The PRC: Britain’s New ‘Special Relationship?’


PacNet, CSIS Pacific Forum, October 27
Chinese President Xi Jinping received the reddest of red-carpet treatments in London last week, with Xi being treated to a 21-gun salute, a royal carriage ride down the Mall, an address to both Houses of Parliament, followed by a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace and a visit to the Prime Minister’s official residence Chequers.  The fact that British Prime Minister David Cameron used the full powers of the British state to welcome the Chinese leader has many wondering about the future of UK-China ties as the two proclaim a new “golden era” of bilateral relations, and agree to create a “global comprehensive strategic partnership.”

While many in London question the timing – this year Beijing mismanaged a stock market slump while simultaneously tightening control over dissidents – the Treasury attitude is simply to bulldoze the new China approach through other departments of government, including a skeptical Foreign Office. The visit and the assumptions it’s based on raise questions about Britain’s tactical understanding of China. After all, as Evan Medeiros, former senior staffer on Asia on President Obama’s National Security Staff, told the Financial Times, “if you give in to Chinese pressure, it will inevitably lead to more Chinese pressure.”

The seemingly ‘new’ mercantilist approach of Chancellor George Osborne is deeply imbedded in historical traditions of British foreign policy-making, and has run parallel and sometimes counter to Britain’s values-oriented foreign policy. Long before Henry Kissinger said it, Lord Palmerston claimed that Britain had no “permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” Britain has always viewed trade as one of these permanent interests, since power is derived from economic standing. This is evident throughout the last century: the UK was the largest source of long-term foreign direct investment in the United States, played a pivotal role in Japanese industrialization, and was one of Germany’s main trade partners prior to both the first and second world wars. If the new China policy is a mistake, Britain has made it before.

The Soviet Union was the exception to the rule: blame Russian communist views of trade. Therefore, it is unremarkable that Osborne wishes to hitch the UK wagon to China’s rising star. Seen from Whitehall, this approach marries traditional notions of liberal trade internationalism with the promise of profit for City of London financiers. The Downing Street website puts this financial promise at the front of its webpage describing Xi’s visit, claiming it will “unlock” more than $48 billion of commercial deals across energy, finance, technology, and education. The question is whether all this promise will be delivered and at what cost to Britain’s security and freedom of maneuver.

Unlike Britain, China does not prize the bilateral relationship for short-term economic gains, but rather seeks to use British financial acumen to lift itself into ascendancy. The internationalization of the RMB, using London as a trading hub, and a scheme to link the London and Shanghai stock markets – both announced during Xi’s visit – are to build the foundation of a new Chinese order. Xi was not in London just to meet the Queen. He was there to make deals, buying the experience and know-how of the British financial world, and he has the cash to close the deal. The $48 billion that he’s put on the table could be just a start: despite the slowing of its economy and huge public debt, China has more than $1.53 trillion in sovereign wealth funds. Furthermore, London would profit immensely from becoming the primary RMB trade hub, which is a very real possibility says Yang Du, head of Thomson Reuters China business desk. Currently, Britain is the eighth largest destination for Chinese investment: when Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne said at the Buckingham Palace Banquet that they want Britain to be China’s “best partner in the West,” this is what they mean.

Caution is in order, however. The Osborne Doctrine suffers from several fatal flaws. First, it is hype built on hype. Several economists view Britain’s strategy toward China as over-relying on foreign investment to sustain growth. Rather than passing the costs of building British infrastructure – such as three planned nuclear power plants – on to China, why not borrow at 3 percent and maintain control over processes, control over quality, and most important, maintain the capacity of local industry? This off-shoring is rich in irony: Britain – home to the industrial revolution – is paying China – one of the most recent adherents of the industrial revolution – to finance and make British products in Britain. As if to drive home the point, Xi’s visit was preceded by the bankruptcy of a leading company in the British steel industry, a result of Chinese steel dumping this year.

The second flaw is that China does not seem serious about upholding either the rules-based order that Britain helped build after World War II or the liberal economic and political values implicit in that order. Prime Minister Cameron’s silence over human rights issues for the sake of finance was widely criticized in the British media with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei claiming that it was in the name of profit. The Chinese ambassador had even warned that Xi would be “offended” if human rights were raised during the visit. The main problem with this approach is that it is simply out of step with the British public, which expects an ethical foreign policy from Whitehall. Power and finance are not enough.

This misplaced faith in Chinese investment promises and the willingness to downplay human rights issues have not gone down well in Washington, where London’s embrace of authoritarian China looks increasingly out-of-step with its regional concerns. This is the third flaw of Osborne’s strategy: Britain is out of touch with other liberal democracies like Germany and France and how they balance economic policies with principles. London’s willingness to join the AIIB without consulting or even alerting the G-7 was a major blow to the group, but it also damaged British prestige.

