Both the United States and the PRC are displaying a disturbing predisposition toward militarizing their national security strategies. It is understandable. An external military threat is easier to sell and explain than a complex national challenge of economic, social, and political competitiveness, and there is a large and influential coterie of officers, natsec types, and defense contractors that welcomes a military framing.
But the devil is in the details—the actual implementation of a successful policy—something that both the US and the PRC are, one can only hope, considering.
But the publicly available data is not encouraging.
I have a piece up in the current print edition of CounterPunch on the Chinese military (you can subscribe here, or purchase a PDF of the issue).
It describes the primary dynamic of the PRC’s maritime strategy: designing its program of regional assertiveness/encroachments in a way that prevents militarization of frictions and, in particular, avoids direct military confrontation with the United States.
On the one hand, the PRC throws its weight around with oil rigs, maritime surveillance vessels, and coast guard ships; on the other hand, the PLA Navy is a virtually invisible player when it comes to PRC moves in the East and South China Seas.
At the same time, the PRC conducts a discrete bromance with the US Navy.
Recently, the PRC participated in a US-organized naval get-together, RIMPAC, in Hawaii, and made the seemingly provocative decision to send a spy ship to shadow the exercise within the US Exclusive Economic Zone. Not a provocation, I opined, but a concession.
Previously, the PRC argued that military surveillance within its EEZ by US Navy vessels such as the USS Impeccable was illegal and, in 2009, made a point of harassing the Impeccable as it sailed back and forth inside the PRC EEZ off Hainan Island.
This gambit backfired spectacularly as Hillary Clinton used it as the justification for declaring the US interest in “freedom of navigation” at the ASEAN meeting in 2010, and a fulcrum upon which to hang the US pivot to Asia.
Since then, the PRC has for the most part backpedaled in order to provide no pretext for the US to accuse it of impeding freedom of navigation of US military vessels, and thereby remove “freedom of navigation” from the State Department’s menu of actionable PRC transgressions in the South China Sea.
At the same time, the US Navy argued that a close reading of the Law of the Sea treaty (the US hasn’t signed it but the US Navy uses it as a guide for its multifarious activities in other peoples’ EEZs and territorial waters) did not preclude passage of US military vessels within the Chinese EEZ even if their activities were detrimental to the PRC’s security.
To strengthen its case, the US Navy also went the extra mile of confirming that it was actually tracking PLAN submarines and not just mapping the ocean floor, an activity that could be construed as having dual military/economic significance and therefore falling within UNCLOS jurisdiction.
So, I concluded, when the PRC sent a spy ship to RIMPAC inside the US EEZ it was tacitly acknowledging the US Navy’s interpretation. And, given the PRC’s current unwillingness to aggravate the US military unnecessarily, that interpretation makes pretty good sense.
Admiral Locklear, while less than thrilled about the presence of the spy ship, agrees:
“The good news about this is it’s a recognition, I think, or acceptance by the Chinese that what we’ve been saying to them for some time is that military operations and survey operations in another country’s [maritime zones] are within international law and are acceptable, and this is a fundamental right that nations have,” Adm. Samuel Locklear III, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
So far so good.
However, diplomats and security brainiacs in the US, Japan, Philippines, and, potentially, Vietnam, are trying to find ways to counter Chinese non-military tactics by finding ways to redefine situations in military terms so that the overwhelming US military superiority (and its availability to Japan and the Philippines as treaty allies) can be brought to bear against the PRC.
The term of art for this repackaging is “grey zone conflicts”. This formulation has become a standard feature of Japanese defense planning; as US frustration with PRC non-military moves in the South China Sea has grown, it has also crept into discussions of what the United States can do to up its game on behalf of the Philippines and, potentially, Vietnam.
In the Japanese context, the scenarios involve deploying military force to deal with an ostensibly non-military PRC seizure of the Senkakus, or forcing a worrisome PLAN submarine to surface near Japan. In the South China Sea, the scenarios haven’t been fleshed out in the public sphere, but I suspect they involve things like interposing US Navy vessels between Philippine fishing vessels or oil exploration vessels and PRC ships at points of contention like Scarborough Shoal or Reed Bank.
I am pretty skeptical of the idea that PRC non-military moves should be countered with a military response and I have a certain suspicion that some within the US uniformed defense establishment feel the same way. Japanese military boffins and the Pentagon are continually hashing over “gray zone” definitions and rules of engagement and, in my opinion, the Japanese government has been leveraging its willingness to support a US priority—Japanese “collective self defense”—in order to obtain US support in “gray zone” scenarios.
Also as a matter of personal opinion, I must say that I consider the US push for “collective self defense” a strategic boondoggle even more flawed than the “pivot to Asia”, which is really saying something.
