Category Archives: Global Analysis

A Geographical Breakdown of What’s Going on in the World

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules

By Tuan N. Pham

More Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism are coming. In January, this author’s article in a separate publication assessed strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018; and forecasted that China will likely further expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Recently, three worrying developments have emerged that oblige the United States to further challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy; reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power; and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). 

Near-Arctic State

On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the BRI” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.” Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism.     

Beijing rationalizes and justifies this expansive political, economic, and legal stance as “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry, and other sectors.” In other words, China stakes its tenuous Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty”, they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities. And while vaguely underscoring that it will respect and comply with international law like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a “lawful and rational matter”, Beijing was quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper that it will use Arctic resources to “pursue its own national interests.”

There is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term. Furthermore, as noted by Grant Newsham, the phrase itself is a representative exemplification of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions. Consider the following evolution that is typical of how key elements of China’s strategic lexicon come to the fore like “near-Artic state and the South China Sea (SCS) has been part of China since ancient times”:

Step 1 – Term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal
Step 2 – Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper
Step 3 – Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar
Step 4 – Term is used in Chinese authoritative media
Step 5 – Term is used at international conferences and academic exchanges held in China
Step 6 – China frequently refers to the term in foreign media and at international conferences
Step 7 – China issues a policy white paper stating its positions, implied rights, and an implied threat to defend those rights
Step 8 – China maintains that this has always been Beijing’s policy

 Beijing’s official policy positions on Antarctica are less clear and coherent, and appear to be still evolving. The closest sort of policy statement was made last year by China’s State Oceanic Administration when it issued a report (pseudo white paper) entitled “China’s Antarctic Activities (Antarctic Business in China).” The report detailed many of Beijing’s scientific activities in the southernmost continent, and vaguely outlined China’s Antarctic strategy and agenda with few specifics. All in all, Beijing doesn’t have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims), but nonetheless, China has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years. The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. The expanding presence in Antarctica is embraced by Beijing as a way and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s Antarctic resource and governance rights.  

South “China” Sea

On February 5, released imagery of the Spratly archipelago suggests that China has almost completely transformed their seven occupied reefs – disputed by the other claimants – into substantial Chinese military outposts, in a bid to dominate the contested waters and despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS. At the same time, Beijing has softened the provocative edges of its aggressive militarization with generous pledges of investments to the other claimants and promising talks of an ASEAN framework for negotiating a code of conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is determined to finish its militarization and then present the other claimants with a fait d’accompli before sitting down to negotiate the CoC.

The photographs show that Beijing has developed 72 acres in the SCS in 2017 and over 3200 acres in the past four years; and redirected its efforts from dredging and reclaiming land to building infrastructure (airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, control towers, hangars, etc.) necessary for future deployment of aircraft to project Chinese power across the shipping routes through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it recently sent advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to take part in a joint combat patrol over the SCS.

An aerial view of the Fiery Cross Reef, now a 2.8 sq km artificial island. (Photo: CCTV)

At the end of the day, these latest images will not change Beijing’s agenda and plans for the SCS. They do however provide a revealing glimpse of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future on these disputed and contested geographic features (rocks and reefs) – and it sure does not look benign and benevolent as China claims.     

At the 54th Munich Security Conference from February 16-18, the Chinese delegation participated in an open panel discussion on the SCS and took the opportunity to publicly refute the prevailing conventional interpretation of international maritime law. They troublingly stated for the first known time in an international forum that “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” This may be that long-anticipated policy outgrowth from the brazen militarization of the SCS and the latest regression of the previous legal and diplomatic position that “all countries have unimpeded access to navigation and flight activities in the SCS.” Now that China has the supposed ways and means to secure the strategic lines of communication, Beijing may start incrementally restricting military ships and aircraft operating in its perceived backyard, and then slowly and quietly expand to commercial ships and aircraft transiting the strategic waterway. If so, this will be increasingly problematic as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines. China will then have no choice but to eventually address the legal and diplomatic inconsistency between policy and operations – and either pragmatically adjust its policy or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its claimed exclusive economic zones, in effect a policy of “do as I say, not do as I do.”

In the public diplomacy domain, Beijing is advancing the narrative that Washington no longer dominates the SCS, is to blame for Chinese militarization of the SCS, and is destabilizing the SCS with more provocative moves. On January 22, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an op-ed article cautioning American policymakers to not be too confident about the U.S. role in the SCS nor too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will support U.S. policy. Consider the following passage: “For ASEAN countries, it’s much more important to avoid conflicts with Beijing than obtain small favors from Washington. Times are gone when the United States played a predominant role in the SCS. China has exercised restraint against U.S. provocations in the SCS, but there are limits. If the U.S. doesn’t stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.” On February 25, the same state-owned media outlet wrote that “China should install more military facilities, such as radar, aircraft, and more coastguard vessels in the SCS to cope with provocative moves by the United States”; and predicted that the “Sino-U.S. relations will see more disputes this year which will not be limited to SCS, as the United States tries to deal with a rising China.”

