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
A three-ship training flotilla belonging to the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan visited Central American and Caribbean states as Taipei strives to maintain close ties with regional allies. Taiwan regularly sends high-ranking defense officials and flotillas as part of goodwill initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, these initiatives will be even more important as the Dominican Republic announced at the end of April that it would sever relations with Taiwan and establish them with the People’s Republic of China.
Friendship Flotilla 2018
Taiwan’s friendship flotilla No. 107 (Flotilla de la Amistad in Spanish), is comprised of “Pan Shi, a modern and sleek Fast Combat Support Ship, Pan Chao, an older, U.S.-designed frigate, and Kuen Wing, a more recent, French-made stealth frigate,” according to AFP. There are around 800 personnel on board in total, including an unspecified number of cadets from the ROC Naval Academy who are utilizing the voyage to learn how to operate in the high seas.
The flotilla commenced its training voyage by first visiting the Marshall Islands; while in the Western Hemisphere it visited the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The local and Taiwanese media have covered the visit during each port call. For example, the Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diariohas noted that the last time a Taiwanese flotilla visited the Central American country was in 2016 while other outlets mentioned that this is the sixth time that such a visit has occurred.
Meanwhile the Minister of Defense of El Salvador, Munguía Payés, reportedly praised bilateral relations, stating that “the armed forces of El Salvador and of Taiwan … are and will always be an important factor not only when it comes to the internal security of our respective nations but also supporters of development and guarantors of democracy.”
Taiwan, China, and Latin America
Even with recent advances in naval technology and the ability to resupply at sea, it is still necessary for vessels traveling far from their nation’s territorial waters to be allowed to dock at friendly ports and conduct exercises with friendly naval forces from other nations. The problem is that Taiwan is running out of ports in the Western Hemisphere to dock its naval platforms and engage in constructive naval initiatives with friendly forces as regional governments switch from recognizing Taipei to Beijing. As previously mentioned the DR switched at the end of April, Panama switched in 2017, while Costa Rica did the same a decade ago, in 2007. The DR’s switch is somewhat embarrassing to Taipei, as the flotilla docked in Santo Domingo in mid-April, only to have the Dominican government switch to Beijing two weeks later.
While Beijing is gaining new allies in the Western Hemisphere, Chinese naval presence in Latin America and the Caribbean is pretty limited: a destroyer Shijiazhuangand the supply ship Hongzehu visited Chile in 2009; four years later, destroyer Lanzhou and frigate Liuzhou visited Argentina in 2013. Additionally, China’s Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital ship that is operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has visited the Western Hemisphere as part of “Harmonious Mission 2011” and “Harmonious Mission 2015.” Nevertheless, if more regional governments recognize Beijing (and there are constant rumors about which will be the next country to do so), and as Beijing seeks to project its naval presence well past its borders, there may be a larger Chinese naval presence in the Western Hemisphere in the coming years.
While the recent visit of a Taiwanese flotilla will not affect Central American or Caribbean geopolitics, its use is more symbolic, as it demonstrates that the Asian nation strives to maintain diplomatic relations with its remaining friends in the Western Hemisphere. Taiwan’s naval diplomacy, unlike similar initiatives by other countries, is not so much about maintaining cordial defense relations, but maintaining diplomatic relations. Countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua still recognize Taiwan, but the recent loss of DR, which occurred right after the flotilla visited the country, is an example that such initiatives, defense and others, must be constant.
W. 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.
Featured Image: Nicaraguan students wave Taiwanese flags to welcome three Taiwanese Navy warships at Corinto port, some 149km north-west of Managua, on April 9, 2018. (Photo: AFP)
Two years ago, President Xi Jinping announced the reorganization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the implementation is gaining momentum. The changes, which go far beyond administrative restructuring and equipment modernization, will make the world’s most massive fighting force more modern and flexible. The reorganization gives Xi and his team an opportunity to purge political opponents within the military and address many of the problems that have plagued the military for decades.
During his speech to the National People Congress in 2012, Hu Jintao announced the modernization of the PLA, seeking a modern armed force, able to “win local wars underinformationized/hi-tech conditions.” Under Xi Jinping, these modernizations began to materialize. The first noticeable change was the restoration of political officers in the PLA, a clear sign of turbulent relations between the new leadership and the generals. Next, Xi announceda wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign. Most notably, former deputy chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Generals Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong, were among those accused of corruption. Their fate was settled in 2016 – Xu died of cancer while under arrest and Guo was sentenced to life in prison.