I find the US obsession with “CSD”—the idea that Japanese military forces must engage in war stuff not directly related to defense of the Japanese homeland—somewhat mystifying. Apparently, Pentagon planners are getting extremely nervous about the arms buildup in Asia—which tracks GDP growth and, therefore, is getting pretty darn big—and its implications for US military hegemony.
The idea is to combine US and Japanese muscle and field a bigger, more deterrent-credible force (in fact, I wonder if AirSea Battle—the total war with the PRC from the Malacca Straits up to Hokkaido scenario—was cooked up simply to demonstrate the impossibility of the US funding and implementing a completely dominant force in Asia by itself).
Japan is supposed to contribute its local strengths in minesweeping, anti-submarine warfare, and aerial surveillance, at least in the initial stage.
I guess the idea was “Japan can’t be a freerider anymore and needs to have some skin in the Asia-Pacific security game”.
Well, as far as I can tell, Japan under so-called “pacifist” constitution already had plenty of skin in the game—because it seems most credible US-PRC WWIII scenarios all involve US bases on Honshu and, in particular, long-suffering Okinawa, getting nuked.
That’s an agency problem—people on the same team but bringing divergent objectives–a problem the US avoided when it ran the military show unilaterally. Now, by trying to integrate Japanese forces into the US command, we’re giving an operational voice to people who face an immediate threat of getting blown up during the implementation of our grand strategy. Collective self-defense, to my mind, complicates and compromises the US deterrent posture.
In my opinion, if we feel we need to field more minesweepers and ASW and Orions to deter the Chicom menace, we should pay for them ourselves instead of hoping for a perfect understanding with our Japanese allies if and when World War III rolls around.
The agency problem has already revealed itself with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to re-establish Japan as a “normal” nation i.e. not constrained by the pacifist constitution imposed by the US after Japan’s defeat in World War II and able to necessary/useful/useless/and/or catastrophically stupid things in the realm of security affairs, just like any other regional power.
CSD—since it permitted the Japanese military to abandon a pure territorial-defense posture—was embraced by the Abe administration.
The Abe administration swung behind CSD and sold it—rather unsuccessfully, I should say, to an extremely skeptical Japanese public—with fanciful justifications like “without CSD Japan couldn’t shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile headed for the United States”. Actually, the genuine attraction of CSD is that it allows Japan to pursue military relationships with neighboring countries i.e. implement a full-feature foreign policy including defense and security elements as well as the economic and other soft power carrots that sustained Japan’s regional presence over the last half-century.
And these foreign policy tools also allow Prime Minister Abe to pursue his preferred regional strategy—exacerbating tensions with the PRC just enough to push the Pacific democracies plus Vietnam away from the PRC and onto the Japanese security and, most importantly, economic side of a zero-sum equation.
Abe, it should be noted, is no America-firster. Like many Japanese conservatives, he rejects the World War II victor’s narrative and, like Putin, considers his nation’s diminished international clout as a tragedy and not a matter of geopolitical justice. In his US preferences, Abe is politically and emotionally inclined toward the Dick Cheney end of the ideological spectrum and does not consider it his main obligation and mission to smooth the way for Barack Obama in Asia. He’s looking out for Number 1—Japan—and caters to—and exploits—US preoccupations accordingly.
For those who pay attention, the CSD shoe dropped in July, as Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines addressed the significance of the cabinet decision that “reinterpreted” the constitution to allow CSD:
Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines, Toshinao Urabe, says the proposed “reinterpretation” of Japan’s pacifist constitution would allow it to help if a country it has a “close relationship” with is attacked.
This means it would help defend the U.S., which is its only mutual defense treaty ally. Urabe said under the treaty, Japan is not obligated to use force in helping. The reinterpretation would enable it to do so.
But Urabe told reporters at a forum in Manila Thursday that in the case of other countries like the Philippines, which he said Japan also has a close relationship with, it would “depend on the situation.” He said Japan is most concerned with protecting its nationals if they are in vulnerable security situations.
“But basically this is a policy to defend ourselves in various situations which were not conceived before. And I think it’s important to make necessary preparation to various security situations,” Urabe stated.…Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based Asia geopolitical analyst. He said the proposal is widely seen as a way to keep China in check. “On one hand this will make it easier for Mr. Abe to have much more robust countermeasures against China’s territorial provocations in the Senkaku-Diaoyu,” he explained.
Heydarian said it is also a way for Japan to gain a foothold as a major security player in the region. He points out that Japan is bolstering its image as a security counterbalance to China that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can depend on.
