Analysis 06-08-2018


South China Sea Issue is Heating Up

While the biggest conflict currently between the US and China has been the promised trade war, it appears that the trade war may transition into a “cold war” as the US and some NATO countries are prepared to militarily challenge China’s claim to the South China Sea.

The United States and China disagree on ownership of the South China Sea region. Beijing claims that most of the resource-rich sea, which overlaps claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, belongs to China. To reinforce such claims, Beijing quickly built artificial islands and erected military bases on Parcels and Spratly islands.

The area is also a major trading route and more than $5 trillion in shipping trade flows through the region per year.

Last month, the U.S. Navy conducted its “freedom of navigation” patrols near the heavily disputed islands to demonstrate the right to sail through those international waters, which sparked outrage via Beijing.

In a show of solidarity with its NATO ally, the US, and to push back against China’s increasing militarization in the South China Sea, France and the United Kingdom will soon send warships in the contested waterway.

French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson made this statement at the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ “Shangri-La Dialogue” in Singapore over the weekend.

In her speech during the plenary session of the defense summit, Parly relayed France’s support for a code of conduct in the South China Sea that would be legally binding, comprehensive, effective and consistent with international law.

“We believe negotiations are the way to go. Meanwhile, we should be clear that the fait accompli is not a fait accepted,” Parly said.

At least five French naval vessels sailed through the South China Sea last year, according to the French defense minister

The UK will be sending three warships to the South China Sea this year.   British helicopters and ships joined the France task force that sailed in the region last year and Germans also boarded the French ships as observers during these operations, Parly added.

France and the UK’s commitment comes in support of the United States’ plan to ramp up freedom of navigation operations in the region.

“Europeans have started to mobilize more widely in support of this endeavor… I believe we should broaden this effort even further,” Parly said.

Without mentioning the South China Sea, Williamson noted that “increasingly aggressive states… infringing regional access, freedoms and security through coercion” are threats to the rules-based order.

“We believe nations should follow agreed rules but this is being ignored by some and what this does is it undermines peace and prosperity of all nations,” the British defense minister said.

The US is taking a more assertive approach in the region such as longer patrols, more ships and closer surveillance of Chinese bases. It also includes keeping aircraft carrier task forces in readiness in the area.

The US Secretary of Defense made the more aggressive US approach clear in his speech in Singapore. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that Beijing’s policy in the South China Sea “stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes.”

“China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island,” Mattis said. The H-6 bomber aircraft landing on Woody Island are nuclear capable.

In response to the introduction of Chinese nuclear bombers in the disputed area, a U.S. defense official Monday told CNN’s Washington bureau that two nuclear-capable U.S. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew within 20 miles of the heavily contested and militarized Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The flybys were to be expected when Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned of “consequences” if Beijing continues weaponizing the South China Sea. He also accused China of “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific region, which he specifically made clear that Washington has zero plans on leaving the heavily disputed area.

The Mattis speech elicited an angry Chinese response during the military defense summit in Singapore, where Lieutenant General He Lei told reporters, “Any irresponsible comments from other countries cannot be accepted.”


What Might Happen?

The United States and China appear to be headed for a military collision if nothing changes.

But there is a careful balance of responses between the two nations. Last week, the Pentagon increased its rhetoric about China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, even as the Trump administration asked Beijing for cooperation on North Korea.

Meanwhile, Beijing reacted to the threat via Pentagon statements. On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.S. accusing China of militarizing the islands was, “like a thief crying, Stop thief!’”

“Why does the U.S. choose to sail every now and then close to Chinese South China Sea islands and reefs? What is the U.S. trying to do?” she said.

At the same time, China is trying to limit the damage of potential American trade restrictions.

All this leads to a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance.

Meanwhile, both China and the US are carefully looking at scenarios if the South China Sea blows up into a military confrontation.

So, who has the advantage?

China is closer to the disputed region, has invested heavily in a new, blue water fleet, and according to the RAND Corp, and the IMF, China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s leading military superpower sometime in the next 2 decades.