On January 17, USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it passed within 12nm of Scarborough Shoal. This was the fifth U.S. naval operation in the last six months to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The Chinese media largely portrayed the operation as the latest in a series of recent U.S. actions intended to signal a new policy shift consistent with the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy and reflective of growing U.S. misgivings over China’s rise. The Chinese media is also increasingly depicting Beijing as having the upper hand in the SCS at the expense of rival Washington; and that U.S. FONOPs are now pointless since China has multiple options to effectively respond and there’s very little the United States can do about it.

Sharp Power (Influence Operations) Growing Sharper

In late-January, African Union (AU) officials accused Beijing of electronically bugging its Chinese-built headquarters building, hacking the computer systems, downloading confidential information, and sending the data back to servers in China. A claim that Beijing vehemently denies, calling the investigative report by the Le Monde “ridiculous, preposterous, and groundless…intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the African continent.” The fact that the alleged hack remained undisclosed for a year after discovery and the AU publicly refuted the allegation as Western propaganda speaks to China’s dominant relationships with the African states. During an official visit to Beijing shortly after the report’s release, the Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat stated “AU is an international political organization that doesn’t process secret defense dossiers…AU is an administration and I don’t see what interest there is to China to offer up a building of this type and then to spy.” Not surprisingly, Fakit received assurances from his Chinese counterpart afterwards on five key areas of future AU-China cooperation – capacity building, infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health and disease prevention, and tourism and aviation.

African Union Conference Center (Andrew Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

The suspected hack underscores the high risk that African nations take in allowing Chinese information technology companies such prominent roles in developing their nascent telecommunications backbones. The AU has since put new cybersecurity measures in place, and predictably declined Beijing’s offer to configure its new servers. Additionally, if the report is true, more than just the AU may have been compromised. Other government buildings were constructed by China throughout the African continent. Beijing signed lucrative contracts to build government buildings in Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.

On January 23, President Xi Jinping presided over a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leading group meeting to discuss how better to deepen the overall reform of the central government. He emphasized that 2018 will be the first year to implement the spirit of last year’s 19th National Party Congress and the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the West and integration into the global economy. The meeting reviewed and approved several resolutions (policy documents) to include the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Reform and Development of Confucius Institute.” The new policy synchronized the promotion of reform and development of the Confucius Institute; and directed both to focus on the “building of a powerful socialist country with Chinese characteristics, serving Beijing’s major powers diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, deepening the reform and innovation, improving the institutional mechanisms, optimizing the distribution structure, strengthening the building efforts, and improving the quality of education” – so as to let the latter (Confucius Institute) become an important force of communication between China and foreign countries.

The seemingly benign and benevolent Confucius Institute is quite controversial, and is now receiving greater scrutiny within the various host countries for covertly influencing public opinions in advancement of Chinese national interests. In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on February 23 that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding the Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers allegedly teach a whitewashed version of China, and serve as outposts of Beijing’s overseas intelligence network.

On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, as part of the greater efforts and activities of the United Front – a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. He stressed that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…It is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Ultimately, he hopes these overseas Chinese will collectively cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP, advance the party’s political agenda, and help realize broader Chinese geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI.

Conclusion

The aforementioned troubling and destabilizing developments egregiously challenge the rules-based global order and U.S. global influence. Like China’s illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and Beijing’s blatant disregard for the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they further erode the trust and confidence in the international rule of law (and norms) and undermine America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. If the international community and the United States do not push back now, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence unchallenged and unhindered. 

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

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

Russia’s Arctic Ambitions Held Back by Economic Troubles

The following article was originally featured by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Michael Lambert

During the Cold War, the geographical position of the Arctic and the technology available put the region in the geopolitical spotlight. The Arctic was the shortest flight path for Soviet and American intercontinental bombers between the United States and Soviet Union. Later, with the advent of ballistic missiles, the Arctic’s strategic relevance began to fade – only to be reignited in the 1970s with the arrival of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and strategic bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles.

The United States cooperated closely with Canada to stop the bomber threat coming from Moscow. The end result was a number of early warning radar lines across Canadian territory, most recently the joint Canada-U.S. North Warning System (NWS) built in the late 1980s, as well as significant air defense (and later aerospace) cooperation evident in the bi-national North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was also increasingly intent on penetrating the Soviet nuclear bastion in the Arctic with its own nuclear attack submarines.

The Soviet Union was itself directly exposed to strategic bombers located in Alaska. Looking at the strategic context until 1991, the USSR gathered a significant number of defense forces in the Soviet Arctic, going from advanced air defense systems in Rogachevo, Amderma, and Alykeland Ugolnye Kopi to submarines able to launch nuclear weapons from the Soviet Far East. The United States and the Soviet Union both conducted military exercises in the Arctic, and eventually had the technological capabilities to destroy each other multiple times. However, it was difficult for the United States to say if Moscow was trying to develop a defensive or offensive policy in that part of the world – although that uncertainty did not prevent the U.S. from moving decisively to try to mitigate this potential threat.

