Posts tagged ‘china’

December 7, 2011

“I’m sorry, Mahmoud, I don’t have a nuke in my sack, but how about a nice drone?” – Santa

I’m still feeling like I’m a good day or two behind the rest of the world when it comes to what’s going on out there, so forgive me if this seems dated already. But I couldn’t not comment on the downed drone in Iranian territory. Like most people, when I first saw the news, I figured it was a complete fabrication by the Iranian press. When confirmation came out from the US government that we did, in fact, lose a spy plane in or near Iranian airspace, I was more than a little surprised.

Like most things in life, the idea that we could lose a nearly intact drone to Iran is one of those things that seems too ridiculous to be true until it actually happens. As of the time of this writing, the buzz seems to have died down some surrounding the issue, so it may be that the whole thing is for naught. In any case, it appears to me that if all the reports that we’ve seen so far are true, which is also a big if, then the situation is bad, but not dire, with many more “it could be worse” points than actual “oh god why”.

The good news: The initial reports coming out of Iran involved claims that the Iranian military used a sophisticated cyberattack to down the drone. Fact: There is no way that a cyberattack is what actually led to the downing of the craft. Despite a report earlier this year about a virus that has spread through the drone fleet, Iran’s electronic warfare capability is in no way capable of hacking into the controls of a drone and forcing it to land. James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it succinctly:

“Iran hacking into the drone is as likely as an Ayatollah standing on a mountain-top and using thought waves to bring it down,” Lewis, a former Reagan administration official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo News by email Monday. “The most likely explanation is that it crashed on its own.”

“If you could hack into a drone, you wouldn’t use it for some spontaneous fun, you’d save it for a rainy day,” Lewis continued. “You’d need to be able to hack either the control network in the U.S. or a satellite.  Neither is easy, and both are probably not something the Iranians can do.”

Better news: We didn’t risk going in after it. Initially, Iran most likely didn’t know about the crash and probably didn’t for sometime, as evidenced by the fact that their acquisition was revealed almost a week after it was lost in the first place. But the Wall Street Journal reports that though we considered recovery, the US ultimately opted against, as the risks of adding fuel to the fire far outweighed a recovery of the technology:

Under one plan, a team would be sent to retrieve the aircraft. U.S. officials considered both sending in a team of American commandos based in Afghanistan as well as using allied agents inside Iran to hunt down the downed aircraft.

Another option would have had a team sneak in to blow up the remaining pieces of the drone. A third option would have been to destroy the wreckage with an airstrike.

However, the officials worried that any option for retrieving or destroying the drone would have risked discovery by Iran.

The fact remains as well that this is what drones were designed to be useful for. Had it been a manned surveillance aircraft, in the style of the spy plane that went down over China in 2001, we would have had a much larger problem on our hands, with either a dead airman or a captive of the IRGC to deal with. Despite acknowledging that we did not attempt to go in after the drone, there will be those who say the contrary. For example, at the Aviationist blog, a reader has posted this following theory:

“Temporary loss of satellite connection is common and the drone will orbit on a preplanned route until connection is re-established. If the connection is never re-established then the aircraft will eventually run out of fuel and crash. This can happen if the the encryption keys are invalidated during rollover and were not properly loaded (among other possibilities). Prior to fuel exhaustion, standard procedure is to perform classified data erase, followed by software data erase. A recovery team is supposed to follow up and secure it or blow it up.

In this case it appears the recovery team couldn’t find it.”

Oh my wow, does that make no sense. Suppose. Suppose for a half-second that we actually were prepared to send in a team, possibly deep into Iranian territory, to attempt to recover or destroy this drone. Why would such a team be put together and insert without knowing where the damn thing is? It may have just been commentary on what is SOP in other instances, but that wasn’t made clear by the reader’s comment. In any case, we stayed out of Iran, which is good, which means that any saber-rattling they bring up over violation of their airspace can be promptly ignored, as usual.

The best news: The RQ-170 Sentinel is aptly named. Unlike its Predator or Reaper brethren, it is designed to do one thing only: spy. The Predator and Reaper are further not stealthy in the least-bit, being propeller-powered; if the Sentinel really was a remote stealth bomber, this would be a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. There are no JDAMs loaded onto the Sentinel, nor would it be readily apparent from a review of the downed craft how to integrate a weapons system seamlessly into the frame given.

