the US on most issues. While President-Elect Hollande has given no indication that he means to completely reverse the strengthening of ties that Mr. Sarkozy sought, he has already announced several policies that are sure to rub Washington the wrong way, including an early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. With regard to working with the rest of the Council on its Agenda, much of that working relationship will be determined once Mr. Hollande names his Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. French policy itself at the UN will largely remain unchanged, though slightly less sharp in tone. France will still take a keen interest in the affairs of its former colonies in Africa, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he does not intend to roll back the former Administration’s beliefs on humanitarian intervention. Indeed, Mr. Hollande will likely prove to be almost as tough on Iran and Syria as Mr. Sarkozy himself.

China’s transfer of power is by far the most opaque of those taking place. Few ascendancies are certain, but among those that are include the naming of Xi Jingpeng as the successor of President Hu Jintao. While that may be decided, there appears to be a growing internal power struggle among the Politburo for just who will sit on the Standing Committee which runs China. The discord, borne of the precipitous fall of Bo Xilai, is severe enough to threaten a delay in the National People’s Congress, currently set to take place in September.

While the transfer of power is certain to take place, the effects of the leadership change is less likely to be the cause of any behavioral shifts in the Security Council. Rather, China’s position of non-interference in other states’ domestic matters and reluctance to use the veto are more likely to be tested by the pressures that come with a rapidly expanding role in the international community, with some like Ken Sofer predicting a sharp break from its non-interventionist foreign policy. The former can be seen both coming under stress in the situation between Sudan and South Sudan, as China seems to be reluctantly accepting its large role as a peacemaker, and fortified by China’s stance on Syria. This growing role will also put to the test China’s relationship on the Council with Russia, as the two often pair together to block what they see as overreach by the West.

Finally, the United States at the present only faces the potential turnover of power. President Barack Obama, who has made a firm point of emphasizing the United States’ role in and desire to work with the United Nations, is currently up for reelection, facing former Governor Mitt Romney as his challenger. Should President Obama come out on top, the largest change would come should he name Ambassador Susan Rice as his new Secretary of State, leaving the UN PermRep seat open.

But should Mr. Obama lose in November, a break from the past four years is inevitable. Mr. Romney, while unlike some of his colleagues in the Republican Party maintains that the United States should remain in the United Nations, is not a big fan of the organization. During the Republican primaries, Gov. Romney especially castigated President Obama over what he saw as a betrayal of Israel at the United Nations, saying that Obama went to “the United Nations and castigated Israel for building settlements. He said nothing about thousands of rockets being rained in on Israel from the Gaza Strip.”

Likewise, Mr. Romney has been scornful of the use of United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. A President Romney would surely scale back involvement with the UN, and likely heed advice to withdraw US membership from the UN Human Rights Council among other bodies. In practice at the Security Council, such a shift would see the majority of Western causes raised more frequently by the United Kingdom and France, with the United States stepping back. The US would be most involved at the Council to increase confrontation with Russia and China, as Gov. Romney has labeled Russia the United States’ number one ‘geopolitical foe’ at the United Nations.

The membership of the Security Council is constantly in flux, as five states rotate on and off at the start of each year, allowing a complete turnover every two years. But the Permanent Five stand apart, not just for the veto, but the continuity that their presence brings to the Council. Some states are chosen by the regions more often than others to take their place among the elected 10 (E10) states on the Council, but a ban on consecutive terms prevents the ascension of de facto permanent members to stand on par with the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russian Federation. The continuity of policy that these states bring to the Council through that permanency can still be upset and sent off-kilter by disruptions in the working patterns and inter-Council dynamics that have come to be developed. 2012 comes hot on the heels of a year shaken by seismic changes in policy; this year, it’s the implementation of those policies and the way each member of the P-5 works with the other four that will bring the most trouble to Turtle Bay.

February 4, 2012

Et tu, People’s Republic? Et tu?

I have coverage of this morning’s Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria up at UN Dispatch. If you’ve been paying attention to my last few posts here on how Syria is faring at the UN Security Council, you’ll know that the Russian veto came as no surprise to me. A disappointment, yes. But not a surprise. China on the other hand managed to surprise the hell out of me. When I first began hearing rumors of a double veto, I was definitely shocked. The meme that’s existed since the People’s Republic took over the seat from Taiwan, that China will likely abstain on a draft where it the situation is not in China’s backyard and doesn’t authorize force over the will of the state in question rather than veto, may finally be dead.

The reasons why Russia opposed this resolution are known to be numerous, legion even, mostly based around its arms sales and the use of its naval base at Tartus. China’s motivation for vetoing the resolution was overlooked entirely this week. Throughout the last several days of negotiations, not a peep was said about China having substantive issues with the draft. Not one journalist picked up rumors that Li Baodong’s vote would be anything other than an abstention, or if they did I missed the article. I don’t fault them though, as even the United Kingdom’s Mission was completely without warning:

Yes, we were surprised by the Chinese veto, particularly as they did not express any particular concerns about the text over several days of negotiations. So we thought that they were able to accept the text that was put into blue by the Moroccans.

China’s choice to make its strong opposition to the draft public strikes me as odd. A China who abstains on this draft while Russia vetoes would have the exact same outcome without the public grief that Russia would have gotten. China’s objections would never come to fruition as Russia had already tanked its chances of passing. Why is Beijing inviting bad publicity in the Arab World at a time when ties were beginning to strengthen?

There are two reasons I can think of for China to choice to cast a veto rather than abstaining: the first, that Russia was in the end wavering unless it had support in vetoing, which would forced China to come out against, lest provisions in the document China didn’t accept passed through unopposed. Given Ambassador Churkin’s attempts to amend the text in the minutes leading up to the vote, I doubt this would be the case.

The second is that China is sending a message to members of the Arab World that are less sure about Qatar and the Arab League”s new policies: “We won’t come for you next”. If and when new protests rise up, requiring the members of the GCC to use enough force that the issue makes it to the Security Council, China would veto intervention and continue arms sales. Given how cynical I feel right now, this seems more likely to me, but it still doesn’t square with China’s usual affirmation of the usefulness of regional bodies in solving regional issues. The main reason everyone expected China to abstain was that the request and basic structure of the draft came from and supported the League of Arab States.