Moscow conducted an impressive number of nuclear experiments in the area. By the end of the 1980s, the USSR Northern Fleet had 172 submarines, including 39 SSBNs, 46 cruise missile submarines and 87 attack submarines, and between 1967 and 1993 Soviet and Russian submarines carried out a total of 4,600 training missions. However, looking at the size of the Arctic, the numbers are less impressive, and it seems difficult to know if the area was considered to be an outpost or a buffer zone, in so far as archives regarding Soviet nuclear weapons are still classified in Russia today.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited almost all Soviet facilities and nuclear equipment, including in the High North. Does the Russian approach toward the Arctic differ from the Soviet one? Under then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, supported by Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s Arctic forces were almost entirely disbanded for economic reasons during the 1990s. The Kremlin did keep its SSBNs to ensure nuclear deterrence and a minimum presence in the area. But it also diminished the number of aircraft and anti-aircraft systems as well, the latter decision largely due to the difficulty with modernizing equipment needed to detect and intercept American bomber aircraft, such as the Northrop B-2 Spirit.

With the return of Moscow on the international stage, Russia’s new nuclear policy in the Arctic has become a major issue for the relationship between the United States, Canada, Northern Europe (NATO and non-NATO members) and Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Indeed, current Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the modernization of Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces and its Northern Fleet to be a state priority.

More than 80 percent of Russia’s strategic maritime nuclear capabilities is located in the Northern Fleet, mostly in the form of its ballistic missile submarine fleet. It is also focused on developing infrastructure needed to operate such capabilities, such as the refurbished military airfields in its northern region that will provide aerial support for its Northern Fleet. In the Russian Military Doctrine of 2014, the Arctic was highlighted as one of the three key regions for military development, alongside Crimea and Kaliningrad. And, since 2008, Russia has reestablished long-range aviation patrols and increased the presence and activity of the Northern Fleet.

Putin’s policy in the Arctic can be interpreted as partly an attempt to protect future economic and military interests of the Russian Federation. After all, Russia has significant economic interests in the Arctic and needs to protect them. More than 20 percent of the country’s GDP is produced in the northern part of Russia, with approximately 75 percent of oil and 95 percent of natural gas reserves located in the area. In addition, it also is a means to put more pressure on Washington and its allies (including Canada) in the context of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine. As well, it provides an opportunity to threaten (and therefore possibly deter) countries showing a growing interest for NATO membership, such as Sweden and Finland.

Russia has recently unveiled a new military base at Franz Joseph Land in the Arctic Sea, following its initial Northern Clover Arctic base on Kotelny Island, north of Siberia. The Franz Joseph Land archipelago had been abandoned in 1991 but the Russian Air Force decided to reopen Graham Bell Airfield (named the “Arctic Trefoil”) to protect Moscow’s interest in the area. However, Russia’s 150 soldiers are probably not enough to stop any foreign forces and control the 191 islands in this peninsula.

recent article published at the Department of Geography at Laval University also underlines the limitations of Russian Air Force operations in the Arctic, pointing particularly at the relative modest number of air military patrols in the region compared to the significant number of intrusive patrols (bombers and fighters) close to Japan, Northern Europe, and the Baltics.

In that context, it seems difficult to say if Russia is able to conduct any large military exercises in the Arctic, due to the size of the region and the limited number of troops on the ground. A brief look at the equipment available like the Tupolev Tu-160 – a Soviet bomber produced in the USSR between 1984-1991 and upgraded by the Russian Air Force – shows their limited capabilities to conduct an attack against Alaska or Northern Europe from the area, although their development of long-range cruise missile technology could change that calculus.

The Russian Federation is also facing difficulties when it comes to submarines. The Russian Navy cancelled the modernization program for its venerable Typhoon-class vessel in 2012, and most of its newer Borey-class SSBNs are under construction and those vessels earmarked for the Northern Fleet (Knyaz PozharskiyGeneralissimus Suvorov) won’t be ready until 2020. Indeed, the Yury Dolgorukiy is the only submarine located in the Arctic at the moment.

Despite Putin’s stated interest in strengthening the Northern Fleet, this situation should remain the same for the foreseeable future – especially following Moscow’s revised funding scheme for the Arctic. The expected budget approved for the military in the Arctic until 2020 is 17 times lower than the original sum. This arises from Russia’s current economic crisis, brought on not least by international sanctions after its military intervention in Ukraine.

In this context, rather than fixating on Russian activities in the Arctic, the United States and Canada should continue to focus the brunt of their attention on Europe and Syria – where the Russian presence remains far more intrusive, robust, and ultimately destabilizing.

Michael Eric Lambert received a PhD in History of Europe and International Relations from Sorbonne University, France. He is Founder and Director of the Caucasus Initiative, a new independent and unaligned European Policy Center with the mission to analyze contemporary issues related to de facto states and the Black Sea area.

Featured Image: Russian submarine (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Gate of Tears: Interests, Options, and Strategy in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait

By Jimmy Drennan

Introduction

Some were surprised by the news that four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger and may have even wondered “why do we have troops in Africa?” Some also agree with the recent bipartisan call from Congress to end U.S. military support to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. In this context, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow waterway between the Arabian Peninsula and northeast Africa, might sound inconsequential, but is in fact critical to U.S. national security interests.

