Posts Tagged ‘Asia’


We’re Not Here to be Liked…

In Warfare on July 5, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

As General Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan, it is perhaps worth considering the lessons offered by historical example in trying to envision the end-state of the conflict in that benighted country. The outlook is not encouraging.

The strategy put into place by the outgoing General McChrystal, which will evidently continue under Petraeus, revolves around the idea of conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, which in short entails employing a set of highly restrictive rules of engagement and a minimum of force in order to maximize opportunities for building support for a new local civilian government among the populace; the rather more destructive approach employed during much of the Vietnam War, best summed up in the convoluted logic of the famous statement by a soldier that “(w)e had to burn the village in order to save it,” has not proven to win much backing. This sort of approach is usually applied in a limited area first, and when it has been pacified, efforts are shifted to adjacent areas; this is known as an “inkspot” strategy, as single drops slowly spread across the map, eventually joining to create a singular secure state. Needless to say, building trust among the people, sufficiently weakening the enemy and strengthening the local government, all with limited resort to force, is an expensive and time-consuming process that depends at least as much on perception and belief as it does on material resources.

There is an inherent tension in this sort of conflict for the Great Power involved. How does one address a military escalation by one’s opponent if a commensurate increase in violence will only serve to further isolate the population upon which success ultimately depends? Is the only approach to “kill them with kindness (and development aid)?” If so, how can such a program be carried out if the civil administration is incapable of supporting such an effort? For soldiers trained to fight, as all soldiers must be, this sort of conflict presents one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges of service. For commanders and policy-makers, the problems present a similar (if not greater) conundrum.

Vietnam is naturally the most common example used in comparison to the current Afghan conflict. American strategy in Vietnam was famously confused, when it was in fact present at all. General Westmoreland’s approach in Vietnam represented what is termed the “ tacticization of strategy,” wherein the tactical objective is erroneously applied to the strategic level; in other words, Westmoreland viewed battlefield defeat of the enemy as an end in itself, but this tactical success led not to victory, but down a strategic cul-de-sac. Westmoreland is only partly to blame, as his civilian superiors gave him precious little strategic guidance, having no idea how to frame the conditions of victory except to identify ending the war as the primary objective.

American leadership largely attempted to ignore the asymmetry of the conflict, assuming or pretending that the Vietnamese people wanted to be free and democratic, that there was no tension between Western ideas and religion (American backed the Catholic Diem regime, to which the majority Buddhist population was generally opposed, if not openly hostile, until Diem’s assassination in 1963) and those native to the region,  and that the Communist opposition could be swayed from its primary purpose by carrots or sticks. Fighting the war on with a strategy based on these premises was a recipe for disaster, as no evidence supported the assumptions that underpinned this approach, while the Vietnamese communists had both a sound strategy and the means to effect it, as well as a far greater commitment to an object that was fundamental to their survival as a state.

Yet the greatest error of America’s war in Vietnam may be that it attempted to build the South Vietnamese state into a self-governing entity even as much of its territory was still contested, if not strongly held by the enemy. Further, the insistence that the South Vietnamese assume the Western form of government, with democratic elections and Enlightenment concepts and ethics lending it legitimacy, only weakened the real power of the South Vietnamese to build a viable nation from a people wholly unfamiliar with these concepts. The desire for rapid success (defined by the American people and government as getting out, presumably without the Communists winning control over all of Vietnam) created tremendous pressure to quickly stabilize the South Vietnamese state; the blind faith in the universal desire for democracy and freedom, combined with the rush to promote self-rule, severely undermined the ability of successive South Vietnamese governments to assume the burden of the war and to build a government that was ultimately sustainable.