The bad news: Well, there’s a few bits of bad news here. The first is that this still amounts to a large loss by the US in terms of keeping secret technology out of the hands of adversaries. And while it is weaponless, the Sentinel does possess advanced communication-monitoring tech inside of its well-coated shell. The Pentagon is working hard to spin the fact that the RQ-170 is somewhat outdated as far as drone technology goes, but it still far outstrips anything that Iran could hope to develop on its own in the near future.

While there isn’t too much new to discover from the RQ-170, the fact remains that it is still a nearly intact specimen ripe for dissection, as far as has been revealed, despite a notable lack of photographic evidence from Tehran.  (Really, you’d think there’d be a shot of Ahmadinejad posing next to the thing by now.) It’s unlikely that Iran itself will be able to reverse-engineer it itself, so panicky worries about stealth surveillance drones flying from Tehran to Tel Aviv are extremely premature.  What is more likely is that Iran will take this opportunity to sell the drone to the highest bidder, likely in exchange for other non-monetary perks.

Which is to say there is no way that a new round of sanctions are forthcoming in the UN Security Council. The odds were already low, this development takes them to near absolute zero in terms of possibility. Russia and China are the states most likely to benefit from this, though it would be naive to assume that they weren’t aware of many of the broader information about the craft. But actually getting their hands on an intact version would be a huge gift, particularly to states that are known for their reverse-engineering capabilities. The PRC and Russian Federation were unlikely to support new sanctions on Iran in any case, but this is a bow on that little present.

In summation, while not great, it could be a lot worse. The whole affair amounts to a brand new top-secret iPhone 5 falling off the back of a truck on Dec 24th: it isn’t set to bring down the entity that lost it, but it’s more than a little annoying. So Merry Christmas, Ayatollah. It looks like it came a little early for you this year.

November 17, 2011

At what point do we hear “Do Svidanjia, Assad”?

Things are getting very interesting in Syria. Whether that would be “good interesting” or “bad interesting” all depends on where you come down on the prospect of civil war, the continuation or dissolution of the Assad regime, and the merits of the Responsibility to Protect. Which is to say that the member-states of the United Nations Security Council is going to be making some very interesting choices soon from the point of view of the Syrian government and protestors.

What is apparent is that things are managing to get even uglier in Syria. Months of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad have until recently only to months of repression and slaughter by the Syrian government. Yesterday was the bloodiest day of the crackdown yet, with over 90 killed according to observers, adding to the over 3,500 killed since March according to the UN. Despite insisting throughout this period that Assad is sure to survive the ongoing uprising, prognosticators on the future of the state have gotten a few surprises in recent days. These events both make the possibility of the United Nations stepping both more likely and far more remote.

Tilting the balance in favor of intervention is the unprecedented levels of regional isolation the Syrian Arab Republic is currently feeling. While the Arab League has gained a reputation for empty promises and vague gestures of condemnation towards recalcitrant members, on Sunday the League threatened to suspend Syria’s membership and levy sanctions should the violence not stop and a League drafted proposal to monitor the ceasefire not be enacted. Syria attempted to forestall this conclusion by calling an emergency session, but was quickly rebuffed by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As of yesterday, Syria has been suspended from the League of Arab States, and has been given a deadline of three days to halt the violence and place the terms of the agreement into affect before sanctions are enacted. Doing themselves no favors, following the announcement of the Arab League decision on Sunday, pro-Assad protesters took to the streets, looting and burning several embassies along the way, causing even greater international condemnation.

As Max Fisher of The Atlantic notes, however, this is no longer a simple case of unarmed protesters being massacred in the streets – civil war is brewing. Armed conflict is most certainly on the rise in Syria, as defectors turn from the Syrian Army in greater numbers, and groups like the Free Syrian Army begin to coalesce. Just yesterday, the FSA launched an attack on a compound belonging to Air Force Intelligence, known for their use of torture in interrogations.  As you can see in the video below, civilians are no longer allowing tanks to move through Syrian cities unhindered.

China has even come out in favor of the Arab League’s machinations, a testimony to its commitment to supporting regional organizations, even when they reach decisions that Beijing may personally be uncomfortable with:

“China supports the AL’s efforts to end the crisis in Syria and has called on concerned parties to implement the Arab League’s resolution at an early date and in a substantial and appropriate way. … Concerned parties should make concerted efforts and the international community should create favorable conditions for the implementation process.”

With this reversal from its earlier position of non-interference, the door may be reopened to bringing the issue of Syria before the Security Council. An earlier push led by the United Kingdom and France ended in a twin veto by China and Russia in October, placing the situation on the back burner since then. Following the Arab League’s threat, sanctions may be on the table again, opposed to the relatively simple condemnation of violence with the threat of sanctions that was considered previously.

