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With Prof Peter Varnish OBE, Macdonald Laurier Institute, September 2021

The international environment is increasingly insecure. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, China and Russia are attempting to reshape the international system and constrain the liberal democratic West. State competition is changing, in a shift towards deniable, intrusive, and non-military threats against all sectors of society and, as a result, liberal democracies are increasingly looking for collective ways to respond. To meet this growing global challenge, Canada could do much more with the historic Five Eyes grouping that also includes the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The Five Eyes began primarily as an intelligence-sharing and technology collaboration arrangement. But in a new joint publication between the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, authors John Hemmings and Peter Varnish argue that the Five Eyes grouping could be used by Canada and others to expand the ability to counter and deter China and Russia across multiple areas, including technology, information, military, and economics.

According to the report, titled “Evolving the Five Eyes: Opportunities and Challenges in the New Strategic Landscape,” the Five Eyes has many advantages, from its proven history of creating effective personal relationships across all five countries to its ad hoc, fluid informality which makes it an ideal vehicle for expanded security cooperation. The countries share a common language, democratic traditions and legal systems and they have largely compatible militaries and security practices.


China and Russia: Closing the Maritime System?

Council on Geostrategy, Long Read, 10 March, 2021

The news that the upcoming Integrated Review will focus on emerging technologies and non-traditional domains is to be welcomed, particularly those relating to cyberspace, space, and artificial intelligence (AI). In addition to increasing the United Kingdom’s (UK) conventional deterrence capabilities, this also gives its forces the ability to push back and fight in the information domain, a space where Russia and China are increasing the tempo of their ‘grey zone’ operations and influence campaigns. However, as the democracies increase their capacities in these new sectors, the basic truths of the current global order should not be forgotten. At its heart, the rules-based order is more of an onion with overlapping architectures, with a core, based on the maritime domain. And it is within that system that China and Russia are seeking to rewrite the rules.

The maritime domain covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface. As a result, more than 90% of global trade takes place by sea, with 200 countries having ports capable of handling container shipping. In 2019, the total value of annual world shipping trade was estimated to be US$14 trillion, comparable to China’s economic output for that year. Despite a contraction in the shipping industry caused by the United States (US)-China trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic, the global market for cargo shipping remains robust and is expected to rebound in 2021. The importance of the maritime domain to the survival of nations has long been recognized, as sea access allows for states to become stronger through trade, while sea power allows for states to contest or deny trade to other states. 

The development of the current ‘free sea’ – or mare liberum – system was not an inevitable outcome of historic trends. While it is true that various empires have struggled to assert control over the sea as they have over land, it is not for a lack of trying. A number of countries have tried to lay claim to navigational, fishing, and trade rights in what are now known as international waters. During the fifteenth century, Castile (Spain) and Portugal attempted to enforce a ‘closed sea’ – or mare clausem – system across the globe with the 1454 Treaty of Tordesillas dividing the maritime domain into a Portuguese Hemisphere (covering the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, right up to the southern shore of Japan) and a Spanish Hemisphere (covering the mid-Pacific to the coastlines of the New World). While the agreement was initially bilateral, they attempted to give the treaty universal authority by lobbying the Vatican to add its weight to the agreement. In 1455, Pope Nicholas V duly issued the Romanus Pontifex Bull which legitimised mare clausem. While it is questionable to what extent the two countries’ claims were widely accepted in Europe – France refused to accept them as binding, for example – Spain and Portugal believed these waters, their islands, and contiguous territories were the property of the crown. Hugo Grotius’ seminal textThe Free Sea in 1609 was as much about negating this order as it was proposing the foundations of a new one.

When considering Russian actions in the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Chinese actions in the Southern Sea Route (SSR) between Asia and Europe, it is vital to consider whether these constitute an incremental attack on the underlying principles of mare liberum and an attempt to assert rules and norms more in keeping with mare clausem. What are the grounds for believing that they are doing so? 

Extended jurisdiction: At the heart of Russia and China’s actions in the Arctic and the South China Sea are their attempts to extend special rights over waterways that are quite expanded from those afforded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to Section 3, Article 17 of UNCLOS, ‘ships of all states, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.’ In asserting the right to ask ‘advanced permission’ of foreign naval vessels that seek to carry out ‘innocent passage’ through its territorial waters, China is infringing on the rights of other seafaring states. This is compounded by its drawing of straight baselines around islands, islets, and claiming territorial waters for submerged features that do not deserve them. Similarly, Russia has begun to assert a conditionality upon the rights of other nations to ‘innocent passage’ along the NSR (beyond those stated in UNCLOS) and it has announced a requirement for vessels to give 45 days’ notice and request permission from the Russian government for foreign vessels to transit. The Russian Izvestia newspaper stated at the time that ‘Russia is taking the Northern Sea Route under protection.’