In his landmark book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lt. Col. John Nagl (USA, Ret.) compares the U.S. experience in Vietnam with that of the British in Malaya during the Emergency, 1948-57. Both situations saw Communist insurgencies pitted against Western forces that had to deal not only with the immediate problem but with the broader circumstances of the Cold War as well. After confronting the insurgency for several years without success, the British turned to General Sir Gerald Templar, who was, to paraphrase Field Marshall Montgomery, “the man with the plan.” Templar was instructed that a self-governing unified non-Communist Malaya as the object of British efforts. With this in mind, the British government gave him “exceptional civil and military powers to defeat the insurgency,” appointing him not only High Commissioner (the highest civilian representative of the British government) but also commander of all armed forces in Malaya. Thus Templar was given full control over all assets, civil and military, that could be applied to defeating the insurgency in a singular unified effort prior to establishing a Malayan government, rather than trying to accomplish two difficult tasks at once. He used them to good effect; only when the Communists had been badly weakened did he begin to relinquish control to the nascent Malayan government.

Templar admittedly did not have to face the same bewildering array of political problems that the Americans did in Vietnam – Malaya having been a British colony for some time – but the fundamentals were similar. Securing the civilian population, isolating the insurgents, minimizing casualties and costs, and resolving the conflict expeditiously were all part of Templar’s brief. Without the problem of managing both the war effort and relations with a new and inexperienced local administration with no experience of the government model into which they have been thrust, Templar was free to apply techniques that would have prompted strong local resistance, such as strictly controlling the food supply and limiting movement.

This unified command approach was not pioneered by the British in Malaya, however; indeed, Americans had come to similar conclusions years before, as evidenced in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of 1940. This book, the culmination of decades of experience in fighting small wars, was forgotten in the wake of the Second World War, reentered the military’s consciousness as a result of the failure in Vietnam, and has been claimed to be influential in developing post-Cold War policy, yet its lessons have been applied haphazardly and piecemeal. The Small Wars Manual makes quite clear that there must be an effective administration in place while the military objectives are in question: “Military government…is sanctioned because the powers of sovereignty have passed into the hands of the commander of the occupying forces and the local authority is unable to maintain order and protect life and property in the immediate theater of military operations” (emphasis added). The latter state is quite clearly present in Afghanistan today.

The American effort in Afghanistan is badly weakened by the presence of the Afghan government. Corruption, infiltration by supporters of the Taliban insurgents, and general ineffectiveness all undermine popular support, which is critically important to create legitimacy, not least because of the insistence that the government be elected. If the counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed beyond simply allowing the United States to extricate itself from the conflict, the American commander should be invested with overarching civil powers as well as military command. This would clearly be a temporary condition, and may prove unpopular among the Afghan people, but it is necessary if the first precondition of a successful counterinsurgency effort – security of the populace – is to be established. As noted by the Marine authors of the Small Wars Manual seventy years ago, “(i)t should be remembered that the inhabitants do not owe the military government allegiance; but they do owe it obedience.” The American-led coalition of forces in Afghanistan are the only power sufficient to have even a hope of compelling the latter condition, which by our own doctrine is a necessary prerequisite for the former.



Reading Between the Lines in Asia

In Diplomacy on June 30, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Asia represents perhaps the best current example of a region in which rising powers are competing with each other as well as the existing powers for increased influence and power in a convoluted web of diplomacy. This behavior is not at all unfamiliar to those who have studied diplomatic history, but for those uninitiated in the twists and turns of competitive peacetime diplomacy in an anarchic world system it might seem that the countries involved were trying to make things as confusing (and thus unstable) as possible. Further, the dots of individual policies might seem so diffuse and without clear direction as to be impossible to connect. Yet connections may be inferred; it is these first threads of linkage between behavior and possible outcome that underpin the development of long-range strategic policy. While strategy always relies upon prediction and speculation, these are not applied without basis, at least by responsible practitioners.