This still leaves one very large obstacle, however: The Russian Federation.

Despite the pleas of the Syrian National Council, who met with Russian Foreign Minister and former UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Russia seems determined to support Assad. Lavrov went so far as to call the activity in Syria akin to a civil war earlier today, while maintaining Russia’s position on keeping Assad in power:

“If some opposition representatives, with support from some foreign countries, declare that dialogue can begin only after President Assad goes, then the Arab League initiative becomes worthless and meaningless,” Lavrov said.

His statement speaks strongly to Russia’s concerns about intervention in civil wars, which Moscow tends to view as purely internal affairs. A rising death count won’t soon sway the Kremlin to act; to be completely candid, it’s highly doubtful that if the winner of this year’s Confucius Peace Prize were in Assad’s position that we would not see tanks in St. Petersburg.

Aside from ideological differences over sovereignty, and concerns about losing another foothold of influence in the region, the Russian Federation has many Legitimate Business Interests in place in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia cancelled $73M worth of debt Syria owed from the days of the Soviet Union, freeing up Bashar to buy even more arms. According to Amnesty International, roughly 10% of Russia’s annual sale of arms goes to Syria; this would presumably include both light and heavy weapons, though the exact amount is difficult to determine, due to Russia’s reluctance to publish the exact dollar or ruble amounts of its weapons dealings. In either case, a sanctions regime against Syria would come at a time where Damascus is most willing to pay through the nose for Russian armaments.

Mark Goldberg at UN Dispatch notes that present day Syria is getting more and more like Libya, circa February this year. As the violence rises and the international community solidifies against Assad, the likelihood of the beginning of intervening, maybe not militarily but at least the issuing of a presidential statement, rises. This may be true, particularly in the event that a draft presidential statement is circulated merely condemning the violence without making a firm statement on President Assad stepping down. The comparison also marks a potential argument against the likelihood of concerted action. Russia’s argument since the moment the first NATO missile struck Libyan territory has been that the alliance has reached far beyond its mandate to use force, and that the eventual regime change that has since transpired was illegal in nature. By raising the spectre that the Russian Federation could be hoodwinked into abstaining on another critical vote under Chapter VII, the odds that Ambassador Vitaly Churkin push back, and hard, against any firm resolution on the matter grows.

The same would hold true of even getting to the nine votes from the Council needed to take action. Resolution 1973 contained the use of force authorization, but the door to that was opened with the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1970. Let’s assume that a British/French draft is tabled with heavy international sanctions against the Assad regime, along the same lines as the European Union’s, modeled after 1970. We have the three permanent Western powers in favor, along with the two WEOG seats, Germany and Portugal, and most likely Colombia as well. Lebanon will be firmly against the move, China potentially abstaining depending on the Arab League’s reaction. Nigeria, Gabon, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would likely be persuaded to go along with the draft as they were in October.  That just barely gets you to nine, allowing the West to act over the concerns of South Africa, Brazil and India. This still leaves Russia in play, however.

What would it take for Russia to reverse itself on Syria, allowing for at the very least an abstention from vetoing a new draft? Heightened isolation of the Assad regime may or may not help Moscow change its tune. A new Human Rights Council report on Syria is due out in the coming weeks. A negative report, which it is almost sure to be, may spur action taken by the HRC, along the same lines of that which prompted Libya’s expulsion from the body.

Also, a new diplomatic move in the General Assembly of all places may open the door for Russia to at least abstain on a condemnation of violence by the full Security Council. The GA, acting in lieu of the Security Council as is their right under the Charter when it is not discussing a matter of international peace and security, is preparing to table a resolution condemning Syria for its violence. Further, the sponsors of this draft include the usual European suspects, but is all the more remarkable for being potentially co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. The full text of it can be found here. A strong vote in first the General Assembly’s Third Committee: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian, then the full Assembly, would provide an ample smokescreen to allow for Russia to abstain on a condemnation of violence or at the very least a presidential statement in the UNSC.

What it all boils down to, however, is whether these, in the eyes of many, compelling arguments will persuade the Russian Federation to, if not act, not actively stand in the way of action being taken. The veto system was designed to prevent national interests from being over-ridden by the UNSC, this is the way it has always been and will likely always be. But it is quickly becoming clear that one way or another Assad is not going to end his days as the ruler of Syria. The next government will remember who stood behind Bashar al-Assad to his last and treat that state accordingly, and I highly doubt that Russia’s best efforts at mediation so far, as seen in this draft resolution circulated in August, will win them many accolades. Truly, it’s in Russia’s national interest to say “do svidanjia” to Bashar sooner rather than later.