Location, location, location: While many countries have had protectionist maritime policies within their own territorial waters, few impact global trade in the way that Russian and Chinese claims do. Both are carrying out their activities in seas that also straddle the most direct routes between the manufacturing heartlands of Asia and the advanced economies of Europe. For China, the SSR straddles access to Middle East oil and burgeoning African markets. Around 30% of global maritime crude oil trade – around 15 million barrels per day – transits the South China Sea. While the NSR is not yet functioning as a year-round trade route, it saw 27 million tonnes of cargo volume in 2020 and is set to continue rising. In 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council on the Arctic predicted that 30% of Asia-Europe container trade would transit the NSR by 2030 since it is 35% faster than the southern sea route. The area is also thought to be home to abundant fishing prospects and untapped carbon reserves.

Military coercion: China and Russia have sought to codify their expansionist maritime claims in national laws and used the presence of localised military forces to enforce their claims. China’s ‘island fortresses’ in the South China Sea have been extensively covered by the international media through think tanks like the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which uses commercially available satellite imaging in analysis. According to AMTI, China has bolstered these islands with airfields, hangars for combat aircraft, radar and sensor arrays, and mobile surface-to-air and anti-ship missile systems. In the NSR, Russia has spent considerable resources building up its air and maritime early warning systems and reopened fifty previously closed Soviet-era military bases in the Arctic – including thirteen airbases, ten radar stations, and twenty border outposts. It established the Arctic Strategic Command in 2014, strengthened the Northern Fleet, and updated its naval strategy in 2017 to include a large Arctic component. It has also developed and tested new Arctic-based cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. In sum, it would appear that both China and Russia have – with little fanfare or resistance – sought to assert political and military control over fulcrum points of maritime sea trade. 

In some ways, the rise of China is more of a concern because of its economic heft and ability to use this to coerce surrounding nations. While the ambition of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, to turn his nation into a ‘maritime great power’ can be viewed as a natural and inevitable result of China’s rise as a global manufacturing hub and top exporting nation, there are worrying signs that Beijing will reshape the basic rules of the global order to suit its preferences. Doing so will help China realise its global ambition to ‘move closer to centre stage’. The growth of China’s port ownership around key trade routes and maritime chokepoints enhances its influence over the maritime order, while its growing naval clout also means it may have the power to enforce these new rules. In September 2020, the US released a report acknowledging that China’s fleet had surpassed that of the US in numbers (350 to 293). 

Taken together, these shifts in maritime order – legal, political, and military – portend a maritime domain with new rules and norms suited to the preferences of Beijing and Moscow. This is to the detriment of countries that rely on the SSR and NSR for future economic growth and prosperity. While Britain’s position as either a Euro-Atlantic power or an Indo-Pacific power might be debated, it is clear that it must be a maritime power, working with other like-minded seafaring democracies to maintain a free and open sea in both sea routes. It should either work with – or join – the Quad to ensure continued access through the SSR for all. It should also work with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to shift more attention and resources north, and develop a common ‘Three Eyes’ – Canada, US, and UK – approach to respond to Russian activity in the Arctic and North Atlantic. 

Noting China’s ‘continentalist’ approach towards the maritime domain, Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Seapower at King’s College, London, has written that if China replaced the US as the world’s leading power, ‘it would shatter the global economy and the sea power model that sustains it.’ Common action by the UK and other democracies should ensure this occurrence remains remote.


America’s New Great-Power Problem

With James Rogers, The National Interest, 23 January, 2021

We often seek lessons from history. Thucydides famously wrote that he wished for his History of the Peloponnesian War to be “useful for by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future.” Winston Churchill wrote that he sought to make his history, The Second World War, a “contribution to history that will be of service to the future.”  

And yet, no sooner is a comparison made than a critic responds that the historical analogy is malformed, citing major differences between those periods and our own. After all, not all diplomacy with an aggressor leads to a “Munich” moment, not every step, a step “across the Rubicon,” nor every rising power destined for a “Thucydides Trap.”

The imposition of broad sweeping comparisons from the past should, of course, be avoided, but this does not mean that lessons cannot be extracted from history when dealing with certain types of scenarios. So while history does not necessarily repeat itself, it can certainly echo. Structural variables work to influence complex political behaviors in ways that are repeated. The fact that practitioners themselves are immersed in history, accentuates this. So how can today’s policymakerattempting to design policies that deal with China’s risedraw from the past, without making category mistakes or sweeping generalizations? 

When seeking historical instruction, a starting point might be to isolate common structural conditions or variables for comparison. These might include the form of political leadership, regime-type, the form of international polarity, methods of competition, and the impact of specific technologies on escalatory logics (e.g. how do nuclear weapons limit choices?). 

If we apply this typology to the three most recent historical episodes of “rising-power challenges,” then we believe that we can extract lessons in relation to the emerging competition with China. These periods include the European rivalry before World War I, the global competition before World War II, and the era of geopolitical struggle now known as the Cold War. From there, it is clear that there are many commonalities between those periods and the one we are moving into. What do these three eras of competition offer American, British and Indo-Pacific policymakers in terms of insight when dealing with the rise of China

