Pivoting Towards Asia?
What it Means for the Middle East
The growing tension in South East Asia and the announcement that Obama will be visiting Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia, once again raises the question about America’s focus and whether it will pivot towards Asia, to the determent of the Middle East.
Each of these nations has been in the news recently. Malaysia lost an aircraft and the ensuing investigation has raised many questions about aviation security in the region. South Korea has been engaged in an artillery duel with its neighbor to the north, North Korea. And, Japan and the Philippines have been forced to use their militaries to halt Chinese expansion over the South China Sea, although no shots have been fired yet.
Military tensions have grown in the last year. Japan recently announced that Japanese fighter jets were scrambled a record high 415 times in response to Chinese aircraft (many Chinese fighter aircraft) approaching Japanese airspace in 2013. That surpassed the previous record of 306 times the previous year. The Chinese air activities are a result of a standoff between Japan and China over SenkakuIslands. The tensions were heightened following Japan’s purchase in September 2012 of the main part of the Japanese-controlled, uninhabited islet group in the East China Sea. Not only China, but Taiwan claim the islets and call them Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively.
Japan isn’t the only nation concerned about Chinese ambitions. There is an ongoing situation between China and the Philippines over control of portions of the South China Sea. Late last month, Chinese vessels blocked Philippine ships bringing supplies to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea that Manila effectively controls. The U.S. State Department criticized China’s actions as “provocative,” while Beijing retorted that it has sovereignty over the reef.
Malaysia is also concerned about the status of the South China Sea as it claims part of that basin.
The South China Sea issue is a critical one for all the nations in the region. It is a major maritime route for all of the nations on the Pacific Rim – especially for the island nations of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. De facto Chinese control of the sea could jeopardize commercial trade.
The area also has natural resources potential. Philex Mining, the Philippines’ largest mining company, disclosed Monday that negotiations have halted with state-owned China National Offshore Oil over a joint exploration project in the South China Sea. Philex reported it was the Chinese who stopped negotiations.
Natural gas development in the South China Sea is crucial to the Philippines’ energy policy, but its private-sector companies do not have enough funds to carry out independent development. The Philippines hoped that the joint project with China would lead to a breakthrough in the territorial dispute.
One outgrowth of the Obama trip to the Philippines will probably be a new defense agreement with the US. U.S. forces had once been stationed in the Philippines, but they withdrew in 1992 as the Cold War ended. The economic stagnation had kept Manila from increasing defense spending after the US left. The result is that that nation is being forced to play catch up, lest the Chinese take advantage of its weaker neighbor.
The Philippines currently has one of the weakest militaries in the region, possessing no fighter jets. As a result, Manila has entered into a contract to buy 12 South Korean-made FA-50 fighter jets for $421 million, with two to be delivered as early as next year. The government also plans to spend a total of $1.6 billion to modernize its military hardware, including the purchase of air search radar systems from Israel.
South Korea may be better armed, but it faces increased tensions with North Korea. Last week, North and South Korean artillery batteries exchanged hundreds of shells across their western sea border Monday, a day after North Korea warned it was preparing to test another nuclear device.
This came after North Korea tested two medium range ballistic missiles and Japan threatened to shoot down any North Korean missiles. North Korea responded and announced that it “would not rule out” a new nuclear test.
“(We) would not rule out a new form of a nuclear test aimed at strengthening our nuclear deterrence,” Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run KCNA news agency. “The U.S. had better ponder over this and stop acting rashly.”
The statement did not specify what North Korea meant by a “new form” of test, and South Korea said there are no immediate signs of nuclear tests being carried out by the North.
Although the US is occupied with the Crimean situation, the recent Chinese actions have forced Washington to react. US Defense Secretary Hagel travelled to China last week and told the Chinese that it would support America’s allies – a position that made the Chinese unhappy.
The US is also looking at revising its military alliance with Japan. In January, the White House told the Japanese government through multiple channels of its intent to reinforce ties. This bilateral agreement hasn’t been changed in 17 years and the desire to revise it reflects Obama’s concern about the situation in the region.
