Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

If Not China, Who? Competing in Africa Through Foreign Military Education

Countering China Topic Week

By Matthew Quintero

“If not China, who?” was a question asked during a class on foreign investment in Africa. The speaker was an African naval officer. The class was equally composed of American and African military officers, and the place was the United States Naval War College (NWC). The African officers all seemed to nod in agreement while the rest of the room shrugged. The author has heard this comment several times before by other exasperated African officers. They were tired of being reminded that China was only interested in the natural resources of their homelands, or that China was building ports, bases, and infrastructure on loans their nations could hardly repay. They were also acutely aware that China’s “no strings attached” development targeted their weak governments and “big man” regimes. It was sometimes difficult for this particular officer to express himself, as English was his third language after Bantu and French. But on this day he made himself very clear, stating:

“All Africans want democracy. We all want to be like the United States. We need help with roads and infrastructure, but our governments cannot work with USAID and the World Bank. Who can the people get help from? If not China, who?”

In his mind, China was helping exactly where it mattered. The question of whether the U.S. or China invests more in Africa was irrelevant. This was a matter of sentiments and perceptions. If competition for the Indian Ocean during peacetime requires building partnerships with African nations, the U.S. will be best served by focusing on people rather than ports or platforms. But as it now trends,  an entire side of the Indian Ocean in the form of east African nations is poised to embrace deeper strategic partnership with China.

Chinese Solutions to African Problems?

Like every other continent, Africa has problems. Africa has the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. By 2035, nearly half of all Africans will inhabit urban areas with poor infrastructure. These cities will struggle to provide their citizens with food, water, shelter, and employment. Africa’s GDP exponentially increased over the past decade due to the international scramble for its rich national resources. Yet with this remarkable rise in GDP, there has not been a corresponding rise in youth employment. Often when foreign investors come to Africa with a need for technical expertise they do not end up hiring African firms. This feeds a cycle of “brain drain” where Africans with scientific and technical degrees leave the continent for better employment elsewhere.

Climate change will also test urban infrastructure. Africa is warming at 1.5 times the global average. Flooding and rising sea level will continually impact the quarter of the continental population that lives within 60 miles of a coast. Climate change is estimated to cost Africa $50 billion per year by 2040. These struggling cities will also have to contend with the burden of displaced peoples.

Civil wars and ethnic struggles continue to foster Boko Haram in the West, Al Shabab in the East, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. In their wake, “populations of concern” whether they be refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced persons, have greatly multiplied in the past decade. Porous land and maritime borders, along with government corruption, facilitate criminal activity. These extremist groups can then draw on public anger at government corruption to recruit and radicalize disenfranchised youth. This resentment is only made worse when police and military forces abuse local populations in their hunt for extremists.

Many of Africa’s woes are symptoms of government inability to react to the changing African environment. Managing the impact of foreign actors, population, climate change, violence, and economic growth will all depend on governance. According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, overall governance across the continent is on a marginally upward trend. The past decade has also seen a wave of democratic reform, in which six nations have voted to limit presidential terms along with improving decentralized governance. Yet, more than a quarter of Africa’s population has never seen a change in leadership. Coincident with this upward trend, African governments show increasing divergence in performance. Some governments are getting better, while others are getting worse.

The realization of the importance of “good governance” in Africa has created a dilemma for donor nations. Traditional sources of development such as the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have safeguards built into their aid that are meant to stop or slow funding should the ruling governments use the aid for patrimonial purposes or in the violation of human rights. For many African nations, World Bank aid only comes with guarantees of democratic reform. Corrupt and oppressive regimes eventually refuse aid or refuse to change in order to qualify for aid. These same regimes often rule where infrastructure and other development projects are needed most. Should good governance or development come first? This chicken and egg dilemma is the topic of much current debate concerning international aid. And into this environment, China steps in.

As China’s need for commodities grows so does its involvement in Africa. China has invested heavily in Africa through the One belt, One Road initiative, and the Forum on Chinese-African Cooperation. With a policy of “noninterference,” Chinese development supposedly comes with “no strings attached,” meaning that China is ready and willing to work with corrupt African governments.

China is very effectively providing a counter-narrative to “western” international institutions. These ideas have most recently manifested in BRICS, the union of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. BRICS members see themselves as leaders of the developing world and have their own agenda and development funds, liberated from restrictions placed on aid by the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and United States. This has worked very well for China. African nations are lining up to receive aid, and for their efforts, many Africans view China favorably.

But it would be unfair to say that Africans do not understand who they are dealing with. African civil society has criticized China for failing to promote good governance and human rights. For the African officers in certain war college classes, while they don’t necessarily like China, they don’t see development through the lens of great power competition. They see infrastructure projects increasing the quality of life within their nations. These projects just happen to be Chinese and not of some other foreign actor.

If not China, who will help? China wins over public opinion when they develop in nations with corrupt or weak governments. But Africa must have governments and societies able to resist both Chinese and U.S. influence, should that influence be malign. Capable democratic governments would be better equipped to handle their own problems and keep foreign actors in check.  That is what the U.S. must strive for. To counter China in Africa, the U.S. must promote resilient, prosperous African states and not spheres of influence.

A Role for Foreign Military Education

In the parlance of Multi-Domain Operations, how does the U.S. compete with China for access to the East African coast? If the problem is governance, what role can the U.S. military possibly play? While debating these questions and government policies, international officers must ponder of the heated debates that occur in American war college classrooms. Americans often speak critically of the U.S. government, but could African officers speak critically of their own governments? Could these conversations ever occur in a Chinese war college?

The U.S. military can best compete with China for influence in Africa through foreign military education. Influence will come when African leaders see that good governance, respect for human rights, and abiding by international law is worth working toward. U.S. military leaders can work directly with African military leadership, specifically in war college settings where uniformed service meets free speech and critical thinking. More African officers training side-by-side with bright U.S. military officers and civilian professors is where the U.S. can reconcile ground truth with strategic aspirations.