  1. China has a leader around which power has become increasingly centralized to the extent that a cult-of-personality style of leadership has emerged. These behaviors might have been predicted in the first years of Xi Jinping’s regime by looking at his earliest speeches to the CCP cadre. As with other totalitarian leaders, such as Stalin and Hitler, Xi believes in the power of the party-state ideology to drive policy as well as consolidate domestic control. As we saw from those unhappy regimes, as power is centralized, intolerance towards pluralism grows, to the extent that minoritiesespecially those considered hostile by the regimecome under mounting surveillance and discrimination. Here there are echoes between the plight of the Uighurs and various ethnicities in Nazi Germany and the USSR. 
  2. Likewise, under Xi’s authoritarian leadership, more and more of China’s society has fallen under the power of an increasingly expansive party-state structure (similar to the totalitarian party-states of the 1930s), which utilizes an international ideology (socialism), combined with nationalism (with Chinese characteristics), to export the Chinese model abroad to reorder the international system. This approach is not unlike those of past regimes. Like the Kaiser, Xi believes China has the right to shine like the sun. Unlike Hitler, he shies away from open warfare as a means of policy. But, like the party bosses of the USSR, he believes in economic and political warfare to expand China’s power.In terms of regime type, we can see forces at work in China that were also found in Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany. This is because there are few mechanisms for legitimizing the leadership of the party, such as elections or referendums in one-party systems. Therefore, jingoistic nationalism begins to fill that spaceor is deliberately positioned to fill itand if allowed to become too virulent, can lead to domestic pressures for more aggressive, even expansionist, foreign policies.
  3. As an authoritarian state, contemporary China, much like the Nazi and Soviet regimes before it, has proven adroit at integrating the dimensions of state power to the extent that it appears more successful than the fatigued and exhausted liberal democracies. As we know from the struggles with those regimes, the United States, the UK and their allies in the Indo-Pacific region will need to develop greater internal cohesion and overcome many of the “critical” or “core” assumptions that have sapped them of their strength if they are to compete successfully against China. 
  4. In terms of polarity, the previous struggles were more focused. While Japan was a major regional power in the run-up to World War II, the key powers have been concentrated in the Euro-Atlantic region for the past three centuries. In the emerging period of competition, the major powers are spread out. China, India and Japan are in Asia, the United States is in the Americas, and Britain, Germany and Russia are in Europe. American, British and Indo-Pacific policymakers will need to look at an increasingly global theatre, one where the Euro-Atlantic region and the Indo-Pacific region are intrinsically linked. 
  5. Polarity matters, and whether this period is a transition to a bipolar U.S.-China era or a truly multipolar era will impact how states construct their national strategies. If China and the United States are the only superpowersor whether India and the Europeans are able to develop superpower metrics and the political will to use themthen that sill deeply impact alignment behavior, and correspondingly the leadership approach of the United States. 
  6. Methods of competition also have historical echoes. While China is, like the USSR, a communist regime, it has a much higher GDP relative to the leading democracy, the US, than the Soviet Union ever did. It is also, similarly to Wilhelmian Germany, deeply ingrained into global supply chains and the world economy. Therefore, rather than looking for examples of dealing with economic statecraft or coercion from the Cold War, policymakers might consider Wilhelmian Germany in 1914 which utilizeddumping, finance, and trade for strategic ends across Europe. Thus, we should look to the policy options of France, Italy, and the UK for dealing with economic conflict with China.
  7. The West relied heavily on regional alliances to deal with the Wilhelmian and Soviet threats. And now, similar to what occurred in the 1930s, there is an aversion to developing regional alliances or collective defense measures against today’s revisionist: China. This is despite the fact that NATO kept the peace in Europe for nearly seventy years. In addition, there is an allergic reaction to giving Taiwan an open defense guarantee; however, the 1930s showed that the same style of strategic ambiguity by France and Great Britain toward Austria and Czechoslovakia encouraged Nazi ambitions. Indeed, as we think about how Nazi Germany went from attempting to unify German-speaking peoples to absorbing non-Germans, we should think about whether or not a failure to react to more “legitimate” claims can give encouragement to entirely illegitimate ones. While modern-day China is not as aggressive as Nazi Germany, allied weakness and lack of cohesion at critical momentsas when Berlin took the Ruhr region, undermined the governments of Austria and Czechoslovakia before using diplomacy to expand its powermade miscalculation more, not less, likely. When thinking about Hong Kong and Taiwan, this is a relevant lesson. 
  8. In terms of technology, the possession of nuclear weapons remains a huge variable in today’s great-power competition. As we consider the current competition with China, it is clear that the major powers are, as during the Cold War, in possession of nuclear arms, most with fully-established global second-strike capabilities. This means that, unless technology becomes available that can circumvent the danger posed by ballistic or high-speed cruise missiles, escalation can only be “horizontal” and “diagonal,” rather than “vertical.” If we consider how the U.S./UK and USSR were similarly discouraged from escalating to open war with each other, we can see that the emerging era of competition will be pushed into below-the-threshold conflict with conflict taking place in the information sector, the digital sector, technology, space, and across other nonmilitary sectors. 
  9. Despite early Soviet advances during the “space race,”the United States, UK and their western allies were often in the ascendancy in terms of technology during the Cold War. The contemporary era of competition, however, is more likely to resemble the struggles with Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany during the early twentieth century, when the chief revisionist was technologically equal to, or even superior to, the established powers. This is because China has moved forward rapidly with the development of telecommunications systems and other industries of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. 

