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Obama’s Pivot to Asia: 2014 and Beyond

4 June, 2014

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

It was late at night as Air Force One taxied to a halt at Narita Airport in Tokyo to kick off an extended Presidential visit to the region. Emerging from the aircraft, President Obama seemed determined to impress upon the region and Japan his personal commitment to the Asia Pacific. Deemed a ‘reassurance tour’, the President’s trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines was meant to ‘underscore a continued focus on the Asia Pacific region and commitment to his vision of rebalancing to the world’s largest emerging region,’ in the somewhat wooden phrasing of the White House.

Despite the President’s many statements to the contrary, over the next few days, it was clear to many analysts and journalists that the trip was meant to reassure US allies over growing Chinese assertiveness. Chinese media like the Xinhua railed against the trip and the wider policy of ‘containment’. The US “rebalancing strategy”, the Xinhua wrote hours after Obama’s plane touched down at Narita, “smacks of a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant by rallying US allies”.  The Global Times quoted the Chinese Ambassador to Washington as saying the “rebalancing to Asia policy may need some ‘rebalancing’ so that the United States can maintain a good relationship to every nation in the region,” a not-so-subtle warning.

Missing the Point

Unfortunately, Chinese pundits missed the greater point in their haste to see rebalancing as simple containment and only a small number of analysts reported on the US rebalancing as a response to Chinese behavior. One such pundit, Yang Hengjun, a former diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council posed the question, ‘why are China’s neighbor’s so afraid of her’ in a regional forum, and though his efforts are laudable, he fails to connect Beijing’s problems with its policies, and instead blames the China’s media for hubristic statements that offend and scare neighbors. This neatly moves responsibility away from the military, CNOOC, and the Chinese leadership who have been promoting expansionism in the East and South China Sea maritime disputes. This attempt to forge a ‘CNN effect with Chinese characteristics’ rather reveals the constraints under which political analysts must be written in Beijing.

Japan and ROK

Despite the claims of the Global Times and others to the contrary, the trip was a success. And it was a success for one simple reason. It did what it said on the label. The president had gone to personify and symbolize US commitment to its allies in their various disputes with China and this was done. The United States’ reiterated its political and military support for the current status quo, and stated firmly that changes could only come peacefully and through diplomacy. Obama’s visit to Japan gave Prime Minister what he had long wanted, a presidential assurance that the Senkaku Islands (disputed with China) fell within the remit of the US-Japan security alliance. In return, Obama emphasized that Japan’s role as a regional force for stability would be enhanced by ‘collective self-defense’, a point that shows that the defence commitments of the alliance now cut both ways.

While some pundits have argued that Abe had done little more than take the President to a great sushi bar, giving little on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) front, this overlooks the primary reason for the trip and overstates the need for the TPP to be negotiated within its present time-table. Others – such as Kent Calder, a noted scholar on Japan – have argued that behind the diplomatic niceties between Obama and Abe, the chasm between Washington and Tokyo has become incredibly wide, particularly on history and nationalism issues. Whatever the case, it is clear that Abe and Obama shared a single agenda for this trip: to consolidate the alliance in the face of regional insecurity, and avoid open bickering. This they managed to do, though it is a small victory.

Obama’s pressure on Abe to deal with the ‘comfort women’ issue was rewarded in Seoul as President Park Guen-Hye presented a warm welcome to the President. Days before his visit, the reputable Asan Institute published a survey saying that 93% of South Koreans saw the alliance with the US in a positive light. High strung North Korean media attempts to brand the visit as one by a ‘pimp’ to his ‘crafty prostitute’,[6] only seemed to reaffirm Pyongyang’s isolation and inability to be taken seriously. Despite or perhaps because of warnings from Obama and Park, the awaited 4th nuclear test failed to materialize in the days up to and after the summit. Truly, the visit was marred by the Sewol ferry disaster, which was then boiling over into a cabinet reshuffle; events around the Russian annexation of the Crimea also took precedence. As expected, the latter event caused ripples of disquiet among US allies, concerned about Washington’s military commitments. If anything, however, Russian behavior only served to reinforce the need for the US alliance system.