No matter what the reason behind it, China seems to be getting less blame than Russia over this, by far. Still, I get the feeling China has likely miscalculated. Things are going to get worse in Syria before they get better. And should Assad fall, as the many new members of the Free Syrian army recruited based on this veto will strive for, the new government will remember who helped keep Bashar in power. Even if the Arab League plan is somehow implemented, the new members of the unity government will still need someone to blame; China has graciously volunteered to keep Russia company in this regard.

January 16, 2012

Be Like Water

At the close of last night’s post, I indicated that I believed that China and the United States’ points of view would shape the agenda of the Security Council in coming years. The truth of this goes beyond the halls of UN Headquarters, which is enough of a truism that I suppose it was another reason I have not written extensively about Sino-American relations.

Moving forward, however, that relationship does deserve a closer look, particularly the ways in which the two will interact directly in coming years. Despite American fears, the People’s Republic will continue to mature and grow into its role, and considerations need to be made as far as what kind of relationship Washington wants with Beijing. Further, in pursuing its own policy goals, the US needs to learn to be like water, to take a page from the Tao: fluid in the path it takes but always, inexorably, flowing towards the same path.

The direct relationship between the US and China will most certainly show times of strain and pressure on both sides as the years pass, and that is to be expected considering the maturation of China as a power-player. China is growing weary of being expected to be left on the short-end of negotiations at all times.  At the same time, the United States has forgotten how to yield on issues without looking, and feeling, weakened by the experience. “Saving face” is an essential concept in China, allowing even the losers in an experience to come away with a salvaged sense of pride. The United States’ policymakers and negotiators would do well to keep this in mind in the future.

For example, in the situation brewing with Iran, the United States has pushed forward on stronger sanctions, including a new unilateral set that would also punish financial institutions that do business with Iran’s Central Bank. China has so far resisted US calls to join in the sanctions, but an editorial in the Global Times’ English edition goes further:

China should not bend to US pressure. It needs to come up with deliberate countermeasures, and show deterrence to an arrogant US. The unilateral sanctions were levied under its own amended Iran Sanctions Act, rather than any UN Security Council resolution.

Iran’s oil resources and geopolitical value are crucial to China. Chinese companies have the freedom to engage in legal business with Iran’s energy sector. It is worth taking on some troubles and even paying a certain price to safeguard this principle.

China should be confident. The US, facing a tough economy and the coming presidential election, cannot afford a trade war with China. It is not set on having a showdown with China just to impose sanctions on Iran. China has adopted anti-sanction measures against the US before, and this time China should demonstrate the same toughness.

Rather than pushing unnecessarily on Beijing to alter its stance, the US would do better to encourage China to continue its trade with Tehran. The reasoning behind this is simple. China has been putting its own form of pressure on Iran in the form of extracting concessions in price on Iranian oil; as one of a dwindling number of buyers, Iran can’t afford to stand strong against these price declines, in turn further weakening its economy, a Pyrrhic victory. In allowing China an exception to the sanctions on states dealing with Iran, China and the US both benefit. Rather than playing out a zero-sum game, both parties need to find areas of commonality so that the actual disagreements with wide-reaching impact aren’t marred by the small stuff.

Seeking accord is becoming more necessary as China’s influence continues to rise on the course to superpower status. The superpower competition on the horizon will be far different from that of the Cold War. Rather than a battle for supremacy with existential implications on the line, this jockeying for power will be an extension of the economic battles that face the two. China wants greater access to natural resources and new markets for its exports, particularly once it moves beyond its current low-tech production and comes into its own in the high-tech sphere where the US has traditionally dominated.

Indeed, even in the event that China comes out the dominant power later this century, it isn’t clear that Beijing will undertake the sort of revisionist sweep that the Soviet Union surely would have if it had come out on top in the Cold War and the United States certainly has.

America, at least in theory, prefers that other countries share its values and act like Americans. China can only fear a world where everybody acts like the Chinese. So, in a future dominated by China, the Chinese will not set the rules; rather, they will seek to extract the greatest possible benefit from the rules that already exist.

Rather than fear of a cultural domination or an usurping of American ‘ideals’, the primary reason for American analysts fear over China’s rise is the idea that a more powerful China can and will challenge the United States’ global projection of military power, which in turn threatens US economic interests in the areas described earlier. The US’ power is a combination of its money and missiles, and a threat to either of them sends shivers through the spine of Washington. What’s more, threats from China not only include nuclear weapons in the equation, as with the Soviet Union, but also newer weaponry and spheres of combat, such as offensive cyber-capabilities and anti-satellite technology. Both sides surely have these capacities, though neither speaks of them publicly.

During the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction promised that the only way to prevent the launch of nuclear attack was the guarantee that doing so would result in a total loss by both sides. Only through this deterrence were the US and the USSR able to avoid nuclear holocaust.  The National Interest has published one of the most intriguing paths forward for the US and China that I’ve seen, a moderation of this doctrine that expands the idea into the domains of cyber- and space-based combat:

Confidence that such pledges would be honored, even in crisis, ultimately rests on the bedrock of mutual deterrence. Knowing that they cannot defend against retaliation (due to offense dominance), neither the United States nor China should be the first to employ nuclear, antisatellite or cyber weapons. The two should supplement strategic no-first-use understandings with confidence-building measures such as missile-launch notification, greater transparency about nuclear arsenals, and consultation and cooperation on cyber threats from other states and nonstate actors.

The devil lies in the details and definition of any proposed mutual strategic restraint. Would nonphysical interference with satellites be forbidden? Yes. Would cyber crime and cyber espionage be covered? No, only destructive attacks on critical networks. Would Chinese and U.S. armed forces be precluded from interfering with military computer networks during armed conflict? No, though tactical cyber war must be tightly controlled by political leaders to avoid escalation. Would allies, e.g., Japan and South Korea, be covered by the pledge not to initiate strategic attacks? Absolutely.

The sort of high-level talks that would lead to the acceptance of such an agreement, talks based around strategic imperatives rather than singular issues, need to become more frequent in the coming months and years. Currently, there’s no guarantee that China would sign on board to such a proposal, nor that the United States would push forward with it. But the fact is, we can’t continue to treat China as the lesser partner in this ‘Group of Two’.