Arabic for “the Gate of Tears,” the strait could not be more appropriately named. Situated at the center of the some of the world’s most critical humanitarian disasters and economic issues, it is a decisive point for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the global economy more broadly. To the north lies Yemen, a failed state where 17 million people face starvation, over a million people are stricken with cholera while thousands have died from the disease, a diphtheria outbreak has emerged, and multiple regional actors and terrorist networks vie for power in a bloody conflict that has claimed over 5,000 civilian lives in three years.

To the south lies Africa where fragile states like Somalia battle famine and Islamic militant groups. Atrocities abound at sea as well. Refugees cross the Bab-el-Mandeb to the north and south because both sides seem to be the better alternative. In March 2017, 42 refugees fleeing from Yemen to Sudan were shot and killed by an attack helicopter, which apparently mistook them for militants.1 In August 2017, smugglers threw over 300 Somali refugees into the water near the Yemeni coast, drowning up to 70, in the span of 24 hours after reportedly sighting authority figures on shore.Just last week, 30 African refugees drowned en route from Aden to Djibouti, after their boat capsized amid gunfire from smugglers.

Meanwhile, the Bab-el-Mandeb serves as a critical artery for the global economy. 52 vessels and 4 million barrels of oil transit the strait per day, making it the fourth busiest waterway in the world, and the only one surrounded by chaos. In the last year, two merchant vessels and five naval ships have been attacked with cruise missiles, explosive boats, and small arms in the southern Red Sea, while the very real threat of mines exists lurking in the water.

Yemeni and Somali civil wars, humanitarian disaster, and the economic importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb form a complex dynamic in which to develop U.S. foreign policy. The key for policymakers is to determine what U.S. national interests are at stake and what actions must be taken to protect them. After careful consideration of the issues surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, it becomes clear that the U.S. can ill afford to do nothing. On the other hand, it may also be unaffordable to secure U.S. interests by leading multilateral stabilization efforts via intervention within Yemen and Somalia. Fortunately, a third alternative is available via American seapower. Applying maritime influence to enable other elements of national power can contain threats to national security and the global economy, while providing a path to mitigate human suffering in the long term.

U.S. National Interests and the Strategic Calculus

The debate over U.S. national interests will not be settled here, but for simplicity’s sake and the purpose of meaningful analysis, the following definitions from the July 2000 Commission on America’s National Interests will be used:3

  • Vital – Vital national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans’ survival and well-being in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment).”
  • Extremely Important – Extremely important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would severely prejudice but not strictly imperil the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “Prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions, especially the Persian Gulf.”
  • Important – Important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would have major negative consequences for the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “discourage massive human rights violations in foreign countries.”

Due to the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the global and, consequently, U.S. economies, the U.S. has a vital national interest in maintaining the free flow of commerce through the Strait. Even if the U.S. did not depend on the 1.5 billion barrels of oil (currently $98B) annually that flow through the Strait, allies in Europe would certainly feel the economic impact if shipping companies re-routed their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope in the event of crisis or conflict. Inflated maritime insurance rates and an additional 10 days transit time from the Middle East to the U.S. would have considerable worldwide ripple effects to which the U.S. economy would not be immune. Moreover, as one of two primary sea lines of communication to the CENTCOM AOR, the U.S. also has a military interest in maintaining freedom of navigation through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. In October 2016, the U.S. was forced to respond with Tomahawk missile strikes into western Yemen when the USS Mason came under anti-ship missile fire from the Yemeni coast. Further attacks would increase risk and necessitate additional escorts for Bab-el-Mandeb Strait transits.

Conversely, the U.S. has no vital national interest in broader involvement in the armed conflicts in Yemen and Somalia; however, its interests are clearly impacted by the growing threat emanating from Yemen. In western Yemen, Saudi Arabia along with eight other regional allies, are fighting a brutal war against separatist Houthi rebels who aim to establish an anti-Western Shia government in Yemen. In December 2017, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley provided material evidence to the international community that Iran provides missiles and advanced weaponry to the Houthis, enabling them to target vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and strategic locations inside Saudi Arabia, threatening the U.S. national interest in free flow of commerce and advancing its own interest in promoting its regional hegemony.4,5 In January 2018, the Houthis threatened to close the Red Sea to international shipping if the Saudi-led Coalition continued its advance toward Hudaydah, a strategically important Houthi-held port critical to the flow of humanitarian aid. If the Houthi threat is credible, Iranian-aligned forces could now threaten another vital maritime chokepoint, in addition to the Strait of Hormuz which Iran has often threatened to close. Growing Houthi influence and capabilities in Yemen also impose costs and shift the balance of power in relation to Iran’s regional opponents, primarily Saudi Arabia, and allows Tehran to expand its influence elsewhere. Saudi Arabia may have felt compelled to intervene in Yemen’s civil war as the tide shifted in favor of the Houthis because the prospect of bordering an Iranian-aligned state would prove strategically disadvantageous.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley briefs the media in front of remains of Iranian “Qiam” ballistic missile provided by Pentagon at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2017. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

In eastern Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS-Yemen maintain presence, despite UAE-led counterterrorism operations, due to lack of effective governance and internal security. Despite pressure from the West, AQAP remains a threat to the U.S. homeland, and the prominence of ISIS-Yemen continues to grow as the extremist caliphate is gradually eliminated in Iraq and Syria. Without a doubt, the U.S. has a vital national interest in supporting its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners in their counterterrorism efforts and in defense of their borders, but it does not benefit from becoming directly entangled in the fight.