Here are the two takeaway points: First, historical examples are useful but there has been a growing trend in the public arena to criticize such analogies because they fail to precisely match our present day. This approach makes perfect an enemy of the good. We might not be in a “cold war” that equates exactly with the historic events of 1949 to 1989, but by looking for similar variables we can look back to that period for those relevant policies that worked while avoiding those that did not. Second, in this commentary, we have put forward ten lessons from history that we believe are instructional for the contemporary era. No doubt, many will disagree with them or have slight variations. That is wonderful, and such points should be put forward to debate whether we have drawn the right conclusions or not. We have primarily used them to show our variables might inform our analogies, providing perspectives to help policymakers.


The Daily Mail, Rachel Millard, July 25, 2018

Dr John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think-tank, said: “Authoritarian powers like China and Russia have sought to buy and steal sensitive technologies in the West… this White Paper looks like a step in the right direction.”


Against all odds, is Trump about to solve the North Korea nuclear crisis?

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The Telegraph, 29 March, 2018

The arrival in Beijing of a long, armoured North Korean train was as mysterious as it was sudden. Who could it be? Kim Jong-un hadn’t publicly left his country since he became leader in 2011, fearful perhaps of a military coup. The train itself, reminiscent of those favoured by the Bolsheviks, was strikingly similar to the one used by Kim Jong-il, the current dictator’s father, who was reportedly afraid of flying.

There had been no sign that a visit was imminent. But then the photographs emerged, Kim and Chinese president Xi Jinping shaking hands in front of their national flags. The message was as expected: we stand together and will proceed with the upcoming North Korea-South Korea negotiations as a team, as “lips and teeth” as both countries like to say of each other. But the background to the meeting was not: Donald Trump may have set in motion a series of events that could lead to a positive resolution, in some form, of the North Korea nuclear crisis.

It is astonishing that we have reached this point – and that Trump appears to have been the man who achieved it. The president is not known for his foreign policy expertise, and the nuclear issue is the modern day incarnation of the Great Game, one of the most complex and longest-running crises in history. In the 1990s, an American official said it “felt like playing a multi-tiered chess game on overlapping boards.” While there are six states involved – the US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan – arrayed in two “teams”, everyone comes to the table with a different agenda, different objectives.

Take Japan. Prime Minister Abe is known to have reached out to the North through interlocutors insisting that he wants to be at the table. But for Abe, the North Korea nuclear issue cannot be resolved without determining the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. For Russia, North Korea presents an opportunity. A long-term ally during the Cold War, it now plays the crisis like a poker player with few stakes in the game and uses its role to gain best advantage for its position in Asia.

Just months ago conflict seemed imminent. Now we will see the US and the North sitting down at the same table for the first time since 2012

For China, the game has long been about history. Historically, the Korean nation has been a tributary state, and US involvement on the Asian mainland has felt like a foreign intrusion. At the most extreme, Beijing has sought to use the crisis to engineer a US removal from the peninsula; by the most benign reading, it merely seeks to maintain a safe buffer zone on its borders from any US-allied nation.

Trump could have drowned in this complexity like some of his predecessors, but instead he has shown an agility of purpose that has thrown the pieces in the air. The Kim-Xi meeting suggests movement in Beijing. The Chinese are desperate to avoid being cut out of the planned summit. Xi will have wanted to remind Kim who butters North Korea’s bread. Kim, meanwhile, will have wanted to ensure a defence commitment in case the talks are unsuccessful. After all, the Trump administration’s quiet movement of military assets to the region belies a serious determination to remove what they perceive to be a direct threat to the US mainland.

But while we should all be cautious about the long-term chances of a US-North Korea accord, what has been achieved so far is remarkable. Just months ago conflict seemed imminent. Now we will see the US and the North sitting down at the same table for the first time since 2012, and for the first time with an open agenda since 2007.

President Trump would not have accomplished this without the incredible diplomacy of the South’s President Moon Jae-in. Indeed, the US and the South have led a superb three-pronged campaign. They’ve stood firm on defence issues, with Trump raising the potential prospect of war by keeping military options on the table and moving assets in-theatre. Both men have adopted highly versatile approaches toward China, giving Xi respect and reassurance, while playing hardball on sanctions and pushing Beijing to accept a “maximum pressure” approach to the North. In turn, Xi and Kim have greeted the US-South overtures with apparent respect, and seem to be attempting to relieve tensions.

One only hopes they succeed. For if the negotiations do fail, we’ll have an unimaginable disaster on our hands in East Asia, and right at the heart of the global economy.


Don’t Forget the Treatment of North Korean Defectors

The Diplomat, February 14, 2017

With all the outrage over Trump’s refugee ban, where is the anger over Russia and China’s treatment of North Koreans?

In London, thousands of people gathered in the freezing rain to protest the new American president’s ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

If people around the globe are willing to protest against Trump’s decision to reject refugees, where is the outrage toward China or Russia, who regularly round up and arrest North Korean refugees inside their borders, and return them to the North? Repatriated defectors sent back to North Korea face harsh penalties. They can be imprisoned in forced labor camps, or face the death penalty by execution.

