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Trump-Xi Summit, a Month Later – So What and What’s Next?

By Tuan N. Pham

Who came out relatively stronger from the summit, what are the ramifications for the U.S.-China relations, what to expect when Trump visits China next, and where are the U.S. strategic opportunities?  

The heavily choreographed Trump-Xi Summit held on April 6-7 seemed more about atmospherics than substance and did not yield any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by President Trump later in the year. One month later, as the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the summit, and more importantly, so what and what’s next?

Part 1 of this two-part series outlined the perceived and actual outcomes from a Chinese, American, and international perspective. With this as a backdrop, Part 2 now discusses which leader came out relatively stronger, the ramifications for the U.S.-China strategic relations, what to expect when Trump visits China later in the year, and finally where the strategic opportunities lie for the U.S. and how Washington can leverage them.

Who Came Out On Top?

On the whole, Trump came out relatively stronger than Xi in terms of managing expectations and creating and shaping favorable visuals. From the beginning, Xi pressed for an early summit in the hopes that by acting first and boldly, he could seize the strategic initiative and set parameters for the new U.S. president who had yet to fully form his national security team and settle on his China policy. Xi’s advance team pushed hard for exacting protocol demands to make sure that Xi appeared to be a strong and resolute leader who could hold his own against the U.S. president on a global stage, and for China to project an international image of a rising global power that is equal in stature and standing to the United States, a declining global power.

All things considered, Xi gained little and Trump gave little away during the summit. Xi sought, but did not get Trump to publicly reaffirm the One-China policy, endorse China’s new model of great power relations, or give concessions in the areas of trade and commerce, North Korea (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system), Taiwan (arms sales), and maritime sovereignty (South China Sea). Xi did, however, lower heightened tensions, dampen the risk of a destabilizing trade war (for now), and secure an agreement for his proposed four dialogue mechanisms covering diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges.

Still, Trump largely controlled the setting, atmospherics, and strategic narratives from start to finish due to what can essentially be boiled down to homecourt advantage. As the summit’s host, he arrived later and did not greet Xi when Xi first landed in Florida. The tone-setting slight, among other later maneuvers, incrementally diminished Xi’s stature as a world leader – a perception that Xi wanted to avoid at all costs. Hence, Xi calculatingly made a state visit to Finland, a stop-over en route to visit Trump in an initial attempt to sidestep such a suppliant visual. Then at the end of dinner on Thursday, Trump personally informed Xi that he had ordered missile strikes against Syria before announcing the action to the world moments later. Xi was left flat-footed and awkwardly expressed an appreciation for Trump for letting him know and providing the rationale, and indicated that he understood that such a response was necessary when people are killing children. Remarks had to be clarified later by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reiterating that China “opposes the use of force in international relations and maintains that disputes should be peacefully resolved through political and diplomatic means such as dialogue and consultation.” Xi’s perceived failure to stand up to Trump and defend his country’s interests on a global stage will likely have consequences back home. The charismatic Chinese leader rose to power by looking strong, but Trump, Xi’s political opponents will say, made Xi appear weak and consequently made China look weak.   

Another possible tell-tale sign that Trump got the upper hand was the subdued summit coverage by the Chinese media relative to their American counterparts. While U.S. media provided extensive coverage of arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world, Chinese media was surprisingly low-key. Normally when Xi travels overseas there is full press coverage as part of a larger public diplomacy campaign to dominate the strategic narratives. For a trip to the United States to meet his equivalent, greater coverage would certainly have been appropriate and warranted. Only after the conclusion of the summit did the Chinese media start to report more details of the meeting, albeit, with only basic information at first.

Yet another anecdotal indicator that Xi underperformed during the summit was the high level of interest among Chinese netizens on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, and Sina Weibo’s attempts to restrict online discussion on the topic by deactivating the comment function on some relevant posts and removing critical posts that attempted to link the U.S. missile strikes on Syria to the summit.

That said, the self-imposed media censorship may have been driven partly by Beijing’s hyper-concerns about Trump’s unpredictability and the high likelihood of an embarrassing atmosphere. Still, subsequent media reports, official public releases, and think tank commentaries in the weeks that followed appeared largely cautious and defensive, and in many cases, in full spin control. They expended an inordinate amount of attention on the intangible personal relationship between Xi and Trump, on the former’s proposed four dialogue mechanisms, and resumed their public diplomacy campaign to underscore the two countries’ economic interdependence, imperative of avoiding a destabilizing trade war, and the importance of preserving the China-U.S. strategic relations.     