There you have it. Instead of a unitary hub and spoke arrangement by which the United States, as the big kahuna, manages its ROK, Japan, and Philippines alliances bilaterally and monopolizes the Asian security space, CSD lays the foundation for a dual-hub system by which Japan constructs its own security arrangements with the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, and India in order to advance its own diplomatic, security, and economic agenda in Asia…which may involve working with Japan’s local interlocutors to accentuate the polarity between the PRC and its neighbors even when the United States for reasons of its own might be trying to wind down tensions.
CSD, in other words, accelerates the marginalization of the United States, rather than assuring its ascendancy. So, I don’t think the US foreign policy establishment should be slapping itself on the back for its great job in finally getting CSD on the books.
By the Peter Lee Law of Foreign Policy Verbiage—the amount of government and think tank output is directly proportionate to the bankruptcy of the policy it is meant to explain, justify, defend, repair, and/or obfuscate—I expect CSD to generate thousands upon thousands of pages of analysis and recommendations, as well as steady paychecks for hundreds upon hundreds of experts in the United States and Japan.
I also expect the new arrangement to contribute to a clutch of ugly regional crises in the years to come, especially if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and accelerates the pivot dynamic of confrontation & polarization that enlarged the diplomatic space for the US in its role as the dominant military force in Asia.
A prominent US China policy insider, Robert Sutter, made the case for putting Hong Kong democracy and Taiwan independence in play in order to generate additional pressure points on the PRC. Actually, Sutter carefully deployed the passive voice in characterizing China’s vulnerabilities and, essentially, advocated threatening to put them in play, an important distinction since, once the US has signaled its support, local activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan will seize control of events, Japan will be tempted to stir the pot, and the United States will find itself as little more than a passenger on the freedom train.
I expect Hillary Clinton will feel compelled to demonstrate the muscularity of her own presidency in contrast to the “leading from behind” drift displayed by President Obama in his second term. The possibility exists that the Taiwan presidential elections will produce deadlock and an atmosphere of national crisis—abetted by a Maidanesque group of “Sunflower” student activists whose anti-KMT inclination is ripe for amplification by the pro-independence DPP opposition—that Clinton and Abe might find irresistible.
Ex-president and independence avatar Lee Teng-hui recently voiced the opinion that the Senkakus belong to Japan (Taiwan’s right to the Senkakus—a claim that, I might add, is very persuasive to anyone who looks at a map or, for that matter, knows that President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger also had strong feelings about the legitimacy of Taiwan’s position– is a central plank of President Ma Ying-jyeou’s policy). If the DPP decides to cement its already strong ties to the conservative wing of Japanese politics by repudiating the ROC’s claims to the Senkakus, or even taking the next step of agitating for independence under the assumption that the US and Japan will decide that respect for the One China policy (and for that matter, for a certain degree of stability and control over events in East Asia) must take a back seat to Taiwanese self-determination, things could get very interesting for the PRC’s Xi Jinping.
Of course, Xi Jinping has not been sitting idly by.
He has acted forcefully and pre-emptively to insulate the CCP against the kind of shenanigans the US has deployed against the Russian Federation during the Ukraine imbroglio: delegitimization in the Western media, encouragement of democratic dissent, and sanctions keyed to US dominance of the global financial system.
A Taiwan crisis, therefore, may not compel the CCP to roll the dice in an existential war to sustain its claims to sovereignty in the Han homeland.
The western borders, however, offer challenges to control that the CCP has not yet demonstrably mastered.
I believe the most interesting and disturbing developments have taken place in Xinjiang, home to almost 9 million Uighurs who might interpret a crisis over the sovereignty of Taiwan and Hong Kong as an opportunity to advance their own claims to self-determination. Conditions have already become extremely fraught. In recent weeks there have been multiple bloody incidents, including one involving nearly one hundred fatalities (the World Uyghur Congress, an émigré group under the leadership of Rebiya Kadeer, has claimed actual fatalities were 2000, an assertion that under other circumstances might be open to dismissal but now merits some more serious consideration) and can be spun as the massacre of Uighur demonstrators by Han security forces, an attack fomented by a group of aggrieved Islamists, or something in between.
US incitement is currently not on the table, even though the World Uyghur Congress, which sedulously tends its relations with the US government, has taken to calling Xinjiang “East Turkestan”, thereby throwing its hat in the ring on behalf of independence. Therefore, Western news outlets are bedeviled by the issue of whether the Chinese characterization of terrorists should be adopted, or whether the verbose formulation of “aggrieved Uighurs spontaneously venting their anger against an unjust and oppressive regime” should be employed instead. For the time being, some outlets have compromised by using the Chinese label, but using quotation marks “terrorists” as a distancing mechanism.
The assassination of the imam of the PRC’s largest mosque, in Kashgar, may eventually convince some fence-sitters in the media of the existence of an organized movement employing terror as a political instrument.
