Managing South China Sea conflicts

I enjoyed some time with some smart colleagues yesterday discussing the South China Sea conflicts, unfortunately under Chatham House rules. Below are my own notes for the occasion. 

Two points stand out in my memory of what others said: 

  1. Oil and gas resources in the South China Sea are not promising and fish stocks are declining; 
  2. The Chinese might well challenge the next president, or undisciplined pilots or naval captains might do so. 

There were lots of other excellent points made, but I’ll have to hope that one of the students present might offer up their notes. I find it difficult to take notes while participating on a panel. 

1. I’m truly honored to sit on a panel with distinguished colleagues. My advice to the students in the room is to listen carefully to them, as they know a lot about the South China Sea disputes and the legal background.
2. I don’t, but I was asked to talk about the conflict management implications of the recent arbitration and the outlook for resolving future maritime disputes in the region, including alternative methods of dispute settlement that China Studies and Conflict Management students will be exploring this fall and during a study trip to Beijing in January.
3. Let me begin with the bad news: if in order to ensure peace we need to settle the various claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, I think there is very little chance of success.
4. Sovereignty claims are all too often resolved by force.
5. China has the advantage there. For the foreseeable future Beijing will be able to deploy force superior to any of the other individual claimants. Without US assistance, none of the South China Sea claimants would win a naval clash with China.
6. With US assistance, they might win, but only after causing incalculable damage to world order, the world’s economy, and international relations throughout the Pacific.
7. War would be a really bad way to resolve any of the South China Sea disputes.
8. Fortunately, other means are available. Arbitration is one.
9. But arbitration is a method that decides who is right and who is wrong. If it goes in favor of the less powerful state, the more powerful state is unlikely to accept the outcome. That is pretty much what we’ve seen in response to last summer’s arbitration decision.
10. But we’ve also seen another classic conflict management response: China is trying to buy off the Philippines, with at least initial indications of some success.
11. Billions are unlikely to make Manila cede completely, but it may render the arbitration decision ineffective, postponing rather than resolving the issue.
12. There are ample precedents for simply letting sovereignty claims slide. There are still more than five outstanding maritime boundary disputes between the US and Canada. They are mostly ignored in practice, even if neither country is willing to concede legally.
13. There are also ample precedents for cooperative regimes that do not necessarily decide the sovereignty question, or decide it without prejudicing economic interests, thus enabling disputants to gain at least some of the benefits that they think are rightfully theirs.
14. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia share production from a once-disputed oil field; Iran and Qatar share production from a disputed gas field.
15. Such cooperative arrangements are relatively easy where resources are concerned but particularly difficult where security issues are involved, since security is often regarded as a zero sum game.
16. China’s militarization of various non-islands in the South China Sea is perceived in Washington as a threat to US freedom of navigation there. So we send ships and aircraft to traverse locations that we believe are permitted, even if the Chinese think not.
17. In particular, the Chinese think military vessels and planes conducting espionage are not entitled to passage even in its Exclusive Economic Zone, so they may respond by declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone, or by challenging US naval ships or military aircraft. Read more

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Nukes in the next administration

Yesterday, the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative held an event discussing how the next presidential administration should approach nuclear arms control and deterrence. Brookings scholar Michael O’Hanlon interviewed fellow Brookings scholar Steven Pifer on his recent report about this topic.

Although there are many nuclear states that we need to keep an eye on, Pifer explained,the primary concern for the next administration should be Russia due to their large arsenal and our quickly deteriorating relationship.  Russia has also expressed a desire to modernize their arsenal, and the US needs to keep a close eye on that. Given that Russia and the United States have more warheads than any other country, if the two great nuclear powers reach a strong reduction agreement, it will serve as an example for the rest of the world. Additionally, the New START treaty will expire in 2021—the next administration needs to take a long, hard look at the existing treaty and decide whether they want to renew it or renegotiate the terms.

In many respects, conventional weapons have become almost as deadly as traditional nuclear warheads; perhaps conventional arms reduction should be considered as well. Pifer recommended that while the US should maintain the existing defense triad of submarine launched domestic missiles, ICBMs and bombers, the next president should consider reducing their numbers. Maintaining all these warheads is very expensive. The US doesn’t really need 700 deployed missiles—they could get by on 550 and save. In fact, nuclear parity with Russia is not a strategic concern but rather a political one. Having as many or more warheads than Russia reassures US allies that the United States is capable of defending them and gives the US a better position at the negotiating table.