Foreign military education focused on governance, accountability, and human rights is a small sliver of Defense Institution Building (DIB). DIB nests within Security Sector Reform (SSR), which falls under Security Sector Assistance (SSA). DIB, SSR, and SSA spheres overlap and funding for subordinate programs is held by both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of State (DoS). Education of this sort currently falls under DoS’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Among other objectives, IMET espouses a “respect for…democracy and…internationally recognized human rights.” IMET receives the least funding of all DoS global SSA efforts, and sub-Saharan Africa only receives 14 percent of funds allocated to Africa. IMET is also susceptible to only going to nations the DoS and DoD can agree on, rather than where it may do the most good. While the DoD is charged with administering IMET, DoS determines the recipients, and Congress controls the funding. DoD must be in “lockstep” with the DoS throughout the annual budget request process to ensure both departments needs are met.

DoD “Regional Centers for Security” (RC) can fulfill functions similar to IMET. The DoD budget for SSA significantly trumps that of DoS, but most of those funds are focused on the tactical training and equipping of partner militaries in their efforts to defeat transnational threats. RCs are the exception as they are DoD funded education tools serving regional combatant commanders. RC roles have expanded from “strengthening civil-military relations in democratic society” to “the promotion of democratic accountability” and “respect for human rights.” In a given year the DoD can train over twice as many foreign military personnel through RCs than DoS can through IMET. These programs are different, yet overlap toward the same objectives, and therein lies opportunity.

Gen. David Rodriguez (front row second from left), commander U.S. Africa Command, visited the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to meet with African nation Navy students who are currently attending the college in resident programs for international officers. (U.S. Navy photo by Mr. John Stone)

If more funding for education is untenable, the Gordian knot of SSA can be solved by more efficiently coordinating the education efforts of DoD and DoS. The DoD Inspector General summarized the situation well in reporting that “Without DIB policy that distinguished the DIB roles of…the Regional Centers or any other office or command conducting DIB-related efforts, a potential for duplication and inefficiency existed.” With the end goal of educating an entire military on international norms and good governance, RCs don’t necessarily target the required audience. IMET is intended for a wide audience of relatively young foreign officials. Conversely, RCs cater to a more selective group of senior foreign officers. However, as DoD initiatives, RCs are less vulnerable than IMET to political leveraging. IMET may be turned off due to political instability or coup attempts within the partner nation, which brings it back to the good governance versus development dilemma.

Foreign military education is of far greater importance and strategic potential than is currently realized, but these are often among the first types of programs to be cut from budgets. If for no other reason, the U.S. must address international military education because China is competing in this space as well.

China’s College of Defense Studies

The author would not have been aware of China’s competition in this space if it weren’t for African counterparts. Their story went something like this, “China has an international program too, but in China they teach us in our languages, we get a diploma, and a considerable stipend.” Every international student the author ever interacted with was extremely grateful for their opportunity to study at a U.S. war college, but this note about language is very important. Most African students at the Naval War College did not arrive with the requisite mastery of English to complete a master’s degree.

When they arrive in the U.S., the first stop for most international students is Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. Here they attend the English language course at the Defense Language Institute. They are put through a rigorous program, but at least for certain African colleagues, most did not meet the standards of the language and writing screener when they checked into the Naval War College. Failing this test ensured that these students would only receive a certificate of completion and not the diploma that most other students received. Even a 25-week course in English may fail to prepare a Swahili speaker for an English-only graduate school accredited by the same source as nearby Harvard and Yale. However, if given enough time to communicate, most of these students had as much if not more to contribute to any conversation about global politics than U.S. students. As most classes were held in a fast-paced seminar setting, one could only wonder if they felt their statements could impact discussions.

Since 2012, China’s College of Defense Studies (CDS) has awarded war college master’s degrees to international students. CDS is a program within the Peoples Liberation Army National Defense University (PLA NDU) that provides a strategic and operational level defense education to international students. It caters to most officer ranks and just like the U.S. war colleges it is a year-long program that ends with a master’s degree. CDS specifically targets sub-Saharan Africa for potential enrollments, and courses are available in Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. And, just like the international programs at the U.S. war colleges, there are cultural tours and spouses clubs. But not everything is the same.

Unlike the U.S. war colleges, the international students are not well integrated with the greater PLA NDU student body. Alumni of CDS have been critical of the physical location of their school, which is in a completely different part of Beijing from the PLA NDU. This distance made interaction with Chinese counterparts very difficult. Alumni also report that much of the course incorporates China’s official view of the U.S. as a “neo-imperialist,” especially in Africa, and there is very little deviation from this official position in their discussion. The relative strength of U.S. international programs is found in these differences since international students in the U.S. are invited to explore the good and bad of American society. Compared to the U.S. system, China’s methods of physical separation and imposed ideology do not offer value when it comes to attracting favorable foreign sentiment. 


Through enhanced professional military education, the U.S. can empower future African military leaders. Much like China’s College of Defense Studies, this U.S. program must also deliver an official party line and never deviate from that line, but that line must be democratic, open-minded, and inclusive.

To counter China in Africa the world needs resilient and empowered African states, not spheres of influence. Resilience is achieved when the African people believe in their governments, and in turn their governments are fair, accountable, and effective. So when an international student asks at an American War College, “If not China, who?” the answer must always be, “you.”

Lieutenant Commander Matthew Quintero, USN, is a Naval Flight Officer, E-2D Mission Commander, and recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own.


Adams, Gordon, and Shoon Murray, editors. Mission Creep. Georgetown University Press, 2014.

“Africa at a Tipping Point – 2017 Forum Report.” Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Accessed July 15, 2019.

“China in Africa.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed July 15, 2019.

“College of Defence Studies – Home.” National Defence University PLA China. Accessed July 15, 2019.

“Defense Language Institute English Language Center – Course Catalog.” – Home. Accessed July 15, 2019.