Witness the developments of the last few days in East and Central Asia. The Economist reports that China has agreed to supply Pakistan with two additional nuclear reactors for its existing Chasma facility. (The Economist, The Power of Nightmares, 24 Jun 2010) With Pakistan being a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and already possessing nuclear weapons, as well as having an extensive history of proliferation and significant links to radical Islam, this is obviously of concern, particularly to India, Pakistan’s major regional rival. India, also a nuclear-armed power outside the NPT, is now engaged in preliminary discussions with both Japan and South Korea to expand its nuclear facilities, according to the Wall Street Journal. (The Wall Street Journal, Japan and India Launch Talks on Civilian Nuclear Pact, 29 Jun 2010) While there are legitimate energy needs to be met by nuclear power in both countries, these moves come too close together and raise too many questions to be simple coincidence.

China’s willingness to assist Pakistan is nothing new – it has provided arms in the past, as well as nuclear technology and even a nuclear warhead design. China views Pakistan as a useful client state that helps to balance India (China’s biggest regional rival in South Asia) and, indirectly, the United States (China’s biggest global rival). China is not particularly concerned about nuclear proliferation among Middle Eastern states or even Islamic radicals, as it appears to operate on the Machiavellian assumption that there are other powers that will suffer more from these developments, perhaps allowing China room to maneuver diplomatically.

Japan’s possession of peaceful nuclear technology has long been considered not only safe from domestic weaponization (opposition to nuclear weapons is understandably high among the Japanese people), but also from proliferation beyond its borders. Japan has had a strict policy of refusing to export nuclear technology to non-signatories to the NPT; the discussions with India vigorously cast aside that policy. Not only is India not a member of the NPT, but it has produced and tested nuclear weapons outside of it. Why has Japan suddenly altered its position, and why is it choosing to help India?

Part of the answer is mundane: the Indian market for energy is lucrative and growing, and the Japanese see opportunity. The willingness of South Korea to assist the Indians has only increased the market pressures on Japan to relax its nuclear policies. This alone, however, seems rather weak as the sole explanation for such a radical ideological shift.

The strategic calculus involved is somewhat complex, but when considered it provides a stronger rationale for Japan’s rather sudden change of heart. Both Japan and South Korea are very concerned by China’s rise. Neither is capable of containing China on their own; China’s population is too big and its economy and military too large for either to confront directly. The United States has taken a very weak position on China’s growing power, accepting it in no small part due to the huge amount of U.S. debt that China buys; Japan and South Korea rightly fear that the U.S. may not be willing (or in fact able) to act assertively to protect their interests when they come into conflict with those of the Chinese. Thus both recognize that they must seek to protect their own interests and balance China by cultivating additional strategic alliances: India is the obvious choice for such a relationship.

India and China are major rivals in Southeast Asia, economically and diplomatically. While China’s industrialization and economic development is more advanced than India’s, India has made considerable strides and looks poised to continue, particularly in the information technology field. In current policy as much as reputation, India’s democratic government is considered less threatening than totalitarian China’s, affording India some advantage in dealing with other governments. Both compete for influence in such economically and strategically important countries as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. China’s aggressive attempts to penetrate these markets are increasingly seen as economic imperialism, while the region’s policymakers are all too aware that China’s military could easily dominate the region if the U.S. Navy’s presence were reduced.

China’s naval build-up has been going on for some time, but India too has been attempting to increase its naval power, most notably by developing a useful aircraft carrier force, the centerpiece of a blue-water navy capable of conventional power projection ever since the Second World War. While there is no joy at the prospect of India eventually becoming a regional hegemon or any sort of major armed conflict breaking out in the region, the idea of India rising to meet the primary challenge of the moment – a hegemonic China – is likely to be quietly welcomed in capitals from Tokyo and Seoul to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The nuclear deals with Pakistan and India are all part of the ongoing diplomatic maneuvering. Selective nuclear proliferation has long been used as a tool to bind alliances together more tightly, and to offset the rising power of rivals both directly and indirectly. China is trying to maintain its advantage over India, Japan and South Korea; Japan and South Korea are trying to balance China; Pakistan and India are seeking advantage in their own more localized rivalry, and are happy for the possibilities offered by the broader regional situation. Nuclear technology is one of the few things that the more developed powers can offer those nations whose assistance they seek; as noted, Pakistan and India both have burgeoning energy needs, and China, Japan, and South Korea otherwise have little to offer in this regard. The secondary possibilities – in this case, weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists or technology into the hands of other states that seek nuclear capabilities outside the region – are too vague and too remote to receive significant value in the calculation.


Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere Redux? (Part Two)

In Economics on June 22, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , , , ,

As noted in Part One of this topic, the rise of China as well as other powers in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans has sufficiently compelling parallels to the rise of Imperial Japan in the first half of the 20th Century that it may be instructive to revisit Japan’s ascent to power, culminating in its drive toward a regional maritime empire it euphemistically called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. This entity did not simply spring from the minds of Japan’s leadership, but was in fact heavily influenced by outside thought and experience, especially of and with the two predominant maritime powers of the era: Great Britain and the United States. In particular, the work of U.S. naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan is known to have provided much of inspiration behind the Japanese strategy underpinning its rise to power. That Mahan’s ideas are gaining traction with the strategic planners of today’s rising Asian powers lends further credence to the relevance of Japan’s example.

Japan was introduced to Mahan’s seminal work with its translation into Japanese in 1896; many of his later works were translated as well. Mahan’s book was viewed as a blueprint for national greatness through naval expansion, with a battleship fleet providing the means to secure the colonies, bases, and lines of communication necessary to achieve this triumph. Indeed, this is largely what Mahan had intended, though his intended audience clearly was not Japan; the United States had begun to look outward for a variety of reasons – the closing of the frontier, domestic overproduction, concerns over European imperialism – and Mahan felt it must not merely look, but take a sufficiently active position as to be able to develop its commercial interests, and to create a fleet strong enough to protect them. The Japanese were impressed by arguments that seemed to apply as much to their own situation as to America’s, even though Mahan would have argued against this assertion. Key officers in the Japanese Navy were sent to Britain and the United States to study the new ideas underpinning what came to be known as navalism, and they returned to Japan to instruct their fellow officers through lectures and books of their own. These officers thus spread the gospel of Mahan not only to much of the naval officer corps, but to members of the government, industry and other influential citizens, inexorably intertwining Mahan with the general arguments in favor of expansion and naval procurement.

The First World War brought another important lesson that dovetailed nicely with the Japanese interpretation of Mahan’s teachings. In a long war, economic warfare could prove vital; the experiences of Great Britain and Germany showed that naval blockades, whether using traditional methods of boarding and inspecting merchant vessels for contraband or attacking them directly using a combination of open-sea raiders and the highly effective new technology of the submarine, could have a significant, if not decisive, impact on the outcome. Germany’s severe shortages of warmaking material, consumer commodities and foodstuffs by 1918, and Britain and France’s utter reliance on support from the U.S. as the war dragged on, demonstrated beyond a doubt to Japanese planners that only self-sufficient nations could hope to survive in the worst case scenario of a long war without proximate allies. Autarky became a vital element of Japanese industrial policy, but it was acknowledged that Japan – a nation hopelessly poor in most industrial commodities – could not achieve this without an overseas empire.

It is unsurprising then that the growth of the Japanese economy based on its industrial strength and its exports was concurrent with greater calls for measures to ensure continued economic development and security. What was needed to attain this seemed to be clear: acquiring productive resource-rich colonies, gaining control of key strategic positions to protect them, and building a navy strong enough to secure both. The 1922 Five-Power Naval Treaty that emerged from the Washington Conference, with its restrictions on Japan’s fleet building, was acquiesced to in no small part because the United States agreed to a nonfortification clause that gave Japan de facto control of the western Pacific. Despite concerns among some in Japan that the restrictions on fleet building would compromise her security, the Five-Power Treaty must be considered far more beneficial to Japan’s security interests than those of the United States, her principal rival in the Pacific. This may be evidenced by the fact that U.S. naval officers denounced the treaty as having undermined their service’s global mission (as defined by Mahan); U.S. Navy planners spent the rest of the decade working on ways to resolve the problem of war with Japan (considered a strong possibility since the beginning of the century) in light of the new limitations.