Ramifications for U.S.-China Strategic Relationship  

The Trump-Xi Summit injected much-needed certainty and stability back into the strategic relationship. From Beijing’s perspective, Trump unhelpfully introduced unpredictability and friction to bilateral relations on trade deficits, the RMB exchange rate, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, Taiwan, and the South China Sea (SCS). So, despite not yielding any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year; the summit did indirectly bring some stability (albeit temporarily) into the strategic relationship in terms of dampening the risk of a disruptive trade war (for now), setting aside the contentious issue of Chinese currency manipulation (for now), tacitly reaffirming the One-China policy, and repeating the importance of adherence to international norms in the East and South China Seas and to previous statements on non-militarization.  

It’s been over two months since Trump took office, but leading up to the summit some pundits were still arguing that the U.S.-China relationship remained in transition. This is no longer the case. The summit signaled the reset of bilateral relations from a collaborative nature (Obama’s approach) to a more competitive one (Trump’s approach) as codified by the guiding principle of “America First.” Washington will now pursue foreign policies that unequivocally put U.S. national interests first, as evidenced by Trump’s inclination to change the status quo and possibly use Taipei as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with Beijing (and possibly North Korea too), focus on the growing U.S.-China trade imbalance and Chinese currency manipulation that puts the U.S. economy at a competitive disadvantage, flexibility to re-prioritize the aforesaid economic interests below the more pressing North Korean nuclear and missile threat, and willingness to use military force to uphold international rule of law or when faced with threats abroad.          

What to Expect When Trump Visits China

The Trump-Xi Summit gave the United States “relative, tenuous, and transitory” strategic advantage over China in terms of initiative and narrative. Trump appears to have successfully co-opted Xi as a strategic partner in stabilizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula, in exchange for concessions in the areas of trade imbalance, currency manipulation, and Taiwan. If so, the partnership is strictly transactional. A North Korean buffer state will remain a core Chinese national interest, and Beijing will undoubtedly take steps in the near future to regain the initiative that it enjoyed for most of the past eight years. It will do so more cautiously and subtly this time around, perhaps at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (14-15 May), Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore (2-4 June), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and East Asia Summits in Vietnam and the Philippines respectively (November).   

Xi may be under intense political and personal pressure to do much better at the next state visit to Beijing by Trump, especially if the meeting precedes the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in late 2017. There is widespread speculation that he is trying to build political momentum to ensure that more members of his faction are promoted to the Central Committee and the Politburo, a necessary interim step if he wants to change CPC’s rules to serve an unprecedented third term as president (and/or retain his other two titles of general secretary of the CPC and chairman of the Central Military Commission) and maintain power and influence beyond 2022.

If so, Washington can expect intense shaping and robust deal-making from Beijing in the coming months. Xi will do his utmost to reset the conditions in China’s favor to not only regain the strategic advantage (initiative) prior to the second summit but also to look personally strong and in control during the summit for his domestic audiences (Chinese people and fellow CPC members). He will certainly leverage his homecourt advantage to control the setting, atmosphere, and narratives much like Trump did. Hence, could this back-and-forth jockeying for relative strategic advantage be the start of a new Cold War between the United States and China? Or can Trump and Xi reach a strategic accommodation that manages strategic competition and avoids the Thucydides Trap?    

U.S. Strategic Opportunities and Ways Washington Can Leverage  

Embrace Strategic Competition. When two powers, one status quo and one rising, with competing regional strategies extend into one’s another security and economic spheres, the geopolitical landscape is ripe for friction. This competition is not to be feared but to be expected and embraced. If Beijing insists and persists on a “new type of great power relationship” with Washington, then give China what it wants – but on U.S. terms. Define, codify, and enforce the conditions of any negotiated bilateral relations such as no militarization of the SCS and balanced trade, and most importantly, be willing to redefine the relationship when necessary. Play the Chinese game of “go” and not the Western game of “chess.”

Leverage the Strategic Advantage. Both Washington and Beijing share the same strategic goals for the Korean Peninsula – strategic stability and denuclearization. Continue co-opting Beijing to exert pressure on Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions and return to the negotiating table. To be successful, Trump must be willing to give and take with Xi across the spectrum of strategic interests, while making sure Xi clearly understand the risks and implications of not playing an active role in moderating Kim Jong-un and stabilizing the Peninsula. This will allow the two presidents to build trust, which could, in turn, open opportunities in other areas of disagreement (trade, currency manipulation, Taiwan, SCS, etc.).          