But, the Chinese navy is untested, and its only aircraft carrier is of limited ability, unlike the American super carriers. Its navy is also unable to loiter in the disputed area for months like the US fleet.

The Chinese also face a geographical problem. The disputed region is well south of China and between Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines – all more closely allied with the US. In the conflict, the small Chinese bases in the region will be surrounded by hostile nations and armies.

The Chinese military bases on the artificial islands in the region are very small and easy to take out with guided munitions.

When questioned by a journalist about the ability of the Pentagon to “blow apart” China’s artificial islands, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters, “I would just tell you that the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands.”

Which brings up another point. The American Navy has an amphibious capability that could actually invade and capture the islands if the US decides to occupy them rather than just destroying the facilities.

The US can also rely upon some NATO countries and their navies.

According to military Hawks in US, China had relied upon the “soft power” approach of Obama to ignore the South China Sea military buildup. They claim that Chinese had assumed that the US wasn’t prepared to take military action but would merely protest to the UN on China’s violation of international laws of the sea.

With Trump as president, China faces a completely different situation. American actions are clearly more aggressive now and China can’t bet that the US will back down now. In addition, the US Navy, US Air Force, and the US Marine Corps have capabilities far in excess of China’s. They also have friendly neighboring countries that will be more than willing to provide bases in the South China Sea.

Although both sides will make threatening sounds, China is likely to play the long game and wait. They are more likely to bet that the next US president will be less confrontational than Trump and will make their move when the chances of US retaliation are much less. Chinese knows that Trump is counting on China to influence NK in the upcoming summit and will downplay any kind of provocative act

until its conclusion.




Forging a Better Strategy on Iran
By Edwin J. Feulner
Heritage Foundation
May 30, 2018

To hear many in the media tell it, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal was the worst thing to happen since he was elected. “Trump withdraws from Iran nuclear deal, isolating him further from world,” a CNN headline read. A New York Times reporter said the president is “isolating the United States from its Western allies.” The BBC, meanwhile, said: “He has put U.S. diplomacy on a collision course with some of Washington’s closest allies. And some fear that he may have brought a new and catastrophic regional war in the Middle East that much closer.” Notice a pattern? Almost all of the criticism I’ve cited here (and I could cite many more examples) focused on how Mr. Trump is breaking with the rest of the world — as if that, in and of itself, is irrefutable evidence of error. News flash: There is no inherent value to swimming with the tide. Yes, we should pay attention to what our allies are doing, but to suggest that following a different course of action is proof that we’re doing something wrong is ridiculous.

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Will Trump’s Iran Strategy Work?
By Theodore R. Bromund
Heritage Foundation
May 29, 2018

In his first major policy speech as secretary of state — delivered Monday at the Heritage Foundation — Mike Pompeo set out the Trump administration’s Iran strategy. It’s heartening that the United States has a plan: ditching the nuclear deal is well and good, but it’s not a strategy. But is the plan a good one? In many respects, it is. The administration’s plan begins with two reasonable arguments. First, fighting in Syria, funding Hamas, building ballistic missiles, and running a nuclear program costs Iran a lot of money. Second, Iranian resources are limited, and it cannot afford all those bills forever. In other words, the administration is relying on what experts describe as “cost imposition.” This approach seeks to make your less wealthy adversary pay disproportionately for actions that you dislike, with the intention of discouraging or even exhausting them. Inherent in this approach is that you cannot subsidize your adversaries: If they want to be hostile, make them pay for it. The administration’s core criticism of the nuclear deal is that it allowed Iran to escape wide-ranging sanctions in exchange — at best — for temporary restrictions on its nuclear program. As Pompeo put it, Iran “has been playing with house money that has become blood money.”