Hanauer, Larry, Christopher J. Springer, Chaoling Feng, Michael Joseph McNerney, Stuart E. Johnson, Stéphanie Pézard, and Shira Efron. Evaluating the Impact of the Department of Defense Regional Centers for Security Studies. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2014.

McNerney, Michael J., Stuart E. Johnson, Stéphanie Pézard, David Stebbins, Renanah Miles, Angela O’Mahony, Chaoling Feng, and Tim Oliver. Defense Institution Building in Africa: An Assessment. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2016.

Piombo, Jessica, editor. The US Military in Africa: Enhancing Security and Development?. Boulder: First Forum Press, 2015.

Van Oudenaren, John S., and Benjamin E. Fisher. “Foreign Military Education as PLA Soft Power.” Parameters 46, no. 4 (Winter 2017), 105-118.

“Whole of Government Security Cooperation Planning.” Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies. Accessed October 10, 2018.

Featured Image: A Chinese paratrooper coaches his South African peers to use Chinese rifles during a recent tactical training exercise at a military training base in central China’s Hubei Province. (Photo courtesy

Localized Sea Denial: Countering Chinese Aggression in the South China Sea

Countering China Topic Week

By LtCol Roy Draa

“Free and open access to the South and East China Seas is critical to both regional security and international commerce…Through its illegitimate efforts to build and militarize islands in the region, the Chinese Communist Party has aggressively attempted to control these critical waterways and undermined international law. This legislation makes clear that any individual or entity supporting these illegal actions will be held accountable.”1

There can be no doubt that the United States lacks an actionable maritime strategy with respect to the South China Sea, nor does the maritime force exist to effectively counter Chinese expansion in this economically and politically critical space. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission made this clear in its recent report to Congress. While the Navy and Marine Corps have nascent  operating concepts in Littoral Operations in a Maritime Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO),  the United States—given the current fiscal environment—is years away from developing a naval force in size and sophistication to directly contest Chinese militarization of the South China Sea through the implementation of said concepts. Moreover, as Rep. Mike Gallagher of the House Armed Services Committee recently explained, “The Marine Corps’ emerging Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept is a good start, but it needs to go further and focus on how to put capabilities in place persistently rather than moving them in place after a crisis begins.”2 In short, the maritime services have much work to do in refining and translating current operating concepts into a “just in time” stop-gap answer to an increasingly volatile security situation. They must do so in an innovative manner that inspires joint and combined action.

South China Sea Problem Response

A potential military solution to the ongoing and growing problem in the South China Sea lies in the middle ground between directly contesting and accommodating China’s illegal actions. This solution would be part of the “collective pressure” strategy recently recommended by Hal Brands and Zack Cooper. The United States, bringing all elements of national power to bear, would persistently reinforce diplomatic and economic relationships with regional partners (i.e. Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.) while focusing theater security cooperation in the region in order to demonstrate its commitment to offsetting malign Chinese influence in the region. Central to this will be a tactical solution that provides a credible deterrent, and is capable of sea denial in the vicinity of key maritime terrain while functioning as a covering force for the deployment of a larger Combined Joint Task Force (JTF).

In the last six months, the United States Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command Warfighting Club (TWC) has considered this challenge in the context of LOCE/EABO and published its preliminary findings in the July 2019 Marine Corps Gazette. Using commercial, off-the-shelf simulations software, TWC was able to confirm the ineffectiveness of current U.S. Navy and Marine Corps doctrine and tables of organization against a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)-led limited objective attack in the South China Sea.

TWC also ran several sea denial simulations with a specifically designed “Inside Force,” building a Multi-Domain Marine Air Ground Task Force (MD-MAGTF) around a reinforced Marine Infantry Battalion forward deployed on key maritime terrain (the Philippine island of Palawan). The simulated MD-MAGTF was supported by land-based anti-ship missiles, armed (kinetic/electronic warfare) unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and unmanned surface vehicles (USV), as well as forward elements of the Pacific Fleet operating over the horizon in the Leyte Gulf. In each simulation, the MD-MAGTF was able to force Chinese naval and aviation forces to culminate both tactically and logistically with limited friendly losses. Through the employment of swarming tactics, the MD-MAGTF (supported by a larger JTF) overcame threat surface/aviation units, exposing their inability to effectively counter a coordinated UAS and anti-ship missile threat. In certain iterations of the simulation, the MD-MAGTF was able to commence limited strikes on militarized islands in anticipation of the entry of a follow-on combined maritime force.

Implementation of this inside covering force requires several critical actions and enablers:

1. United States Marine Corps remissioning/restructuring to address critical gaps in Mission Essential Tasks (METs), anti-aircraft/anti-ship missiles, and armed UAS capabilities. Service-level training exercises (SLTE) could easily incorporate these problem and potential solutions sets in the near future in live, virtual, and constructive maritime environments with requisite input and support of the Navy and Coast Guard.

Remissioning: As a part of the METL review process, Marine Corps planners must take a hard look at the Navy’s Composite Warfare doctrine and how Sea Denial is not addressed as a MET, with supporting Training and Readiness (T&R) tasks across the MAGTF.

Restructuring: The Marine Corps lacks critical capabilities to execute sea denial. In a fiscally constrained environment, these shortfalls can only be addressed through restructuring and a revision of tables of equipment. The focus should be on air defense, UAS, and artillery battalions.

Training and Exercises: At present, SLTEs are focused on land-based, offensive operations. Exercise design must also look at maritime operations in the littorals in partnership with the Navy and Coast Guard. This necessitates a dedicated plan of action for updating range and landing beaches on San Clemente Island, as well as this training area’s incorporation into SLTE design, whether through live or constructive means.

2. Focused INDO-PACOM partnership with the Philippine Armed Forces, specifically Task Forces 41 and 42, the 4th Naval District, and the 10th Marine Brigade Landing Team. The MD-MAGTF cannot effectively train nor operate without partner nation political and military support. With that in mind, INDO-PACOM must move beyond scripted amphibious bilateral exercises centered on Luzon. INDO-PACOM and III MEF planners must work with the Philippine Armed Forces in order to redirect efforts toward bilateral, free-play exercises in Palawan and the Philippines’ western littorals.