The US has pledged to use its warheads if the homeland or one of its allies is attacked with nuclear weapons, but foreign allies are nervous that Washington will only use its nuclear capabilities if attacked at home. Indeed, Pifer said, no president would be willing to risk Chicago for a small city in South Korea. Current US policy also gives room for US enemies to attack the homeland with conventional weapons without fear of nuclear reciprocation. Pifer believes that despite these issues, the policy contributes to nuclear deterrence and can be strengthened by improving communication with allies that depend on the US for nuclear security.

Pifer advises that the US should push hard for other nuclear states to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. The US has no need for further testing at the moment, since it conducted so many nuclear tests in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the US conducted more tests than the rest of the world combined. As a result of these extensive tests, US knowledge about nuclear weapons far surpasses the rest of the world. Therefore, by encouraging others to sign the treaty, the US keeps the knowledge it gained from its own nuclear tests while ensuring that the rest of the world never catches up.

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Peace picks, October 31-November 4

  1. Nuclear Arms Control Choices for the Next Administration | Monday, October 31 | 2:00pm – 3:00pm | Brookings Institution | Click HERE to Register

    Nuclear arms control has been a feature on the U.S.-Soviet/Russian agenda for nearly five decades. While discussions between Washington and Moscow currently are at a standstill, the limitations, transparency, and predictability provided by agreements such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are more important than ever in times of tense bilateral relations. The next U.S. president and her or his administration will face a number of choices about nuclear weapons, nuclear policy, and arms control.On October 31, theBrookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative will host a discussion on nuclear arms control choices for the next administration.  The panel will feature Brookings scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Steve Pifer. Following the discussion, the speakers will take questions from the audience.

  2. Enhancing the US-Georgia Security Partnership | Monday, October 31 | 12:30pm – 2:00pm | Elliott School of International Affairs | Click HERE to Register

    For several decades, Georgia has been one of the most important economic and security partners of the United States. The US is the largest bilateral aid donor to Georgia, having provided several billion dollars since 1991. This support has always enjoyed bipartisan backing.  Since 2009, Georgia and the United States have had a Strategic Partnership through which both parties pledge to further Georgia’s democratization, economic development, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Georgia is the highest per capita contributor to the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan. Despite Washington’s efforts, however, Georgia has not yet received membership in NATO and finds itself in a challenging neighborhood. The next U.S. presidential administration will need to move decisively to strengthen this critical partnership.Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign and defense policies. Dr. Weitz is also an Expert at Wikistrat and a non-resident Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

  3. Iran, Israel and the United States: What to Expect Next? | Monday, October 31 | 1:30pm – 2:30pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click HERE to Register

    Is the JCPOA—now one-year-old—a vehicle for reducing Israel-Iranian tensions in the medium term? How will the outcomes of the impending U.S. and Iranian presidential elections affect both Iran and Israel’s security perceptions? Join us for a discussion with a panel of experts on what foreign policy adjustments we can expect from Iran, Israel, and the United States vis à vis each other in 2017 and beyond. Featuring Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, David Menashri, Professor Emeritus, Tel Aviv University and Senior Research Fellow, Alliance Center for Iranian Studies and the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Henri J. Barkey, Director, Middle East Program

  4. How Should the Next President Counter Violent Extremism | Tuesday, November 1 | 8:15am – 9:15am | Brookings Institution | Click HERE to Register

    The next U.S. president will come into office in an era of dramatic disruptions around the globe. Violent extremism is spreading, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Adding to the friction, tensions over immigration, trade agreements, and globalization are giving rise to nationalist political movements across the Western world. While the next president will have to grapple with immediate questions of military and national security strategy, he or she will also have to set in motion a long-term strategy to counter the threat of violent extremism at its root cause.On November 1, veteran journalist Indira Lakshmanan of the Boston Globe will conduct a live podcast taping with two Brookings experts as they examine how America’s role in the world will change as the new administration takes office next year. As part of the Brookings-wide Election 2016 and America’s Future project, this event is the fourth in a series of live recordings distributed by the Brookings Podcast Network. Brookings Senior Fellow and Vice President of Governance Studies Darrell West recently published the book “Megachange,” focused on the proliferation of major, unexpected changes around the globe, and will talk about violent extremism as a social and political phenomenon. Brookings Visiting FellowRobert McKenzie is an expert in U.S-Islamic relations, and recently published a policy brief on how the next president can fight violent extremism in America.We hope you can join us for a lively conversation in which each expert will deliver a concrete course of action for the next president, and will be pressed by the moderator on alternate perspectives on the issue and the realistic obstacles the next administration will face.