China

Of North Korea’s two northern neighbors, China has the strictest policy toward North Korean defectors and takes active measures to locate and repatriate any found within its borders. Chinese security services actively cooperate with the DPRK to find, arrest, and repatriate any North Korean refugees who seek to transit China to other neighboring states, and have made it clear to their citizens that assisting the refugees in any way is illegal. Naturally, under those conditions, those North Koreans who do make it to China are extremely vulnerable to trafficking and coerced prostitution.

In the past, if defectors were able to reach foreign embassies and consulates, China has been willing to let defectors leave the country. However, getting to an embassy is often difficult. In a recent undercover documentary filmed by Jake J. Smith entitled While They Watched, a North Korean refugee family was filmed trying to enter the U.S. embassy. Blocked, they then attempted to enter the Japanese embassy next door but were attacked, beaten, and pulled away from the embassy by the Chinese police. They were sent back to North Korea.

Russia

Russia has never been sympathetic to North Korean refugees, granting permanent asylum to only two between 2004 and 2014. However, their repatriation policy was entrenched in 2014, when both countries signed an agreement to forcibly repatriate nationals from either country found to be residing in the other illegally. There are only an estimated 40 defectors that have managed to successfully escape to Russia and remain unnoticed.

The issue of North Korean defectors in Russia gained media attention again after Choe Myong-bok, a defector who has been hiding in Russia for nearly two decades, was arrested last week. He will be forcibly repatriated back to North Korea, despite human rights organizations claiming he faces certain execution if he is returned. Choe is currently awaiting results of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Choe is hoping to avoid sharing the fate of Ryu En-nam, who was forcibly repatriated from Russia back to North Korea in 2008. Once in North Korea, Ryu was dragged behind a train until death.

While some defectors manage to reach Russia from North Korea, often through the Siberian wastes, most North Koreans that become refugees in Russia defect while already working in the country as laborers. These workers are sent to timber and logging camps from Pyongyang with the promise of a better life, in order to earn money to send back to their families. There are an estimated 20,000 North Korean workers in Russia at any one time.

Russia, however, greets these defectors with little more than indifference. If anything, Moscow has strengthened ties to North Korea in recent years, signing an economic agreement only last spring to raise bilateral trade from $112 million to $1 billion by 2020 and laying down plans for a $340 million joint venture to build a new railway from the Russian border to the North Korean port of Rajin. Sadly, while Choe Myong-bok’s story may be the most recent tragic tale, it almost certainly will not be the last.

While one might argue that we hold the United States to higher standards than we do Russia or China, this is a meaningless argument to a North Korean citizen being taken back to be executed. And while Muslim refugees have a range of nearby countries – including Europe itself – where they might instead seek safety, North Koreans have pitifully few choices, with only three borders to choose from.

Our protests are hypocritical and prejudiced if we only seek to defend those who are the fashion of the week. The North Koreans have suffered for generations under one of history’s most brutal regimes and two countries regularly throw them to the wolves. Perhaps someone will light a candle outside the Chinese and Russian Embassies one day to remember these forgotten refugees.


Trump’s bromance with Putin will split the West in Two

CNN, December 19, 2016

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When the Financial Times and Time magazine both named President-elect Trump as their person of the year, the publications did so as less of a plaudit and more of a recognition that his election is a pivotal event for the West. Certainly, it represents a major challenge to the shared foreign and security policies of the broad community of nations known as the Western alliance. Only two years after Russia illegally occupied a sovereign nation’s territory in Crimea and then began a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, an American leader has come to power, promising to improve relations with Moscow. How will Trump’s “pivot to Russia” affect European security, and what impact will his increasingly hard line on China have on Washington’s Asian allies? Trump has revealed time and again on the campaign trail — and now, more disturbingly, over the hacking scandal — a willingness to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt.

However, despite his apparent soft spot for authoritarian leaders, Trump has not extended this friendliness to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In the wake of the Taiwan phone call and the President-elect’s ambiguity over the “One China policy,” the Chinese have responded by flying a bomber over the South China Sea. They have also held life-fire drills on the PLA Navy’s new aircraft carrier and revealed that they are arming their illegal island bases in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Then, on Friday, China seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea. The country used its state media to declare “the drone that emerged from the South China Sea is just the tip of the iceberg in US military strategy on China.” President-elect Trump has responded in the manner to which we have become accustomed, tweeting: “China steals US Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented (sic) act” and “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

Some commentators, like David Martin Jones in the Telegraph, have wondered if Trump is trying to execute a reverse Henry Kissinger by building ties with Moscow while freezing ties with China. While such a diplomatic move is technically feasible, is it probable? After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is well positioned at the moment vis-a-vis Beijing. While China has clearly become the dominant partner, and its One Belt, One Road strategy unilaterally consolidates Beijing’s influence over central Asia at Russia’s expense, China has been careful to pay the Russians lip service and accord them the face that Moscow craves. Putin’s ties with China’s Xi Jinping are commonly described as a “bromance,” as the two have met 19 times in four years.