Protect the Global Commons. In pursuing the aforesaid strategic opportunities, one area where Washington must be careful not to concede too much is in the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace. Giving unwarranted ground in these strategic domains will undermine American preeminence and encourage China to press for additional concessions in return for vague and passing promises of restraint, while quietly and steadily expanding and strengthening its position in the global commons. Play the long game.       

Maintain the Strategic High Ground. Do not let Xi unilaterally set the conditions and impose his will when he meets Trump again in Beijing later in the year. Xi will have the homecourt advantage and will be pressured to put on a strong showing, so negotiate for everything to level the playing field and mitigate expected protocol payback from Xi for Mar-a-Lago. Or else, the United States will prematurely return the strategic initiative to China. Remain firm. China respects strength.

Conclusion

From Beijing’s perspective, the Xi-Trump Summit at Mar-a-Lago achieved a great deal. It not only “charted a course and provided a roadmap for China-U.S. relations, but also established a new cooperation mechanism that will enhance and protect the all-important strategic bilateral relationship.” So how much of this narrative is congruent with Washington’s views of the summit? And more importantly, if the summit was as significant as Beijing claimed, then what and how much did it impact the U.S.-China relations? It may be too soon to fully answer this critical question. The latter half of the play has yet to unfold. Until then, it behooves Washington not to give too much ground in one area in exchange for gains in another without careful thought and consideration of any enduring implications. Otherwise, the United States risks inadvertently ceding its strategic position in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, undermining its roles and responsibilities as the global leader, and paving the way for China to become a regional hegemon.  

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: President Donald Trump talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with their wives, first lady Melania Trump and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan as they pose for photographers before dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Trump-Xi Summit, Looking Back One Month Later

By Tuan N. Pham

As the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the Trump-Xi Summit a month later? 

Last month, I wrote an article titled “After the Summit: Where Do U.S.-China Relations Go From Here?” where I posited that China appeared to have a lot to be gratified about in 2016 in terms of advancing its rising regional and international role. The 6-7 April Trump-Xi Summit was the latest strategic signaling to the world that Beijing has abandoned its longstanding state policy of “hide capabilities and bide time” and will now assume its rightful place on the world stage as a destined global power. I also suggested that the heavily choreographed summit seemed more about atmospherics than substance as evidenced by President Xi’s exacting protocol demands prior to the summit, President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against Syria during the summit, and the summit itself not yielding any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year. One month later, as the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the summit?

Part 1 of this two-part series asks what the perceived and actual outcomes are from a Chinese, American, and international perspective. Part 2 will then ask which leader came out relatively stronger, what the ramifications for U.S.-China strategic relations are, what to expect when Trump visits China later in the year, and finally where the strategic opportunities are for the U.S. and how Washington can leverage them.

The Chinese Perspective

Looking back at China’s official public releases, think tank commentaries, and authoritative media reports of the summit, an overarching strategic communications theme was apparent across the tightly controlled and synchronized Chinese public information domain – “the summit charted a course and provided a roadmap for the China-U.S. relations, and established a new cooperation mechanism that will enhance and protect the all-important strategic bilateral relationship.” Supporting talking points shared (and probably coordinated) amongst the various Chinese interlocutors encompassed: (1) complementarity between the economies of China and the United States far exceeds any competition between them, (2) a thousand reasons for two countries to be good partners and not a single reason to damage the China-U.S. relations, (3) that China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development, does not wish to play a zero-sum game, is not seeking hegemony, and is willing to work with the United States to maintain world peace, stability, and prosperity, and (4) that the U.S. relationship with China will depend on the hope for a “new pattern of relations between great powers” based on the principle of “no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Common catchphrases used by Chinese government officials, pundits, and news media to characterize the summit included “mutual understanding, mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual shaping.”

Given the circumstances, it seems that the Chinese public diplomacy apparatus – which Beijing uses to signal its policy priorities – struggled to make the case that the summit resulted in any substantive or tangible outcomes. Instead it expended an inordinate amount of attention on the intangible personal relationship between Xi and Trump and on the former’s proposed four dialogue mechanisms covering diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges. This is not too surprising considering that Chinese think tank punditry and authoritative media reporting prior to the summit were, by and large, focused on building up Xi, jockeying for summit positions, expressing desired outcomes, and in some cases, grandstanding and hedging.            