Similarly, Somalia provides a safe haven for terrorists who would do harm to U.S. interests at home and abroad. Fighting rages on between the Federal Government of Somalia, which was only recently established after two decades of near-anarchy, and the Al-Qaeda aligned militant group Al Shabaab, while the civilian population suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, criminals continue to recruit disenfranchised young men, desperate and angry with perceived (and sometimes real) illegal fishing in Somali territorial waters, to become pirates. Still, even though Somalia is a hallmark of instability in the region and a safe haven for terrorist organizations, the U.S. has no vital national interest in establishing security and governance in the African country. From Vietnam, to Somalia itself in the 1990s, America has learned through experience the high cost of entering into regional and internal armed conflicts in proxy pursuit of national interests. Becoming directly entangled in the conflicts surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb is counter to U.S. national interests, but so is ignoring them. U.S. vital national interests in Somalia and in Yemen are limited to ensuring instability is contained within territorial borders so that the free flow of commerce is maintained, attacks against the homeland and assets abroad are prevented, and American influence in the region is sustained.

In Pursuit of National Interests

Considering U.S. vital national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb and surrounding territories – maintaining the free flow of commerce, preventing attacks against the homeland and assets abroad, and sustaining American and allied influence in the region – the challenge arises when deciding how to apply the instruments of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) to secure those interests. The U.S. could secure its interests by:

1) Leading a large-scale multilateral stabilization effort for Yemen and Somalia

2) Containing threats to national interests via maritime influence; or

3) Taking no action (Isolationism)

Option 1: U.S.-led Stabilization Effort

Bringing all instruments of national power to bear on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by leading multilateral stabilization efforts in Yemen and Somalia is a thorough, long-term approach to securing U.S. national interests; however, it would come at significant cost. Securing national interests via stabilization could involve, in varying degrees: state building, military intervention, occupation, and inevitably comparisons to “neo-imperialism” and “adventurism.” In theory, these activities could give rise to effective governance, which would serve to eliminate the threats to U.S. national interests spilling out of Yemeni and Somali borders. The governments, in this case the Federal Government of Somalia and Republic of Yemen Government, ideally would be able to aid in securing the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, stamp out terrorist safe havens, and provide adequate food and medical care to their populations, all while acting in alignment with U.S. foreign policy objectives.            

The trouble is that stabilization has rarely turned out the way the U.S. intended. The most striking examples are Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. remains after intervening to eliminate threats to the homeland and the region. Supporting Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s or the present-day Syrian Opposition are two examples where the U.S. applied pressure indirectly with less than desirable results. Meanwhile, it’s been 25 years since the U.S. first led a UN coalition into Somalia, tasked with stabilizing the war-torn country whose central government had collapsed. Clearly, stabilization efforts are no sure thing. Even when stabilization is successful, the cost is immense. Following World War II, in addition to the over $14B ($140B in today’s dollars) given in aid to Germany and Japan for economic recovery, the U.S. maintained a significant military presence to help stabilize those countries.6,7 It is reasonable to assume that a concerted effort to stabilize Yemen and Somalia would lead to indefinite military presence in those countries as well. Fortunately, there is an alternative to stabilization for securing U.S. national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb region: maritime influence.              

Option 2: Containing Threats to Yemen and Somalia – Maritime Influence

Rather than directly stabilizing Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce and secure its foreign policy objectives in the region by exerting maritime influence and projecting its power landward. Through a combination of naval operations, international cooperation, and engagement with industry, the U.S. can mitigate the risk to commercial and friendly naval vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, albeit not without the presence of forces as a credible deterrent to would-be attackers. Securing the critical waterway can help secure U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region by eliminating maritime attacks as an option for belligerents in internal conflicts and forcing their attention inward, but airstrikes or other direct action may be required to drive home the point that the Bab-el-Mandeb is “out of bounds” and the consequences for attacking neutral parties are severe. Ultimately U.S. maritime influence could contribute to international pressure to peacefully end the Yemeni Civil War, and fortify the fragile Somali government. Meanwhile, maritime assets could act as seabases for forces providing humanitarian aid or conducting raids on terrorist networks. The agility the Navy provides – in the form of hospital ships, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, various surface combatants and patrol craft, sealift and logistics ships, landing craft, helicopters, and other aircraft – has been on display in disaster relief efforts such as the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010. These same assets can be used to support counterterrorism efforts as expeditionary mobile bases, allowing special forces to conduct short-duration operations with minimal footprint on land. Lastly, interdiction of lethal aid flowing into Yemen, enabled by UN Security Council Resolutions, would be a key element of maritime influence.