The ability to act as the dominant regional power in the western Pacific gave Japan the chance to begin the process of imperial acquisition. Beginning with the taking of Manchuria in 1931, and already controlling the important Korean peninsula and numerous islands in the southwestern Pacific (gained at Germany’s expense during the First World War, and tellingly identified by Mahan at that time as posing a serious concern to U.S. Pacific interests), Japanese policymakers, increasingly influenced by the competing leadership of the Army and the Navy, moved toward what they believed to be the Mahanian-dictated path to national greatness.

Yet it failed; Japan did not develop the increasingly stable, prosperous and defensible empire that it sought. Instead, the problem of securing resources sufficient to meet both industrial demands and the construction and operational requirements of the increasingly large naval contingent meant that Japan became increasingly desperate as its leaders realized that gaining the territory required to attain self-sufficiency would generate active opposition from Japan’s main trading partner and rival, the United States. The embargoes and financial measures taken by the U.S. in the years before Pearl Harbor reinforced the perceived requirement for creating an autarkic Japanese empire while making it harder to achieve, as the needs of the navy for steel and oil continued to increase as the U.S. threat loomed larger. American restrictions on petroleum and steel exports – put in place to protest Japanese actions in China – pushed the Japanese toward a point at which supplies of these vital commodities would run out, long before imperial territory could be extended and exploited to make up the shortfall. Rather than wait for the inevitable, the Japanese struck out for oil reserves of the Dutch East Indies, while following Mahan’s doctrine of decisive battle by concurrently attempting to knock out the only forces that could stop them, and the bases from which they would operate: the Royal Navy at Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” and the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, along with U.S. bases in the Philippines.

What went wrong? Simply put, Japan’s reading of Mahan was flawed. Japan’s devotees of Mahan’s ideas believed that a maritime empire and a strong navy were the keys to survival because they allowed the imperial power to control the resources it needed to succeed; they saw the global dominance of the British Empire demonstrated in The Influence of Sea Power upon History as an irrefutable example of this. Yet Mahan’s argument was as much about British success as it was about French failure; failure to concentrate on a maritime policy, failure to recognize the meaning of British commercial and naval strength, failure to see the dangers inherent in concentrating on the Continent. The Japanese would have done well to consider this.

While Britain was forced to be a maritime power by geography, France had a choice; in Mahan’s view, it was so indecisive in this as to give Britain de facto control over the vital seas while rendering itself unnecessarily vulnerable to commercial isolation and military impotence against its primary rival. Where Britain’s empire was remote and diffuse and her main rival close, Japan sought a regional empire and faced a distant rival; while this might seem to offer greater security, in fact the inability to restrain the United States by bottling up its merchant shipping and naval forces as Britain had those of France meant that Japan would face a far greater challenge, as Britain did in those instances where France’s navy was met in open seas rather than confined to its ports.

Britain’s maritime power was based on a large and active commercial fleet that provided what Mahan considered a necessary pre-condition for naval power; both Mahan’s France and Imperial Japan had far smaller commercial fleets, a condition that would contribute to the precariousness of their respective strategic positions rather than provide support for the navies needed to protect them. An array of sources for imports and markets for exports, within the Empire and without, gave Britain a commercial advantage that neither France nor Japan came close to matching. American sanctions against Japan further reduced her already limited commercial potential, further weakening the foundation on which her navy was being constructed, as no viable imperial alternative to this trade existed.

The considerably reduced material and technical requirements for the construction of wooden sailing ships when compared with 20th vessels meant that neither France nor Britain faced the severe problems encountered by the Japanese navy in constructing their fleet. While it is true that Mahan’s turn of the century American audience also had to meet the needs of modern technology, the U.S. had more than adequate supplies of the industrial commodities necessary, rendering the earlier conditions of the two European powers far more relevant than they were to Japan, to which fleet construction became a strategic objective itself, reversing Mahan’s order and perverting his logic.