What may be more telling is the coverage by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, think tanks, and authoritative media of areas of bilateral tensions – North Korea, Taiwan, South China Sea (SCS), and trade and commerce – during and after the summit. To date, they have been largely limited, vague, positive, and most importantly, provided no indication that Beijing is considering major changes in its policies in the aftermath of the summit.

The one exception may be North Korea. There have been sporadic dialogues in the Chinese media – most notably in the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper run by the state-run People’s Daily, that suggest a growing policy debate within China questioning Beijing’s longstanding support to North Korea, warn of potential sanctions, and caution Pyongyang if it “carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return…all stakeholders will bear the consequences, with Pyongyang sure to suffer the greatest losses.” These media commentaries, while sometimes used to test reactions to potential foreign policies, do not necessarily represent the views of the state. But the warnings appear consistent with Beijing’s recent actions to include implementation of previous United Nations Security Council sanctions and the Xi-Trump phone call on 24 April to discuss possible solutions to the North Korean nuclear issue and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

However, while encouraging, these latest Chinese cooperative moves may be motivated more by Xi’s desire to project goodwill with Trump than to help resolve the North Korean problem. Beijing has shown time and time again that its strategic interests in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and ensuring a stable North Korea along its border override its desire to cooperate with Washington to denuclearize the peninsula. The coming months will reveal Beijing’s true intent, and more importantly, its sincerity and resolve this time around. Placating words are meaningless without persistent and consistent actions. Washington should trust but verify.   

The American Perspective 

The White House praised the summit as a positive and productive opportunity for both presidents and their wives to get to know one another, and for their respective staffs to build rapport for the work ahead in reviewing the state of strategic bilateral relations and generating results-focused outcomes that would benefit both countries. Trump and Xi agreed to work in concert to expand areas of cooperation while managing differences based on mutual respect and to elevate existing bilateral talks to reflect the importance of making progress on strategic issues of mutual concern. 

Overall, the meeting details were rather sparse for policy flexibility and probably indicative of the U.S. limited objectives for the summit considering the timing and duration of the meeting: (1) get through the state visit without any enduring policy encumbrances; (2) size up Chinese counterparts for future negotiations (trade, commerce, North Korea, Taiwan, SCS, etc.); and (3) set favorable conditions for the forthcoming and more substantive cabinet-level dialogues and state visit to China. Generally speaking, a major summit within the first 100 days of taking office may be too soon, particularly with the principal nation-state competitor, understaffed national security team, and an unsettled China policy.

Despite the positive and upbeat portrayals of the summit by Beijing and Washington, there was a wide divergence on whether the state visit was a success or not amongst U.S. think tank and media analysts. Some read the lack of a joint press conference or joint press statement as a failure; while others judged the summit as successful simply because it provided an opportunity for Trump and Xi to meet, lower heightened tensions, and set the conditions for future dialogues and negotiations. However, most agreed that the U.S. missile strikes on Syria overshadowed the summit and the summit itself produced few substantive or tangible results. That being said, many saw enough pleasantry between the two sides for restrained optimism in the coming year.

The International Perspective

Most foreign media outlets were cautiously hopeful prior to the summit. Many welcomed the meeting as an occasion to reduce the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, lower the risk of a disruptive trade war with global ramifications, and explore a new constructive and stabilizing relationship between the two economic and military juggernauts. After the summit, the same foreign media outlets largely acknowledged that there were few substantive or tangible outcomes and the U.S. missile strikes against Syria detracted from the meeting. Some even intimated that the latter may have been a subtle signal to China that the United States is ready to act militarily and unilaterally when faced with threats abroad to include North Korea. Nevertheless, the cordial tone and lack of controversy were generally considered positive steps towards ameliorating tensions in U.S.-China relations during the first eventful months of the Trump Administration.  

U.S. regional allies and partners were rather anxious that Washington would make some sort of unilateral accommodation to Beijing without consultation and at their expense. In Tokyo, there had been apprehensions that the Trump Administration would attempt to use “the scent of a huge deal with China” as leverage to extract concessions from Japan, ease plans to step up pressure on Pyongyang, and give ground in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS. In Seoul, there were fears that Washington would offer uncoordinated peninsular concessions to Beijing in exchange for pressuring Pyongyang. In Taipei, there were concerns that Trump would continue to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its trade negotiations with Beijing and possibly for North Korea, too. In Canberra, there were worries of being left behind on potential economic agreements.