3. Over-the-horizon aviation and logistical support for the MD-MAGTF should be provided by an Expeditionary Strike Group (Task Force 76/31st Marine Expeditionary Unit) operating in the Leyte Gulf. This can easily be incorporated into INDO-PACOM’s current list of joint and combined exercises.

4. On call logistical support from an Expeditionary Transfer Dock vessel capable of over the horizon aerial/surface resupply via UAS/USV. The Navy and Marine Corps have conducted extensive experiments using this class of support ships as an adjunct to the ARG. Further experimentation is required to determine how non-L class ships can be added to or replace those capabilities typically found in a standard ESG. These experiments should focus on what personnel and support equipment capabilities are required to support launch and recovery of ordinance and logistics payloads on UAS/USV in support of a MD-MAGTF.


While the task of sea denial is not explicitly addressed as a current United States Marine Corps MET, this concept is not new and would nest well with the Naval Composite Warfare doctrine. It is a dusting off of the Marine Defense Battalion concept of the inter-war years. Despite less than optimal pre-war logistical support, the effectiveness and sacrifice of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion on Wake Island (in gaining time for U.S. offensive operations in the Pacific) and the TWC study of the problem set serve as a framework for the proposed solution. Based off the initial results of TWC simulations, a modern ground-based, multi-domain capable, inside covering force can act as an integral component of a larger JTF and may serve as an effective maritime counter to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

LtCol Draa is a career infantry officer with 19 years of active duty service in the United States Marine Corps. He is currently stationed at Quantico Marine Corps Base with Training and Education Command (TECOM). He is a charter member of the TECOM Warfighting Club, the Commanding General’s working group that explores and evaluates future warfare concepts, applications in maneuver warfare and mission command in improving professional military education. These are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.




Featured Image: Marines with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, ride aboard a Combat Rubber Raiding Craft during an amphibious raid exercise off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, April 17, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonah Baase)

Dealing with the Dragon

The following article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Philip A. Shull

Winston Churchill famously referred to Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Doubtless, many would agree the same could be said of China. During nearly four decades dealing off and on with China, first as a university teacher and then as a diplomat with the Foreign Agricultural Service, I have seen hundreds of officials and exporters from dozens of countries smack their foreheads in surprise and frustration at Chinese behavior—from unjustly rejected shipments and illogical lurches in negotiating positions to blatant disregard of World Trade Organization commitments.

Since the United States and the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations in 1979, the relationship has swung back and forth between one of glowing expressions of optimism about shared interests in a peaceful and prosperous world, and one of tension and mutual mistrust. Always underpinning hopes for a happy future on the U.S. side was the basic assumption that China would join the international community as a “responsible” player, and that the obvious benefits of a “rules-based” system of trade and diplomacy would inevitably lead China in that direction, to the betterment—and enrichment—of all.

Since Beijing’s accession to the WTO in 2001, trade with China has exploded and the country’s potential as a market has become greater than ever. Yet the promise of China operating as a trusted and conventional member of the international community has not been realized and seems further away than ever. Instead, China’s spectacular economic rise has led to outrageous behavior and unfair competitive practices. China’s frequent and flagrant flouting of WTO rules has resulted in many billions of dollars in lost trade and consternation among U.S. and “like-minded” traders, policymakers and negotiators.

So, what’s going on? Why doesn’t China behave like a “normal” country and play by the rules? Why does Beijing act in ways that undermine the confidence of the global community? Why would China take these self-destructive actions now, precisely when its historic achievements have made it the second-largest economy in the world, and when its new prominence on the world stage has rekindled a desire to be seen as a global leader and to reclaim what it sees as its rightful position as “The Middle Kingdom”? Most importantly, how do we encourage China to be a positive force in a world where its impact is so huge?

Rules as Objective Requirements vs. Optional Tools

It will come as no surprise to diplomats and other international practitioners that China’s actions and reactions—which many Americans find shocking—may be traced in large part to fundamentally different expectations and worldviews. When it comes to global economic competition, those differing views include (a) the role and responsibility of government and (b) the role and purpose of rules and regulations.

While the American ideal of the government’s role in trade is to create and police a transparent, predictable egalitarian system in which participants may compete and strive for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Chinese ideal is very different. Most Chinese I know believe the government not only may, but must take a far more active role. Because government has the responsibility to ensure domestic tranquility and provide prosperity, it is only natural for government at all levels to become active and biased participants in promoting trade.

Similarly, while the American view is that rules and regulations should be equally applied and consistently enforced, Chinese government officials are expected to use rules and regulations as simply another set of policy tools to be used or set aside in the pursuit of broader policy objectives that serve the national interest. The U.S. government and U.S. companies are not the only ones that have had secrets stolen or shipments unjustly rejected. Indeed, when it comes to violating international trade norms, China has been a model of nondiscrimination.

The Chinese are genuinely puzzled by our reverence for “principle” and see it as a weakness to be exploited. I have been in many trade negotiations where the Chinese seek to defend an unjustified trade barrier by quoting from the WTO’s declaration that each country has the right to establish its own regulations. Fundamentally, China rejects and is even confused by a trading system based on “rule of law,” and tries to operate instead according to a “rule by law” of its own making.

Understanding China’s Behavior

The root of China’s interventionist and authoritarian role in trade and all other parts of its economy may be found, among other places, in its searing experience with scarcity, especially food scarcity.

As I learned in a Foreign Service Institute area studies class decades ago, no country in the world has known more starvation than China. The impact of recurring famine was so common and so profound that it became embedded in the Chinese language. The Chinese word for “population” is made up of “person” + “mouth,” and a colloquial way of saying hello is, “Have you eaten yet?” (By contrast, in English we talk in terms of “per capita,” which comes from the Greek “per head.” Most Western language greetings inquire about health and family, perhaps because it was disease rather than starvation that was the greatest threat to life.)