Britain needed to commit few resources to her army, as the presence of the Royal Navy, the “wooden walls of Britain,” rendered Britain secure regardless of the size of the armies of her Great Power rivals, while France was forced to face them on the Continent; by the time Japan sought her empire, she too was forced to face the Great Powers not only at sea but on land, as well as the comparatively limitless manpower of Great Power-supported China, if she hoped to gain the territory she needed.

In short, despite outward appearances and the perceived universality of the doctrines espoused in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Japan met few of the criteria set out by Mahan. Thus when it set out to construct a maritime empire, an act which would necessarily challenge the United States – a nation far better suited to succeed in attaining Mahan’s vision of global strength – it did so with a deeply flawed strategy that misunderstood the tenets of one of its primary influences. In light of this, the outcome was hardly surprising.

The objective of the final part of this discussion will be to identify the relevance of Mahan’s ideas to the situation in East Asia today, and specifically to determine if the rising powers there – primarily China, but also India – are similarly misinterpreting these ideas, and what this in turn means for the United States and other powers that will be forced to accommodate or confront these powers.


Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere Redux? (Part One)

In Economics on June 2, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , , , , ,

Writing in June of 2009, The Economist’s correspondent, having attended a security conference in Singapore, noted that “(f)or China’s strategic planners, securing sea lanes against hostile powers has become perhaps the chief preoccupation.” (The Economist, “Chasing Ghosts”, 11 Jun 2009) It is no wonder – China’s continued economic growth is utterly dependent on the seaborne importation of huge quantities of of oil, coal, iron ore, and other raw materials necessary for continued industrial expansion. The quantities of these required, especially those fulfilling China’s burgeoning energy needs, are only expected to rise in coming years. China’s strategists would be foolish to think that securing these supply routes was anything short of a necessary precondition of China’s continuing rise.

Interestingly, the aforementioned author notes that the predominant influence on current strategic thought in maritime Asia – not just China, but India and other concerned nations as well – is the American naval theorist who contributed so much to the strategic developments of the first half of the 20th Century, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Captain Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, was enormously influential, positing that command of the sea, which was of vital importance for the survival and success of empires which aspired to global power, was best obtained by effecting the destruction of the enemy fleet. When the time came to do so, the fleet must be ready, able and concentrated; the time necessary to build such a fleet and train its crews being measured in years if not decades, Mahan argues that such a fleet must be maintained at all times, not just when war appears imminent. Having achieved decisive victory, the ability of one’s opponent to meaningfully interdict what are referred to as “lines of communication” will be severely impaired, ensuring the security of the geographic and material sources of one’s own economic power while starving rivals of theirs.

Perhaps more important, however, is the tantalizing promise Mahan offers: that naval power and success are the key to national greatness on a global scale.Though intended primarily for an American audience, and utilizing the successes of the British Royal Navy (mostly at the expense of the French) as evidence to support its conclusions, The Influence of Sea Power upon History was and is often seen to be offering a set of truths far more universal than is perhaps the case; note, for example, Mahan’s linkage of success with a representative system of government supported by a free commercially-active populace: “History has proved that such a purely military sea power can be built up by despot, as was done by Louis XIV; but though so fair seeming, experience showed that his navy was like a growth which having no root soon whithers away.” Such distinctions were and are easily glossed over (Mahan, like Clausewitz, is often paraphrased to the point of non-recognition) when the prospect of a formula for success on the scale of the 18th and 19th Century Britain or the United States in the 20th Century presents itself. For ascendant maritime powers, this is a difficult lure to resist.