My greatest fear in mitigating tensions between the two is that a new, harsher China policy will be installed next January. It would be the absolute worst time for the US to push hard on the PRC, as new leadership will be reaffirming its power after a recent handover in the Politburo. In order to prevent conflict in the coming decades, the United States, no matter who’s in the White House, is going to need to learn to be flexible enough in its China policy to allow for greater give in its management of China’s rise, preventing the rigidity that would provoke a crumbling of ties, running counter to the US’ long-term gain.

January 15, 2012

Off-Limits: Asia’s future on the UNSC’s agenda

A little over a year and a half ago, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Asian Studies. The latter half of that combination most likely wouldn’t be all that apparent, if you were to only read this blog. Going through my last few months of posts, and particularly looking at my handy word cloud of tags at the bottom of the page, I realized the other night that despite my major, I rarely find myself writing on issues dealing with the Asian continent. Not counting Southeast Asia, i.e. Pakistan, and matters in Western Asia/the Middle East, that is.

This is concerning to me for several reasons; I decided to major in Asian studies at MSU because I knew that’s where the future of International Relations would be grounded. With this in mind, I decided a few nights ago to undertake a “self-pivot” and started loading up on books and Twitter streams dealing with Asia, and China in specific. But that doesn’t really explain the why of my lack of writing about Asian affairs. After pondering a little further, it hit me. My overarching theme in writing has dealt with issues that have been highlighted on the agenda of the UN Security Council. The Security Council, it turns out, doesn’t interact strongly with Asia, instead focusing the majority of its attention on the Middle East and Africa.

In the last year, the Security Council, excepting myriad resolutions on Afghanistan, passed but two resolutions focused on situations in Asia. The first was a further continuation of the sanctions regime on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and an extension of the mandate of the Panel of Experts appointed to oversee their implementation. The sole other was an extension of the mandate of one of only three missions currently authorized in Asia, which oversees the stability of East Timor. This was reflected in the Presidential Statements put forward by the Council as well; it seems nothing happening near the Pacific warranted comment by the members of the Council.

Even the simmering tensions between Thailand and Cambodia managed to remain off the radar of the Security Council. Skirmishes between the two over an area of disputed territory containing an ancient temple left 18 dead in April. A judgment by the International Court of Justice in July demanded that both sides withdraw their troops from the disputed area, a demand that was promptly ignored. This alone could, and should, have placed this topic on the Council’s docket. Instead, the two countries were thankfully able to avoid the shooting war that was very much in the realm of possibility, bilaterally agreeing to withdraw their troops in December.

Taking proactive steps in the case of Thailand-Cambodia could have been a boost to the credibility of the Security Council, returning it to its early roots of playing direct mediator in arising conflicts globally. Situations with less clear-cut implications for international peace and security have brought to bear the will of the UNSC, so why not this one? Why, despite the broad mandate of the Security Council under Chapter VI of the Charter, are so few topics involving Asiatic countries placed on the agenda of the Council?

The answer lies in the geopolitics that permeate every instance of conflict that takes place in that corner of the world. As of now, there is no true hegemonic power on the Asian continent, despite fears that China wants to claim the title for itself. Several ascendant powers in the region are constantly jockeying for position over the smaller states in the region. China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, all want to control their own destinies in the coming decades, and each has reasons to keep matters of their security in their own home court. Any member state has the ability to bring matters they feel affect international peace and security before the Council; many Asian states choose not to, preferring regional organizations such as ASEAN to bring their grievances before multilateral judgment.

China’s position on the Security Council doesn’t help matters. Matters that are brought before the Council that aren’t to its liking quickly receive the veto that China so rarely issues. As an example, the situation in Myanmar managed to make its way onto the SC’s agenda in 2007, a resolution was drafted by the West, and found itself quickly toppled by China and Russia. The one area where China begrudgingly allows the UN Security Council to intervene is in the matter of North Korea, but even there the People’s Republic prefers to take matters through the informal Six-Party Talks mechanism.

The same “backyard principle” can be seen in the lack of Latin American issues that make their way to the Security Council. As an example, Mexico, where drug violence has claimed nearly as many deaths as the uprising in Syria, though criminal in nature rather than state-based, has practically zero chance of making the Council’s agenda. The United States’ domination of hemispheric matters makes it so that issues south of its border will never make their way to the Security Council unless in times of absolute necessity. Excessive meddling from other states as during the Cuban Missile Crisis may prompt this sort of push, and even then only to attempt to rally the international community’s sympathy or push the US’ own narrative.

Further, the balance of the Permanent Members of the Council in terms of taking proactive steps is inherently skewed away from strong action in Asia. The more liberal of the P-5, the United States, France, and United Kingdom, draft and present the majority of resolutions that involve strong action on the part of the international community, including actions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter. Russia and China, for their part, are much more interested in the status quo, preferring to invoke issues of sovereignty in the face of demands for action by the other permanent members. This pattern, as I looked at in one of my first posts, is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.

The Middle East and Africa as it stands are the home of the vast majority of conflicts that the Council deems appropriate to deliberate upon. In these states, there is either a unified will to act or a complete lack of interest to block such action. In the former, the resources invested in the regional and its geostrategic importance to all five permanent members, have earned it a place on the agenda in perpetuity. In the latter, there is no real power base, no states who have enough heft to push back on international action within the region, leaving its crises free to be placed before the UNSC.

The problems of Asia are not likely to stay confined to Asia in the coming future. The potential for conflict in the South China Sea remains high and joins any number of looming flashpoints in the region. As the United States seeks to balance China’s rise by strengthening its ties with the other rising powers, however, the likelihood of China allowing those very conflicts to come before the Council will dwindle. The halcyon days of the early nineties, where issues bombarded the Council constantly with resolutions passing by the dozen on issues around the world with China known primarily for its abstention may well be finally past. While I highly doubt we will return to a Cold War-level of stagnation on the Council, I am beginning to worry that we will see a return to the era when only matters not directly within the sphere of influence of either of the new superpowers will be able to reach the ears of the Security Council.