One of the worst famines in China’s history took place after the founding of the PRC in 1949. While estimates vary, it is widely agreed that Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in tens of millions of Chinese dying of hunger from 1959 to 1962. Significantly, this occurred during the formative years of most of China’s current top leadership.

Combined with the powerful weight of history and imperial Confucian tradition, these long years of tremendous suffering and turmoil refreshed and entrenched the conviction in the Communist Party that strong, centralized authority is essential to bringing a higher standard of living for the people, and a bright future for China. Yet as confident as the PRC leadership is that its power and position justify its behavior, many Chinese officials also recognize that China’s continued growth and prosperity depend on constructive economic relations with other countries.

The PRC’s lack of respect for the WTO and other international norms is also because China had no part in their creation, and its experience with international treaties has been far from pleasant. After many centuries as the richest and most advanced country in the world, China experienced invasions and “unequal treaties” in the 19th and 20th centuries. Profoundly humiliating, these experiences still help shape how Chinese leaders approach international trade and security questions—including their aggressive steps to assert China’s centuries-old “Nine-Dash-Line” territorial claims in the South China Sea. Of course, to understand unacceptable behavior is not to excuse it.

I agree with many others who believe that the best way to change China’s behavior is to work together with our allies. Beijing’s modus operandi is to divide and conquer. While the United States is strong enough to go “toe-to-toe” with China, many others are not. China respects power. To the extent we can enlist those countries in our efforts, we will all stand that much taller.

The Great Wall Separating Common Ground

The Chinese term mao dun (literally “spear shield”) is used to describe two irreconcilable differences. It comes from a famous folktale about an endless battle between two warriors—one with a spear that could pierce any shield, and the other with a shield that could stop any sword. Here, drawn from my personal experience, is a sampling of common Chinese practices that run counter to our sense of right and proper international behavior.

Inconsistent application of import regulations. A product rejected at one Chinese port may well be accepted at another. I was meeting with an importer when he got a call about an arriving shipment. “Yes … good … What?! NO! The ship must dock at BERTH SIX! That is where things are arranged!” he exclaimed. Vastly different tariffs may be assessed for the same product, as well. In one case I worked on, one company importing a product with a 44 percent tariff paid zero, while another importer paid 100 percent.

Ignoring their own trade bans and their own rhetoric. For many years in the trade, there was a running joke that because Beijing banned a certain U.S. product, China was only our fourth-largest market for it. During a break in one negotiation in which I had been told yet again how U.S. meat was unsafe and posed a grave risk to Chinese, my opposite number came up to me and said, “Minister Counselor Shull, I want to tell you my wife and I are so happy our son will be going to university in the United States!”

Changing requirements in the middle of a negotiation. When Chinese officials were surprised to learn we could comply with a new technical requirement for an agricultural product, they called a break and then announced a stricter one.

Rejecting shipments that are no longer profitable. If the price of an imported product has dropped between the signing of the contract and the delivery, chances rise that Chinese inspectors will find the shipment does not meet contract specifications and reject it.

Ignoring some laws and regulations to achieve a more important objective. During the peak of the “one-child policy” in the late 1980s, I discovered in my crop travels that most farmers were ignoring it. When I asked a Beijing official in charge of rural policy about this, he said: “Local officials must adapt central government policies to local conditions. The one-child policy in the villages might be very unpopular with the peasants.”

Relationships trump laws and rules. One joint venture executive shared two kernels of wisdom: “The signing of the contract marks the beginning of the negotiations,” and “If the relationship is not good, the contract won’t save you.” (These attitudes toward relationships played out even inside the embassy. In the early days of ICASS, the admin section put out a notice that agencies could no longer share office supplies. When one Foreign Service National was challenged for using another section’s copier, she replied, “Oh, it’s okay, because one of your officers is married to one of our officers, so we are related.”)

Mistrust of “The People.” Even otherwise open-minded Chinese I have spoken with say China is “too big” for democracy. When I spoke with demonstrating pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, some told me: “Well, of course, we can’t let everyone vote. Peasants don’t have education and would vote to raise food prices, and that would be destabilizing.”

Mistrust of “The Market.” During the early introduction of market reforms, one local grain official asked me, “How does the U.S. government set the price of bread?” I explained that our government doesn’t do that; the price floats. “If there are 100 people and 50 loaves of bread, there is one price; and if there are 50 people and 100 loaves of bread, there is another price,” I said. He paused for a moment and then asked, “How does the U.S. government set the price of bread?”

Setting impossible standards. One way China has tried to reconcile millennia of absolute government power over commercial operations with an objective and egalitarian rules-based system of trade and laws is to set standards no one can meet, and then give officials the discretion about whether to enforce them. This practice alone has disrupted billions of dollars in U.S. food and agricultural exports.

Competitive Leadership

One of the most eloquent and insightful statements about international leadership I have seen is in President Dwight David Eisenhower’s farewell address. Delivered in 1961, at a time when the United States was the dominant power in the world, he said: “Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

This truth is a basic lesson Chinese leaders have not yet learned. As long as China behaves with such narrow self-interest, it cannot join—much less displace—the United States as a top global leader. China is still trapped in the mindset that “might makes right” and that being the biggest means being the best.

There is a reason why many countries have prominent boulevards and plazas named Roosevelt, Kennedy and Eisenhower. Global leadership is demonstrated and earned by pursuing policies that work toward the common good, and by honoring commitments and following rules even when they disadvantage the country in a particular case. The reservoir of goodwill and trust the United States has built up over the decades endures, despite occasional missteps. When combined with the quality of our products and trustworthiness of our traders, the United States is well placed to retain its role as a global leader and its tremendous competitive advantage in global trade.