With the backdrop of the anti-corruption campaign, a real military reform was afoot – in 2014, a reorganization of the command structure was announced. The number of military regions was reduced from 7 to 5, and a joint operation command was established to coordinate actions of ground, air, and naval forces in each area. There was also an increase in the role of the Air Force and Navy, both of which are more prominent in a state with global ambitions as opposed to an Army-dominated system that has long characterized China’s military. In celebration of the 70th anniversary of World War II, Xi Jinpingannounced the reduction of the PLA by 300,000 soldiers to 2 million standing troops. On the last day of 2015, amid overall personnel reduction, new military branches were established – the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force.
2016 brought about important, but less flashy, changes. Specifically, the creation of a DARPA-equivalent research lab was announced in March 2016. The agency was operational in July 2017. In April 2016, military education reform was announced and, as a result, departments related to land forces reduced the number of freshmen by 24 percent and the departments of logistics and support shrunk by 45 percent. Conversely, the number of students admitted to courses related to aviation, Navy, and missile technologies was increased by 14 percent. An increase of 16 percent was planned for departments related to space technologies, radars, and drones.
Further, closer cooperation between universities and training units was also announced. This was the result of increasingly louder complaints that soldiers cannot take full advantage of the increasingly modern equipment. Overcoming this gap is now considered one of the most critical tasks to the PLA. Xi Jinping stressed several times a great need for officers who have a broad knowledge of advanced technologies. Most concerning is the shortage of IT specialists. Like many other countries, Chinese IT companies offer much better compensation and work conditions, robbing the military of talent. Higher military income and attractive career paths are being implemented to prevent the talent bleed. Further, to attract talented college graduates, the draft was aligned with the college graduation season.
In September 2016, the activation of the Joint Logistics Support Force was announced. This step aims to improve the decentralized PLA logistics system. Within each of the military regions, a Regional Joint Logistics Support Center was established with headquarters in Wuxi, Guilin, Xining, Shenyang, and Zhengzhou. Of note, the Joint Logistics Support Force is not subordinate to the PLA HQ, but to the Central Military Commission.
Starting in 2017, even more radical changes were made. In mid-March, a five-fold increase in the size of the Marine Corps was announced. The force now numbers 20,000 soldiers organized in two brigades, but the goal is as many as 100,000 troops in six brigades. The greatly expanded Marine Corps is dedicated primarily to the protection of the maritime thread of the One Belt, One Road, and defense of the overseas interests of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese Marines will be permanently stationed in Gwadar, Pakistan, and in Djibouti. The African garrison is rumored to have as many as 10,000 soldiers. It is important to mention that, according to media sources, the first Type 075 amphibious assault ship was laid down in March 2017. Specifics on the ship design and numbers are still unknown. The Chinese Admiralty wanted LHDs similar to the American WASP-class but opted for a smaller ship – based on the French Mistral-class – due to financial constraints. Recent information suggests that “something in between” has been chosen.
Amphibious assault ships are necessary if China wants “American style” power-projection capability. The Chinese are well aware of the unique requirements of the Marines, and outdated PLAN Marine Corps equipment is discussed openly. The force has spent years preparing for an invasion of Taiwan and operations in the nearby waters of South and East China Seas requires a thorough reorganization.
The marine brigades of the PLAN are not the only amphibious assault units of the PLA. There are also four amphibious mechanized infantry divisions (AMID) that are part of the PLA Ground Force. These units are essentially mechanized divisions equipped with more amphibious vehicles and river crossing equipment. In effect, the divisions are more suited to crossing rivers and lakes than in taking part in actual seaborne operations. Under the reorganization of the PLAN Marines Corps, the future of AMID is unclear.