Britain is increasingly out of step with Washington, which sees its trade relationship with China rapidly eclipsed by issues such as cyber security and maritime security in the Asia Pacific. Osborne’s willingness to throw open certain sectors of the economy critical to national security to Chinese investment strikes many as naïve if not dangerous: a 2013 British Parliamentary committee issued a scathing report of the government’s willingness to award large contracts in the telecommunications sector to Huawei, a Chinese company with purported links to the People’s Liberation Army. Though Cameron did receive a joint statement from Xi over cyber security during the visit, it is no stronger than the one Xi gave in Washington, and probably has less meaning.

Finally, there is the flaw of unintended consequences: Beijing’s belief that Britain – a major player in the current liberal rules-based order – is bandwagoning for profit may encourage China to attempt to dismantle the system in favor of one that favors Beijing’s autocratic preferences. No one believes that Britain could play a pivotal role if a conflict broke out in the Asia Pacific, but Western cohesion may help deter Chinese adventurism. This regional aspect highlights the shortsightedness of the Osborne Doctrine because it assumes that as long as China’s misbehavior occurs in the Asia-Pacific region, it does not impinge on British interests. This belies Britain’s dependence on trade routes that transit the contested South China Sea and East China Sea waters.

President Xi’s carriage ride down the Mall to Buckingham Palace was rich in symbolism; the image of Prime Minister Cameron kowtowing to the Chinese president evokes Britain’s first diplomatic mission to China in 1793, when Lord Macartney traveled to meet the Qianlong Emperor in Peking. His attempt to open trade between the two empires ended in failure as the two held incompatible worldviews and practiced incompatible diplomatic cultures. Seeing President Xi and his wife dressed in Western clothes, in front of a trade delegation to Britain would seem to indicate that two states understand each much better now. However, Cameron’s willingness to trade British principles and significant concessions for investment and market access show that perhaps London is no closer to understanding Beijing than it was 250 years ago.

The Girl with Seven Names

hyeonseo-lee_cover400x0Hyeonseo Lee as the dinner speaker

Tuesday, 21 October at 19:00 – 22:00

Naval and Military Club

The Policy Dinner Club is proud to announce that it’s next speaker is Ms. Hyeonseo Lee. Ms Lee, a defector from North Korea, who will draw from her new book, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defectors Story, to discuss technological change in North Korea, and the impact it is having on North Korean society and government, among other aspects of life inside North Korea.
Hyeonseo spends much of her time speaking about North Korean human rights and North Korean refugee issues, including speeches at the Stanford University Global Speaker Series, Princeton University, New York University Law School, and at various venues throughout Europe. She has personally met public officials like UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the South Korean Minister of Unification, Yu Woo-ik, to discuss these issues.
When:    19:00-22:00, October 20th, 2015
Who:      Ms. Hyeonseo Lee
Where:   Naval and Military Club* (map)
Speaker’s Biography

Hyeonseo Lee is a North Korean defector living in Seoul, South Korea. She has recently completed writing her memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, which will be published in July 2015 in more than 20 countries. Over 5 million people have viewed her TED Talk about her life in North Korea, her escape to China and struggle to bring her family to freedom. Hyeonseo has given testimony about North Korean human rights in front of a special panel of the UN Security Council, and has discussed the issues with important leaders such as UN Ambassador Samantha Powers.

She recently completed her undergraduate studies in English and Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and has been a Young Leader at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hyeonseo has written articles for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal Korea Real-Time, the London School of Economics Big Ideas blog, and worked as a student journalist for the South Korean Ministry of Unification. She has also been interviewed by the BBC, CNN, CBS News and numerous other television, newspaper and radio outlets throughout the world.

She is currently writing another book with other female North Koreans living in South Korea, and is planning to start an organization to help promising North Korean refugees interact with the international community.

No Deal: Why North Korea won’t be the next Iran

The National Interest, August 25, 2015


As the sounds of artillery faded across the North-South Korean border recently, the possibilty for a new diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and North Korea had been dashed. Hopes had been raised in Washington, in Beijing and even in Seoul, for a revival of the Six Party Talks in the wake of the successful U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal. Speculation was rife in the run up of visits to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing by the American special envoy to these talks, Sydney Seiler, in late July. However, the recent announcement of Vice-Premier Choe Yong-gon’s execution in North Korea swiftly dampened optimism. For North Korea-watchers, the recent spate of purges of elites by Kim Jong-un suggests that the regime is going through a consolidation of power, and it is unlikely to accept or even to deal with diplomatic overtures from the United States or its allies for some time. In many ways, the reason for this latest cross-border flare-up has its origins in North Korea’s domestic politics rather than in what happened on the border.

Events in North Korea this summer have revealed a country undergoing continued instability as leader Kim Jong-un carries out purge after purge of the top brass. Vice Premier Choe Yong-gon was apparently executed in May, but news of his execution only surfaced on August 12. The news follows earlier purges of Armed Forces Vice-Minister So Hong-chan, Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol and Director of the Designing Department of the National Defense Commission Ma Won-chun. While purges in North Korea are nothing new, North Korea analyst Aidan Foster-Carter points out that top-level bureaucrats and military elites usually just disappear. It would appear that these arrests and executions have been staged for internal consumption. As with all things domestic, these purges are a form of internal signaling from the regime to the elites.