December 7, 2011

Sey-what? China’s first permanent base may wind up in the Seychelles

I am the first to admit that I’m a novice when it comes to naval matters. A n00b as it were. Since I first wrote my piece predicting where I think China’s first permanent overseas base would be, I’ve met an insane number of actual naval experts, including Thomas Webb at Petty Tyranny, and Surface Sailor. Listening to them has made me rethink my conclusions in that piece for sure, but a bit of news that has come to my attention has really made me rethink my conclusions.

The Flag of Seychelles

"I cast Prismatic Spray"

The other day, Seychelles made the announcement that they had invited China to set up a military baseon the archipelago, to help combat piracy. If you’re thinking, “who?” don’t feel overly embarassed. Seychelles are known for two things: their lovely tourist industry, based around things like snorkeling and having the flag voted “Most Likely to be Found in a Pride Parade” by me. It’s a solid member of the African Union, despite being 665 miles off the coast of Madagascar and maintains a relative anonymity on the world scene.

Despite it’s status as geographical trivia, a Chinese presence would make total sense, with its location halfway between Africa and Asia. The gist of the offer itself can be found in a few different articles:

The declaration came as Liang Guanglie made the first-ever visit by a Chinese defence minister to the Indian Ocean island state.

‘We have invited the Chinese government to set up a military presence on Mahe to fight the pirate attacks that the Seychelles face on a regular basis,’ Adam said.

‘For the time being China is studying this possibility because she has economic interests in the region and Beijing is also involved in the fight against piracy,’ he explained.

General Liang, who arrived in Victoria on Thursday with a 40-strong delegation, had been invited in October by Seychelles President James Michel, when he was on a visit to China.

‘Together, we need to increase our surveillance capacity in the Indian Ocean… as Seychelles has a strategic position between Asia and Africa,’ Michel said in statement, adding that China had given its army two light aircraft.

The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in 2004 that has enabled some 50 Seychelles soldiers to be trained in China.

They renewed their agreement on Friday, with China to provide further training and equipment.

So there’s that. I have to admit that Seychelles completely slipped my mind as being a possibility, though it would seem that the Indian Military Review magazine called it last year, but the islands readily meet the criteria I laid out. They are in a strategic location, due to the sea trade routes that China so dearly wants to protect. There are no counter-interests that would prevent China from moving forward with a base like in Pakistan. Unlike the Horn of Africa, Seychelles itself is a relatively secure location to dock and refuel, while also having the advantage of being much closer to China. And the area is itself sovereign and not under dispute, unlike the Spratly Islands.

This completely negates my theory that we’d see China construct its first permanent base on the Horn, but technically, I suppose this still counts as East Africa? In any event, China has yet to actually accept the offer, which I’m sure would come with a much larger bit of press interest. I’m looking forward to seeing three things moving forward: what reaction this draws from India, if any; the US reaction to sharing such a small space, since we currently maintain a drone base on Seychelles for use in surveillance missions; and the speed at which China would move forward, if it accepts the offer.

November 22, 2011

Syria and Russia: Together against the world

In a post a few days ago, I speculated on when we would hear the Russian Federation finally say “Do svedanya” to Bashar al-Assad and allow for action in the United Nations. Today contained both a glimmer of hope for the prospect of that occurring and a curbstomp to the face of that chance.

Hope first. The Third Committee of the GA today had before it a draft resolution on Syrian human rights abuses initially drafted by several European states. The revised version can be found here. As noted in my previous post, several Arab states were thought likely to join on as sponsors, and that they did. Saudi Arabia, Morocco Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar were all original sponsors of the draft; during this morning’s debate, Kuwait joined on as well. Several states expressed hesitancy to support the draft, primarily those in the Non-Aligned Movement and led by Cuba, due to its singling out one state in particular’s rights abuses. The term “country-specific resolution” was thrown around a lot, as well as pleas to utilize the Universal Periodic Review process in the Human Rights Council rather than GA3 to deal with human rights. It’s worth noting that the loudest voices prior to the vote were those who have either had human rights charges level against them by the body or were extremely likely to.

The Syrian delegate, in attempting to fend off the measure, stated that the end goal of the Arab Spring is to bring about a “new Middle East, to be led by Israel”, which would then launch a new wave of ethnic cleansing. So there’s that. In the end, despite speeches by the DPRK and Iran against the measure, the final vote was recorded as 122 in favor, 13 opposed, and 41 abstentions. Among the abstentions were Yemen and Lebanon, but as has been noted on Twitter, not a single Arab state voted against the proposal, not even Sudan. Also abstaining were the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, which raised several eyebrows.

Following the vote, much was made of the twin abstentions of the PRC and Russia, calling to mind the twin veto in October in the Security Council. Several articles and blog posts went so far as to call the move a potential shift in the Security Council, which is the spectre of hope I discussed at the start of the post. And here comes the curbstomping.

Following the vote, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin spoke to Kuwait New Agency (KUNA), and had this to say:

“It’s a completely different situation. This does not mean that our position in the Security Council has changed. It does not change our position vis-a-vis the Security Council, that I can tell you,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told KUNA following the vote.

Churkin was responding to diplomats who said the overwhelming vote in the Assembly’s Social Committee earlier today on a Syria resolution and the Arab position in Cairo and Rabat would open the door to the possibility of revisiting the Syrian issue in the Security Council in the future.

That certainly was a flush of cold water. While beaten, the sliver of hope is not quite dead yet. While the League of Arab States continues to dither on whether or not Syria is fully suspended and facing sanctions, its member states seem to be indicating quite clearly that what is happening in Syria is unacceptable. Churkin’s statement was in the abstract, however, and not in reference to specific draft resolutions or proposals on the table. We may still yet see a condemnation of Syria’s actions in the Security Council, with the potential of “further actions”. But anything beyond that will require the Arab League to take the first step and/or Russia to stand aside. Considering Russian intransigence and the fact that five days have passed since the Arab League gave a three day extension on its ultimatum, it’s unclear which is less likely at the moment.

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October 11, 2011

A Smoot Point: Punishing China or Just Ourselves?

Just so you don’t think that I spend all of my time seething at the GOP, let me assure you: I take offense to any stupidity in statecraft, be it from the right or left side of the aisle in Congress. I maintain that Congress really should just stay out of foreign policy as a whole, and this particular issue cuts right to that belief, I feel. The Democrats, seemingly seeking to look tough, are in actuality looking extremely stupid. I presage the rest of this post by saying that I am in no way an international finance expert, but, to be fair, neither is Congress.