Around the same time that the PLAN Marine Corps reports emerged, PLA Ground Force restricting was also announced. From 1949 through the mid-1980s, the Ground Force was organized into 70 corps. Then, during one of the previous reorganizations, the number was halved and later reduced to 24. At the same time, the corps were renamed “group armies.” During subsequent reductions in the 1990s and 2009, their number fell to 21 and, eventually, to 18 corps. Now, the group armies are returning to corps and further decreased in number to 13. This change, however, has a deeper meaning. Specifically, the 16th and 47th Group Armies will be disbanded. Both are large units and were closely linked to the aforementioned Generals Xu and Guo. According to social media, not all soldiers from disestablished units will leave the military – some may be reassigned, even to the Air Force, Navy or Rocket Force. Some of the other units that will be disbanded are the 14th, 20th, 27th and 40th group armies.
In April 2017, further information was officially disclosed by the Ministry of Defense, when it revealed an even more drastic reorganization. The entire PLA will be divided into 84 corps that will comprise all military branches, as well as garrisons, reserves, military academies, and research units. This means an interruption of historical continuity, cultivated mainly in the Ground Force, in which new army corps will have numbered from 71 to 83. Most of them will be located in northern and western China, opposite the U.S. forces and Japan, but also Russia and North Korea.
Airborne units have also undergone serious organizational changes. Until 2017, there had been three airborne divisions (43rd, 44th, and 45th), organized into the 15th Airborne Corps, subordinate to the PLAAF. Each division consisted of two airborne regiments, a special forces group, an air transport regiment, and a helicopter group. After the recent reorganization, the PLA Airborne Corps was created, and separate divisions were disbanded. Airborne regiments were reclassified as brigades (127th, 128th, 130th, 131st, 133rd, and 134th), and special forces and transport groups were organized into separate brigades. Confusingly, signal, chemical and engineering troops have been assigned into a single brigade. This solution is perceived as the next step in the development of a robust Chinese airborne force and their transformation from light troops into heavily armed units modeled after Russian paratroops.
The large-scale reorganization of the armed forces has also brought about some unexpected personnel problems. Public protests by active duty servicemen and veterans have become common, and the primary cause of dissatisfaction is not only the reduction of posts. Unlike previous cuts, the severance pay program and employment efforts for former military personnel failed. In fact, pay and military pensions sometimes arrived late or in reduced sum. Veterans are particularly embittered, and they accuse the government of ignoring their needs and problems. In October 2017, more than 1,000 vets protested at the Ministry of Defense singing military songs and waving party flags. Police and security officers were confused and surrounded the protesters with buses and police vehicles. On October 11, another protest lasted late into the night, resulting in several arrests. According to human rights organizations, protests are not rare, with over 50 occurring in 2016 alone. As a result, a special Ministry of Veterans Affairs was established in March 2018. The new institution will help veterans to find jobs, lodging, and ensuring their status of “revered members of society.”
A reorganization of a structure as big and complex as the PLA is never an easy task and it is compounded by resistance from active and veteran military personnel. Unlike the USSR, there is no clear division between party, military, and security force. Further, the military has always had a strong influence on the state apparatus. During his second term, Hu Jintao warned about the negative consequences of this system. Despite silencing the most hostile officers whose status and influence were endangered by the reform, protests by lower ranks and veterans show that the Communist Party of China has to be very careful. From the military point of view, the reform aims to convert the force designed primarily to defend Chinese territory into one prepared for expeditionary operations.
Pawel Behrendt is a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vienna. He is an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center and is the deputy chief-editor of konflikty.pl. Find him on Twitter @pawel_behrendt.
Last month, CIMSEC published an article titled “A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Part 1” highlighting three troubling developments that oblige the United States to further encourage and also challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. The article noted Beijing trying to convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term of “near-arctic state”; to fulfill its nationalistic promise to the Chinese people and reclaim the disputed and contested South China Sea (SCS) from ancient times; and to expand its “sharp power” activities across the globe.
A month later, these undertakings continue to mature and advance apace. China considers legislation seemingly to protect the environment in Antarctica, but really to safeguard its growing interests in the southernmost continent. Beijing takes more active measures to reassert its sovereignty and preserve its territorial integrity in the SCS. China restructures its public diplomacy (and influence operations) apparatus to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad.
Left unchallenged and unhindered, Beijing may become even more emboldened and determined to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence. If so, Washington would be prudent to consider that it is much easier to slow or stop a large boulder rolling down a steep hill near the top than wait until it gains speed and momentum near the bottom.