While all of this seems of peripheral interest to U.S. policy makers, the question of the stability and staying power of the regime is important both for planned diplomacy and for anticipating future provocations. Though feeling the economic pressure of sanctions, an internally robust Pyongyang might be coaxed back to the diplomatic table. Presumably, a regime at peace with itself would be able to agree internally what its negotiating terms are, in line with some sort of national strategy. An internally weak or divided regime, on the other hand, will eschew any form of compromise with the regime’s perceived enemies, as any compromise might be construed as weakness or treason, and used internally by one faction against another. In North Korea, roughly speaking, there are three main factions: the Kim family (and its supporters), the Korean People’s Army and the Korean Worker’s Party. As with pre-Revolutionary France, these three factions subtly vie with each other for the power and resources of the state: their roles might be said to equate to France’s monarchy, aristocracy and clergy. Historically, the relationship has been marked by cycles of competing and cycles of converging interests.

While verification of events inside the hermetic kingdom is famously difficult, it is possible that these purges have arisen from a competition taking place between the three factions initiated by the young leader. To put this competition in perspective, one must look back to the evolution of this power triangle between 1996 and 2010. If one looks back to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, one can see that only two years after taking power he implemented a new constitution (called the 1998 Constitution). This consolidated his position within the military’s National Defence Commission and simultaneously elevated the military above the party in a policy that came to be know as Songun or “military first”. In essence, Songun was both a counterrevolutionary strategy and a strategy for governing, complementing the official state ideology of Juche and the cult of leadership built around the Kim family (Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism). While there is no clear evidence that Kim Jong-un has officially reversed that and elevated the party above the Korean People’s Army, his pursuit of economic growth may have been at the expense of the army’s interests, leading him to co-opt the party.

Finally, there is the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s age is a factor in driving this new iteration of inter-elite competition; the neo-Confucian society of Korea traditionally elevates age above youth and is heavily reliant on social networks to enable influence and power. Elevated well above his peer group, Kim Jong-un may have found it difficult to compete with the clannish military leaders, with their decades of friendship and loyalty to the military. Carrying out initial purges may have allowed him both to signal the continued strength of the Kim family and to undertake some practical internal reordering. Purges open up seats and give Kim the power to fill them, allowing him to displace the old with the new. In essence, purges strengthen Kim’s coercive power, his interpersonal power and his patronage power all at once. His promotion of a trusted family member, sister Kim Yo-jong, to vice-director of the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department also suggests that Kim Jung-un will continue to burnish the family’s cult of personality. While Songun and Juche are shared out among the military and party respectively, the sacred place of the Kim family in Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism makes it uniquely unassailable with respect to the other two factions. As with the concepts of divine monarch and heavenly mandate, the cult of leadership built around Kim Jong-un will liken treason to heresy.

In terms of deciding future U.S. policy, it is clear that North Korea is not ready to come back to the table. Internally, it is undergoing too much upheaval. Nor is it clear that coming to the table would be much use, given its policy of maintaining its nuclear-power-state status. The United States and its allies face a choice: they can sit back and allow the Kim regime to consolidate power between the military and the party, hoping to be rewarded for their forbearance, or they can make minute shifts in policy that have ever-larger effect. Realistically a policy of forbearance is unlikely to be recognized much less rewarded by Pyongyang. One can see this from how the regime simply pocketed previous diplomatic gains—such as under the Sunshine policy. Rather than waiting to buy the same horse again, the United States should seek to modify the policy of strategic patience with a growing information campaign inside the regime. This should be enough to keep the regime off balance, rather than seek to bring it down, though the long-term effects of this should be anticipated. The watchword should be subtlety; revealing the truth is likely to be far more successful than propaganda loudspeakers on the border. It is surprising how lenient the United States and its allies have been in this regard, given the success of such campaigns vis-a-vis the Eastern Bloc during the late stages of the Cold War. This should be replicated. Information control is the Achilles heel of all totalitarian regimes: revealing the true state of the outside world and the perks of the regime’s ruling class would suffice, through the use of DVDs, USB drives, and increased radio traffic. Not to do so, is to allow a nuclear-proliferator regime to continue its existence through the lifespan of another Kim, allowing the regime to blackmail China and others for aid and sustenance for another sixty years or so. Worse still, it is to support the current plight of the long-suffering North Korean population.

The Special Relationship and Western Grand Strategy

The International Security Network, June 26, 2015

The anxiety over Britain’s ‘resignation’ as a global power speaks volumes about the incoherence of Western strategic thinking and the need for a unified approach to a complex security environment. Here are some recommendations for righting the ship.