If you were to turn on CSPAN 2 later tonight, as wonks are wont to do, you’d see that the Senate has taken up a bill known as the “Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011”. In late September, Sherrod Jackson (D-OH) introduced on the Senate floor a bill to punish ‘currency manipulators’ who suppress the value of their currency in order to flood the market with cheap goods, boosting their exports to the detriment of other countries. I wonder who they could be talking about. I. Wonder.

In this attempt to take on China and the yuan, I originally opted to let it go, as a bit of political posturing. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has been the Democrat’s message man in the Senate for the last year and has been strongly backing the bill, which doesn’t surprise me, as he’s been backing the same sort of bill for the last six years. What makes this time different is that it might actually go somewhere. There was a bit of a scene made on the Senate floor the other night surrounding the bill, as GOP Senators sought to hang more amendments on after cloture had passed, resulting in a rules change that remains fascinating for parliamentarians  and giant nerds but overall pointless in the grand scheme of things. These amendments were defeated, leaving room for the bill to move forward to a vote later tonight.

This whole thing intrigued me enough to actually read the text of the Bill, which, written in legalese, is not the most incendiary of documents right off the bat. The short of it is that following passage, the Secretary of the Treasury would be mandated to provide to Congress reports on which countries are unfairly manipulating their currency. Should a country having been found to be manipulating their currency fail to change their ways within 90 days, several actions may be taken, including:

(1) ADJUSTMENT UNDER ANTIDUMPING LAW- For purposes of an antidumping investigation under subtitle B of title VII of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1673 et seq.), or a review under subtitle C of such Act (19 U.S.C. 1675 et seq.), the following shall apply:

(A) IN GENERAL- The administering authority shall ensure a fair comparison between the export price and the normal value by adjusting the price used to establish export price or constructed export price to reflect the fundamental misalignment of the currency of the exporting country.

(B) SALES SUBJECT TO ADJUSTMENT- The adjustment described in subparagraph (A) shall apply with respect to subject merchandise sold on or after the date that is 30 days after the date the currency of the exporting country is designated for priority action pursuant to section 4(a)(3).

My eyes originally glazed over this, before realizing that this was intended to be the bulk of the punishment; my eyes instead gravitated towards the provision that has US officials at international banks refuse loans to the country in question. Which in and of itself is pointless, as while China has received various loans for infrastructure projects from the World Bank, managed to lend more to developing countries in the 2009-2010 period than the Bretton Woods system. But I digress. In any case, I was unfamiliar with the Tariff Act of 1930, or so I thought, so I went to look it up. Turns out, most people know the Tariff Act of 1930 by a far different name: The Smoot-Hawley Act. 

So let’s take a quick second to look at the Unfortunate Implications inherent so far. In the midst of an economic downturn that has shown signs of picking up again, Congress decides to go one step further, and impose tariffs to encourage people to buy local rather than importing goods. It worked so well in the past, why not bring about protectionism round two? This bill’s provisions have several flaws, which were summed up well in a Washington Post op-ed by Robert Samuelson:

Even if this becomes law — not certain — it wouldn’t work for two reasons. In 2010, our imports from China totaled $364 billion. (American exports to China were $86 billion, leaving a deficit of $278 billion.) To be effective, countervailing duties would need to apply to most Chinese imports, but in practice, companies bring cases only for individual products, affecting millions, not billions, of dollars. The process would be cumbersome and time-consuming.

Worse, China might protest any countervailing duties to the World Trade Organization, and it might win. WTO rules permit subsidies that are broad-based rather than those benefiting specific firms or industries, say lawyers. The undervalued RMB might pass muster. If so, China could then retaliate by imposing duties on U.S. exports to China.

Those duties would act in the same function as the counter-tariffs that states imposed on the United States following the passage of Smoot-Hawley. While the giant raise in unemployment that Smoot-Hawley preceded probably would not come to pass following enactment of this bill, it’s doubtful that the thousands of jobs proponents of the bill claim it will spur will actually come to pass. Samuelson goes on to say that what is needed is instead a stronger push-back against China to help prevent further unfair trade practices by Beijing in the future, when subsidized aircraft is the focus of trade disputes rather than textiles, which is where we differ. I will readily agree that China’s practices do more to harm the free-trade system than those of any other state, but I really don’t know that protectionist measures are the way to affect the sort of change that Mr. Samuelson and Senate Democrats are clamoring for.

Another nail in the coffin of this policy’s intellectual rigor is that the yuan has actually be strengthening against the dollar, as the below chart from the Economist shows, as the trade deficit has gone up. So even as the currencies have come closer to reflecting actual disparities of value, China continues to export far more to us than vice-versa. The actual value of the currency is still definitely under-appreciated, with one Wharton School graduate estimating in his thesis that is currently hovering around 35% undervaluation. A correction to a more accurate 4 yuan to the dollar may alter China’s overall economic outlook as exports decline and cheaper alternatives fill the market. However, I don’t think that such a correction, which this bill seeks, will manage to change much in the deficit that matters, the one between the United States and China.

The Economist Graph

Via @TheEconomist

Despite my reservations, it seems that the Senate isn’t listening to me. Given the ease with which the bill passed cloture, which requires sixty votes, the bill is certain to pass through the upper chamber of Congress. Even the normally uber-conservative Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, has come out in favor of this bill.  The future of this bill is in no way certain though, and there are doubts as to whether it will become law at all. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is on the record saying that the House won’t take up the bill until the White House makes its position on it more clear, something that the Obama Administration has been loathe to do.  While President Obama has said that he supports the goals of the legislation if not the method, there’s been no release of an official Statement of Administration Policy on the matter.

I’m not saying that China’s trade practices aren’t a concern and don’t merit a healthy amount of condemnation. That’s not even mentioning the abysmal state of human rights in Chinese factories and the fair-trade standards that are routinely ignored for the sake of profits and feeding the Chinese economic engine. But the place for such determinations of fair-play are at the bilateral discussion table and at the World Trade Organization, not in the halls of Congress. I’m a solid Democrat, but when reactionary bills come forward and the lines are divided more clearly by “which party introduced it” rather than “is it a good idea?” something is horribly wrong with the way policy is created.