A handout photo from the Australian Defence Force shows what they say are weapons seized from a fishing vessel which was boarded off the coast of Oman, March 2, 2016. An Australian Navy ship seized a huge cache of weapons near Oman’s coast from the fishing vessel bound for Somalia, the navy said on March 8, 2016, exposing a possible violation of a U.N. Security Council arms embargo. Picture taken March 2, 2016. (Reuters/ABIS Sarah Ebsworth/Australian Defence Force/Handout via Reuters)

International maritime operations are already underway in the region that the U.S. could leverage to build a maritime influence strategy. U.S., allied, and other international navies, such as China, Russia, and Iran, maintain presence in the Gulf of Aden. These navies already work with organizations such as the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and U.K. Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) to advise industry of potential threats to shipping. The key to success of a maritime influence strategy will be cooperation of these international navies, especially since the U.S. cannot afford to take on this security burden alone. The U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) offers a viable model for bringing to together naval forces of 32 countries, some of whom would not normally form military partnerships with each other, to provide maritime security in the Middle East. Mutual participation of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, although seemingly unlikely, should be a goal for U.S. policymakers, as this could set the stage for dialogue to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Additionally, contrary to conventional U.S. foreign policy, U.S. leaders should consider recognizing Iran for their contribution to international counter-piracy efforts off Somalia, while holding Saudi Arabia accountable for their role in contributing to the devastating humanitarian conditions in Yemen. 

The international campaign to combat the Somalia piracy epidemic in the early 2000s provides an ideal example of how maritime influence has been proven to effectively eliminate threats at sea. From 2005 to 2012, pirates attacked nearly 700 ships in the Somali basin, and collected $400M in ransom payments. Over that time, the international community gradually came together to address the problem. The U.S. established a multinational maritime coalition to counter piracy threats, and participated in EU and NATO task forces as well. As many as 20 international warships patrolled the waters around the Horn of Africa at any given time. Simultaneously, the U.S. coordinated with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to establish a set of industry best practices, the latest of which, Best Management Practices, Rev. 4 (BMP4), officially endorsed unarmed embarked security teams.[8] Other maritime influence efforts included establishing an internationally recognized transit corridor, real-time vessel tracking and communication with maritime agencies, and development of mechanisms for transfer of detained pirates to cooperative local governments. This international effort to push piracy back to land was effective – pirates did not successfully hijack a single vessel in the Somali Basin from 2013 to 2016. It is important to note, however, that piracy will remain a threat until it becomes cost prohibitive. Criminals still take advantage of poverty and conflict in Somalia to recruit disenfranchised young men. In 2017, a series of six attacks raised concerns that the piracy epidemic had returned. Instead, it turned out that industry had become lax in applying best practices and about half as many warships patrol the area as in 2012. Not coincidentally, NATO concluded its counter-piracy operation in December 2016. Pirates seemingly sensed an opportunity. Fortunately, no ransoms were paid and the international community once again applied maritime influence to beat back the piracy threat.

Maritime influence was effective in pushing piracy back to shore, and it essentially removed piracy as an option for financial gain in Somalia. In fact, judging from the improvements in Somalia over the last decade, from growing GDP and livestock exports and a democratic presidential election in 2017, one could argue that maritime influence contributed to better conditions on land. Still, the root conditions in Somalia that led to the problem in the first place persist. Maritime influence is not a foreign policy panacea. In the Bab-el-Mandeb region, the U.S. would need to apply maritime influence while supporting international stabilization efforts to make meaningful progress toward resolving the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia, eliminating terrorist safe havens, and effectively securing its national interests. Thus, the U.S. still risks becoming entangled in foreign wars. The U.S. needs to consider whether investing in the security of Yemen, Somalia, and the Bab-el-Mandeb is worth the cost. Of course, the third option is to invest nothing and accept the potential consequences.

Option 3: Isolationism

It can be tempting to assume the U.S. should do nothing at all to stabilize the region around the Bab-el-Mandeb, especially amid the rising tide of nationalism and isolationism in America. After all, many argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the Middle East completely. The danger is that the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia may reach the point of catastrophe, at which the U.S. could be compelled to act purely on the basis of respect for humanity. On a grand enough scale, the alleviation of human suffering, much like the prevention of genocide, can in fact be a vital national interest. There are already 20 million people starving and over one million people suffering from cholera and diphtheria in the two countries surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, an unparalleled concentration of human suffering. A particularly heavy rainy season, or even a single cyclone, could rapidly exacerbate shortages of food and medical care. At some point, the loss of life could become so immense that the U.S. has no choice but to intervene, regardless of its security or economic interests. Such an intervention would inevitably come at great cost in terms of dollars and foreign policy objectives, not to mention the risk to American armed forces and civilians on the ground.