Trade between the countries mushroomed in the wake of Crimea-related Western sanctions against Russia, and the defense forces of the two nations are growing closer. Last September, Russian forces drilled alongside their Chinese counterparts, in apparent support of Beijing’s claims. As a consequence, any ideas Trump may have of splitting the two continental giants should be tempered by reality. We simply aren’t at the position in the Cold War where Beijing and Moscow were eyeball to eyeball and welcomed American balancing. So, if a Kissinger-style swap isn’t on the cards, what are the likely effects of Trump’s new foreign policy? Unfortunately, his policy is likely to exacerbate a tension already running through the Western alliance, in which the European allies — like the EU, NATO member states, and Sweden — balance against Russia while welcoming warm diplomatic and trade ties with China. This is the polar opposite in the Pacific, where Washington and its allies — concerned about Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea — are attempting to balance against China while improving ties with Russia. While it may not look like much, this split is likely to divide the West in two, while doing little to worry China and Russia.

There are some very real dangers that might arise from this: Europeans might soften on the arms embargo to China, or dampen their criticism of Chinese moves in the Pacific even more than they have already done. Washington, for its part, might undo sanctions on Russia, effectively legitimizing the first territorial invasion of a state by another in post-War history. This would not bode well for the Baltic states.

So, what’s to be done? Well, first it’s a long way to January 20. Trump’s Cabinet is still being picked, and it is difficult to know how much his foreign policy tweets represent the actual future positions of his administration. Furthermore, his administration may yet be challenged– either by the hacking scandal or even by a rejection of Trump’s polices within the Washington policy establishment. US presidents are notoriously dependent on the other branches of government to implement their policies. Any number of things could collide, making Trump a sitting-duck president before he’s even hung his name up in the Oval Office. Regardless of all this uncertainty, neither Americans nor Europeans can afford to ignore the very real possibility outlined above that Trump’s attempt to split the two authoritarian states will actually split the West. Much diplomacy and intra-alliance dialogue will be necessary in the next four years. No less than the future of the liberal, rules-based global order is at stake.

The Rise of the New Authoritarians?

The National Interest, 08 February, 2016

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The news last week that the U.S. defense budget will increase dramatically to face challenges in Asia and Europe came as no surprise. In many ways, one could argue that it marks the beginning of a new deterrence strategy by the United States, reacting to the rise of Chinese and Russian assertiveness: Force will be matched by force. Moscow and Beijing will be discouraged from picking off the smaller and less-capable members and allies of the West. Latvia will not become a new Ukraine. Chinese bullying in the South China Sea will remain just that, bullying. It is clear, however, that there is more going on here than simply the “rise of the rest” as was previously thought.

There seems to be a new age of silent competition and geopolitics taking place. It is riddled with grand ambitions and grand stakes. In one corner is a fractured West, one-time victor of the Cold War, now exhausted by fifteen years of inconclusive wars with Islamic fundamentalism; in the other stands a confident array of “new authoritarians,” enriched and empowered by their gradual acceptance of Western economics over inefficient state control.

For many, the implications of the new geopolitics are long term and vague, though there is growing awareness that the future of global governance and architecture is in peril. Will such architecture be truly pluralistic or merely carry the trappings of democracy in the style favored by new authoritarian regimes?

For some, though, the stakes are immediate and real. Ukrainians who desired European-style pluralism know this. Voters in Taiwan’s vibrant democracy—on display last month in historic elections—know this. Their fate had they been under Beijing’s control might be glimpsed in the quiet death of Hong Kong-style democracy over the past two years. The new age is a competition of ideas with neo-authoritarian states, but it is unlikely to resemble the Cold War. It is not even likely to be openly acknowledged. However, it is a real competition and its weapons are disinformation, dodgy referendums and delegitimization campaigns against the West and its values. Its new soldiers are legions of “50-Cent Bloggists” and the organs of state propaganda pretending to be legitimate media. The new battlefields are the periphery of the West, inside the Western left, in cyberspace and in the minds of Western populations. So, how did it come to this?

Both new authoritarian states lost the battle of ideas in the Cold War—to the chagrin of their hardliners. China lost it in Tiananmen Square in 1989, while Moscow lost it in front of the Russian Parliament in 1991. Unlike the type of global reordering that takes place after actual wars (when victorious states can occupy and reorder the domestic systems of the losing side), the end of proxy wars is far less definitive. Certainly, the West sought to influence domestic battles from afar, through aid packages and legions of development consultants, and inviting greater people-to-people links with the West—especially through higher education. But ultimately, they failed to persuade key constituents in both states to adopt political liberalism alongside economic reforms.

How is the West to deal with this new era of silent competition? The West cannot resort to Cold War–style containment strategies to keep Russian and Chinese assertiveness at bay. Their economies are simply far too integrated and it would be impossible to de-link without serious damage to the global economy. Furthermore, the world’s problems are simply too great for the West to attempt to resolve without the “new authoritarians.” A viable political resolution to the Syrian Civil War—and the large numbers of refugees destabilizing Western Europe—is ultimately to be found in Moscow, not in London. And Putin knows this. Iran, climate change and North Korea are all areas where the West must cooperate with Russia and China. So what can the West do?