All appear relieved with the summit’s lackluster outcomes. Trump’s telephone calls with Japanese Prime Minister Abe before and after the meeting seemed to allay the Japanese concerns. The Korean response was generally mixed with the Korean Foreign Ministry hailing the summit as successful and meaningful, while the Korean media calling out the meeting for its lack of any agreement on the North Korean nuclear and missile issue. The Taiwanese were likely reassured that the Chinese proposal for a Fourth Communique did not come up, in which Trump would again accede to Xi’s wishes by agreeing that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it, instead of the U.S. longstanding policy that it acknowledges the Chinese viewpoint but does not accept the viewpoint. The Australians were simply content that no economic agreements were made that upset their robust bilateral trade relations with China. As for the rest of the region, the media provided limited coverage – as is typical for events outside the region – with post-summit commentary predominantly observed in Singapore. As expected, Singapore took a neutral and measured position of the summit – “does not appear to have gone badly…and achieved little more than just sketching out the challenges which lie ahead on North Korea, SCS, and trade and commerce.”

Conclusion    

This concludes the short discourse on the perceived and actual outcomes from a Chinese, American, and international Regional perspective on the Trump-Xi summit and sets the conditions for further discussion in part 2 on the assessment of which leader came out relatively stronger, ramifications for the U.S.-China strategic relations, expectations of Trump’s visit to China later in the year, and U.S. strategic opportunities and how Washington can leverage them.     

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday and Friday have put bilateral ties back on track. (AFP)

The NATO of the New North

From author Ian Birdwell comes The Changing Arctic, a column focusing on the unique security challenges presented by the increasingly permissive environment in the High North. The Changing Arctic examines legal precedents, rival claimants, and possible resolutions for disputes among the Arctic nations, as well as the economic implications of accessing the region’s plentiful resources.

By Ian Birdwell

Introduction

NATO is justifiably focused on dissuading Russian aggression, especially given the Federation’s aggressive actions over the past two years in the region. However, there is growing concern for NATO’s northern flank: the Arctic Ocean and far northern Atlantic. The warming of global temperatures presents new challenges related to rising sea levels to navies like the United States,’1 but the retreat of ice in the Arctic Ocean poses a new risk as an avenue to exploit NATO’s flank in Europe. Though some budding conversation determining NATO’s role in defending Arctic nations like Norway from new security challenges is occurring,2 NATO’s gaze remains focused on ground threats throughout Eastern Europe. Despite the persistence of NATO’s strategic goals of deterrence and cooperation, a warmer Arctic demands the attention of NATO powers to preserve regional stability. Looking toward the role NATO could play in maintaining an Arctic balance of power into the future, it is important to acknowledge NATO’s regional hurdles and the strategies the alliance could employ to overcome them.
NATO’s goal has always been deterrence through mutual defense and cooperation between member state militaries, but this has never rung quite as clear among its member states as it has since the onset of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The crisis, if not instigated by the Russian Federation, certainly advances, exacerbated by the comments of Russian officials and state actions. Since then, Eastern European NATO states have clamored for NATO support in counteracting Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin’s regime regularly draws international ire for their actions moving to exploit Arctic oil resources, the effects those operations may have on surrounding communities, and the measures against those protesting oil exploration.3 For the Russian Federation, the Arctic Ocean represents more than just a birthplace of new oil revenues and potential superpower status, it is one of the only areas of the world were its navy may be able to operate more effectively than NATO.

Russia’s Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic (Malte Humpert/The Arctic Institute)

The Russian Northern Fleet possesses a slight advantage over NATO forces in several crucial areas, including a slight and recent increase in submarine warfare capabilities,4 a focus on constructing Arctic naval installations,5 and a plethora of icebreakers compared to NATO.6 Russian forces certainly retain a regional upper hand at the moment yet the aged nature of their equipment belays an opportunity for NATO to deter Russian regional aggression if action is swiftly taken. Finally, to accommodate necessary actions to dissuade aggression, the alliance must gather the funding to make readiness plans a reality, which could become a difficult prospect. Most NATO members overlook the requirement to contribute two percent of national GDP towards military operations, leaving other NATO states like the United States to fit the bill.7 With a new American administration critical of NATO’s funding woes, member states may grow concerned NATO capital will go toward the defense of Eastern European states or other areas with higher visibility.8

Arctic Adaptation

NATO possesses the capability to address and overcome the challenges laid before it. A promising step to move NATO toward readiness for Arctic operations would be to expand the frequency of training activities in the High North. While the norm for nations with Arctic waters like Canada,9 Norway, and the United States,10 the inclusion of non-Arctic NATO powers in a variety of training exercises could prove pivotal in deterring aggression within the Arctic. This past summer, NATO held an anti-submarine warfare exercise called Dynamic Mongoose in the Norwegian Sea that included vessels from eight alliance members.11 With other operations planned for later this year,12 increasing the frequency of such operations, the variety of weather conditions faced, and diversifying into other types of exercises such as amphibious assault drills will allow NATO to become acclimated to regional obstacles and gain the flexibility to respond to threats.