  5. ISIS: The Day After Defeat | Wednesday, November 2 | 12:00pm | The Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register

    Iraqi and Kurdish forces are closing in on Mosul, a major Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) stronghold in Iraq. Taking the city would seriously degrade ISIS territorial control in northern Iraq and force the organization to fall back into Syria. Meanwhile, ISIS is also experiencing rapid territorial loss in Syria to the Syrian Kurds, who recently captured Manbij, and to elements of the Free Syrian Army, which recently took Dabiq with Turkish support. In addition, there has been talk about an offensive on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de-facto capital city in Syria.With the territorial defeat of ISIS apparently approaching, one key question stands out: What will become of ISIS after military defeat? The panelists will discuss the current developments in the war against ISIS and the tactics the group may adopt after it is ousted from Mosul and challenged in Raqqa.Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at TIMEP focusing on Syria and Iraq and the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Before joining ISW, Jessica Lewis McFate served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Howard J. Shatz is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation and director of RAND-Initiated Research where he specializes in international economics. He is the co-author of Foundations of the Islamic State: Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005-2010. Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where he focuses on US-Turkey relations, Turkish foreign policy, the Syrian conflict, nonproliferation, and the Iranian nuclear program. He is the author of the Atlantic Council report, Islamic State Networks in Turkey.

  6. A View of the US Election from Iraq | Friday, November 4 | 12:00pm – 1:30pm | Hudson Institute | Click HERE to Register

    With the U.S. election less than 10 days away and a new presidential administration less than 90 days away, what changes can be expected for U.S. policy in Iraq? A centerpiece of current U.S. policy in Iraq is the ongoing fight against the Islamic State. The conflict reached a new stage earlier this month as coalition forces launched the offensive to retake Mosul and began planning the Raqqa Offensive. Beyond the current operation, how should the incoming administration approach the region’s challenges as internal and external powers exploit the sectarian rift in the northern Middle East? What strategy should the next president pursue to dismantle ISIS and, more importantly, prevent its resurgence?Hudson Institute will host a discussion on the implications of the election for U.S.-Iraq policy, including the critical operation in Mosul. On November 4, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Feisal Istrabadi will join Hudson fellows Michael Doran and Michael Pregent for a timely discussion of this important partnership and what lies ahead for U.S.-Iraq relations and the ongoing fight against ISIS.

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Emails imperil both candidates

I am a former Foreign Service officer who worked for 21 years in the State Department and used to handle large volumes of classified material, including the specialized compartmented variety (SCI). The rules about this stuff are clear: it must be handled in protected channels and certainly not in personal email accounts or on unclassified servers (even if they are in your own house). Virtually all information going to and from the Secretary of State is normally classified at the “confidential” level or above, often including purely logistic stuff that for anyone else might be public.

Once upon a time, when I was an office director in State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, I would write analytical pieces for the Secretary of State’s “Morning Summary” based entirely on open source material. The editor, who was the last person to see them before publication, would always classify them confidential. I objected and asked for an explanation. “You wrote it,” he said, “and it is going to the Secretary of State, so that makes it at least confidential.” We compromised: the texts got classified, but the titles did not. I still list them among my publications.

So there is a lot of what a reasonable person would regard as over-classification of materials going to the Secretary, including stuff that becomes useless the day after a trip to say, Moscow, because it concerns arrival procedures and hotel room numbers. It should not be assumed that mishandling of classified material necessarily compromises national security. That is particularly the case for emails on a private server that was apparently never hacked, or we would have heard about it by now.

The real problem arises when an official takes highly classified material (especially SCI), tries to purge or obscure its origins, and puts it into an unclassified channel. There is some evidence this was done with a few previously discovered materials, but the FBI concluded that the violations did not meet the threshold for a reasonable prosecutor to proceed against Hillary Clinton on that basis, which requires intent to make information available outside classified channels.

The new emails discovered since then won’t meet the threshold for prosecution either if Newsweek is correct:

There is no indication the emails in question were withheld by Clinton during the investigation, the law enforcement official told Newsweek, nor does the discovery suggest she did anything illegal. Also, none of the emails were to or from Clinton, the official said. Moreover, despite the widespread claims in the media that this development had prompted the FBI to “reopen” of the case, it did not; such investigations are never actually closed, and it is common for law enforcement to discover new information that needs to be examined.

I would be the first to admit that FBI Director Comey was put in a tough spot: he had to investigate these newly discovered emails. Doing so without informing Congress, when he had already testified that the case was not going anyplace, would have been risky. But in saying that he was pursuing the investigation further (not reopening it, as the press has reported, echoing the Trump campaign) without the clarifications Newsweek provides, Comey erred in a way that has huge political ramifications that he certainly should have anticipated. I can only imagine the political pressures brought to bear.