To give credit where it is due, hard work, determination and economic reform policies have transformed China, lifting hundreds of millions out of dire poverty and making it a leading world economy. But without a fundamental change in behavior that makes it less of a riddle, mystery and enigma, China will not become a leader of nations.

Philip A. Shull is a retired FSO who served in China (three times), the Philippines, Argentina, Korea and Hong Kong during 31 years with the Foreign Agricultural Service. He is a retiree representative on the 2017-2019 AFSA Governing Board.

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Naval Deployments, Exercises, and the Geometry of Strategic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific

By David Scott

From March to June 2019 naval diplomacy and an underlying strategic geometry was on show as India, Australia, France, and Japan deployed across and around the Indo-Pacific. All of them were involved in operating with each other, with the U.S., and with other actors in the region like Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in particular was a recurring theme throughout the exercises.

Indian Deployments

India carried out significant deployments in the Indian Ocean, in the shape of the AUSINDEX exercises with Australia in April and the VARUNA exercises with France in May. Both of these exercises were conducted with greater Indian strength amid implicit concerns over China.

The AUSINDEX exercise was conducted with Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 Group and took place from 2–16 April. The exercises were described by the Indian Navy as “advanced warship drills.” Organized by the Eastern Fleet, the Indian Navy was represented by the multi-role destroyer INS Ranvijay, the multi-role stealth frigate INS Sahyadri, the missile corvette INS Kora, the ASW corvette INS Kiltan, and the submarine INS Sindhukirti. In addition, the Indian Navy sent Dornier maritime patrol aircraft, Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers, and P-8I ASW aircraft.

As these bilateral exercises with Australia were taking place in the Bay of Bengal, other bilateral exercises were being conducted elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. On 15 April, anti-submarine exercises were also carried out near Diego Garcia between an Indian P-8I ASW aircraft, based at Indian Naval Station Rajali in southern India, a U.S. P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance. This was the first ASW drill since India and the U.S. signed the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in September 2018. In turn, on 24 April, two Indian Navy P-8I ASW aircraft and an Indian submarine carried out anti-submarine drills in the Arabian Sea with two Japanese P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. This marks the third iteration of the bilateral Indo-Japanese ASW exercise.

The VARUNA exercises with France’s Task Force 473 were conducted in two phases. Phase 1, from 1–10 May in the Arabian Sea, involved India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, the destroyer INS Mumbai, the frigate INS Tarkash, the submarine INS Shankul, and the fleet tanker INS Deepakh carrying out various exercises, including anti-submarine drills. This was the largest ever VARUNA exercise. Phase 2 from 22–25 May witnessed another Indian submarine, INS Kalvari, carrying out submarines drills with a French submarine off the Djibouti coast by the Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

During this time the guided-missile destroyer, INS Kolkata and the replenishment ship INS Shakti were dispatched for eastern duties from April to May 2019. Various cooperative initiatives were pursued. They moored from 21–23  April at Qingdao for China’s International Naval Review, and the Indian Navy was clear that “the visit of Indian Navy’s most potent destroyer and versatile fleet support ship showcases India’s prowess, reach and sustainability.” From Qingdao the Indian ships went to Busan for an extended friendly port call and discussions with the South Korean Navy from 28–30 April, before undertaking cooperative ADMM-Plus maritime exercises off South Korea from 1–2 May and then in the South China Sea from 9–12 May. On its completion, the Indian vessels went down to Singapore to attend the closing ceremony of the ADMM-Plus exercises on 14 May and participate (alongside HMAS Canberra) in the International Maritime Defense Expo 2019 in Singapore from 16–18 May.

However, more controversial deployments were witnessed in the South China Sea by INS Kolkata and INS Shakti. Firstly, they carried out bilateral maritime exercise with the Vietnamese Navy from 13–16 April at Cam Ranh Bay, a “significant step” for the Indian Navy; the first having been initiated in 2018. Secondly, on returning to the South China Sea they participated in a week-long “Group Sail” including formation maneuvering drills from 3-9 May with Japan’s Indo-Pacific Deployment (IPD19) carrier group, the U.S., and the Philippine navies. Thirdly, from 19–22 May the two Indian vessels, joined by an Indian P-8l long range surveillance plane, carried out anti-submarine and anti-air SIMBEX exercises in the South China Sea with the Singaporean Navy and Air Force, with the Indian Navy keen to emphasize that “for SIMBEX 2019, the IN has deployed its finest assets.”

Indian Navy destroyer INS Kolkata (Indian Navy photo)

Australian Deployments

Australia’s centerpiece deployment formation known as Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPD19), now in its third iteration, was conducted from February to May 2019. Defense Minister Christopher Pyne explained that “in 2019, the focus of Indo-Pacific Endeavour will be the Indian Ocean, in recognition of the Indian Ocean region’s rapid economic transformations and increasing strategic competition” – a reference to the growing presence of China, and of growing India-China and U.S.-China friction. The political stress given by Pyne was significant, that “engagement with India – a key strategic partner for Australia – will be the cornerstone of Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019.”

The naval group was led by Australia’s flagship, the helicopter landing carrier HMAS Canberra; supported by the guided missile frigate HMAS Newcastle, the anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate HMAS Parramatta, and the resupply tanker HMAS Success. The carrier group’s first port of call was Sri Lanka on 22 March, where the Canberra and Newcastle went to Colombo and the Parramatta and Success went to Tricalomone. This was Australia’s biggest ever naval visit to Sri Lanka, and perhaps represented a tacit welcome to Sri Lanka’s switch from its overtly pro-China stance under former President Raja Rajapaksa.

Australia’s eyes then turned to India, and the AUSINDEX 2019 exercise running from 2–16 April. This was the third such bilateral exercise between Australia and India, the largest ever, and which involved ASW drills for the first time. The IPE group was joined by the submarine HMAS Collins and an Australian P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. After the event, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Harinder Sidhu considered AUSINDEX 2019 to have been “a landmark moment in our relationship […] building the Australia-India Partnership in the Indo-Pacific.” Meanwhile HMAS Toowoomba was detailed for a six-day visit from 10–15 April to Chennai, the navy base headquarters of India’s Southern Command.