The costlier long-term readiness goal involves the expansion of ports close to or within the Arctic Circle to house larger vessels and the construction of new facilities. Accomplishing this task would help close Russia’s geographic and logistical advantages while assisting troops in becoming acclimated to the region’s weather conditions. Moreover, those expanded ports hold the potential to facilitate an increase in commercial traffic, provide a base for scientific research vessels, and contribute to the logistical support of search and rescue operations – all valuable assets for nations wishing to study a changing global climate. For these reasons, the Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. investigated deepening the Port of Nome.13 Dredging and enlarging ports in the region offer a boon to NATO’s defense goals while boosting Arctic infrastructure for other non-military functions.

The last and largest task for NATO powers concerned about Russian Arctic capabilities is providing the funding necessary to meet their NATO obligations. Each NATO nation with Arctic borders proffers in various declarations their preferred method to move forward with Arctic defense is to cooperate with close allies to fill gaps in their defenses.14 If Canada, Denmark, and Norway,15 NATO Arctic powers currently shy of their NATO percentage pledges, increase their military funding closer to the required two percent of national GDP, then it becomes easier for NATO to achieve its overarching security goals within and outside of the Arctic region.

Conclusion

NATO transformed from a tool bolstering European Defense in the early days of the Cold War into an alliance pulled in several directions in the name of collective security. Today NATO faces a familiar sight, a Europe pressured by an aggressive Russia. Yet as NATO reinforces its easternmost borders, the Russian Federation focuses on a new, warming frontier that could provide a new threat axis where Russia enjoys preeminence.

Ian Birdwell holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Politics from George Mason University.

References

1. Myers, Meghann “Rising oceans threaten to submerge 128 military bases:report” Navy Times. July 29, 2016 https://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/07/29/rising-oceans-threaten-submerge-18-military-bases-report/87657780/

2. Dearden, Lizzie “Norway urges Donald Trump to announce clear policy on Russia amid fears of military activity in Arctic” Independent December 3, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/donald-trump-russia-vladimir-putin-norway-nato-clear-policy-arctic-bases-submarines-military-a7453581.html

3. Luhn, Alec “Arctic oil rush: Nenet’s livelihood and habitat at risk from oil spills” The Guardian December 23, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/23/arctic-oil-rush-nenets-livelihood-and-habitat-at-risk-from-oil-spills

4. Sonne, Paul “Russia’s Military sophistication in the Arctic sends echoes of the Cold War” The Wall Street Journal October 4, 2016 http://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-upgrades-military-prowess-in-arctic-1475624748

5. Einhorn, Catrin, Hannah Fairfield, and Tim Wallace “Russia rearms for a new era” New York Times December 24, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/24/world/asia/russia-arming.html

6. Snow, Shawn “Retired 4-Star: US Military ill-prepared for Arctic confrontation” Military Times December 27, 2016 http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/retired-4-star-us-military-ill-prepared-for-arctic-confrontation

7. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016 http://cimsec.org/norway-faces-new-era-russian-realpolitik-arctic/25984

8. Frum, David “Trump will inherit the biggest NATO buildup in Europe Since the Cold War” The Atlantic January 10, 2017

9. Pugliese, David “Canadian Forces to expand Nunavut training centre as Russia plans more bases in the Arctic” National Post February 23, 2016 http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-forces-to-expand-nunavut-training-centre-as-russias-plans-more-bases-in-the-arctic

10. Schehl, Matthew L. “Marines hit the arctic for largest winter exercise since the Cold War” Marine Corps Times March 2, 2016 https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story/military/2016/03/02/marine-hit-arctic-largest-winter-exercise-since-cold-war/81161832/

11. North Atlantic Treaty Organization “NATO Launches anti-submarine warfare exercise in Norwegian Sea” June 20, 2016 NATO Press Release http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_132596.htm?IselectedLocale=en

12. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016 http://cimsec.org/norway-faces-new-era-russian-realpolitik-arctic/25984