In the past year, there has been a growing debate in Washington about Britain’s loss of stature on the world stage. This increasingly public conversation has suggested that Britain’s will to be a global power may be eroding and that the future of one of the key alliances of the 20th century may therefore be uncertain. Yet this debate actually represents a wider problem: i.e., the lack of a coherent Western strategy and the need for a unified approach to an increasingly complex security environment. In this new context, three measures can help the West to negotiate its current strategic impasse: 1) reconsidering retrenchment; 2) downgrading humanitarian intervention; and 3) increasing strategic dialogue.

The sun finally sets?

Over the past year or so, quiet conversations have been taking place in Washington regarding the trans-Atlantic relationship. After US requests for information met with silence in Whitehall, these conversations began to spill out into the public arena. In March, General Ray Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff, said he was “very concerned” about the UK’s planned defence cuts. As if on cue, the former Chief of Staff of the British Army, General Peter Wall, then argued in a Telegraph article that the UK had “a lower level of ambition for UK involvement in global security than ever before.”

This opened the floodgates: in the following week, the Washington Post published an article worrying about the UK’s ‘shrinking military clout’; then, in April, the New York Times published a longer article about Britain’s ‘drift from the global stage.’ Finally, in May, CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria argued that Britain had essentially ‘resigned’ as a world power. Only the Independent’s Washington correspondent, Peter Foster, pointed out that the US itself also seemed to be in retreat. After ‘leading from behind’ in Libya, it had ducked behind the British Parliament over Syria and failed to produce tangible defence guarantees to the Ukraine. Foster was not right about everything, but his point illustrates a wider problem: that the West has an alarming ‘strategy gap’ and is undergoing a review period.

It is true that the UK is in the midst of a slow-motion constitutional crisis and deep financial retrenchment, but it is also – like the US – experiencing a crisis of strategic thought after a decade of setbacks. To illustrate, consider how the Cold War unified the UK, the US, and their ‘first world’ allies behind two basic notions: that there was a single overarching threat (communism) and that they had a strategy for dealing with it (containment). With these two reference points, the Treasury could get down to the tricky business of allocating resources to Britain’s Armed Forces and intelligence agencies and coordinating parallel and complementary goals with the United States and its NATO allies. It was as effective as it was simple.

A brief look at priorities of the 2010 National Security Strategy indicates how much has changed. The report includes four major high risk areas: (1) terrorism, (2) cyber, (3) international crises, and (4) major accidents or hazards. There are also a number of lesser risk areas, such as energy security, organized crime, and border security, and a number of variables, such as the rate of technological change, demography, the diffusion of power in the international system, and environmental factors, among others. To cap things off, the report then makes clear that “Our most urgent task is to return our nation’s finances to a sustainable footing.”

To simplify: the UK would like to have a medium-sized military force that would work closely with others (i.e., the US and NATO allies) to defend against terror attacks at home and abroad; to defend against cyber- espionage, cyber- crime, and cyber- attack; to carry on nuclear deterrence at sea; to defend Britain’s trade routes; and to get involved in short-term humanitarian interventions in fragile or failed states. The UK would like to do all of this while continuing to modernize its ISR capabilities – and while saving money. This is not a strategy: this is what President Obama and many others are beginning to refer to (in an American context) as the “ whack-a-mole” approach. One prioritizes everything, so that, in the end, nothing is prioritized. With the tail wagging the proverbial dog, such an approach blinds strategists to two emerging realities: that great power politics is returning to the global system; and that the age of humanitarian interventions and ‘soft’ security is over.

Whitehall is not completely to blame for the current strategic drift. American critics of the UK’s downsizing are no less critical of their own strategic ambiguity. After all, what is Western – or even American – strategy in Ukraine? Or the Middle East? How should we deal with the resurgence of great power politics, in the South China Sea and elsewhere? If the US is to lead, then it must communicate an overarching strategic vision to its Western allies, one that gives meaning to the allied blood and treasure already lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and to any future blood and treasure that will be spent. It must also attempt to reset its Asian Rebalance to match the realities of growing European insecurity.

A new strategic vision

If the West is not only to survive but to thrive in the modern age, it will have to make difficult choices in an effort to anticipate future developments rather than simply react to them. In this regard, three courses of action can help to resolve its current strategic crisis.

(1) Prioritize spending

As London’s foreign policy choices have highlighted, this is ultimately an age of economic scarcity where smart resource allocation is needed. With this in mind, Prime Minister Cameron has attempted to husband his resources. While this has not stopped him from sending troop trainers to Ukraine or from bombing ISIL, it has meant making difficult choices, for example, when asked by the US not to join China’s new infrastructure bank, the AIIB. However, it should be noted that there has been a degree of political side-stepping by the Cameron government on spending. Despite claims of austerity, the UK remains the world’s fifth largest economy, hosts one of the largest global financial hubs, recovering far faster from the financial crisis than many of its European counterparts. The fact that it is being outspent on defence by a historical peer competitor, Russia, is galling – particularly since its budget revenue, at $986 billion, is nearly  twice that of Russia’s $416 billion. The fact that Osborne is again likely to ringfence DfIDS’s aid budget indicates that there is more latitude in this debate than Whitehall has admitted. In other words, there are alternatives to the planned defence cuts. They should be discussed, rather than assumed behind closed doors.