November 8, 2011

Memo to Richard Clarke: China does not have a “US Internet On/Off” switch

Gulliver, of the Inkspots blog, tweet earlier today an article published in the Boston Globe. In said article, Richard Clarke, also known as the Man Who Knew Too Much in the pre-September 11 days, predictor of the bin Laden attacks and ignored by the Administration, has a few recommendations about the readiness of our nation’s digital defenses. I was excited, until I saw the headline: Cyber weaknesses should deter US from waging war


Clarke said if he was advising the president he would warn against attacking other countries because so many of them — including China, North Korea, Iran and Russia — could retaliate by launching devastating cyberattacks that could destroy power grids, banking networks or transportation systems.

The U.S. military, he said, is entirely dependent on computer systems and could end up in a future conflict in which troops trot out onto a battlefield “and nothing works.”

Clarke said a good national security adviser would tell the president that the U.S. might be able to blow up a nuclear plant somewhere, or a terrorist training center somewhere, but a number of countries could strike back with a cyberattack and “the entire us economic system could be crashed in retaliation … because we can’t defend it today.”

“I really don’t know to what extent the weapon systems that have been developed over the last 10 years have been penetrated, to what extent the chips are compromised, to what extent the code is compromised,” Clarke said. “I can’t assure you that as you go to war with a cybersecurity-conscious, cybersecurity-capable enemy that any of our stuff is going to work.”

Oh my stars and garters. First of all, usual disclaimers that these are my personal opinions, not those of anyone I may be employed by. Now. Do I really need to explain to Mr. Clarke why his statement makes no sense? The use of computers has made our armed forces more mobile, agile, and accurate. It has not made them deadlier in my opinion. In fact, taking away the ability of our systems to, say, precisely pinpoint a target would probably be the dumbest thing an enemy could do. It’s not like we’ve lost the ability to just carpetbomb areas into submission, it’s just something that we honestly prefer not to do these days.

Also, it sounds like Mr. Clarke is vastly inflating the capabilities of the states he lists. Yes, China and Russia were called out recently for hacking into our systems to gain access to sensitive data for economic gain. But if you honestly think that there aren’t white hats on our side doing the same thing, then your dream world sounds like a lovely place to visit. Espionage is something that exists and always will exist so long as there are secrets that need to be protected. Why do you think we even have a Central Intelligence Agency?

But seriously. If the United States or one of our allies were to strike against an Iranian nuclear plant, which I am by the by not in favor of, I am extremely skeptical that Iran’s first thought will be “shut down the Interwebs in the U.S.” As Dan Trombly points out, Iran’s proxy capabilities are much more impressive than anything it has in the digital domain, and further, the entirety of the cybercapability we’ve seen from them has been in regards to domestic communication, not widespread hacking into infrastructure. China using it’s legion of “Netizen hackers” to counterbalance the offensive edge that we so clearly have on them would make sense and is the most credible of the states Clarke lists, but the PRC is light-years away from having that ability, no matter how lacking our defenses are.

Cyber-capabilities are impressive. Nobody is denying that fact. The hype around them though is stunning. I love science-fiction as much as the next person, and the future is in fact awesome as I find myself thinking every day. But the wild-mass guessing that goes into attempting to predict the full abilities that can and will be brought to bear in a conflict is more than a little ridiculous. The way that many writers and analysts put it, there’s a switch somewhere in various states that can be flipped in the event of war, where the various Trojan horses and malware on American systems can suddenly shut. down. everything. I can assure you that any use of cyberconflict in the coming years will look nothing like that. Disrupting communications, sending out false information and corrupting data, various levels of enhanced espionage, that’s what’s facing us, not preventing bombs from deploying or somehow crashing the US economy.

Further, this is a huge pet-peeve of mine, the acting like any instance of a cyber or digital attack would be completely beyond the conventional norms of warfare and that the US has absolutely no past models to draw on. Bull. Saying that we shouldn’t attack a country because they might retaliate against our digital infrastructure is akin to saying that we shouldn’t attack them because any of our assets may in turn be targeted. Which would make no sense, because that is how war is conducted: you strike, you attempt to block the oncoming counterstrike. If your defenses are lagging in one point? Then you build them up, but that doesn’t mean that your weakpoint completely negates your offensive capabilities. There are plenty of reasons to not launch a military strike, but concern over our computer networks is not one of them. Mr. Clarke needs to take it down a notch; advocating for more robust defense is fine, but hyperbole just weakens your arguments.

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.