October 5, 2011

Base Assumptions: Predicting China’s First Overseas Naval Base

Alright, I know that in my introspective post on international relations theory I discussed moving away from the idea of Great Power politics as a baseline for IR, and it’s true, there’s too many factors in this multilinear world to allow ourselves to get caught up on just one factor, states. But let’s be real here: Great Power politics are just more interesting. Period. I can’t go full-on realist ever, but if you try to tell me that the machinations of states as they struggle for primacy is anything less than fascinating, you will receive the coldest of shoulders from me. There’s a reason that Paul Kennedy is still one of my favorite historians, and that’s because his subject matter is intriguing. Besides, even in a world that is without poles in some areas, there are still concentrations of power that exists in the hands of a few select countries. So is the case with China, my second area of intellectual fascination after the UN.

In any case, over the last few months, there’s been a goodly amount of buzz on the blogosphere about the implications of China launching a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier under the flag of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Despite the chatter, it looks like the Pentagon doesn’t much care about the deployment, though keeping an eye on supposed carrier-killing missiles that China is developing, as actually being able to use these tools effectively is going to take many, many more years.

That doesn’t change the fact that China’s Navy is now able to be considered a blue water navy, to a certain extent, capable of operating far beyond China’s shores. Operations have been taking place in the Indian Ocean for years now to head off Somali piracy and protect key shipping lanes. As the map from Wired Magazine below shows, a huge amount of sea traffic follows well-established routes and a great deal of that cargo is going to and from Shanghai and other Chinese coastal cities.

Major Shipping Routes 2009

Overseas methods are still far cheaper than overland or flight when it comes to transporting goods and materials. Wars have been fought and most likely will be fought to either control these routes of trade or to ensure that they remain open for the world to use. China’s navy is going to have to do one or the other one day, much to the chagrin of the US Navy, which sees itself as the protector of the seas around the world.

To become a true global naval power on the level of the United States, if not to become the dominant force on the seas to at least ensure that encroachment by the US to shut off trade is unable to occur, China is going to need someplace to shore up, refuel, and project its power from, away from the Chinese shoreline. At present, the Chinese military has sought to protect its sea lines of communication along what has been dubbed the “String of Pearls” [PDF], a set of friendly and often Chinese-built ports along the most critical of China’s sea lines of communication. The pearls fall along the line between the Horn of Africa and Hong Kong, including the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca among other potential choke points and has been used by the Chinese government to illustrate the non-offensive nature of the PLAN. This message of non-interference has made up the core of Chinese foreign policy for decades, even as it shows double-digit increases to its military budget annually.

All of these ports are owned and operated by their host country however, and despite close ties remain out of Chinese control. Memorandums of understanding are all well and good, but in a time of extreme need what is to stop the attempt to deny entry into these safe harbors? Granted, it’s an unlikely scenario that any of these locations would have the naval capability of deflecting a Chinese fleet, but why take the risks? What’s more, none of these ports are military in nature, instead being for commercial use only. That begs the question: where will the first permanent Chinese overseas naval base be located?

I’m not concerned about when or if this is going to take place – the fact is that it will happen and most likely within the next ten to fifteen years (which I am well aware is the most comfortable of projections for anyone unsure of a date). As I said before, sea routes are arguably as important now as they were over a hundred years ago for enabling trade, barring some unforeseen increase in technology that makes the air domain cheaper than transport by sea. As the PRC continues to grow and interact more with Latin America and Africa, seeking new markets sell its finished products and access to greater and greater amounts of raw materials that the Chinese mainland doesn’t possess, the eventual need to begin to set up and maintain overseas bases is as apparent as America’s in the 19th Century. Where that base is built will be much more key and display more about China’s potential strategic outlook than the timing around it. As a caveat, I’m not speaking of establishing bases in the context of colonization of an entire area and population, but rather as leased land to provide an area to establish ports, much as the United States currently has in Guantanamo Bay, Bahrain, or Okinawa. Furthermore, this is not meant to be like so many other ominous “China is a threat” posts on the blogosphere; this doesn’t presume that China means to attack the United States or anything ridiculous like that, rather that China, like all states, has strategic interests and can and will use a forward-projection of force to protect them when within its capability. I don’t see China acting in the manner of the United States soon and projecting forces outside its strategic interests.

As far as I can tell, there are three serious potential locales for the first permanent base: in the Gulf of Aden, on one of the Spratly Islands, or on the Indian subcontinent. The last is much less likely than the first two, but I include it for reasons I’ll get into soon. A base in Latin America also came to mind but I’m ruling it out for three reasons. First, it’s a bridge too far, no matter the close ties between China and countries on the Pacific coast of the continent like Venezuela. The idea of placing your very first overseas base at the outer edges of your naval capacity sounds like a recipe for disaster; any additional trade benefits would be hampered by the amount of fuel-carrying ships that would be needed just to get to the base in the first place. Second, trade that current exists between China and Latin America would almost certainly improve from the addition of a Chinese naval base, it currently would not be worth the investment. Third, and almost more importantly, no matter what rhetorical sparring China and the US may get into from time to time, I am positive that China is in no hurry to provoke the United States in what would surely be labeled a gross violation of the Monroe Doctrine and inflame tensions to unheard of heights, especially in a Congress that is already spooked by China’s rise.

Bearing those things in mind, we’ll begin with the least likely candidate that is still in the running: the Indian subcontinent. The Financial Times back in May report that Pakistan was inviting China to go beyond a request to take over operations at a port in the southwest of the country but instead build a permanent base:

“We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s defence minister, told the Financial Times, confirming that the request was conveyed to China during a visit last week by Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister.

This request was then turned down by a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman two days later.

It’s easy to see why China would reject the offer. While a naval base in Pakistan would allow for easy projection into the Indian Ocean, the costs that would come from such a move would far outweigh the advantages. First, it can be pretty easily seen that the Pakistani offer was intended to be a message to the United States in the wake of the Osama bin Laden raid. Pakistan has been working over the past several months to show the United States that it could just as easily have China as its partner in military and strategic issues, hoping to lessen the pressure for changes in Pakistani strategy against terrorist cells that operate within its borders. This message, “we don’t need you, we can take our business elsewhere”, was muted by the Chinese in a setback to Pakistan’s tactics but it isn’t clear that Pakistan would have gone through with the plan should China have accepted.