(2) Prioritize threats 

The UK cannot treat all threats as equal. Threats to the system should be prioritized over threats to humanitarian values. This means that Ukraine is more important than Syria because of the effect it would have on Europe’s eastern flank. In the wake of failures in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, the West should abstain from the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s. The idealism represented by such interventions was well-meaning and occasionally effective (as in Sierra Leone and the Balkans), but it also occurred in a much more benign international environment, in which revisionist Russia and China were themselves engaged in domestic retrenchment. What has become clear to many, particularly after Libya, is that while Western nations can carry out front-end kinetic operations against lesser regimes, they lack the stomach and resources for peace-building and state-building. The continued lack of a strong state and the flow of refugees from Libya suggests that, without this necessary institution-building, interventions may hurt more than they help. Power vacuums present non-state actors with opportunities, while creating further problems for those they were intended to help. It is unclear that bringing about Assad’s downfall in 2013 would have alleviated the suffering of civilians: indeed, ISIL would have been the clear winner in territory, population and resources.

(3) Talk more with each other

The UK-US Alliance is certainly experiencing problems, but these are exacerbated by a lack of communication over delicate issues. Some place the blame for this at the level of the incumbent administrations, pointing to a lack of dialogue between this Prime Minister and this President. Others emphasize a necessary phase of navel-gazing in the UK during a period of constitutional difficulties relating to the Scottish situation and the upcoming referendum on EU membership. In the case of the UK’s domestic turmoil, the United States has little choice but to remain patient with this loss of focus in Whitehall. However, the UK cannot take an indefinite break from talking to its allies or from the work of providing security in and around Europe. Now more than ever, it must communicate its commitments to enemies and allies alike. Happily, alliances are seldom based on the personal foibles of leaders but on common interests, values, institutions, and history. The deeply enmeshed intelligence relationships, for example, involve common institutions with a legacy of working together for shared goals. The bureaucracies can continue working closely together – but strategic vision is policy, and that must be coordinated at the political level. In the run-up to the November release of the NSS and SDSR, the UK and United States should build on the track 1 and track 1.5 work that is already taking place – to discuss their worries, concerns and possible solutions in a way that is clear and useful for other Western / NATO allies. While some question the need for an overarching Western strategy, the very process of debate is in itself, a useful one, focusing minds and clarifying common goals and means, an essential part of procurement cycles.


It seems that one of the defining features of alliances is the assumption that they are in trouble. Since the beginning of the US-UK Alliance after the Second World War, a year has scarcely passed without the publication of a newspaper article or book worrying about its health. Indeed, worries about the state of affairs between Washington and London are arguably an offshoot of the decline narrative, one of the most common tropes in Western political discourse – one that should be treated with respect but also with a certain amount of stoicism. What is needed now is more discussion rather than more alarming headlines.

The US-UK Alliance is certainly experiencing a triple challenge of war-weariness, insecurity overload, and resource scarcity. However, these are problems that the West writ large is also facing; better to hang together than hang separately. The Special Relationship has been one the most significant alliances of the 20th Century – one that has endured two world wars, numerous civil wars and insurgencies, and countless other conflicts including the current intervention against ISIL in the skies of Iraq. The two intelligence agencies and defence industries work closely together in a way that adds values to their respective capabilities. Even now, American and British diplomats are working closely on Iran’s nuclear programme, over Russian revanchism in eastern Ukraine, and on NATO’s readiness. We cannot afford to take this partnership for granted. It is one of the cornerstones of Western security.

How America can stop China in the South China Sea

The National Interest, May 27, 2015


The release of a U.S. Navy P-8 video flying over the South China Sea was a shock to many. The footage revealed a small armada of dredging vessels, support ships, and auxiliaries, working diligently to build what looked like People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force bases. According to international law, most islets China has occupied lie within the territorial waters of either the Philippines or Vietnam, and Chinese actions could be interpreted as maritime invasion. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, neither Chinese behavior, nor its 9 dotted line, are consistent with customary international law or by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. Nor do it’s historical claims stand real scrutiny as a recent piece by South China Sea scholar, Bill Hayton, shows.

China’s actions, therefore, represent an infraction of the internationally agreed upon system of rules and are a major challenge to the current global maritime order, particularly since it takes place across one of the world’s most vital shipping arteries. In essence, China is building military installations on false reefs across one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, giving them control over those sea lanes. One might argue, that it is as much a challenge to international peace and security as was Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. If China is allowed to create islands in such a manner, what’s to stop a slew of global imitators? More to the point, what exactly is China’s strategic aim and what can the United States and its allies do about it?