13. Zak, Annie “Port of Nome sees big growth as traversing the Arctic gets easier” Alaska Dispatch News November 24, 2016 https://www.adn.com/business-economy/2016/11/24/port-of-nome-sees-big-growth-as-traversing-the-arctic-gets-easier/

14. Wezeman, Siemon T. “Military Capabilties in the Arctic: A new cold war in the high north?” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute October 2016 https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Military-capabilities-in-the-Arctic.pdf

15. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Public Diplomacy Division “Defense Expenditures of NATO Countries” North Atlantic Treaty Organization July 4, 2016 http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160704_160704-pr2016-116.pdf

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Patrick Kelley)

Russian Warships in Latvian Exclusive Economic Zone: Confrontational, not Unlawful

By Sean Fahey

The past months have seen a significant increase in Russian military activity across Europe, including the Baltic Sea. Last month, Admiral Michelle Howard, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, and commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, described the scope of Russian military activity in Europe as “precedential,” exceeding even Cold War era levels.1 The Baltic Sea, in particular, has become increasingly congested with Russian military forces operating in the region, leading to tense encounters in the air and on the water. Most notably, last April, two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft made repeated low-altitude passes over the USS Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer operating in international waters in the Baltic, with several of the passes resembling “simulated attack” runs.2 Russia also recently deployed Iskander missiles, a “nuclear-capable” system with a range of over 400 miles, to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave situated between Poland and Lithuania,3 and, last month, conducted cruise missile drills in the Baltic Sea.4 This summer, Russia is expected to conduct its “Zapad” (or “West”) Exercise in Kaliningrad and Belarus, with estimated Russian participation numbering between 70,000 and 100,000 troops.5 Some of these incidents are alarming in and of themselves; others, though seemingly routine, may be cause for concern when viewed in light of other regional Russian military activity. Context matters.

The most recent Russian military activity to draw attention in the region was the transit of three Russian warships through the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Latvia, a NATO member state.6 The three warships—the  corvettes Liven 551, Serpukhov 603 and Morshansk 824—were sighted four miles outside Latvia’s territorial sea, or sixteen miles from the Latvian coast. The warships were scheduled to participate in a naval parade to commemorate “Victory Day,” celebrating the end of World War II, but were redeployed prior to the parade, quite possibly in response to the destroyer USS Carney’s arrival into the Baltic Sea.7 

In isolation, the transit of the Russian vessels through the Latvian exclusive economic zone is relatively benign. In the context of Russia’s military activity in the Baltic over the past year, however, the transit can appropriately be described as “aggressive,” even “confrontational.” That said, the transit was not unlawful under international law, and this point cannot be lost in the discussion. The United States and its allies rely on the navigational freedoms protected under international law as much as the Russians, arguably more so. Promoting these freedoms is essential to ensure U.S. maritime mobility.

Under international law, coastal state sovereignty ends at the outer limit of the territorial sea and the airspace above it,8 and even this sovereignty is subject to certain navigational rights, such as the rights of “innocent passage” and “transit passage.”9 Vessels and aircraft, to include military vessels and aircraft, operating seaward of a state’s territorial sea enjoy the freedoms of navigation and overflight and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to those freedoms.10 The U.S. position is that for military vessels, this freedom of navigation includes being able to conduct certain military activities in a state’s EEZ, such as military maneuvers, flight operations, military exercises, surveillance and intelligence gathering, and weapons testing and firing.11 

Not all nations share the U.S. view on the scope of permissible military activities in the EEZ, and instead advocate a legally and practicably untenable interpretation. This interpretation is based, in part, on an incorrect reading of Article 88 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which applies in the EEZ through Article 58(2).  This Article states that the high seas shall be reserved “for peaceful purposes.”12 The “peaceful purposes” language in UNCLOS, however, does not prohibit military activities in the EEZ, only those activities inconsistent with Article 2(4) of the UN Charter.13 Nevertheless, even under a restrictive interpretation, warships transiting through a coastal state’s EEZ—even with the intent to locate and surveil a foreign warship on the high seas—would still be permissible under international law. In fact, had the three Russian warships been transiting through the Latvian territorial sea (within twelve nautical miles of the coast), and even done so unannounced, this too would have been permissible under international law, so long as the vessels were properly exercising their navigational right of “innocent passage.”14

Military activities, both planned and unplanned, will continue to be conducted in the Baltic, by both Russia and NATO and its allies, for the foreseeable future. That is not a criticism; it is a statement of fact. While it is certainly appropriate—strategically critical even—to criticize and protest unwelcome, aggressive and confrontational military acts, care must be taken not to mischaracterize the lawfulness of the acts under international law, either directly or by implication. To be optimally effective in the Baltic region, NATO forces, to include those of the United States, will rely on the freedoms of navigation and overflight preserved under the law of the sea. The lawful exercise of those freedoms, particularly as it relates to military activities, must be preserved, even when their application is unpopular.