Malaysia: Symbolically Substantive

Arguably, Obama’s trip to Malaysia was the smoothest as the US rebalance was openly welcomed by Malaysia’s leadership. In a press conference hosted by Prime Minister Najib, the two men agreed to elevate the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Partnership, agreeing on the interdiction principles of the PSI, and continuing to work on increased military interoperability. As with Japan, Malaysia has begun to edge closer to the US as Beijing’s claims have hardened in the maritime sphere. On the other hand, as with Japan, this has yet to bring home the TPP bacon and the President was again disappointed on the TPP front. However, his mood must have been lifted during the ‘town hall meeting’ with a number of Malaysia’s young people as he was greeted with screams of “We love you, Obama”, a reminder of his potent charisma and links to the region. In an East West paper, Elina Noor at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) argues that this was where the real power of Obama’s visit to Malaysia lay – his ability to connect with people. For those who remember the criticism endured by the Bush administration in the region, his ability to connect has been a welcome one.

Last but not least

The final visit of the reassurance tour was to the Philippines, perhaps the place most in need of reassuring. Long-suffering at the hands of Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, Manila was relieved that Obama’s statement that “…nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace, to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected”, was supported by a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The new defence pact gave US forces greater access to patrol Philippine waters, and though US forces have eschewed basing rights, it is likely that both Japan and the United States will work to increase coast guard and naval Philippine capabilities.

The real question of course, is how did Obama’s reassurance trip affect China? What has the balance does to deter China from seeking to forcefully change the status quo? The answer to that is unfortunately ‘not much’, as can be seen by Beijing’s establishment of an oil rig in Vietnamese waters in the days following Obama’s return to Washington. There is very little self-awareness amongst the Chinese leadership and that in itself is most worrying. Relying on ‘the century of humiliation’ narrative, China’s media continues to defend expansionism from US ‘bullying’. If rebalancing to Asia does not deter China, what policy should replace rebalancing? “How do we deal toughly with our banker”, as Hilary Clinton once asked. What policies should the US adapt after a future Sino-Vietnamese naval conflict. The US and other regional states have oft told themselves that China cannot be contained, and that is probably true, but it can be restrained. It is really a question of making Beijing pay an economic and political price for its aggressive actions towards US allies. What comes after ‘rebalancing’? What indeed.


China: America Hedges its Bets

 The National Interest, 6 December, 2013

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The rise of China in economic, political, and military terms is a key challenge for the security policy of the United States, which has both helped affect that rise and now hedges against the possible risks of that rise.

China’s sudden declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea is yet another vindication for US policy in the region. While there have been a number ofcriticisms of President Obama’s pivot to Asia; the policy was and remains the correct one. The decision to re-orient itself back to the Pacific was largely in reaction to a perception that a lack of diplomatic focus had not been good for the region. US allies in the region, such as Japan, Singapore and the Philippines, argued that a continued absence of focus by the United States in the region had become increasingly dangerous as China began to inexpertly exert its power in the region, particularly over maritime domain disputes. It has done this through a long-term incremental approach to de facto sovereignty over the East and South China Seas. In many ways, these claims have resurrected the logic of balance of power politics, and while Southeast Asian states have striven to avoid choosing between Washington and Beijing, the feeling was that China was taking advantage of the vacuum to assert a power-based hierarchical order. While Washington has also tried to avoid a zero-sum competition with China, the Bush administration and Obama administration began to carefully shift their view of China as it behaved with increased hubris in the region.