Subsequently, from 16–22 April, HMAS Toowoomba and the submarine HMAS Collins took part in quadrilateral exercises in the Bay of Bengal involving the French Task Force 473 headed by their aircraft carrier the FS Charles de Gaulle, the Japanese Indo-Pacific Deployment 2019 group lead by their helicopter carrier JS Izumo, and also featured the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence.

On 21 April, the Indo-Pacific Endeavour units reached Malaysia; HMAS Canberra and Newcastle visiting Port Klang, while HMAS Success visited Langkawi and then Port Klang. From 27–30 April HMAS Canberra and HMAS Newcastle paid supportive port calls to Phuket in Thailand, demonstrating humanitarian assistance capabilities. A small contingent of U.S. Marines embarked on the Canberra for the rest of the journey.

Australian units were then involved in the South China Sea, but from 13–16 May, HMAS Canberra was moored at Singapore, on show for the biannual International Maritime Defense Expo 2019 organized by the Singaporean Navy. Subsequently, on 18 May HMAS Canberra and Newcastle arrived at Jakarta to carry out further humanitarian work. HMAS Canberra’s return to Darwin, on the north Australian coast on 26 May marked the formal end of the IPE deployment, which Defense Minister Linda Reynolds was quick to emphasize that this was “Australia’s flagship maritime activity” at the Shangri La Dialogue on June 2.

In the South China Sea, the participation of HMAS Success in the replenishment of other vessels involved in the multinational ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) naval training exercise phase held in the Gulf of Thailand in early May was uncontroversial. More controversial was the deployment to Vietnam. From 7–10 May, HMAS Canberra and HMAS Newcastle docked in Cam Ranh, conducting a series of engagement activities and training exercises with Vietnamese counterparts. This was the first appearance of Vietnam on Australia’s IPE itineraries. In the South China Sea, both HMAS Canberra and Parramatta were trailed by Chinese warships, demanding prior notification of Australian transit (which Australia refuses to give as a matter of principle) with observers recording laser flashing from accompanying Chinese fishing vessels disrupting helicopter operations being carried out by HMAS Canberra. It was significant that on 20 May, returning from sanctions patrolling against North Korea in the East China Sea, the guided missile frigate HMAS Melbourne, along with the American guided-missile destroyer USS Preble, conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Commander Joint Task Force 661 Air Commodore Richard Owen, AM is greeted by Major Thang from the Vietnamese People’s Army on the arrival of HMAS Canberra into Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, during Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019. (CPL Kylie Gibson, Australian Department of Defence)

Coming over from the IPE19 task force, HMAS Parramatta was then joined by HMAS Melbourne and the submarine HMAS Farncomb to participate in the newly formed  PACIFIC VANGUARD exercises, the first of its kind, held from 22–28 May off Guam with U.S., Japanese, and South Korean naval units. These involved live fire exercises, anti-air operations, and ASW drills. The Australian Navy fleet commander Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead stated that “Exercise Pacific Vanguard involved four likeminded regional partners working together to support our shared views of a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

French Deployments

French Indo-Pacific deployments focused mostly around the Task Force 473 carrying out Operation Clemenceau across the Northern Indian Ocean and South China Sea from April to May. In terms of assets, Task Force 473 is France’s leading power projection battle group. The 2019 group core was made up of the Charles De Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the anti-air frigate FS Forbin, and the anti-submarine frigate FS Latouche-Tréville, joined by other French elements (and other nations) at various points. In terms of purpose, on 11 March France stated that “boasting assets related to freedom of navigation, the TF 473 is a politico-military tool, which will deploy in areas of strategic interest, from the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific.”

The Task Force was preceded from March–April by the Jeanne d’Arc Mission, comprising France’s second most powerful asset, the helicopter carrier FS Tonnerre, accompanied by the frigate FS La Fayette, which deployed down the African littoral from Djibouti to South Africa. President Macron had also warned about Chinese influence in the region during his own visit to Djibouti in March 2019, as he also had in his visit to New Caledonia in May 2018. Elsewhere, FS Vendémiaire’s transit of the Taiwan Strait on 6 April, on its way from New Caledonia to take part with the U.S. and Japanese navies in sanctions enforcement in the East China Sea against North Korea, attracted immediate Chinese ire, and the disinvitation of the Vendémiaire from attending China’s International Navy Review held at Qingdao on 23 April.

Escorted by the Australian frigate HMAS Ballarat, the French task force moved across the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea, where it was joined by the multi-mission frigate FS Provence. There, on 25 April drills were carried out off the coast of Oman with the Canadian frigate HMCS Regina and tanker HMCS Asterix.

From 1–10 May, the Task Force was joined by the nuclear attack submarine FS Amethyste, to carry out VARUNA exercises with India in the Arabian Sea, off Goa and Karwar, which included live fire, anti-air, and ASW drills. This represented the largest ever France-India exercise, with each side fielding aircraft carrier battle groups. FS Amethyste then re-deployed westward to carry out submarine operations with India off the Djibouti coast, by the Bab el-Mandeb choke point between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Meanwhile the French carrier group had gone further eastward to the Bay of Bengal. First, the group escorts FS Forbin, FS Marne, FS Latouche-Treville, and FS Provence carried out ASW drills with the American submarine USS Hawaii on 14 May. Then from 16–22 May, substantive quadrilateral LA PEROUSE exercises, including live fire drills, were conducted by the whole Task Force Group with units from Australia, Japan, and the United States. Context for such operations were provided on 29 by the Ministry of Defense’s release of its paper France’s Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which argued that with such deployments “France seeks to cement its posture as a regional power of the Indo-Pacific.”