This is not the first time Mahan has contributed to the strategic thought of a rising and resource-dependent Asia industrial power: Japan’s early 20th Century navy was home to many of Mahan’s committed disciples. The foundations of Japan’s naval strategy at the height of its power were at least as much the product of Mahan’s theory as they were of conditions particular to Japan and of the experiences of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), and the First World War (1914-8). Aspiring to greatness, the Japanese Navy took Mahan’s ideas and used them to attempt to focus the attention of the nation on the sea, with all the prospects for success that it seemed to offer, and away from the Asian mainland (primarily China and Far Eastern Russia), which was the primary objective of the rival Japanese Army faction. The lessons of history were clear: focus on the land offered only limitations and resistance; the sea promised abundance and power, if control of its vital routes could only be secured. It is not hard to see how modern Chinese strategists might draw the same conclusions.

Part Two will examine the specific influence of Mahan on Japanese strategy, as well as the importance of resource availability on the economy, and the extent to which these elements combined to move Japan inexorably toward conflict with the United States.


The North Korea Conundrum

In Diplomacy on May 26, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

The rapidly escalating crisis begun by the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan on 26 March by a North Korean submarine presents interested powers with a difficult set of choices. It seems increasingly clear that, while there is public agreement that some sort of retaliatory response is necessary, there are few good options for doing so. The announced joint anti-submarine exercises between the U.S. and South Korea offer the prospect for some good news footage, and perhaps a means to move these forces to a higher state of readiness without being overtly aggressive, but do little to resolve the underlying problem. Similarly, cutting economic and diplomatic ties with the North means nothing without the full inclusion of China, which has provided the lifeline by which North Korea has managed to endure for this long.

A closer examination of the objectives of the various involved powers suggests that little will change. It is not in the strategic interests of any of these countries to go to war, the successful prosecution of which is likely the only method by which anything approaching permanent resolution is possible. The continuation of the division of Korea, the tensions between North and South, and the relationship between the two Great Powers most closely involved – China and the United States – preserves the status quo in the region. While this is not desired by the U.S. or the South Koreans, they do not hold the strategic initiative; the North Koreans do, and for them the status quo represents the best of a very poor set of options.

For North Korea, the maintenance of tension with external threats is necessary for the preservation of the regime. Like all totalitarian states, the government identifies the need to protect the nation from such threats as the justification for its unilateral control. Absent such danger, no rationale for the continued dominance of the state over the people would exist, threatening to unravel the regime. The North must therefore foment tension periodically as a means to demonstrate to its own population the reason they are suffering privation and isolation.

China’s interest in the Korean situation is significant but indirect. While there is virtually no chance of a repeat of the experience of the winter of 1950-1, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” were sent to fight on behalf of the North, China recognizes that the collapse of the North Korean regime would result in a Korean state aligned with the U.S. on its border. Given China’s expanding strategic reach as seen in its continued economic and naval expansion, any improvement in the position of the U.S. in the Far East, whether in the growth of its allies or a reduction in tensions that allows it to focus greater attention on China would be most unwelcome.

Recognizing that neither China nor North Korea has any real interest in resolving the situation, the United States and South Korea must accept that their real options are quite limited. Short of war, which is certainly considered the most undesirable outcome, but which is ironically the one that could actually bring the decades-old standoff to a conclusion, there is little to be done. Further isolation and military vigilance plays into the hands of the North Korean regime by reinforcing the security rationale put forward by its leaders. The Chinese will continue to supply the North with as much as it needs to survive, but nothing more, ensuring that attempts at economic isolation will fail while preserving China’s ability to manipulate the situation as its interests dictate.

The key then is China’s strategic interest. It has no desire to see any increase in U.S. power and influence in Asia; resolution of the Korean situation would do just that. For its part, the United States must recognize that China does not wish to resolve the situation in any way that is not explicitly beneficial to its own interests. Reunification and peace may seem universally desirable to many in the U.S. and South Korea, but the views from Pyongyang and Beijing are decidedly less rose-colored.