In the year following the announcement of the pivot policy, Chinese pundits accused the US ofcontainment, asserting a US plan to stem China’s rise as a great power. This is wrong for a number of reasons. First, this accusation ignores the US prominent role in developing China’s economy. All through the 1990’s, the US granted China most favored nation trade status, making this permanent in 2001. In addition, the US sponsored China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in2001. While there are no statistics on this topic, US investments into China since the 1970s could be over the trillion dollar mark. Robert Manning from the Atlantic Council has argued if the US wanted to enact a policy of containment of China, it would look quite different from the complex policy package that we see today. It would, for example, involve far more balancing behaviors including the attempted the diplomatic sidelining of China, a military build-up aimed specifically at Chinese platforms, and the creation of further alliances in and around China’s periphery. The US is not attempting such policies, nor does it think such policies are possible. Instead, as Evan Medeiros has argued convincingly, Washington is carrying out a policy of strategic hedging, a dual-track policy in which it carries out two policy bundles; one of engagement and one of balancing simultaneously. This article seeks to show how the United States came to follow such a complex policy, while also seeking to understand the strengths and weaknesses inherent in such a policy.

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Shinzo Abe: Foreign Policy 2.0 

Harvard Asia Quarterly,  15 April, 2013 Co-Authored with Maiko Kuroki, Doctoral Candidate, LSE

See here for RUSI Journal version of this article

668886-3x2-940x627To outside observers of Japanese politics, Shinzo Abe’s return to power in Japan was unexpected and slightly unlikely. The unanticipated and sudden end of his first premiership seemed to be a final closure on the grand ambitions of a leader molded in the style of Prime Minister Yoshida. For despite his conservative nature, foreign policy of the first Abe cabinet was noted for its groundbreaking approach to Japan’s security and foreign policy. Noting that his flamboyant predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had begun to move Japan out of its careful and pacifist foreign policy positioning – at the request of the US in the post-9/11 period – Abe dreamt of turning Japan into a ‘normal power’, one with allies, interests, and hard and soft power. This meant developing a more balanced and equal relationship with Washington, while also developing strong ties abroad with other Asia-Pacific powers like India and Australia. It also meant developing a strong relationship with China, while simultaneously hedging against the growth of Chinese power in the region. Such a nuanced and complex policy towards Beijing would require squaring within the right-wing factions of Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but this could be ameliorated by Abe’s revisionist approach to Japan’s constitution as well as his hard-line policy vis a vis North Korea. Whatever the case, Shinzo Abe is likely to try and leave his mark on Japan’s place in the world and his second premiership is similarly likely to herald a stronger more dynamic policy vis a vis China, as well as a refocusing of Japanese foreign policy to other regional security partners besides the US. In the forty years since Tokyo and Beijing restored diplomatic relations, the bilateral relationship has seen its ups and downs. Leadership visits between Tokyo and Beijing have been characterized as ‘thawing’ at times, but unfortunately, these patches of political warmth have been interspersed with a series of mini-crises, freezing winters which seem to throw relations into hibernation. Thus far, this off-and-on-again cycle has not prevented the two countries from strengthening economic ties. At the same time, China’s economic rise has encouraged an enlarged naval force and a more assertive foreign policy on its periphery. Shinzo Abe has assumed the premiership in Japan on the back of a renewal of tensions between the two powers, centered on the maritime territorial conflict of the Senkaku Islands.

Current Sino-Japanese Ties

Much has changed in the economic and military balance between China and Japan since 2007. Trade has continued to grow in importance, while political tensions have worsened. The development of the Senkaku / Diaoyu island dispute as the predominant issue of contention between the two is far removed from previous issues, a shift from the previous cycle of on-and-off ties. Unlike past sources of tension, like Koizumi’s Yasukuni Shrine visits[1] or historical textbooks, the objects of dissent are a real group of islands, visible, accessible, and perfectly situated between the two nations. Furthermore, both capitals have backed themselves into diplomatic corners, with little room for negotiation without losing face domestically. The porous and ungoverned nature of the maritime space[2] increases the number of civilian actors who can interact around the islands, turning them into a political amphitheater with nationalist audiences on both sides of the East China Sea. These crucial differences, combined with a number of intertwined factors – undersea gas fields, current People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval doctrine and bureaucratic overlapping – mean that this maritime territorial dispute is easy to inflame, difficult to extinguish. The resulting increase in nationalism among the general public – and the attendant demonstrations in Beijing and to a lesser extent Tokyo – have the power to seriously derail the bilateral relationship, a relationship carefully rebuilt since 1972. Furthermore, continued media attention and naval intrusions from September 2012 indicate that the crisis is merely dormant, rather than resolved. How Abe deals with the issues vis a vis the Japanese public, his own party, and with China over this issue are likely to shape shape Sino-Japanese ties for some time into the future.