The PRC government, of course, has already announced its conclusions.
It has poured military and security forces into Xinjiang, and also employed some measures that have attracted a certain amount of bewilderment and mockery.
The PRC government seemed to go over-the-top in rewarding locals—30,000 locals by its count!– who supposedly assisted in rounding up the alleged perpetrators of the recent massacre:
Authorities in far west China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have announced that more than 300 million yuan (about 48 million U.S. dollars) would be offered in cash rewards to those who helped hunt suspected terrorists.
More than 10,000 officials and local residents attended an award ceremony held in Hotan Prefecture Sunday, the first batch of the rewards.Altogether 4.23 million yuan were offered at the ceremony to local residents for their bravery in hunting a group of 10 suspected terrorists.Six people who offered key tip-offs leading to the location of the suspected terrorists were given 100,000 yuan each. More individuals and government agencies received cash rewards.
The LA Times’ Barbara Demick described harassment against students and government employees trying to honor the Ramadan fast, and a campaign against forbidden head coverings for women:
At one checkpoint near Kashgar’s main mosque, three Uighur women in colorful, sequined calf-length dresses and a man in sunglasses sat under a large blue umbrella the weekend before last watching people shopping for the coming Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marked the end of Ramadan.
When a motorcycle drove by with two women and a toddler, they flagged it down and told the woman in back to dismount. The woman, who looked to be in her 40s, was wearing a long black-and-white striped dress, a patterned red scarf and a white veil that covered her mouth and nose.
Within minutes, a white van pulled up at the checkpoint with a large red sign on the side reading “Strictly Attack Terrorism and Protect the Stability of Society.” The woman climbed in the van without protest and was driven off, presumably to a Project Beauty headquarters to be given a lecture on appropriate dress.
In the city of Karamay (an isolated oil outpost in the heart of the desert and, perhaps, the easiest place to test drive this kind of policy), per Reuters:
Authorities will prohibit five types of passengers – those who wear veils, head scarves, a loose-fitting garment called a jilbab, clothing with the crescent moon and star, and those with long beards – from boarding buses in the northwestern city of Karamay, state media said.…”Those who do not comply, especially those five types of passengers, will be reported to the police,” the paper said.
By the traditional calculus of “hearts and minds” (or its Chinese variant, “hearts and minds and remorseless Han economic, cultural, and demographic infiltration”), these measures would be seen as ridiculously counter-productive.
Maybe the CCP is looking at the recent trendlines in Uighur-related mayhem and has come to the conclusion that “hearts and minds” isn’t going to cut it.
Or maybe the PRC has decided that China, as a rising world power, has to learn to play the militarized counterinsurgency game the same way the grand master, the United States, does.
I look at what the PRC security forces are doing in Xinjiang, and it reminds me of what the United States did in Iraq’s Anbar Province.
Those people determinedly engaged in Islamic practice—Ramadan, beards, headscarves—probably are self-identifying as potential security threats and end up in a database for surveillance, relational mapping, etc. Maybe it doesn’t yet resemble the massive database of social and biometric data the US acquired in Iraq, especially in hot spots like Fallujah (Centcom still holds on to a biometric database including retinal scans and thumbprints for 3 million Iraqis, 10% of the population of Iraq), but it’s a start.
The ridiculously over-compensated local anti-terrorist practitioners: they’re also in the system, as assets, like the Anbar tribespeople who, as a matter of principle and interest, provided tips and intel or at least passive acquiescence to the US in the war against al Qaeda. At the height of the Anbar Awakening, in 2008, the US military was paying $300/month salaries to 91,000 Iraqis, a bill of $16 million per month.
The only thing missing from this equation: the death squads (in Iraq, the Joint Special Operations Command) and drones (AfPak) that close the circle. I’m assuming the PRC has something similar.
I hope the PRC doesn’t believe it can crack the counterinsurgency puzzle better than the US effort that, despite multiple iterations and the outlay of tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars has failed to produce lasting gains in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I also hope the PRC is not looking at an example much closer to home, which might qualify as the only truly successful counterinsurgency/anti-separatist action in recent decades: Sri Lanka’s war of annihilation against the Tamil rebels that culminated with the obliteration of the Tamil forces and tens of thousands of civilian victims on a narrow spit of land in 2009, a humanitarian horror show made possible largely by the PRC’s steadfast, multi-year financial, material, and diplomatic support.
And the PRC must also look at the danger of alienating the Taliban of Afghanistan and other regional Islamist actors, who have heretofore cracked down on Xinjiang-oriented activity in response to Chinese economic and diplomatic blandishments.
Militarization of disputes simplify the statement of a problem, in my opinion, but makes resolution ever more difficult and remote. It is a temptation that, I hope, the PRC and the US can both resist.