Second, constructing a base out of Pakistan would cause India to be even more nervous about Pakistan than they currently are, which is no mean feat. Having India go from a competitor for markets to a full-scale adversary is absolutely nowhere on the Chinese plan for a peaceful rise. This in turn would force the United States to choose between supporting India as a counterweight to China and Pakistan’s somewhat shaky partnership in combating terrorism. Should the US choose India, this places pressure on the China/India border while destabilizing Pakistan further, just what you want when the naval bases that the host country owns are coming under attack, let alone a foreign controlled base. In fact, just today, China has cancelled what was supposed to be Pakistan’s largest foreign-investment deal, due to concerns about security. A naval base would be both more and less secure than a coal mining operation, more secure but a much more likely target for assault.

This takes us to the second choice in the Gulf of Aden, off Africa’s eastern coast. The Gulf acts as the bridge between the Horn of Africa and the greater Indian Ocean. This in turn makes it the prime hunting ground for Somalia based pirates. Indeed, the Gulf of Aden has been one of the most dangerous waterways in the world for the last half decade, even with naval forces from the United States, France, India and China all patrolling the waters. China’s eighth patrol and escort flotilla recently returned from the Gulf, with a ninth already deployed. These patrol fleets are currently allowed to refuel at a French naval base, after the initial wave kept at sea for 124 days without docking, a logistical challenge that is avoided with ownership of a base.

Despite the dangers, the area is extremely vital to international trade. As the map above shows, a huge amount of traffic flows through the Gulf, as ships pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean at-large on their way around the Arabian peninsula and towards East Asia. Oil tankers are frequent travelers in the Gulf of Aden and China is dependent on the crude and refined that makes its way through. Were the area to become fully crippled by pirates, or the strait were to be closed by force, it would be a crucial blow to China’s ability to support itself. Any attempt by any navy,  other than the United States for now, to attempt to close the Gulf of Aden or the Bab-el-Mandeb will quickly find itself facing China’s ire.

China’s continued presence in the area makes it a natural for speculation about potential permanent bases. In December 2009, Chinese Admiral Yin Zhou gave an interview that was subsequently posted to the defense ministry’s website, suggesting that a permanent base in the Gulf of Aden would be beneficial to Chinese patrols, saying “I think a permanent, stable base would be good for our operations”. The defense ministry website being as tightly controlled, if not more, than the rest of Chinese media, the interview was most certainly sanctioned by the PLA. But two days after the interview went live, an article was posted in the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper, quoting the Defense Ministry as saying that “Some countries have set up overseas supply bases (but) the Chinese fleet is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking”. The quick turnaround in this retraction is most likely due to international concern about the strategic meaning behind actually announcing its first base. In this particular instance, the test balloon was quickly shot down and avowed to have never existed.

The problem with a scenario where China breaks ground in the Horn of Africa or to the opposite side of the Bab-el-Mandeb is one of increasingly shrinking options for a proper host country with access to the Gulf of Aden. An option that came to mind was the former French colony of Djibouti, but it would seem that the Chinese have missed the proverbial boat there. Japan has instead opted to build its first overseas military base in this small country, for the very reasons that China would be wise to take up a stance in the Gulf: protecting trading ships from piracy. It’s worth noting that Japan’s decision to take this step was not met with nearly the same sort of intense speculation as China’s pondering. In any case, Djibouti is not likely to place host to two separate navies patrolling the same area. On the Arabian peninsula, Yemen has far too many problems for China to consider investing money and resources in building a naval base there. The payoff of constructing a stronghold would be far outweighed by increasing ties with President Saleh at a time where his regime is increasingly isolated and desperate. And so Yemen is duly ruled out.

This leaves the most likely location in this region as the relatively young state of Eritrea. After gaining its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has managed to stagnate in terms of growth and regress in human rights. Not that this matters to the People’s Republic, which maintains strong ties with Eritrea, serving as one of the impoverished state’s largest trading partners. The influx of money that would surely come with the construction of such a base and hosting of the Chinese navy would be a strong draw for Eritrea, as well as solidifying its link to China.

That brings us to the final option, the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. I can already hear some people saying that this should not count as an option, as in China’s view, the islands are part of Chinese territory anyway. We’ll come back to that argument, but for now we’ll treat it the others, as locating a naval base on any of the Spratly Islands would be far enough removed from mainland China to make an impact on force projection.

Compared to Pakistan and the Gulf of Aden, this could very easily be seen as the conventional choice. As mentioned briefly, the Chinese lay claim to the entirety of the island chain, making it not outside the realm of possibility that arming the islands and constructing bases would be forthcoming to protect its territory. Relatively close to China, the islands could serve as a forward point as Guantanamo Bay at Cuba did for the United States at the initiation of the lease.

Aside from shoring up Chinese claims to the South China sea, the strategic value of having ships launch from the Spratly islands is clear. Such a base could easily be used to ensure that the Malacca Strait, between Malaysia and Indonesia, remains open to commercial vessels at all times and free of piracy. The strait is extremely important to international trade, as 25% of the world’s oil moves through it every year, as well as the mind-boggling statistic of 40% of the world’s trade total, making it a strategic chokepoint. Currently, the area is patrolled by the Indian Navy to prevent piracy, as part of a partnership with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The litorral states are well aware of the fact that China would rather patrol the area itself, but have strove to keep the Malacca Strait from becoming a flashpoint for the big powers, namely China, India, Japan and the United States.

All of this leads neatly into the main problem with calling the Spratly Islands the most likely choice of the location of China’s first overseas base. The Spratly Islands, for all their desolation and unproven mineral resources, are in part or in whole claimed by several states in the region, including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. While People’s Liberation Army has issued several declarations of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the chain, others are not so easily convinced. Tensions have gotten even more tense over the last several years, with more aggressive Chinese claims being viewed warily by other states in the region, culminating in Chinese patrol boats clashing with Vietnamese oil and gas survey ships.