Hillary Clinton showed poor judgment in using a private email server, as Comey has charged and she has admitted. Just as important: Clinton aide Huma Abedin was a disaster waiting to happen. Her grossly excessive private employment while a government official and her husband’s dreadful sexting obsession should have been ample warning that she was accustomed to both abusing and abuse. Clinton would do well to sacrifice her to the gods of public opinion.

Should Americans be concerned about the compromise of national security information? Yes, of course. But there is no clear evidence of that in either the earlier stage of the investigation or in the effort just now beginning. They should of course also be concerned about the hacking of private emails by the Russian government, which is using them to help Donald Trump’s campaign after he appealed for Moscow’s help in publicizing Clinton’s staff emails. They don’t prove much other than the high competence of some of the staff and Bill Clinton’s willingness to work for foreigners who also gave donations to the Clinton Foundation, which isn’t what I would call the worst idea he ever had. President Obama could be making much more of the Russian connection than he has so far. Emails imperil both candidates.

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Hopes for a Kingdom reformed

The National Council on US-Arab Relations held its annual conference this Wednesday and Thursday in Washington DC. The conference focused primarily on the changing dynamics between the US and its Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia.

A morning panel on Thursday titled “Strategic Dynamics in Perspective: Looking Closer at Saudi Arabia Vision 2030” picked apart the implications of Saudi Arabia’s planned redesign. The panel featured Ambassador James Smith, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Seema Khan, former Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Advisor for the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Julie Monaco, Global Head of Public Sector Group, Corporate and Investment Banking, Institutional Clients Group and Citi, and Newton Howard, Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Neurosurgery, University of Oxford and Director of the Synthetic Intelligence Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Saudi Vision 2030 is a blueprint for moving Saudi Arabia away from total reliance on oil sales. By 2030, Saudi Arabia plans to attract more foreign investment, diversify its economy away from hydrocarbon exports, develop essential service sectors such as health, education and tourism, and to develop the private sector. The result will hopefully be a more sustainable and successful Saudi Arabia in the face of declining oil prices.

Smith opened the panel by identifying four things to be optimistic about when looking at Saudi Vision 2030 and four things to be concerned about. His four points of optimism were:

  • The program builds on over 10 years of investment and commits 26% of the national budget.
  • It was planned entirely by young Saudis, who have the biggest stake in the country’s future.
  • Saudi Vision 2030 has garnered commitment from the highest levels of government and everyone is holding each other accountable.
  • Putting Prince Salman in charge of the project, who is barely 30 years old, emphasizes the importance of young, educated Saudis to the country’s progress.

The concerns were these:

  • There is a cultural aversion to risk and failure in Saudi Arabia, which means that innovation isn’t highly valued and new technologies are often brought in from the outside.
  • There is also an aversion to letting small, new businesses take root in Saudi Arabia since they have a higher propensity for failure compared to well established international businesses.
  • There is a lack of viable policy changes that would attract investment into the country.
  • There is no regional organization charged with making the Gulf competitive in the global economy—it is organizations like these that have led to the growth in East Asia.

Khan said that by pursuing Saudi Vision 2030 Saudi Arabia is finally making itself fully accessible to the world. This is incredibly important because the Kingdom is widely misunderstood. One of the key features of Saudi Vision is that is ensures better communication between Saudi Arabia and its allies. This could potentially lead to more effective goal sharing and coordination in the region. Aside from greater accessibility, the plan will result in Saudi Arabia boasting a more innovation-based economy rather than one based solely on investment.

Monaco expressed great optimism for the project, due to the practicality of the plan and the abundance of political will behind it. One potential cause for concern is that Saudi Arabia may not be able to divert enough funding to the project over the next 14 years. They will need to increase taxes, cut budgets, and increase domestic bond insurance in order to ensure long-term funding. They need to maintain a good credit profile as well if they wish to enter foreign debt markets. The Kingdom needs to commit to good governance to ensure that the project is successful.

Howard emphasized that Saudi Vision needs to managed effectively from the top. He said that the government needs to focus on innovation and make good use of the infrastructure that they already have. The government also needs to start working on looking past the beliefs and ethnicities of their personnel and instead focus on their qualifications—doing so will bring Saudi Arabia into the modern age.

For somewhat less sanguine views of Vision 2030 and its implementation prospects, see the last two speakers at this recent Middle East Institute/Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies event:

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Lose an election, try a coup

Montenegro, invited to join NATO less than a year ago, completed its accession negotiations in May. Eleven countries have already ratified the accession agreement. But opponents are not giving up: they planned and a coup immediately after Montenegro’s October 16 election, which pro-NATO forces won.