Since there is not a multi-national security framework like NATO in the Pacific area, the Japanese/American defense agreement is the keystone to countering Chinese moves.
Currently, the biggest issue will be whether to allow Japan the right to collective self-defense. The current interpretation of Japan’s constitution forbids this, but Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet are prepared to revise the charter. The key issue will be defining self-defense and how it can be applied. The new agreement will also focus on joint command structure and outlining how the US and Japan will respond to certain scenarios.
The Japan/America defense guidelines were originally drawn up in 1978 during the Cold War era to counter the threat from the Soviet Union. The current guidelines were last revised in 1997, with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton leading the efforts. The changes were driven by tensions between China and Taiwan over a series of missile tests conducted by the Chinese military in waters in and around the Taiwan Strait. Beijing backed down after the U.S. Navy dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region.
Today, however, the US would be hard pressed to field one aircraft carrier in the area, much less two. They would also be more vulnerable to attack by Chinese submarines or missiles as they moved into the region.
This leaves US and Japanese forces in Japan as the major deterrent to Chinese military moves in the region. It is currently stronger than Chinese forces, but is rapidly being overcome by a growing Chinese military presence.
The Chinese Threat
The Chinese military is rapidly evolving to be able to project its power at a distance. China will raise its defense spending 12.2% to $131.9 billion in 2014, marking the fourth straight year of double-digit growth. Much of that will go to naval and air forces, which can project power into the South China Sea.
Unlike in the past, China is developing a blue water navy capable of reaching far beyond its shoreline. Beijing is now building a domestically designed aircraft carrier, which will join the Liaoning, a refurbished carrier originally built for the Soviet navy (which the Chinese showed to Secretary Hagel during his visit). China’s air force is also working hard on a stealth fighter, which can penetrate US/Japanese air defenses surrounding naval task forces.
China’s first naval goal is to be able to control the “First Island Chain,” which stretches from Okinawa’s main island to the South China Sea. Its second goal is to control the “Second Island Chain,” which extends as far east as Tokyo and Guam. At present, they can make it quite difficult for the US Navy to operate within the First Island Chain. They even have sent intelligence gathering sips off the coast of Hawaii.
The US is responding. The U.S. Defense Department released its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) on March 4, which calls for deploying more naval assets to the Pacific. The latest QDR, which serves as the basic guideline for the Pentagon’s game plan, calls for shifting 60% of U.S. naval assets to the Pacific by 2020, up from 50% now. Although it doesn’t address the Chinese threat specifically, it does refer to countering “area denial” similar to the First and Second Island Chain strategy of China.
The Future and What it Means for the Middle East
This changing US strategy will impact the Middle East. First, since the largest reserve of US Naval ships outside the Western Pacific is in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf, a crisis in the South China Sea will mean an immediate shift of forces out of the region. Second, as the US shifts its diminishing military resources to Asia, forces in the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and Europe will also drop. All of these three theaters are usually used to increase an American military presence in the Middle East in time of crisis.
However, it’s also important to remember that Obama has frequently promised to pivot towards Asia – with few results. The same could happen again.
It’s also important to remember that a desire by China to grow militarily doesn’t mean that they can easily threaten the US or its allies in the Pacific.
China is predominantly a land power and historically it is difficult for a land power, surrounded by many hostile nations, to divert the resources to an effective blue water navy. China shares land borders with 14 countries and requires a huge number of troops to defend them. Its 1.6 million soldiers still represent the world’s largest standing army. Chinese and Indian troops continue to face each other across their mountainous border. And Beijing relies on the army to maintain order in its restive ethnic minority regions, including the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Land powers desiring to become a major naval power have failed miserably. In the 18th and 19th centuries, France, the dominant land power in Europe tried to build a far reaching navy, only to fail when it ran into a numerically inferior British fleet at Trafalgar. Imperial Germany tried in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to counter the British control of the sea, only to be forced back to port at the Battle of Jutland in WW I. The Soviet Union tried during the Cold War, only to be outspent by the US.