First, the West must begin to realize that the new authoritarians are in fact authoritarian. Knowing that changes how one deals with these states. Second, we must begin a wider discussion on how to counter the ambitions of the new authoritarians: What can be done to maintain coherence and cohesion? The new game is from afar and yet takes place in our living rooms; it’s about undermining rather than directly attacking and it goes after the weak and dispossessed. Its greatest conduit seems to be through the Internet and through the so-called “new media.” Why do Western states continue to allow the tools of state propaganda—Russia Today, Press TV and the CCTV—to operate freely in the West? Why do they accept that their own media will be repressed in those states? While the new competition is in the realm of ideas, it is clear that the hard power of the West acts as a deterrent to mis-adventurism. The new budget is a step in the right direction, but Europe and American allies in Asia must match that determination. It is sad that liberal democracy did not prevail in China and Russia. Somehow, one senses that the future of the liberal order rests on how the West frames this coming era and what counter-strategies are employed to defend core Western values. As the supposed Chinese curse has it, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly do.


Shinzo Abe’s Balancing Act with Russia

International Relations and Security Network, 30 October, 2014 inline_783234743982-415x260

Japan and Russia have been engaged in a diplomatic cat-and-mouse game for many years now. The latest round of events saw Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet briefly on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan, with the two agreeing to continue their discussions at the APEC Summit in November. For both men, however, the stakes of this game are rising. Japan needs to diversify its energy supplies following the post-Fukushima nuclear shut-down, and building an energy relationship with Moscow would offset growing Chinese dominance of the continent. For Russia, the stakes are equally high: Putin shares Abe’s desire to balance against growing Chinese continental strength and wants to carry out his own ‘pivot’ to East Asia and the Arctic. He aims to do this through a combination of smart diplomacy with powers like Vietnam and Japan, and by shifting Russia’s energy focus from the stagnant European market to the growing Asian one. He also plans to economically develop Russia’s East and gradually restore its military power in the region. But despite these high stakes and compatible interests, closer ties between the two countries remain hobbled by uncertainly over one issue in particular: the future of the disputed Kuril Islands. Tokyo would like to regain its lost “Northern Territories,” seized by Stalin immediately after the Second World War, but it is unclear whether Moscow is willing to make a deal.

Foreign policy matches

By any account, Putin’s foreign policy has been in shambles since last year’s successful chemical weapons deal protecting the Assad regime. Since then, Russia has become increasingly isolated and marginalized diplomatically, first over anti-homosexual legislation, and then over Ukraine. The unexpected fall of key ally Victor Yanukovych in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution precipitated a conflict on his doorstep and provoked an impulsive decision to secure Russian naval interests in the Crimea by force. The decision to annex the Crimea, while popular at home, has come at a great price, wiping out decades of good-will in Europe and the United States. Putin, however, does not seem to mind Russia’s isolation, which puts him in good company with the Japanese Prime Minister. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan has become similarly isolated in Northeast Asia, where Abe’s nationalist leanings have offended the Koreas, China, and even the US. Despite long-standing institutional closeness within the US-Japan alliance, Abe’s nationalism has caused some frostiness between him and the White House, with his decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last year drawing a rare rebuke from Washington.

Until a few years ago, discussions between Moscow and Tokyo were dominated by the territorial issue and by a long-discussed proposal for a gas-pipeline or LNG deal to supply Japanese and South Korean energy needs. These two states are the two largest LNG importers, and would represent a sizable catch for Putin if he can land them. James Byrne, an energy consultant at the Tokyo-based Mathyos Energy states: “Faced with declining demand in Europe, Russia and Gazprom must break into new markets in China, Japan and South Korea. The recent pipeline deal with China forms the backbone of a much larger planned far-eastern supply network that includes an LNG plant that would supply Japan. Also under consideration is a large-diameter gas pipeline.” According to Interfax, as Putin was pushing through the agreement to annex the Crimea through the Russian parliament, Igor Sechin – a Rosneft official close to Putin – was simultaneously in Tokyo offering Japan sizable concessions at a Russia-Japan Investment Forum, saying that Russia was “prepared to offer the most extensive opportunities for cooperating in meeting potential demand” as well as offset opportunities in shipbuilding.

Despite the domestic debate in Japan over the energy deal and concerns about crossing Washington over Crimea, Abe sees the current situation as a potential opportunity to gain concessions. On the one hand, he has followed the West in imposing sanctions on Moscow and promised US$1.5 billion in aid to the new Ukraine government. But, on the other, he met with Putin five times in the 18 months prior to Ukraine and initiated a 2+2 meeting (featuring the defense and foreign ministers of both countries). If he can sweeten the pipeline negotiations with a deal on the islands, he will make his mark on Japanese politics as a historical leader: after all, the issue has become a perennial one for Japanese Prime Ministers, with Hatoyama, Kan, Aso and now Abe all pushing to be the man who brings the islands back into the fold.