Moving so boldly in the region would be a near total reversal of China’s current foreign policy, which stresses its peaceful rise above all else. Any advantage that could be seen gained from constructing a base on the Spratlys would be outweighed could be counterbalanced by moving more neighbors into the camp of other powers in the region. At the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) meeting this summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on all parties in the conflict to back up their claims to the Islands with legal facts, veering off from the US’ historical preference of taking no sides whatsoever in the dispute. Vietnam is also partnering with India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to explore the areas around the islands it lays claim to, a move that has disturbed the Chinese, and lends credence to the fact that India is moving to take advantage of the fears a rising China stokes. In East Asia, as anywhere, when the beginnings of hegemony are seen, states who wish to preserve the status quo will band together to act as a counterweight to the rising state. It was true in Europe as Germany united, precipitating the alliance between the UK and France, and it can be seen here, though China is doing its very best to take as few actions as possible that push states into banding together in an anti-Chinese alliance. Militarizing the Spratly Islands would only inflame others in the region, and lead to even greater mistrust of Chinese intentions, and benefit India and the United States.

After weighing all of these options, I’m inclined to believe that Africa wins out in terms of the most strategic return on investment for China. The economic imperative of protecting the shipping lanes in and near the Gulf of Aden and the lack of geopolitical cost in setting up shop there makes it the ideal location, especially when compared to the other two. Constructing a base in Eritrea will serve the Chinese well, by allowing for the long-range missions necessary for keeping the commons open, and acting as a Western anchor to the range of the Chinese Navy, which will then have a vast swath of the Indian Ocean well within its reach. Will this actually come to pass anytime soon? I suppose that we will just have to wait and see, but I know that I, for one, will be ready to pull up this post at a moment’s notice when it’s finally proven or disproven. Your move, PLAN.

August 30, 2011

The More Things Change: China and Russia in the UNSC

The UN Security Council bears marked similarities to the US Senate at times. The veto and the filibuster are both tools its respective insitution is known for, and which its users are loathe to give up. Both also have evolved over time, to where they are actually used very little. Instead, the threat of using one is enough to give pause before moving forward with draft resolutions or legislation.

When it comes to veto threats, the Russian Federation and China have made an art of the practice. Every draft resolution that comes before the UNSC faces a veto threat should it go too far, too fast for the Russians and Chinese. This isn’t to say that the United States, United Kingdom and France don’t make threats of their own, indeed the US holds the record for most vetoes since 1991, but they also put forward the majority of progressive drafts, often anathema to the BRICS countries.

It’s surprising to note, then, that Russia and China have in fact been authors of draft resolutions before the Council as of late. Last week, the Russian Mission to the UN introduced its own draft resolution on the situation in Syria. In June, China and the United States worked together on halting the conflict in the Abeyi region of Sudan to produce what would become SC/1990. Could these moves be seen as a shift towards a more proactive strategy at the UN Security Council?

While intriguing, the Syria resolution doesn’t seem to offer up a substantial shift in Russian strategy at the UN. The text itself is balanced to the point of absurdity, seeming to lay the violence at the feet of both the protesters and the al-Bashar government. This sort of ‘sovereignty first’ approach to matters is what is to be expected when Russia actually decided to attempt to head off interventions in what it sees as internal matters.

By presenting this draft, the Russian government can then point back to its attempts at peacebuilding when faced with a much stronger Western-backed resolution like the one offered by the UK and France in June. The draft also has the undertone that Russia is still seeking to be a player in the Middle East beyond its role in the Quartet, as its attempts to mediate in Libya showed.

Don’t forget that Chapter VIII, dealing with regional arrangements, was written by the Soviet Union to allow for action outside the scope of the United Nations. The Commonwealth of Independent states and, at least in part, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization , were developed for this very goal, providing the ability to act in the backyard interests that Russia holds so dear. Even after the embarrassing denial of SCO backing during the 2008 Georgian conflict, these organizations allow for action in the form of multilateral efforts and thus supporting Russia’s position pushing a rule of law-based multipolar world. Any future drafts proposed by the Russian Federation will seek to blame neither party for the issues under discussion or lean firmly on whichever side supports Russia.

China, on the other hand, presents a much more challenging analysis. Russia and China are often on the same side of the many issues that are presented before the UNSC, not because of any lasting ties or fear of Western oppression, but because they truly believe that many internal matters should remain so. Since the fall of the Soviet Union two vetoes issued by China have been tandem with Russia, in 2007 against a draft resolution on Myanmar and in 2008 against a draft on the situation in Zimbabwe. The only two other vetoes, both solo efforts, were against a six-month renewal of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1999 and in 1997 against a draft on Central American stability. Neither were particularly world-shattering votes, taken not out of a pressing national interest by Beijing but rather to prove a point about non-intervention.

In the Abeyi resolution, however, we see a departure from the Russian modus operandi, in not only calling for a cessation of violence, but calling for an interim peacekeeping for to enforce it. Rather than preserving neutrality by allowing Sudan and South Sudan to negotiate among themselves, China support and helped draft language calling on the international community to help. While not a drastic shift in policy, it does go further than many would have expected of the PRC.

The Chinese instance of taking part in the drafting of the Abeyi resolution in and of itself is not the harbinger of a more progressive stance and strategy in the UNSC. If the Chinese government wants to be a true player on the world stage, though, it could serve as a starting point. Rather than relying on the status quo or to act as a shield or veneer against encroachment, China could use the Security Council much in the same way that the West does, as an instrument in which to push an agenda. This isn’t to say that such an agenda would be interventionist in nature or change China’s policy towards sovereignty. Rather, what we could see in the future is a China that works to build coalitions to pass resolutions rather than prevent them.

Such a day isn’t anytime near at hand, however. For the near future, China will continue to use the United Nations as a way to keep the status quo in place long enough to ensure it has the room necessary for its peaceful rise while doing its most important diplomatic maneuvering bilaterally and in smaller regional bodies, while Russia does much the same in hopes of recovering and holding onto its Great Power status. For the near future, Russia and China will be erstwhile allies in the Security Council, keeping those around the horseshoe table from enacting too much change too quickly. I can certainly say this: the day that China decides to shift to being the instigator is going to be an interesting day on Turtle Bay indeed.