Some might argue that China views the international system with cynicism, having been prey to Japanese and Western imperialism during the 18th and 19th centuries. China’s behavior, they say, is merely a means of protecting itself from the types of naval intrusions that it suffered historically and that it is building a “Great Wall of Sand,” to consolidate its First Island Chain. This argument is, at first appearance, a sound one. After all, there is some truth to the argument that Chinese naval behavior is predicated on a political historical narrative of weakness and foreign predation. Certainly, much of what China is doing is explained this way domestically to an increasingly nationalist audience at home.

However, China has shown itself to be willing to adopt elements of the international system which favor its interests; its membership in the UN Security Council and a number of international fora, like the WTO, World Bank, and many others reveal this buffet approach to the current order. Furthermore, under closer examination, China’s narrative of weakness—the so-called “100 years of humiliation”— is little more than clever posturing and historical selectivity. The narrative cleverly highlights predation on the part of the West, while papering over China’s own Imperial Qing (1644-1912) predation and colonization of neighbors Tibet, Vietnam, Dzungaria, and Formosa (Taiwan). In many ways, the 100 years narrative is used being used internally to justify China’s behavior in a similar way Berlin used the “shameful peace at Versailles” to mobilize Germany’s domestic politics in the inter-war period. When rising powers begin using the ‘victim card’ to justify their expansionist aims, we should all pay attention.

The historical similarity to Germany’s efforts to control its periphery during this the 1930s and China’s maritime expansionism might serve as a framework for how the US and its allies should build a political-military counter strategy. One immediate implication of the historical framework is to avoid any policy of appeasement; history teaches us that appeasement merely facilitated war in the end as Hitler’s ambitions were fed by the Rhine area and the Sudetenland. China’s strategy seems to hold a similar geopolitical logic to Germany’s territorial claims of the time. Certainly undersea gas fields and fertile fishing waters play a role, but fundamentally, China’s action has been about taking control of sea-lanes. This is in essence the first step in a three pronged strategy: first, dominate the South China Sea with Chinese military forces; second, use this de facto control to gradually and incrementally develop a new benevolent Sino-centric system in Southeast Asia; one in which ASEAN states implicitly submit their foreign and security policy to Chinese approval; third, use this control to exert pressure on Seoul, Taipei, Manila and Tokyo—four U.S. allies, heavily dependent on the sea-lane, which transits the South China Sea. This last policy is meant to be gradually expel the US from the region, without firing a shot. China’s control over those states lets them know, who really controls their destiny.

The only way to counter this grand strategy would be for the United States to incrementally shift the balance of its hedging policy away from one of engagement more to one of political and military balancing. The United States might adopt a two-pronged political and military strategy in close consultation with its friends and allies in the Asia Pacific region. However, it cannot afford to walk too far forward of regional public opinion; it must seek to maintain the moral high ground afforded it by China’s actions by walking in lock-step with regional partners. The first step should be to begin a long-term, multilateral diplomatic push at states in the region for a conference to cease militarization of the seas. The date of such a conference should be at least six months in the future, to give the US and its allies time enough to coordinate a concerted diplomatic push at fence-sitting states in the region, particularly the “flip” states Indonesia and Malaysia. US diplomats might trial this at the Shangri-La conference later this week. After all, even Chamberlain had a “Munich.” The failure of the United States and its allies to get China to a conference up until this point is indicative of the success of China’s salami slicing approach.

Secondly, in order to pressure China to the table, the United States must assist a concerted strategic change in the military posture of the Philippines and other like-minded states. With American, Japanese and Australian help, the Philippines should build up strong asymmetric capability, known as anti-access, area denial (A2/AD). Radar systems, mobile anti air-and-ship missile systems should be built up en masse so as to counter Chinese attempts to dominate the sea and air in and around the South China Sea. Such systems should be able to reach far into the South China Sea, and fundamentally challenge Chinese attempts to dominate the immediate domain. Such a strategy would nullify China’s new bases, making them virtually useless, while remaining defensive and non-provocative. Other ASEAN states interested in such defense technologies should also be considered for the program.

If such a strategy were well-funded, it would make things very difficult for Beijing. Of course, the PLAAF could react by hardening their airfields, and their presence would continue to be a peace-time source of leverage, but at least this leverage would be somewhat ameliorated tactically. Furthermore, their use as actual air fields in times of actual conflict would be challenged completely from Philippine air space. Such a tactic, if carried out incrementally and in response to Chinese efforts, would present Chinese strategists with a dilemma. If they continue to build up their forces, U.S. and allied forces would simply respond in kind. If they seek diplomatic redress, then both sides freeze the build-up. In many ways, this tactic would solve the age-old conundrum of how to get Beijing to parlay at the diplomatic conference described above. It would also counter the historical problem of appeasement or ‘rolling ambition’, the ever-increasing appetite for territory of challenging states.

At present, the policies of the United States and its allies are behind events on the ground. True, the new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines are a step in the right direction, and US-Japan-Australia capacity building efforts are becoming increasingly coordinated in Southeast Asia, but China is moving faster than many could have anticipated. No doubt, Beijing feels it must move fast, perhaps in expectation of the long-predicted slowdown of its economy. China is getting the goods, while the going is good. If the United States and its allies want to stop this, they must think fast and act faster. Certainly, such a strategy as outlined above, might be the first step in taking away the initiative, something Beijing has very much kept until now.