Another consequence of doing nothing to stabilize the region is the power vacuum that will likely continue to grow. In Yemen, AQAP and ISIS will unquestionably continue to plot and orchestrate attacks against U.S. interests, barring a concerted U.S. or international effort. In Somalia, the U.S. and other allies provide military support to the government’s fight against Al Shabaab and other militant groups. Without American involvement, both countries would be safe havens for those who would do Americans harm. Further, wherever the U.S. has withdrawn presence and influence throughout the Middle East, states such as Iran, Russia, and China predictably increased their operations in those areas. In August 2017, China opened its very first overseas naval base just south of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in Djibouti, signifying the strategic importance China places in the region. With American withdrawal, the U.S. and global economies would be dependent on foreign efforts to secure the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, whatever those may be. In any case, increasing maritime threats may inevitably force the U.S. foreign policy hand, only the response would be reactive instead of proactive, dictated by the enemy’s actions.

Conclusion

The U.S. can afford neither to ignore the threats emerging from the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and surrounding territory, nor can it afford to aggressively intervene in Yemen and Somalia wholesale to fully stabilize the region. The most affordable approach to securing U.S. interests in the region is through maritime influence to enable regional and international partner efforts. By leading an international naval, diplomatic, and economic campaign, augmented with key activities internal to Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce, prevent attacks on American citizens, and preserve its influence in the region, while setting the stage for resolution of internal conflicts and humanitarian crises. It may seem heartless to take such a calculated approach to secure one’s own interests in the face of so many others’ suffering. It is helpful, however, to consider that the best way to mitigate that suffering and secure U.S. national interests may be one and the same. Under the wholesale intervention and stabilization approach, humanitarian conditions will not improve at all unless the U.S. is willing and able to adequately resource an international effort, which seems unlikely. Stabilization of Yemen and Somalia through U.S. intervention is simply not a feasible option. The U.S. may not be able to keep the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from living up to its Arabic name, “the Gate of Tears,” but the best approach to securing its national interests, by exercising maritime influence, also happens to represent the best opportunity to positively impact humanitarian and security conditions in the long run without risking excessive entanglement.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the CIMSEC Florida Chapter. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

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References

[1] Beaumont, Peter (17 March 2017). “More than 40 Somali refugees killed in helicopter attack off Yemen coast.” The Guardian. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[2] UN News Centre (10 August 2017). “Smugglers throw hundreds of African migrants off boats headed to Yemen – UN.” United Nations. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[3] Ellsworth, Robert, Andrew Goodpaster, and Rita Hauser, Co-Chairs (July 2000). “America’s National Interests: A Report from The Commission on America’s National Interests, 2000.” Commission on America’s National Interests.

[4] Tillerson, Rex (19 April 2017). “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Press Availability.” U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[5] AFP (25 August 2016). “Iran arms shipments to Yemen ‘cannot continue’: Kerry.” AL-MONITOR. Retrieved 24 August 2017.

[6] U.S. Department of State Historian. “Milestones: 1945–1952 – Office of the Historian”. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 6 June 2016.

[7] U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1954 (1955),” table 1075 pp 899-902.

[8] The U.S. officially recommends armed security teams.

Featured Image: Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (via Eosnap.com)

The Significance of U.S. and Chinese Hospital Ship Deployments to Latin America

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has become a regular visitor of Latin American and Caribbean waters as it often carries out humanitarian operations in those regions. Mostly recently, it was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those affected by Hurricane Maria. Furthermore, there is now an extra-regional hospital ship which is also traveling to these areas, namely China’s Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital ship that is operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Given that the governments these two platforms belong to are experiencing growing national security tensions it is necessary to discuss their activities and put this medical diplomacy in its proper geopolitical context.

This commentary is a continuation of an essay that the author drafted for CIMSEC titled “The uses of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet;” and draws from an analysis by CAPT John C. Devlin (ret.) and CDR John J. Devlin titled “Aligning HA/DR Mission Parameters with U.S. Navy Maritime Strategy.”

USNS Comfort

We will not supply an exhaustive list of Comfort’s operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but will rather provide some highlights. Most recently, as previously mentioned, Comfort was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those in need after Hurricane Maria hit the island. The vessel also traveled to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to assist with the relief and support efforts as part of Operation Unified Response.

Additionally, Comfort has been deployed to the region as part of initiatives like the Partnership for the Americas and Operation Continuing Promise. Countries that were visited during these voyages include Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Peru, among others.

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) (U.S. Navy photo)

It is worth noting that Comfort is a large vessel, with a length of 894 feet and a beam of 105 feet, the same as its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) – the two are converted San Clemente-class super tankers. According to the U.S. Navy,  each platform “contain[s] 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants,” along with helicopter decks. Hence, the vessel is able to provide for vast numbers of patients simultaneously with different services. For example, according to the magazine Dialogo, some 19,000 patients were treated by Comfort personnel when the vessel docked in Belize and Guatemala as part of Continuing Promise 2015.