A leading Chinese international maritime law expert recently called for exigent legislation to promote and safeguard China’s increasing activities and growing interests in Antarctica, particularly as they relate to scientific research, tourism, and environmental protection. China spends more than any other Antarctic state on infrastructure such as bases and icebreakers. Beijing maintains three bases (Great Wall, Zhongshan, and Kunlun) on the southernmost continent. Chinese polar research icebreakers make annual scientific research expeditions and periodic re-supply trips to those bases. And last year, the number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica grew to 5,300 from just 100 13 years ago. Altogether, the expanding presence, operations, and activities are embraced by Beijing as ways and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s evolving Antarctic resource and governance rights.
The legislative clarion call is not new. Beijing has been deliberately and incrementally paving the way for Antarctic legislation with government-sponsored studies dating back to the 1990s. A draft law has been listed on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ (NPC) legislative agenda since last year, while the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) – the principal governmental body overseeing Antarctic issues – has drafted departmental rules to regulate Chinese activities on the continent since 2007. The latest of these rules – Environmental Protection Regulation on Activities in Antarctica – was issued last February. Contained therein, Beijing benevolently asserts that “with these rules, the SOA has been organizing activities in the southernmost continent in strict accordance with the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty, which provides comprehensive protection for the Antarctic environment.” In other words, a law with specific criminal and civil liabilities is urgently needed to keep visitors from unlawful actions, which may damage the fragile Antarctic eco-system.
Beijing’s actions in Antarctica should be linked and taken in context with other actions in the Arctic. For years, China has pushed to be designated a member of the Arctic Council, whose membership is restricted to nations bordering the Arctic. In 2013, Beijing finally gained observer status, and continues to seek membership to the very exclusive and potentially lucrative club.
On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative (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 natural resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism. Of note, 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.
On March 17, Beijing announced the building of its first polar expedition cruise ship, as China looks to extend the BRI into the Arctic through shipping lanes opened up by global warming. Beijing and Helsinki have agreed to build a double-acting polar research vessel equipped with icebreaking capabilities, usable while the vessel is moving forward and backward. The new vessel is expected to be built in the Shanghai Shipyard later this year.
Greenland is actively courting Chinese investors to help expand three extant airports, raising concerns in Copenhagen. Chinese interest in Greenland comes after Beijing in late January laid out its strategic plan to establish the Polar Silk Road by developing shipping lanes and promoting infrastructure in the Arctic.
Working with Moscow, Beijing is now exporting liquefied natural gas using the Northern Sea Route through Arctic waters and has stepped up monitoring of oceanographic conditions in the Far North from Svalbard, a Norwegian island that is open to international scientific research.
Reasserting Sovereignty in the South “China” Sea
On March 23, USS Mustin (DDG-89) purportedly conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it reportedly passed within 12nm of Mischief Reef – one of seven occupied geographic features in the Spratly archipelago that China has transformed into a large military outpost in a bid to dominate the contested surrounding waters. If so, this may have been the second U.S. FONOP of the year and the sixth U.S. naval operation in the last 10 months to challenge Beijing’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) responded the next day with mostly the same recycled talking points from past U.S. FONOPs, but with some noteworthy additions (bolded below) and in a noticeably more assertive and harsher tone:
“The United States has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, undermined peace, security, and order of the relevant waters, and put in jeopardy the facilities and personnel on the Chinese islands, and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation. China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) and its adjacent waters. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under international law, but firmly opposes any country or person undermining the sovereignty and security of littoral countries under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation and overflight. At present, the situation in the SCS has been improving thanks to the concerted efforts of China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. Under such circumstance, the United States, who deliberately stirs up troubles and creates tension in the SCS to disrupt peace and stability there, is running against the will of regional countries who aspire for stability, cooperation, and development, and thus unpopular at all. The Chinese side strongly urges the U.S. side to immediately stop provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security and faithfully respect the regional countries’ concerted efforts to uphold peace and stability in the SCS. The Chinese side will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security and safeguard peace and stability in the SCS.”
The notable extras were remarks characterizing the United States as an uninvited and destabilizing interloper to the region and ASEAN interests; and statements warning Washington that FONOPs and the increased naval presence in the SCS may no longer be tolerated as evidenced by assertive language more forceful than in the past – “take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security” vice the previous softer language of “take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty.” The new language and tone is in step with President Xi Jinping’s recent policy remarks on sovereignty and territorial integrity at the 13th NPC – “The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction: not one single inch of our land will be or can be seceded from China.”