How Will the New U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines Affect Regional Security?

CSIS Commentary, May 14th, 2015

hrs_hires_Carter-Kerry-JapaneseLeaders6x4 The new Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation were unveiled on April 27 in New York, coinciding with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington, D.C. The visit has been judged a major coup by many in the United States and a major success for the dynamic Japanese leader. If Abe’s goal was merely to bring the two Pacific powers into greater political alignment, then the trip was a remarkable success. The fact that alliance managers on both sides had worked hard to bring the two powers into greater military and security alignment added to that success. Both the prime minister’s U.S. visit and the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines (herein called “the guidelines”) are a reaction to growing insecurity in the Asia-Pacific region and an attempt to reinvigorate and recalibrate the alliance’s functions. What many regional states will now be wondering is what impact the new guidelines will have on regional security.

Complementing and informing the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the 2015 Defense Guidelines act as a policy framework, a way for the two militaries to know what is and isn’t permissible within the scope of the alliance, and to guide the evolution of that cooperation. This iteration—replacing the 1997 guidelines—is being called “historic” by many, though others have been more cautious, saying that while significant, the guidelines do too little to restore the growing imbalance of power in the region. Perhaps predictably, China—itself seen by many states in a 2014 Pew Poll as a source for the growing instability—blasted the guidelines as a “relic from the Cold War.” The irony was lost on few in the region, given the frenzy of island reclamation and militarization that Beijing has carried out over the past month in its effort to project power over sea-lanes vital to the region.

Why Now?

In answer to the question posed by many, “why now?”, alliance managers have answered that the security environment of the region has changed drastically from the late 1990s, when the guidelines were last written. Then, the guidelines emphasized Japan’s growing willingness to act regionally and burden share in areas like peacekeeping, maritime security, and essentially to do more-than-defense-of-Japan duties. These changes seemed appropriate to a time when failed states and civil wars were the biggest challenges to the international community, and when the United States was searching for active partners. However, the changes made by the 2015 Guidelines are even more remarkable, with the alliance broadening its remit—geographically and to third-party countries—and deepening its functions—installing a new whole-of-government approach badly needed for operations other than war (OOTW). Then as now, the evolution of the alliance sees a growing equality between Washington and Tokyo, with greater burden sharing by the latter. Japan, it seems, may have arrived as a major security actor.

A Tougher Alliance, but How about Collective Self-Defense?

Regional actors will have noted that the guidelines have broadened previous geographical and functional limitations on the alliance. This simply brings the guidelines up to date with all that has occurred on the ground (or water) in terms of Japan’s growing involvement in international stability operations, from Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, to the growing appetite for European-Japan security cooperation. The guidelines do not give Japan the remit to broaden its geographic scope; rather, they provide the space for Japanese politicians to resolve that remit domestically. Furthermore, Japanese and U.S. forces can now cooperate in more types of operations. U.S. alliance managers noted with approval that Japan has opened space in the guidelines in the section covering ballistic missile cooperation to shoot down weapons headed toward the United States, a major issue when considering the threat from North Korea. In line with a Japanese cabinet decision made in July 2014, Japanese forces can now help any “foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan,” on the condition that the attack “threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn (Japanese) people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As senior Japanese officials made clear at a CSIS briefing event on May 1, this remains a high threshold, open to interpretation.

For states like Vietnam and the Philippines, facing the brunt of Chinese assertiveness, this will remain a vague commitment. It does not guarantee that Japan will engage in third-country defense willy-nilly, but it does open the door to that possibility occurring in the future. For allies like Australia and South Korea, who have close working relationships with the Self-Defense Forces, this will be a provision to watch with interest in the coming years. It adds an element of realism to the growing interconnectedness between Japan and other U.S. allies and alliance networks and enables further evolution. A number of new domains, such as cyber, space, and small-scale attacks have been added, which also seek to deal with the growth of asymmetric, across-the-board attacks that Chinese tactical literature seems to favor. For U.S. allies in Europe, such as NATO member states, the development of cyber and intelligence cooperation with Japan becomes much more plausible with the advent of this limited form of collective self-defense.

Deterring and Strengthening

It will be interesting to see how China reacts to the tightening of the U.S.-Japan Alliance, perhaps giving them pause in their salami-slicing expansion into Japanese territorial waters. The Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM) reduces daylight between U.S. and Japan policymaking, institutionalizing policymaking among both military and civilian agencies. The bilateral planning component has also been strengthened and upgraded, again bringing in nonmilitary agencies into the process. The forces and government agencies will be more harmonized and better equipped to deal with operations other than war, noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO), and “gray zone” provocations. In dealing with any North Korean wartime or collapse scenario, these elements are essential. However, given the steady growth of Chinese naval assertiveness of the past few years, it may be Beijing rather than Pyongyang that triggers their use. How these functions look on paper is one thing; how they operate in practice, will be another.