Here is what a Montenegrin colleague wrote about the evolving situation:

Two days ago [Serbian Prime Minister] Vucic held a press conference confirming that there was a serious threat to [Montenegrin Prime Minister] Djukanovic and a professional plan to destabilize his country through riots, targeted shootings, etc. The plan was extremely elaborate. It involved the participation of several groups, which would even wear police uniforms. One group was tasked to neutralize special anti-riot police forces, two others to stage a police shooting on the crowd and subsequent seizure of the Parliament building. They were given sophisticated weapons and GPS maps that are only available to major powers around the world. In other words, this was not a layman’s work.

Now after one group has been arrested, and the others have been disassembled, Vucic said that there is a strong indication of “foreign” involvement. The sudden visit of the head of the Russian National Security Council to Belgrade is suggestive. Officially he is there to talk about global terrorism. Unofficially he is going to inquire what went wrong with the Montenegrin case. One can only expect that he will put pressure on Belgrade, saying not to get too close to the West.

If Vucic was indeed hinting at Russia, it would be a major move, albeit a dangerous one for his political career. The plan depended on nationalistic and pro-Russian groups in Serbia. They might plan something similar for Serbia as well. [Serbian President] Nikolic was in Russia recently. Sputnik published news that he discussed a potential reunification of Montenegro and Serbia once the opposition wins in Montenegro, but has retracted that report and now denies it. It seems that the Russians are ready to invest substantial effort in countering Montenegrin accession to NATO, and asserting their dominance in the Balkans.

Asked for more clarification, he added:

There is still no hard evidence of Russian involvement. These are mainly political assertions base on available information.

The special public prosecutor for organized crime and corruption in Montenegro spoke extensively about the case in an interview for TV Vijesti.

Here is a summary of his statement:  the arrested group was from Serbia. It included individuals of various backgrounds, predominantly associated with nationalist circles. The group entered Montenegro a few days before the elections with instructions to deploy to different cities across Montenegro. The commander of the group, former commander of the Serbian Gendarmerie Bratislav Dikic, entered Montenegro and spent two days in the coastal city of Budva before he was arrested in Podgorica. He was arrested on the night before the elections, as he was getting ready to inspect weapons. He and the rest of the group were under surveillance. So were the weapons, which never entered Montenegro.

According to the Special Prosecutor, these were highly sophisticated weapons that were destroyed before entering the country with the prosecutor’s permission. The entry point was supposed to be on the border with Albania. The arrested group was one of four or five that was expected to act. Other groups were not apprehended, but the prosecutor’s office is adamant that all of them will be arrested. One group was tasked to neutralize special police anti-riot forces, stationed close to Podgorica. The arrested group, together with two more, were supposed to act in front of the Parliament building, where they would first stage a shooting of (fake) police forces into the crowd and then seize the Parliament building. According to some reports the group was expected to receive 50 high-end rifles and 3500 bullets. The prosecutor identified Dikic as coordinator of the entire operation. His arrest crippled the entire plan.

Vucic’s press conference revealed that Serbian authorities seized a large number of police uniforms that were supposed to be worn during the riots, a large amount of cash (125,000 euros), and highly sophisticated GPS footage only available to advanced armed  forces. A few days before the elections, the Demoratski Front had announced a “celebration” of their electoral victory in front of the Parliament, and in case of their electoral loss adamant resistance and contestation of the results.

Some conspiracy theorists initially spoke about a Djukanovic plot, even claiming he staged the whole thing. However, recent statements by Vucic only confirmed what the prosecutor’s office in Montenegro initially said. The Serbian group was closely following Djukanovic’s every step, aiming to “arrest” him if he declared victory at the elections.

Vucic also confirmed what Montenegrin authorities previously stated, that this was a plan strongly supported by outside players, with strong meddling of intelligence services from abroad. Although there is only speculation that this might be pointing toward Russian secret services, Serbian authorities have expelled a number of Russian citizens from Serbia following the failed plot in Montenegro. This may be the reason why the Russian national security council chief abruptly came to Serbia.

Officially he came to discuss terrorism with his Serbian colleagues and offer strong collaboration to them. However news about the expulsion of Russian citizens came only few hours after Vucic said that the whole situation regarding Montenegro had strong foreign involvement. He also said that he is aware that the decision to speak publicly about this might politically jeopardize him, but he did not want to keep silent and minimize the risk of what almost happened in Montenegro. He even used the example of failed assassination attempt on Djindjic, which was ridiculed in the media only few days before the assassination happened.

Prime Minister Djukanovic has announced his withdrawal from office, in favor of his deputy prime minister, Dusko Marovic.

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