The first add-on was intended for the other ASEAN members, shaping and influencing the ongoing negotiations of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. Beijing will undoubtedly try to insert favorable language into the CoC, like excluding non-ASEAN states from the SCS and regulating military activities in the SCS. The latter is consistent with Chinese comments made at the 54th Munich Security Conference – “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.” The second add-on was meant for Washington, signaling Beijing’s intent to increasingly challenge greater American naval presence and operations in their perceived home waters.
Chinese media largely echoed the MFA’s rhetoric, and further asserted that Washington had deliberately timed the FONOP to challenge Beijing on the same day China decided to hit back at America’s punitive tariffs. The destabilizing FONOP was a calculated gesture and part of a U.S. combined economic and military pressure campaign against China.
In a press conference “five days after” the MFA press conference, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) curiously did not adopt the MFA’s more assertive rhetoric and instead kept to its previous talking points on U.S. FONOPs. The relatively subdued narrative and tone suggest a possible change of tack from Beijing’s initial public diplomacy approach, but the coming months will tell if that is truly the case:
“The spokesperson of the MND has released a statement lately to emphasize China’s principles and positions in response to the U.S. Navy ship’s entering the neighboring waters of relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands). China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant islands and their adjacent waters in the SCS. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under International Law, but firmly opposes any act of showing-off forces, aggravating regional tensions, threatening and undermining other countries’ sovereignty and security interests. The Chinese military will strengthen its defense capability according to the degree of the threat to its sovereignty and security, firmly safeguard national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and firmly safeguard regional peace and stability.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)
Following the FONOP, China announced and carried out combat exercises in the disputed waters to include a large-scale show-of-forcedemonstration; and then stated that it may conduct similar monthly combat drills in the future. Beijing characterized these combat drills as routine, part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) annual training plan to hone combat capability, and not aimed at any specific country or target (interestingly mimicking U.S. talking points):
“The live-force naval exercise conducted by the PLAN in the SCS is the measure to implement the important instruction of President Xi at the opening ceremony of the new year training session of the PLA and encourage the combat-oriented training of the PLA naval troops. It is a routine arrangement in accordance with the annual training program of the PLAN. The purpose of the training is to test and enhance the training level of the PLAN, and promote the capabilities of the troops to win wars. It is not targeted at any specific country or target.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)
On April 2, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an article expounding various motives for the naval maneuvers. The cited reasons were more expansive and somewhat inconsistent with those provided at the Chinese Defense Ministry’s press conference three days before:
“First, China needs to safeguard its national interests in the region and the routine exercises are in line with China’s defensive military policy. Second, they are related to the changing international situation as some countries have made moves that strategically target China. The guided missile destroyer USS Mustin recently entered the waters around China’s islands and reefs in the SCS. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India are promoting cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; and the United Kingdom was reportedly considering sending a warship to conduct FONOPs in the SCS in 2018. And it is also partly because of the changing Taiwan situation as the U.S. President Trump has recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law, allowing senior-level official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. This goes against the one-China policy. These shifts are vital and relevant to China’s security. Beijing needs to make some practical preparations to confront the changes in the international situation. Third, with China’s military strength growing, we need more large drills to test and improve military combat ability. This is the normal action of any country that wants to develop its military power.”
On April 12, Xi personally attended a naval review in the SCS, one of the largest of its kind in China since its founding in 1949. He viewed 48 vessels, 76 aircraft, and more than 10,000 service personnel to include the aircraft carrier Liaoning. Xi made a speech after the review, reaffirming Beijing’s aspiration to have a strong navy and pledging to speed up PLAN modernization…“A mighty navy is an important pillar of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” On April 17, the PLA Daily elaborated on Xi’s statements five days before. Xi has resolutely set Beijing on an unyielding course for achieving the Chinese Dream, thus making it imperative for China to have a strong and modern navy. This is because having a capable navy doesn’t simply protect one’s shores, but also to protect one’s interests beyond those shores. 90 percent of the world’s trade is still carried through the maritime domain, and it is, by far, the most cost-effective way to transport goods and raw materials around the globe. This is why Xi reviewed the PLAN in the SCS on April 12.