One thing is certain: Chinese encroachment in the East China Sea will no longer find a surprised or passive alliance, as the guidelines put forward a range of proactive practices and institutions. The alliance will be more resilient: assets will be co-protected, while the addition of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) cooperation in the guidelines will enhance maritime and aerospace domain awareness, narrowing the possibility of surprise. And if surprises do come—and they invariably do in international relations—then the improved bilateral planning and policy coordination should better prepare U.S. and Japanese forces. The upshot of all this is likely to be a growing inability for China or North Korea to operate their forces “between the cracks of the alliance,” in the so-called safety of the gray zone. However, faced with such resilience, Beijing may pursue its options in other parts of the region. Frustrated in the East China Sea, Chinese expansionism may accelerate in the South China Sea. However, even there, the guidelines have developed a number of potential solutions. The primary one is that of capacity-building assistance; giving Southeast Asian states the wherewithal to protect or at least maintain their present maritime borders. A second, higher function is that of providing leadership for the region. The U.S.-Japan Alliance has long aspired to cement the region through its security partnerships. This has been apparent in its approach to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. These guidelines signal to other in the region Tokyo and Washington’s resolve to meet future challenges with firmness and may encourage growing solidarity with the alliance.

Forward the Alliance

It is difficult to predict how Beijing will react the new U.S.-Japan Alliance. Unfortunately, its track record isn’t the best. Wherever it has suffered resistance to its ambitions, it has denounced that resistance as “containment,” a useful communications strategy, designed to keep adversaries on a back foot. The irony is that continuing its attempts to secure the waters of its neighbors may well one day push regional states into just such a policy. Hopefully, such an outcome can be avoided as the regional balance of power continues to evolve and to shift. It is still unclear how a potential Chinese economic slowdown could affect events: it might promote further assertiveness, conversely new diplomatic overtures. Certainly, the guidelines and the overall inter-networking of U.S. and Western alliances will contribute to regional and global security, acting as a deterrent to those who would seek to reorder with force, in addition to dealing with issues of human security. One truism remains: the motives of political actors remain flexible and malleable; deterrence only has to fail once for disaster to ensue. However, the militaries of the United States and Japan are tasked with protecting other states with like-minded values, regional democracies that look to the alliance for security. The guidelines would certainly seem to be a step in the right direction, but if they are to deter and to protect, then the U.S.-Japan Alliance will have to continue to bolster and grow its capabilities. Furthermore, the Japanese public will have to debate and support this new iteration of the alliance. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.


Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder as the dinner speakers.

Monday, 18 May, at 19:00 – 21:309780231171700

The Army & Navy Club, Farragut Square, Washington DC


The Policy Dinner Club is proud to announce that its next speakers will be Brad Glosserman (Pacific Forum CSIS) and Scott Snyder (CFR), who will speak about the identity and cultural issues in the Japan – South Korea bilateral relationship, with regard to US alliance dynamics. A dinner discussion will then ensue on the topic offered.

Their remarks will draw from their research of their book, which examines the ideational and identity-identity-related causes of discord between these two strong US allies. In their remarks at dinner, Glosserman and Snyder will examine some of the underlying notions of national identity and offer concrete policy prescriptions for US alliance managers.

Who:     Brad Glosserman (Pacific Forum CSIS), Scott Snyder (CFR)
When:   19:00 to 21:30, 18 May, 2015
Where:  The Army and Navy Club, Farragut Square, Washington DC
Speakers Biographies

Brad Glosserman is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, an independent program of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Pacific Forum has provided policy-oriented analysis and promoted dialogue on regional security, political, economic, and environmental issues in the Asia-Pacific region since 1975. Mr. Glosserman oversees all aspects of Pacific Forum activities, including conferences, fellowships, publications, and administration. He is coeditor of Comparative Connections, the Pacific Forum’s triannual journal and writes, along with Pacific Forum president Ralph Cossa, the regional review. He is also the coauthor, with Scott Synder, of The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash (Columbia University Press, 2015), a study of national identity in Japan and South Korea and its impact on U.S. alliances. He recently completed a three-year study with Pacific Forum director of programs Carl Baker on the future of U.S. alliances in Asia and is finalizing a study on the impact of the March 11, 2011, “triple catastrophe” on Japan.

Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), where he had served as an adjunct fellow from 2008 to 2011. Snyder’s program examines South Korea’s efforts to contribute on the international stage; its potential influence and contributions as a middle power in East Asia; and the peninsular, regional, and global implications of North Korean instability. Snyder is co-author of The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States (Columbia University Press, 2015). He also the co-editor of North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society (Rowman and Littlefield, October 2012), and the editor of Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security (Council on Foreign Relations, October 2012) and The U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Meeting New Security Challenges (Lynne Rienner Publishers, March 2012). He served as the project director for CFR’s Independent Task Force on policy toward the Korean Peninsula. He currently writes for the blog, “Asia Unbound.”


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