The Return of the Great Game in Asia

In Diplomacy on February 15, 2009 by AEG Tagged: , ,

The recent announcement by Kyrgyzstan that it will terminate the agreement with the United States for the use of Manas airbase marks a return to a sort of regional political maneuvering not seen in Central Asia since the Great Game of the 19th Century, when Russia and Britain competed for influence there. While the base closure has immediate implications for the American-led mission in Afghanistan, the much more important point is the willingness of Russia to actively assert itself by leveraging its geographical proximity and sheer size to weaken American influence in Central Asia and American power in general.

Russia recognizes that the U.S. is not in a position to offer the sort of financial incentives to foreign governments that might have been possible when the economy was strong and terrorism seemed a more compelling and immediate danger. Faced with pressure to focus on domestic problems and waning public interest in security issues, the Obama administration will likely have a hard time selling any significant foreign aid package to Congress or the public. Further, the new president is not likely to be willing to confront Russia this early in his administration over an issue that seems more an inconvenience (albeit a large one) than a crisis.

Seizing on this favorable combination of circumstances, Russia has moved to present the U.S. with a fait accompli, providing Kyrgyzstan with substantial financial aid and loan guarantees in what clearly appears to be a direct exchange for the closure of Manas airbase to American forces (claims to the contrary notwithstanding). While its own currency has been weakened by the global economic slump and the fall in oil prices, the Russians recognize that in relative terms they are more capable of making such an investment than the Americans are right now.

The short-term implications are troubling: without a secure line of communication through Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. may be forced to rely upon risky routes through Pakistan to transport military supplies to forces in Afghanistan (Russia has offered to allow non-military supplies to transit on a case-by-case basis, certainly not an adequate substitute for Manas). With the number of troops committed in Afghanistan intended to rise as the force in Iraq is drawn down, supply requirements will only increase.

In the bigger picture, however, things become considerably more difficult. If the U.S. must rely on Pakistani routes, the probability of more cross-border strikes from Afghanistan into Pakistan increases. This, along with any increased U.S. presence in the country, will almost certainly inflame local anti-American opinion further, creating a degree of instability in Pakistan that could lead to a variety of outcomes, none of them good for American interests. In a region with few American allies, any such situation could have dire consequences for the U.S. ability to act effectively.

At the same time, Russia’s recent willingness to play hardball with the United States and Europe (witness the gas dispute that cut off supplies to much of Europe for several days) does not bode well for a rise in international cooperation of the sort envisioned by many with the end of the Bush presidency. For its part, Russia appears far less interested in promoting any sort of broad-based multilateral cooperation, and with good reason; it is much easier and more effective for Russia to work toward fragmenting America’s diplomatic network of allies, and then keeping those countries divided from each other. Russia need not find allies of her own in order to increase her standing in the world and her leverage among the other Great Powers; it is sufficient at this point to simply divide the most dominant competing powers – the United States and the European Union – from their allies and otherwise undermine their security indirectly.

While counter to American stated policy and diplomatic tradition (at least as popularly perceived), Russian efforts must be countered with similarly hard-minded policies. While it may be challenging to find ways to undermine Russian interests and thus weaken its ability to project power into areas important to America, it is something the U.S. must do if it wishes to continue to maintain the diplomatic capability to influence countries in these regions in a sustained and meaningful way. The alternatives are having to resort to unilateral military force or acquiescence to Russian policy, neither of which should be considered desirable, as they will only serve to further the weakening of American power and global standing at this time.

This is likely to be the first of many such situations confronting the new administration. Beyond Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others will be watching to see how the U.S. reacts. The rhetoric of cooperation and rebuilding American relations abroad suggest a degree of optimism in the administration is events thus far do not appear to warrant. As things stand, many countries have less to gain by cooperating with the U.S. than they do by reducing its power and influence. International cooperation only works when there are compelling reasons for other countries to cooperate; when these do not exist, other methods must be employed to protect American interests. Let’s hope the White House reading list includes some titles about Bismarck and Metternich, and perhaps even Machiavelli.