It will be interesting to see how Beijing further responds in the next few months, a period with the most favorable weather conditions for reclamation and infrastructure building operations in the SCS. Besides the naval maneuvers, China claims to have deploy additional troops and set up territorial defense equipment; and justifies the opportunistic deployment as Beijing having every right to deploy necessary military equipment on its military outposts in the Spratly archipelago:
“The Nansha Islands are China’s territory. It is the natural right of a sovereign state for China to station troops and deploy necessary territory defense facilities on the relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands. It is conducive to safeguarding the state’s sovereignty and security, ensuring the freedom and security of navigation channels in the SCS, and maintaining regional peace and stability. It is not directed against any country. China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature and a military strategy of active defense.”
It will also be telling to see how Beijing reacts to other related regional developments – French Navy frigate Vendémiaire “allegedly” conducted a FONOP in the SCS (some would say that it was not a FONOP, but just a transit); Hanoi welcomed a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier for a port visit; Jakarta lobbies other Southeast Asian countries to carry out maritime patrols in the disputed waters; Canberra increases its maritime presence and considers conducting FONOPs in the strategic waterway; Manila plans to include again Japan and Australia into its annual bilateral exercise with the United States (Balikatan); SCS claimant states continue to buy more naval arms (Kuala Lumpur will equip its new littoral combat ships with advanced naval strike missiles from Norway and Jakarta will buy three modern submarines from South Korea); and Tokyo tries to link the Mekong and ASEAN into a broader Indo-Pacific Strategy, allied with India, United States, and Australia. When China does decide to react, it will do so bilaterally and quietly like it dealt with Vietnam (intimidatedHanoi to halt its oil drilling project off its southeast coast and called Hanoi to settle maritime disputes through talks and to jointly exploit the contested waters), Philippines (encouraged Manila to jointly explore for oil and gas in the disputed waters), and Brunei (brokered an unspoken arrangement whereby Bandar Seri Begawan remains silent on the SCS issue in order to secure Chinese investment); and surreptitiously like when Chinese cyberspace hackers supposedly attacked corporate firms linked to the SCS.
The wildcard will be Singapore, who assumed the ASEAN chairmanship last January. Singapore’s fair and balanced approach and predisposition toward global rules and norms may moderate (and possibly even check) Beijing within ASEAN in 2018. Chinese leaders may have anticipated this unwelcome prospect and are taking proactive steps to mitigate. On March 8, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that China will work with ASEAN: “China is willing to bring benefits to surrounding countries through its own development and build a community of both shared interest and shared destiny with countries in the ASEAN countries.” On April 12, Beijing launched a joint laboratory program with ASEAN to promote and enhance technological innovation, as part of the greater BRI’s efforts to build a community with a shared future for China and ASEAN. The joint program was organized by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the ASEAN Secretariat.
Coming Sharp Power Offensive
China recently restructured its state media to better control domestic content and create a bigger public diplomacy (propaganda) machine to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad. Both objectives align with Xi’s goals of ensuring that the domestic and international audiences hear the messages that he wants them to hear, see the images that he wants them to see, and believe the narratives that he wants them to believe. In his eyes, all messages are political and thus subject to state and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control.
In mid-March, Beijing announced the Beijing announced the merger of three national radio and television entities – China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio – to create a single Voice of China (VoC) to “guide hot social issues, strengthen and improve public opinion, push multimedia integration, strengthen international communication, and tell good China stories.” The VoC will employ 15,000 employees across dozens of bureaus around the globe, producing media programs in more than 60 languages to provide a reassuring and benevolent image of China, one that blunts any concern about Beijing’s growing power and influence in the world.
The VoC will complement similar “sharp power” activities by the Confucian Institutes and United Front (UF). The former is a network of more than 1500 teaching centers established in over 140 countries that provides Chinese language and culture lessons to more than 1.5 million students from around the world. The latter is a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party’s objectives, advance the party’s political agenda, counter political foes, and help realize broader geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI. The UF will reportedly take over the functions of the State Council Overseas Office, National Ethnic Affairs Commission, and State Administration for Religious Affairs to exercise tighter control over religion and ethnic issues and to further carry out its efforts on exercising influence overseas. Altogether, these influence organs are intended to promote the Chinese political agenda and explain Chinese ideas and values, and in a way that wins the country supporters abroad.
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, and underscored 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.”