Abe 2.0

It is difficult to predict which way Abe’s policy vis a vis China will go in the next 12 months. There is a very great possibility that the Senkaku / Diaoyu issue will flare up again and lead relations to further deteriorate. Indeed, a number of Western media outlets have recently reported concerns that an escalation in incidents could lead to an outbreak of war between Japan and China. While it is true that Abe has often made ‘hawkish,’ ‘nationalistic,’ and ‘anti-China’ statements, it is clear from his first premiership that he is also extremely pragmatic in his foreign policy principles. The political dynamic in Tokyo is fairly similar to that during the previous Abe cabinet, which might lead one to believe that Abe will attempt to repeat his pragmatic approach to China this time as well.

Election Pressures

Less than six months after assuming office, Abe must face his first electoral challenge in the form of an Upper House election, due to take place in late July 2013. In many ways this situation mirrors that of his first administration in 2006, in which Abe was constrained by the need to achieve a two-thirds majority in the Upper House as part of his constitutional revision policy. Stabilizing the Sino-Japanese relationship at that time became an important way to gain political support in the Diet, beyond the small coterie of Anti-China Diet members. This time, Abe is faced with serious economic problems, has already sought a wide-ranging set of economic reforms, now known as ‘Abenomics’. While, critics contend that these resemble the traditional LDP cash injections into the economy, Abe changed leadership at the Bank of Japan and has devalued the Yen, boosting exports. In many ways, Abe’s concentration on economics over foreign policy is just good politicking. According to a poll by the Asahi Shimbun, 48% of respondents answered that they expected Abe to focus on ‘economic-boosting policies’ and ‘employment measures’, while only 11% of respondents wanted the administration to step up its ‘diplomacy and security’ policies. In other words, economic recovery is more important than security concerns for Japanese voters. Moreover, Abe himself analyzed a factor in being reelected might be his past track record with having made improvements in the relationship with China. Therefore, it is likely that Abe seek to win the Upper house election through strong economic performance, avoiding confrontational policies with China. On the whole, he drew a curtain over his ‘hawkish’ and ‘anti-China’ political inclination and devoted to his entire attention to ‘safe driving’ to maintain stable government. At the post-election news conference on December 26th, he spoke about restoring the economy, and at his inaugural policy speech at the opening of the Diet on January 28th 2013, Abe indicated that Japan’s economic recovery is his first priority. In both speeches, he avoided discussing China or historical issues and clearly prioritized economic measures over diplomatic issues. Indeed, Shinzo Abe told the interviewer of the Washington Post that his duties and mission that he must fulfill is ‘to regain a strong and robust economy, and also to restore Japan’s strong foreign policy capability’. Thus, economic recovery is much emphasized than the China issue. Moreover, in an interview with Asahi Shimbun, one of Abe’s aides indicated that the administration exclusively focuses on economic recovery until the coming Upper House election and Abe will be in power for a longer period by avoiding a ‘twisted Diet’, and thus avoid the humiliating setback experienced in his first premiership when he lost the Upper House to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Given these calculations, Abe’s policy of avoiding tensions derives not only from his desire to strengthen economic relations, but also stems from internal Japanese political dynamics. As a result, it can be argued that Abe want to avoid the further escalation of diplomatic crisis with China before wining the election and taking a to firm grip on power.

To continue reading, please go to the Harvard Asia Quarterly link or RUSI Journal link.