Projecting power is also a function of aircraft carriers and the ability to effectively employ them. The nations of Britain, America, and France have 70 to 80 years of experience in operating large deck carriers. China has none.
The USSR discovered in the 1970s that building and deploying an effective large deck carrier is more difficult than it seems. In the end, the carriers they deployed only carried a few ineffective vertical jump jet fighter-bombers. When the Cold War ended, they were some of the first ships decommissioned.
Just because China has carriers doesn’t mean they can effectively deploy them, an important fact given China’s slowing economy.
As a sea power, China also suffers from the same problems that Germany and Russia did – lack of access to the open sea. Their coastline is hemmed in by a chain of islands that belong to other nations (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and South Korea) that don’t approve of China’s ambitions. As the British discovered in WW II, land based airpower can easily defeat a navy.
China can break through this island chain with the type of extensive amphibious operations employed by the US Navy in WW II. However, it took three years to break through the islands protecting Japan, along with amphibious capability, air and naval control of the surrounding area, and a massive military logistics chain. China does have some amphibious capability, but can’t guarantee it will control the sea and air around the islands. And, it doesn’t have the vast military logistics ability to keep these islands supplied and carrying out extended offensive military operations.
In the end, China may not be able to project the power it wants in the near future, providing the US stands fast with it regional allies. That being the case, the result may be that America will remain a major presence in the Middle East and few resources will permanently be moved eastwards.
Congress Should Avert Delays in the Army’s Aviation Restructuring Plans
By Dakota Wood and Brian Slattery
April 7, 2014
Issue Brief #4194
The Army’s decision to transfer AH-64 Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active force has sparked a debate that ultimately concerns the roles, missions, and contributions of these ground components. Congress should prevent unnecessary delays in the implementation of these plans while making a stronger commitment to providing the resources that the armed forces need to maintain national security. The past decade of conventional combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which relied heavily on National Guard units, has led to a renewed recognition of the contributions made by Guard (and Army reserve) units to the security interests of the nation. It has also fostered a conviction that Guard units are primarily conventional combat units that should mirror active Army units in mission, equipment, and employment.
The Challenges to Transition in Afghanistan: 2014-2015
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 8, 2014
The final outcome of the election in Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s willingness to sign a workable Bilateral Security Agreement with the US are essential preconditions to any hope of a successful Transition. It is the quality of leadership and governance that follows the election, however, that will determine actual success. Similarly, how Afghan forces evolve, and the quality of US and other outside support to Afghan forces, will determine whether Afghanistan is secure enough for a Transition to work.
Improving the US-GCC Security Partnership: Planning for the Future
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 8, 2014
The US and its allies in the Southern Gulf face great challenges, but they also have great opportunities. The P5+1 dialogue with Iran offers at least some hope of ending the threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons, and of reducing the risk of further proliferation, if a comprehensive agreement is structured in a way that can eliminate the threat to the Southern Gulfs, the other states in the region, and the US. More generally, however, improvements in the military forces of the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and in US power projection capabilities can create a far more effective deterrent against the threats posed by Iran, other regional states, and non-state actors. Additionally, enhanced military capabilities can help safeguard the flow of petroleum exports that are critical for the global economy.
Empty rhetoric in the Obama administration’s Iran policy
By Maseh Zarif
American Enterprise Institute
April 07, 2014
The Obama administration has often responded to crises of confidence in its foreign policy by treating unease and skepticism among international allies and partners, and among critics at home, as a messaging problem. It has interpreted failure to secure buy-in or cooperation as a failure to communicate effectively, rather than as a potential sign of flawed substance. Administration officials have attempted to dispel the “perception” in recent months that the U.S. is negotiating with the Iranian regime at the expense of American interests and the security and stability of its allies and partners in the region. They will continue to meet resistance, however, as long as the negotiations appear to be neither fully resolving the nuclear threat nor dealing with the broader challenge posed by Iran in the Middle East. The White House does not have a messaging problem regarding its negotiations with Iran; it has a policy problem.