The new influence campaign has apparently begun in earnest with a March 22Xinhua article titled “Overseas Chinese Confident China’s new Leadership Will Lead to National Rejuvenation.” The following is a sampling of endorsements of newly re-elected Xi (President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission) from the worldwide Chinese diaspora:
“The new leadership will lead China to greater prosperity and called on Chinese in Canada to work as a bridge in bilateral non-governmental exchanges.” (Wang Dianqi, Head of the Joint Committee of Chinese Associations in Canada)
“Chinese in France will help boost China-France exchanges, contributing to the implementation of the BRI proposed by Xi and the notion of building a community with a shared future for mankind.” (Wu Wuhua, Honorary Chair of the Chaozhou Guild Hall in France)
“Urge the Chinese in Peru to help boost exchanges and mutual trust between their host country and China.” (Liang Shun, Head of the Central Association of Chinese in Peru).
“Xi would be able to lead the Chinese to national rejuvenation, and bring overseas Chinese more benefits and pride.” (Zhou Ying, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Cyprus)
“For overseas Chinese, the development of China, most importantly, makes them more respected, and second, brings them new business opportunities.” (Fang Tianxing, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Malaysia)
The United States made progress last year calling out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior, pushing back on Chinese unilateralism and assertiveness, strengthening regional alliances and partnerships, increasing regional presence, reasserting regional influence, and most importantly, incrementally reversing years of ill-advised accommodation. But there is much more Washington can and should do. If not, 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 (Chinese Dream). Hence, the new strategy, calling for America to embrace the strategic great power competition with China and plan and act accordingly, is a step in the right direction, for decline is a deliberate choice, not an imposed reality.
Tuan Pham serves on the executive committee of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies 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: Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. (Wikimedia Commons)
This past January, Benjamin Netanyahu undertook a high-profile visit to India, becoming the second Israeli Prime Minister to travel to the country. Accompanied by a 130-member delegation, Netanyahu’s trip included a stay in New Delhi, and visits to the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi’s grave, and Gandhi’s home in the state of Gujrat. The personal relationship between Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, seems extremely strong – in a distinct break from protocol, Modi greeted Netanyahu at the airport, an honor denied to the popular Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit a month later.
Netanyahu and Modi’s strong personal relationship indicates the growing closeness of Indo-Israeli relations. While India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv only 26 years ago, since the two countries have engaged in growing levels of trade and military cooperation – the present diplomatic evolution simply reflects underlying trends. Since 1992, India has also engaged in a sustained rapprochement with the United States. Tacitly aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the USSR’s collapse revolutionized India’s strategic situation, and has resulted in progressively improving relations with the U.S., despite multiple hiccups along the way.
Strategic trends dictate growing areas of cooperation between India, the U.S., and Israel, particularly in the maritime sphere. As such, U.S. policymakers are faced with the unique opportunity of being able to forge an alliance with a major power that could revolutionize American security architecture in the Near East and Indian Ocean. Despite the potential points of Indo-American and Indo-Israeli friction that remain, Washington can use the relationship between its critical Near Eastern ally and New Delhi to actualize the full potential of this partnership.
The Development of Indian Foreign Policy – Non-Alignment to Balancing
India’s shifting policy toward the West is the culmination of steady changes in India’s approach toward the external world since its independence in 1947. Despite its initial war with Pakistan, India faced few external threats during its first decade of independent existence. Its armed forces were employed internally, enabling the absorption of reticent enclaves into the fledgling Republic. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, embarked upon an anticolonial foreign policy, using India’s ostensible moral capital to build links with other nations emerging from their colonial pasts.
The outbreak of war with China in 1962, therefore, was a distinct shock for the Indian governing establishment. Up until that point, China had been viewed as a Marxist brother in arms – Nehru hoped to anchor Indian foreign policy on cooperation with China, and use the combined authority of the two formerly colonial powers to remain independent from the Cold War. Despite its border dispute with China, the PRC’s invasion across the McMahon Line and into Ladakh was utterly unanticipated. Not only were India’s armed forces unprepared for conflict in Jammu and Kashmir’s harsh mountain conditions against the more experienced People’s Liberation Army, China also executed its offensive concurrent with the Cuban Missile Crisis, ensuring that neither Washington nor Moscow could properly focus on the region and lend New Delhi support until after Beijing consolidated its initial gains.