Peace Ark

As for Peace Ark, the Chinese vessel is newer than Comfort, as the former was commissioned in 2008 while the latter was commissioned in 1987 – a two decade difference. The newer vessel reportedly measures 583 feet in length and displaces 10,000 tons fully loaded, and fields a Z-9 helicopter. It also has 300 beds for patients, eight operating rooms and 20 intensive care units. When deployed, its crew is made up of up to 328 plus 100 medical personnel.

In a 2014 article by USNI News, Peace Ark’s Senior Captain Sun Tao declared, “other than internal organ transplant …or any kind of heart disease treatment, [Peace Ark] can pretty much do any kind of treatment.” The article goes on to note that “This includes, perhaps not surprisingly, traditional Chinese medicine. A room onboard Peace Ark is specifically reserved for the ancient therapies of cupping, massage, and acupuncture.” 

Medical workers treat mock wounded people during an exercise aboard the Chinese navy hospital ship Peace Ark Sept. 15, 2010. The ship on Wednesday arrived in the Gulf of Aden to provide medical service for the Chinese escort fleet, as its first overseas medical mission. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Because the Chinese vessel has also been deployed throughout Asia and Africa in the last decade, Peace Ark has traveled significantly fewer times than Comfort to Latin America and the Caribbean. Its first tour was “Harmonious Mission 2011, a 105 day trip in which the platform visited Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. The platform returned to the region in 2015, visiting countries like Barbados, Mexico, and Peru.

Significance

At a local level, the arrivals of these vessels are a welcomed development as they provide medical services that local populations may not be able to obtain otherwise from their local governments. Thus, it probably matters very little to the inhabitants of these areas whether a hospital ship flies either a U.S. or Chinese flag, as long as they provide health services that are needed. Indeed, articles published by Latin American and Caribbean media outlets that reported visits by either Comfort or Peace Ark included generally positive statements by local authorities and patients.

At a geopolitical level, these hospital ships carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HA/DR) that are in line with their respective navy’s overall strategies of aiding populations in need. Moreover, and unsurprisingly, these visits help to boost up the image of the nation deploying the platform in the eyes of the hosting government and population. For example, a 2011 article by Mercopress that discussed Peace Ark’s arrival to Jamaica had the following statement “the mission is part of a global campaign by Beijing to portray its rapidly growing military as a responsible power.” Similarly, the aforementioned CIMSEC article states that HA/DR operations “are a vital part of U.S. Navy maritime strategy by ensuring regional stability through building partner nation capacity and expanding our sphere of influence.”

While an exhaustive analysis of each nation that Comfort visits is beyond the objectives of this commentary, it is worth noting that the countries it regularly visits are those that the U.S. has good relations with, though there has been one notable exception. In 2011 Comfort docked in Manta, Ecuador: this is was a significant visit as then-President Rafael Correa was known for his anti-Washington rhetoric and for having ordered the shutdown of the U.S. military facilities in Ecuador in 2009. Thus, it is somewhat bizarre that President Correa would authorize a (unarmed) U.S. ship to enter his country’s territorial waters. It would be interesting if the government of Venezuela would similarly allow Comfort to dock in Venezuela’s coast, given the problematic situation of the country’s health system. Nevertheless, the tense bilateral relations make it highly unlikely that Caracas would authorize such a visit, or that Washington would offer it in the first place.

Moreover, as far as the author can determine, Peace Ark has only visited countries whose governments recognize the People’s Republic of China and not the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan). It will important to monitor if future Peace Ark deployments include countries that still maintain relations with Taipei, as Beijing may be looking to obtain the recognition of Taiwan’s last remaining allies in the region – the latest nation to switch sides was Panama in mid-2017.

Ultimately, setting aside the geopolitical motivations for the deployment of these vessels, the humanitarian activities that they carry out ensures that both Comfort and Peace Ark will continue to be welcomed across the Latin America and the Caribbean as future harsh climate events will require greater humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

In 2017 alone, regional navies had to carry out major relief operations. Case in point, the Peruvian Navy (Marina de Guerra del Peru) deployed several platforms to the country’s northern regions to provide assistance after torrential rains hit many areas. Similarly, the Colombian Navy (Armada de Colombia) has deployed offshore patrol vessels to transport humanitarian aid to areas hit by floods. Even more, the Honduran Navy (Fuerza Naval) has acquired a multipurpose vessel, Gracias a Dios, to combat maritime drug trafficking and to provide assistance to coastal communities. In other words, humanitarian assistance has been a key component of naval strategies, and its importance will only increase in the near future, meaning that support from allies will remain a necessity for many Latin American and Caribbean states.

Final Thoughts

USNS Comfort and China’s Peace Ark have carried out commendable humanitarian work throughout many coastal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean as their tours in these regions have helped individuals who would otherwise have trouble accessing medical services. These humanitarian assistance deployments will continue to be necessary in both the short- and long-term. As for the geopolitical value of such deployments, they are a non-dangerous and effective example of “soft power” via which both Beijing and Washington utilize to maintain and improve their image in these regions.

Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: This a Chinese hospital ship. Called the Peace Ark, this ship is under the command of the Chinese Navy. (Photo by Jake Burghart)