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
By Sinan Ülgen
April 3, 2014
Turkey’s beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have emerged victorious from this week’s local elections. Still, the AKP’s triumph is unlikely to ameliorate the country’s internal conflicts, much less revive its tarnished international standing. The local elections were widely seen as a referendum on Erdoğan. The AKP received 44% of the national vote and now controls 49 of Turkey’s 81 metropolitan municipalities, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The main opposition force, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), received 26% and won only 13 municipalities. The outcome can be seen as a vindication of Erdoğan’s strategy of using political polarization to consolidate his support and counter the challenge to his rule posed by followers of his former ally, the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. With the AKP’s initial support, the Gülen movement gradually infiltrated state institutions, particularly the judiciary and law enforcement, until the alliance eventually ended in an acrimonious split over the distribution of power within Turkey.
U.S. Can’t Bribe Israelis, Palestinians To Make Peace
By Lawrence J. Haas
American Foreign Policy Council
April 3, 2014
International Business Times
“First as tragedy, second as farce.” It’s Karl Marx’s line about history repeating itself but, per the Jonathan Pollard trial balloon of recent days, the line could just as easily apply to America’s foreign policy. We need not debate the merits of Pollard’s release, for which supporters and detractors each can mount a compelling case, to acknowledge that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aren’t the proper milieu for making the decision or that White House maneuvering over the possibility bespeaks an extraordinary ignorance, naivety, and desperation that dominates all-too-much U.S. foreign policy. At the urging of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, President Barack Obama is considering an early release for Pollard, the former U.S. intelligence officer who’s serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, in exchange for Israel’s release of more Palestinian prisoners – all of it designed to prevent U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from collapsing.
Hezbollah in Syria
Institute for the Study of War
Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Syria is one of the most important factors of the conflict in 2013 and 2014. Since the beginning of 2013, Hezbollah fighters have operated openly and in significant numbers across the border alongside their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts. They have enabled the regime to regain control of rebel-held areas in central Syria and have improved the effectiveness of pro-regime forces. The impact of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has been felt not just on the battlefield, where the regime now has momentum in many areas, but also in Lebanon where growing sectarian tensions have undermined security and stability.
Tightening the Reins How Khamenei Makes Decisions
By Mehdi Khalaji
Policy Focus 126
When at age fifty Ali Khamenei, a middle-ranking cleric, was named Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor as the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, he lacked not only his forerunner’s charisma but his religious and political credentials as well. Gradually, however, over nearly two and a half decades, Khamenei has accumulated formidable centralized authority, aided by transformation of the IRGC’s role in overseeing the country’s politics and economy. He now enjoys the final say on many issues, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the nuclear issue. Ironically, a leader once seen as an inadequate successor to Khomeini may now have accumulated more power than the first Supreme Leader, at least in some areas.
U.S. Policy and the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Part II: Assessment and Prospects
By Robert Satloff
April 10, 2014
The current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks is buffeted by a series of profound global and regional challenges, including Ukraine, Iran, and Syria, among others. In the immediate arena, while Israel and the Palestinian Authority may have dysfunctional political and diplomatic relations, they also have reasonably effective security cooperation and economic coordination. Therefore, a principal challenge for U.S. policy and for local leaders is to find ways to preserve, even enhance, the latter even as disagreement over the former worsens. This is the environment in which Secretary of State John Kerry launched his peace initiative. In contrast to decades past, when one could argue that the strategic implications of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were clear, it is very difficult to make that argument today. Indeed, one could argue that some regional crises may even be aggravated by Israeli-Palestinian progress; neither Iran nor al-Qaeda welcomes a two-state solution, for example, and both would likely seek to undermine serious efforts to achieve it.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
National Security Affairs Analyst
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