 


Options for China and Japan in the East China Sea

RUSI Newsbrief, 17 Jan 2013

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The recent resurfacing of tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea now seems to have died down. Yet given its perfect (or perhaps imperfect) combination of drivers – nationalism, resources and strategy – the dispute continues to present leaders in both countries with a real dilemma, and is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Economically interdependent, the destinies of the two states – as well as future regional economic growth – are bound inexorably together. And at the same time, the dispute seems only to worsen each time it resurfaces, with ever-deeper political repercussions. Given the fact that the two countries also have the region’s most powerful militaries after the United States, this is a worrying trend. Perhaps even more alarmingly, leadership changes in both states seem to favour a hardening of positions with regard to each other. The danger that this will have economic repercussions is therefore very real, raising the prospect of a potential economic decoupling.

Given these trends, what can be done to ameliorate the situation? There are three possible strategies for resolving the dispute. The first is to utilise the relevant international dispute-resolution mechanisms – such as the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – to settle the issue of sovereignty in relation to the islands. The second is a strategy involving the shelving of the territorial issue to allow for the joint development of undersea gas fields in the contested areas, a factor said to underlie the entire dispute. The third involves reasserting total political control over the issue in order to maintain the status quo.

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Why China Needs to Change its Japan Policy

The Diplomat, 12th November, 2012

The Chinese Communist Party’s 18thNational Congress is one of the most important political events of the year, beginning a turnover in Party (and ultimately state) leadership. In addition to the leadership transition, the National Congress will define the party line in all major policy sectors, including foreign and defense policy. It is an excellent opportunity for Chinese leaders to turn the current disastrous Japan policy around before it’s too late.

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The recent tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea continue to simmer after the Japanese government purchased the islands from a private owner in mid-September. Following the purchase, nationalists from both Japan and Taiwan made publicity landings on the islands, revealing the extent that nationalism on both sides has hijacked the issue from political leadership. While order has been restored, extreme views of the dispute are beginning to prevail in the media of both China and Japan. It is no longer a question whether a new crisis will take place over the islands, but when.

While Beijing and Tokyo are said to be renewing talks over the disputed territory, the islands will continue to bedevil relations unless both China and Japan reset their policies with regard to each other. While Japan has an unfortunate sense of timing (purchase of the islands coincided with the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident), China has also encouraged anti-Japanese sentiment in its school texts and (war) history museums. The gravest sin of Chinese policy toward Japan however seems to be a growing perception in Beijing that ‘Japan doesn’t matter’ and that China can get on without Japan. This erroneous perception weakens the Chinese leadership in the region and at home.

The most important bilateral relationship in the Asia Pacific is thought to be that between the U.S. and China. While that is true, a second bilateral of great importance to the Asia-Pacific – the Japan-China relationship — gets far less attention than it deserves. This bilateral has long been a bellwether for any Asian order, and is important for both medium- and long-term reasons. Medium-term trends show Chinese growth slowing, with double-digit growth slowing to around 7-7.5 percent. There are signs that the next Congress will push for reforms of the state-owned enterprises sector, encouraging instead a larger private sector, and overhaul local government finances. This will require regulatory framework, which returns ebbing confidence of foreign investors on a host of areas such intellectual property and impartial legal process in law. To carry out these reforms, China will need massive flows of foreign direct investment, particularly to its’ banking and manufacturing sectors.

For this, China needs Japan and Japanese investment badly.  More than 20,000 Japanese companies ranging from apparel, electronics, and the auto industry have operations in China, with an annual turnover of $345 billion. Now, that could be at risk. According to a Reuters poll taken in Tokyo in September, more than 37 percent of Japanese companies have expressed caution about future operations on the mainland, and suggested redirecting investment to Southeast or South Asia. This would not be good. The global economy needs Chinese reforms, just as the Chinese economy needs Japanese investment.

And this financial debate is overlaid by the long-term great power cultural and military rivalry between the two powers. While both countries remain wedded to the modern liberal rules-based order, memories are short, and the possibilities for miscalculation ever-present. For all the talk of China’s defense modernization,  Japan’s defense budget is the world’s sixth largest and it has one of the region’s largest navies.