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Washington’s Dangerous Fixation on Iran
By Doug Bandow
Cato Institute
June 4, 2018

United States President Donald Trump appears to worry a lot about Iran, a concern that is shared by his secretary of state and national security adviser. They were so worried about a nuclear Iran that they revoked the international agreement known as the Iran deal, which was supposed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. Instead, Trump now demands Iran’s de facto surrender. However, the administration is so far is backed only by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which want America to do their dirty work. Why is the Trump administration so fearful of Tehran? Iran is a struggling regional power. It lags well behind its competitors in economic and military clout. Even its greatest enemy, Saudi Arabia, dismisses the Islamic Republic as being no match. Additionally, Iran clearly is not in America’s league. The U.S. has a vastly bigger economy, far more powerful military, the globe’s dominant culture and is allied with most of the industrialized world—at least until President Donald Trump initiated a misguided trade war against Washington’s allies.

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Negotiating the Right Agreement: Looking Beyond the Nuclear Side of North Korea
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 4, 2018

There are good reasons why the United States should be extremely cautious in meeting with North Korea. Few countries have a longer history of using negotiations as a political weapon, rather than seeking meaningful agreements and sticking to them. Kim Jong-un is scarcely the kind of leader whose past indicates the he will suddenly see relations with the United States as anything other than a two-person zero-sum game – an adversarial relationship where he can only benefit at America’s expense. At the same time, the tight June deadline for a meeting, President Trump’s need for political victories, and an “America First” approach to negotiating with North Korea could present problems from the U.S. side. On the one hand, these pressures might lead the President to be too demanding and to ask North Korea to give up its nuclear program more quickly than it finds feasible, and before it secures any reciprocal gains.

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How Trump Could Revive the Iranian Regime
Carnegie Endowment
May 29, 2018

“When your enemy is making a mistake,” Napoleon purportedly cautioned, “never interrupt him.” In recent months the Islamic Republic of Iran has been battered by accumulating crises—including a collapsing currency, an irrepressible citizen’s-rights and feminist movement, and persistent labor strikes—that have called into question its continued viability. It is increasingly evident that the Trump administration’s goal, as outlined most recently by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is to exacerbate these crises to hasten either an Iranian capitulation or political implosion. While Iran’s positive political transformation is a worthy goal, the Trump administration’s reckless execution of this strategy could serve to resuscitate an ailing regime.

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New Report: Iran’s Influence In Syria Far Broader Than Commonly Understood
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
May 31, 2018

Just how deep does Iran’s influence run in Syria? After a half decade of overt and covert Iranian military assistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian regime is widely understood to be playing a key role in the Syrian theater. But, according to a new study from the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, an Istanbul-based think tank focused on the Syrian conflict, this backing is far broader than commonly understood, and encompasses not just military assistance but also an extensive web of economic and political contacts that are designed to give the Iranian regime a lasting presence on the territory of its top regional ally.  “Iranian influence in Syria is often reduced to its military support,” the study notes. However, “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its auxiliary institutions not only provided military and financial support to the Syrian regime but have expanded their administrative and economic activities in Syria by infusing their institutions within the Armed Forces, service-delivery ministries, local political and armed bodies, and non-governmental organizations.”  The results, the Omran Center report outlines, are extensive – and dramatic.

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Iran Will Spare Hezbollah in Its Conflict with Israel, for Now
By Hanin Ghaddar and Nader Uskowi
Washington Institute
June 5, 2018

According to recent media reports, some Israeli officials and military assessments have concluded that Hezbollah is trying to undo its reputation as an “Iranian puppet.” Such claims do not necessarily indicate that the terrorist group seeks actual independence from Tehran; if anything, their relationship has become closer than ever in the past few years. Rather, the reports suggest that both partners are trying to sequester Hezbollah from Iran’s brewing regional conflict with Israel. Since Hezbollah first intervened in the Syria war, its identity has been altered. Its fighting force, its relation to other Shia militias, and the dynamics within its support base have all changed. Moreover, Hezbollah has taken on additional responsibilities such as recruiting, training, and leading other groups of fighters in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In essence, the organization has evolved into a virtual arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its expeditionary Qods Force, providing the connective tissue for a growing network of Shia militias.

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