Commander Sean Fahey, United States Coast Guard, is currently assigned as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies. He can be reached at Sean.Fahey@usnwc.edu

The views and opinions expressed here are presented in a personal and unofficial capacity. They are not to be construed as official policy or reflecting the views of the United States Coast Guard or any other U.S. government agency. 

Footnotes

1. Andrea Shalal, Russian Naval Activity in Europe Exceeds Cold War Levels: U.S. Admiral, Reuters (Apr. 9, 2017, 11:09 AM), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-military-idUSKBN17B0O8.

2. U.S. Department of Defense, Navy Ship Encounters Aggressive Russian Aircraft in Baltic Sea, Apr. 13, 2016, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/720536/navy-ship-encounters-aggressive-russian-aircraft-in-baltic-sea/

3. Russia Deploys Nuclear-Capable missiles in Kaliningrad, BBC News (Oct. 9, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37597075.

4. Damien Sharkov, Russia Begins Submarine Cruise Missile Drills in Baltic Sea, Newsweek (Apr. 10, 2017, 10:30 AM), http://www.newsweek.com/russian-baltic-sea-fleet-practices-submarine-cruise-missile-fire-581524

5. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, U.S. Shifting Forces to Monitor Large Russian Military Exercises, Officials Say, Washington Post (May 10, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/05/10/u-s-shifting-forces-to-monitor-large-russian-military-exercises-officials-say/?utm_term=.580e19108096.

6. Caroline Mortimer, Russian Warships Spotted Just Outside Latvia’s Territorial Waters in Latest Show of Strength, Independent (May 9, 2017), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-baltic-agression-navy-latvia-warships-victory-day-a7725261.html;Damien Sharkov, Latvia Spots Three Russian Warships off Sea Border, Newsweek (May 8, 2017, 12:18 PM), http://www.newsweek.com/latvia-spots-three-russian-ships-sea-border-596219; Will Stewart, Putin Sends Three Warships to Latvian Waters in the Baltic Sea in Latest challenge to NATO, Daily Mail (May 8, 2017), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4485604/Putin-sends-ships-Latvian-waters-challenge-NATO.html; Doug G. Ware, Russian Warships Spotted in Baltic NATO Waters, Latvia Says, UPI (May 8, 2017, 7:53 PM), http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/05/08/Russian-warships-spotted-in-Baltic-NATO-waters-Latvia-says/9341494285894/

7. Damien Sharkov, Latvia Spots Three Russian Warships off Sea Border, Newsweek (May 8, 2017, 12:18 PM).

8. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397, arts. 2-5. (Article 2(1) reads: “The sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters…to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea.” Article 2(1) reads: “This sovereignty extends to the air space above the territorial sea as well as to its bed and subsoil.”) Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to twelve nautical miles from its baseline, normally the low-water line along its coast. (arts. 3-5).

9. Id., arts. 17-19, 37, 38 and 45.

10. United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, supra note 8, arts. 58 and 87. Though the United States has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States considers those provisions relating to the freedoms of navigation and overflight as memorializing long-standing customary international law. United States Oceans Policy, Statement by the President, March 10, 1983 (“…the United States is prepared to accept and act in accordance with the balance of interests relating to traditional uses of the oceans—such as navigation and overflight. In this respect, the United States will recognize the rights of other states in the waters off their coasts, as reflected in the Convention, so long as the rights and freedoms of the United States and others under international law are recognized by such coastal states.”) https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/143224.pdf.

11. U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps & U.S. Coast Guard, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12/COMDTPUB P5800.7A, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations ¶ 2.6.3 (2007).

12. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, supra note 8, Articles 58 and 88; See James Kraska, Military Operations, in The Oxford handbook of the Law of the Sea884-85 (Donald R. Rothwell, Alex G. Oude Elferink, Karen N. Scott and Tim Stephens, eds., 2015).

13. Kraska, supra note 12, at 884-85. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter reads: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-i/ .

14. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, supra note 8, arts. 17-19.

Featured Image: Russian Navy corvettes (East2West news)