The Great Game: Northeast Asian style

Close observers of Abe have noted that the Japanese Prime Minister is interested in more than just energy and the islands. Indeed, he has a far more complex foreign policy towards Moscow than previous Japanese leaders, which contains a personal element: his father Shintaro Abe was instrumental in improving Russo-Japanese ties in the early 1990s and had a close relationship with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. As his father’s secretary and aide, Abe’s formative political years were spent working on ties with Russia. Because of this relationship, Abe sees the bilateral with Moscow as crucial in the growing geopolitical contest for Northeast Asia. In April 2013, he met Putin in Moscow and signed a memorandum of cooperation on a number of different projects, including joint development of the Magadan oil and gas field under the Sea of Okhotsk, an agreement for Rosneft to sell 1 million metric tons of LNG annually to SODECO, 1.25 million metric tons to Marubeni, and to establish a joint LNG plant in Vladivostok.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the US$400 billion deal between Moscow and Beijing in May of this year, a deal that shook energy markets. Although the deal promises to bring down LNG prices across Asia, the formation of a Sino-Russian bloc would be a disaster for Japan, given its close proximity to the borders of both. It has territorial disputes with both states, and cannot risk having them coordinate their efforts.

What would you give for an island?

It is difficult to know whether Moscow would be willing to make a deal on the island. Putin has offered a compromise in which Russia would keep two of the larger islands and give two of the smaller ones to Japan, but no Japanese leader has favored such a deal. Instead, many inside Kasumigaseki – Japan’s equivalent of Whitehall – believe that Russia’s estrangement from the West bodes well for Japan’s chances of regaining all four islands. Despite Abe’s careful maneuvering, however, it is not clear what President Putin intends to do. On the one hand, Putin needs Japanese investment, technology and energy cooperation; on the other, he knows that Japan needs to buy his LNG as much as he needs to sell it. Talk of an American shale revolution exporting to the Asia market has yet to materialize, and Japan needs energy in the meantime. Putin is also keen to fight Washington’s efforts to isolate him. A deal with Japan, a close American ally, might drive a wedge between the two and serve his East Asian foreign policy push.

But while many argue that Putin is a pragmatist before he is a nationalist, he may still be unwilling to give up Russian territory for two reasons in particular: first, the mood of the country is against it, and second – in a real twist of fate – many of the 30,000 inhabitants of the islands emigrated from the Ukraine during the Cold War. Moving them forcibly would present him with grave domestic challenges, to say the least. As it stands, Russia has already carried out a US$630 million policy of investment into the islands, and expanded its military presence there. Russia, therefore, may continue to dangle the islands in front of Japan, and Japan will continue to play for them. Although neither country quite believes in a deal, neither is quite willing to give one up. It will be interesting to see how this odd game of cat and mouse plays out.


NATO and the ‘Pivot’ after Wales

 

David Cameron hosts the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales.International Relations and Security Network, 12 September, 2014

 

Now that the NATO Summit in Wales is over, analysts are working to understand its implications for the strategic landscape around Europe. One issue that lay behind many of the discussions was the impact of US global strategy on the force-posture of US military assets in and around Europe. Although Hillary Clinton famously quipped that the United States “can walk and chew gum at the same time”, European allies still wonder how the US ‘pivot to Asia’ will affect its ability to defend the European continent and manage instability in the Middle East.

Overall, the Summit was a success: 28 world leaders came together as a symbol of transatlantic solidarity and moved past much of the awkwardness that had characterized US-German and US-EU ties over the past year. Vladimir Putin’s revanchist policies had reminded them of the purpose of the alliance, as had the growing instability on Europe’s southern border. On the whole, there were no significant differences of principle among member-states, and the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, the UK, and others committed – on paper, at least – to keep Europe “ whole, free, and at peace.”

Some have called the crisis over Ukraine a ‘Munich moment’, referring to the Munich Conference of 1938, when Germany won control of Sudetenland, a Czechoslovakian territory. However, the comparison is a favorable one for this generation. Rather than accepting the dismemberment of Ukraine, NATO member-states pledged support to Kiev in the form of a planned military exercise in Western Ukraine to show the alliance’s commitment. Furthermore, NATO members agreed to invest in reinvigorating the Alliance’s capabilities in three ways: 1) through the development of a new 4,000-strong deployment force, 2) through increased defense spending, and 3) through strategy readjustments to cyber warfare and ‘ambiguous warfare’.

Losing focus?

At a joint NATO-Cardiff University Conference held prior to the official summit, policy-makers and academics struggled to understand how the pivot would affect America’s ability to defend Europe. More than once, the US commitment to allocate more military resources to the Asia-Pacific was questioned. Some even wondered if the pivot was still in place, given the amount of traction that the Ukraine crisis and rise of ISIL were getting in Washington. This was despite US efforts to allay such fears at a press conference held on the 14th of August, where Admiral John Kirby stated that, despite instability on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, the US remained very committed to the pivot, as illustrated by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent trip to Asia (his sixth as Secretary).

At the August 14th press conference, Admiral Kirby pointed out that five out of seven US treaty allies were located in the Asia-Pacific region, in addition to 350,000 troops and 200 ships. He might also have pointed out that the region is home to some of the world’s largest militaries and now outspends Europe collectively on defense. In addition, as powers like China and India rise, fissures and tensions along their peripheries have begun to threaten the stability of a region that already dominates global trade and is predicted to represent 51% of global GDP by 2050. If the US continues to turn towards the Asia-Pacific, it is out of long-term strategic necessity. Its European allies must recognize this.

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Jeremy S. Maxie

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