But Beijing needs Japan much more than it realizes. Declining or not, Japan is still big. It has the world’s third largest economy, and is the second largest holder of US treasury bonds. It has a large impact on global commodities and energy: it is the largest importer of liquid natural gas (LNG) and third largest importer of crude oil. Despite its financial troubles, it still carries considerable weight in financial global institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.Then there are Japanese activities in the Chinese market itself: in 2011, Tokyo invested $6.3 billion of operations on the mainland (while the U.S. only invested $3 billion that same year). Japan is said to have provided more than $45 billion in development loans to China since the 1970s.  China simply cannot afford to use Japan as a foil for its nationalism and domestic security.

Allowing national sentiment to rule foreign policy has hurt Beijing’s own ambitions. By encouraging or allowing nationalism at home, China’s regional policies alienate and isolate it from the very regional powers that it needs to renew its economy and develop its place as a power in the region. One result, as has been seen, is the shift of China’s neighbors from open engagement to cautious hedging. Worryingly still, Chinese policy-makers continue to see negative regional reactions to its growing Chinese assertiveness as part of a grand U.S. containment strategy. At one conference (governed by Chatham House rules), a senior Chinese scholar noted that in the China-Philippines dispute, it was clear that the U.S. was ‘leading from behind’, a grotesque inversion of political realities and a belittling of Philippine autonomy and decision-making.  What is worrying is that China is not only blind to its negative impact on Japan and other regional powers, but it believes the responsibility for that lies elsewhere. As long as this situation continues, then no matter what the delegates at the Party Congress decide in November, the future will look less rosier than it is now.


China’s Rise Remilitarizes Japan?

The Diplomat, January 21, 2011

Last year was a bad one for China’s soft power. Will Japan’s response prompt a dangerous spiral of arms spending—and spark conflict?

China's Rise = Remilitarizing Japan?

Saying publicly for the first time what they’ve thought privately for years, Japanese defence planners in December announced a new defence posture that fingered China’s military rise as justification for a new, more proactive approach, including a refocusing of forces from Japan’s north to its southernmost islands.

Unfortunately, China’s response was as predictable as it was unhelpful: it issued a blunt statement saying that no country had the right to make irresponsible comments about its development.

From a distance, it’s hard not to be alarmed at the three trends that have dominated the region over the last decade: the growth of Chinese power, the relative decline of US power and the resulting remilitarisation of Japanese power. Indeed, given the growth in importance of the region to the global economy, these trends are as alarming as they are dangerous since they have the capacity to be self-fulfilling, driving a cycle of mistrust and spiralling arms spending. And, since Japan’s defence posture automatically includes the United States (which is obliged by treaty to come to Japan’s defence) any potential conflict has all the ingredients for a ‘great power war.’

How did this happen to a China that seemed intent on managing a history defying ‘peaceful rise’? How did this happen to a United States that has sought to reassure China and give Beijing a seat at the table? And how did it happen to a pacifist Japan, led by a newly-elected political party that looked intent on building closer ties with China? A complicated mix of security dynamics, historical grievances and major shifts in aggregated power mean there’s no easy answer.

The relationship between Japan and China has long been complex. Traditionally, the junior partner and recipient of culture, religion and writing from the 19th century on, Japan developed more quickly the tools, institutions and weapons that ultimately felled its giant neighbour. Following the 1853 US intrusion on its sleepy isolation, Japan began its rise as a great power by focusing on economic and military power.

Using the slogan Fukokyu Kohei, ‘rich country, strong military,’ Japan emulated the strategic thinking of the West, with particular focus on the kind of naval power projection discussed by Alfred Thayer Mahan. Japan’s quicker development reversed its historic relationship with China, and by the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899, Japan was fighting alongside British, French and German forces and carving out its own trade empire on the Chinese mainland.

While China’s rise over the last 20 years has done much to restore the historic balance between the two states, it’s more than possible this historical experience continues to shape current Chinese policy and the attitudes of policy-making elites. Defence spending, for example, has surged—doubling every five years—with much going into developing China’s blue-water naval capabilities. (When pressed on this issue, Chinese diplomats tend to point to China’s past vulnerability to naval-borne threats).

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