FS Forbin was dispatched to Vietnam from 28 May to 3 June, which included air defense exercises with the Vietnamese Navy. Simultaneously, the main group was dispatched from 28 May to 3 June to Singapore. On 3 June anti-submarine and anti-air exercises were carried out with the Singaporean Navy and Air Force. Further joint drills were carried out between Task Force 473 (without the Forbin) and the American amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Andaman Sea from 7–9 June, as the Task Group was returning back from Singapore via Goa and then Djibouti.

This Singapore sojourn overlapped with the Shangri-La Dialogue where France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly emphasized the role of the Task Force Group as a “mighty instrument of power projection” whose exercises with India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. had exemplified the “emergence of an Indo-Pacific axis.” On board the Charles de Gaulle, Parly told the crew “you affirm our status as a maritime power” and “your presence in Singapore contributes to our influence in this key region.”

Japanese Deployments

Japan’s centerpiece deployment was its Indo-Pacific Deployment 2019 (IPD19) from 30 April to 10 July. The Japanese Navy (the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force or JMSDF) stated its mission as being to “conduct joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific region with the navies and other armed forces of other countries to improve its tactical capabilities and strengthen its coordination with foreign forces.” This was the third iteration, following the previous helicopter carrier-led Indo-South East Asia Deployment (ISEAD) in 2017 and 2018. The 2019 IPD19 deployment centered on the helicopter carrier JS Izumo, accompanied by the destroyer JS Murasame. Both the Izumo and Kaga helicopter carriers are set for conversion to fixed wing F-35B aircraft operations, a conversion driven in part by China’s own aircraft carrier program.

The IPD19 had been immediately preceded on 24 April with two Japanese P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft carrying out ASW drills with two Indian Navy P-8I Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance (LRMR) ASW aircraft and an Indian submarine in the Arabian Sea. Southward, the destroyer JS Samidare carried out exercises in the Maldives on 24 April.

With regard to the IPD19 force, the Izumo and Murasame had originally planned joining the first phase of the ADMM-Plus exercises being hosted by South Korea on 1-2 May, as did India. However, the downturn in relations with South Korea led to Japan deciding to not join in the ADMM-Plus exercise. Instead from 1-7 May, the Japanese carrier group conducted drills for a week in the South China Sea with the U.S. (USS William P Lawrence), Indian (the destroyer INS Kolkata and the tanker INS Shakti) and Philippine (BRP Andres Bonifacio) navies. From 9–12 May the Japanese group was involved in Phase 2 of the ADMM-Plus exercises in the Gulf of Thailand, arriving in Singapore on the 13 May. Simultaneously, JS Samidare arrived in Manila for a three-day goodwill visit from 17–20 May.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 9, 2019) Ships from ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)-Plus navies sail in formation during ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Field Training Exercise 2019. (Photo courtesy of Singapore Ministry of Defence)

Transiting Singapore, on 18 May the IPD group carried out exercises with the American guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence in the Strait of Malacca. The Japanese group then joined up with the French Task Force 473, to carry out quadrilateral exercises from 19–22 May which also involved Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 flotilla (the frigate HMAS Toowoomba and the submarine HMAS Collins) and America’s USS William P. Lawrence. Rear Admiral Hiroshi Egawa commented that “working with high-end navies, this exercise will contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region”; while Japan’s Ministry of Defense argued that the navy “continues to strengthen further cooperation with U.S., France and Australia based on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.” In the wake of the quadrilateral format, from 23–24 May the Japanese group carried out further bilateral operations with India’s stealth frigate INS Sahyadri, including tactical maneuvers and ASW exercises. This was followed by friendly port calls to Malaysia from 26–29 May.

Further out in the Western Pacific, the Japanese Navy dispatched JS Ariake and JS Asahi to participate in the PACIFIC VANGUARD exercises held off Guam from 22–28 May with U.S., Australian and South Korean units. Japanese participation with South Korean units was a useful umbrella to get over their ongoing bilateral coolness.

Pointed action was manifest from 10–12 June as the Izumo and Murasame were joined by another Japanese destroyer, JS Akebono, in drills in the South China Sea with the U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan. Then the Izumo and Akebono conducted OPERATION KADEX interoperatibility drills from 13–15 June with Canada’s HMCS Regina and MV Asterix. It can be noted that these Canadian units had earlier exercised with the French Task force 473 in the Arabian Sea. Subsequently from 15–17 June, the Izumo and Murasame were moored at Cam Ranh Bay, a visit concluded by bilateral exercising with the Vietnamese Navy on 17 June. This extended South China Sea itinerary was concluded with the arrival of the IzumoMurasame, and Akebono on 23 June at Muara port in Brunei, and on 30 June at Subic Bay in the Philippines, complete with further bilateral drills. The State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kentaro Sonoura was clear that these South China Sea drills were there to foster “stable and secure trade and passage in the Indo-Pacific region which are precisely the core principles of Japan’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Overall Significance

The strategic geometry represented in these varied naval deployments was flexible, reflecting the varied bilateral networking and interrelated multilateralism that has come to predominate in the Indo-Pacific as countries respond to the growing presence and challenge of China across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. New quadrilateral formats emerged across the Indo-Pacific from the various deployments in the shape of the France-Australia-Japan-U.S. drills in the Bay of Bengal, the Japan-India-U.S.-Philippine drills in the South China Sea, and the Australia-Japan-U.S.-South Korea drills in the Western Pacific. The U.S. “hubs and spoke” containment system has been replaced by a more diffuse crisscrossing “network” of arrangements that tacitly have China in mind.

David Scott is an Indo-Pacific analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, and regular lecturer at the NATO Defense College. A prolific writer on maritime geopolitics, he can be contacted at

Featured Image: A Task Group consisting of four ships and a submarine from the Royal Australian Navy, enhanced by a Royal Australian Air Force maritime patrol aircraft, are visiting India for AUSINDEX 2019, the major, bilateral Navy-to-Navy exchange between Australia and India. (Photo by: LSIS Steven Thomson, Australian Ministry of Defence)