Following the Sino-Indian War, India’s foreign policy shifted away from its idealistic roots. However, relations between India and the West remained chilled, particularly over America’s persistent support for Pakistan, a critical facilitator in Nixon and Kissinger’s attempts to realign China during the early 1970s. Ideologically, the socialist, anti-Imperialist Indian National Congress (INC), which dominated Indian politics until the late 1970s, found the Soviet Union to be a more amenable partner than the United States, with its capitalist ideology and close relationship with Britain and other former colonial European powers, while the Kremlin had a progressively increasing interest in balancing China as relations cooled and animosity increased from Stalin’s death onward. India’s relationship with Israel was similarly frigid, albeit for more pragmatic reasons. India initially refused to recognize Israel, and remained wary of appearing too close to the Jewish state despite recognition in 1950. Indian politicians feared the response of the significant Muslim minority population if New Delhi formally opened an embassy in Tel Aviv. Moreover, India was dependent upon Israel’s Arab adversaries for energy supplies, relied on the Persian Gulf states to maintain Indian foreign exchange reserves, and significantly benefited from the productivity of Indian nationals working in the Near East. Formally engaging with Israel would therefore have risked Indian economic and energy security.
The Cold War’s conclusion was a major turning point for Indo-Israeli and Indo-American relations. INC progressively lost its political monopoly from Indira Gandhi’s ouster in 1977 after unprecedented centralization. By 1989, India’s political environment had become much more balanced, with various opposition parties, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates challenging long-standing socialist economic policies, and implementing free market reforms. American loans underwrote India’s market liberalization. The U.S. also identified India as a potential defense export market, and gradually increased technological transfers. More notably, the U.S. Navy began its Malabar exercises with its Indian counterpart in 1992, explicitly focusing on rehearsing combat operations, rather than non-wartime activities. Indo-American relations then cooled in 1998 when the Clinton administration sanctioned India for its nuclear testing. However, President Clinton quickly abandoned his sanctions policy, while President Bush identified India as a critical potential partner in the Global War on Terror after the September 11th Attacks. The Malabar naval exercises have continued to increase in scope, while Indian Navy and U.S. Navy ships cooperate on antipiracy, counterterrorism, and other maritime patrol missions in the Indian Ocean.
Indo-Israeli relations also progressively thawed. India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1992. Economic relations have flourished since, while India and Israel also have a progressively expanding security relationship. Indian forces have participated in training exercises in Israel, while Israeli defense companies sell advanced technologies to the Indian military – India has used Israeli drones to offset the advantages of its regional rivals. Increased state visits demonstrate the strength of this relationship: the Netanyahu-Modi visits are only the most recent of a rising number of high-profile diplomatic exchanges. Additionally, significant are changes in Indian rhetoric. In the 2014 Gaza War, India broke with its previous strong condemnation of Israeli action in the Palestinian territories, instead blaming both parties for the conflict, and calling upon the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to limit civilian casualties. This reflects a broader attempt to “de-hyphenate” Indo-Israeli relations: New Delhi wishes to build an independent relationship with Tel Aviv, regardless of the Palestinian issue. One can only expect this cooperation to increase in the future.
The Strategic Roots of Cooperation
Policymakers rarely have the opportunity to forge new, lasting alliances. The uncertainty of the international environment makes ensuring sustained cooperation difficult, particularly among great powers – a cursory observation of Sino-Russo-American relations from 1945 to the present indicates this fact. However, the clear confluence of interests between India, Israel, and the United States makes the potential for cooperation extremely high, particularly in the maritime domain.
The U.S. and Israel have clear shared interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. Both require Near Eastern stability to advance their interests. The Islamic Republic of Iran is presently the greatest regional threat to both of their goals. Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon poses a physical threat to Israeli security through irregular assets like Hezbollah and their missile capabilities, or, potentially in the future, a direct threat from conventional ground forces. Iranian expansion in the Indian Ocean also threatens the U.S.’ ability to impose a “far blockade” on China in the event of conflict by attempting to closing the Strait of Hormuz and pressure American sea lines of communication running from the Near East to the Western Pacific. Hence, Israel and the U.S. have a clear joint interest in ensuring their control over the Eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.
India and the U.S. also share a critical interest concerning China. China is a blatant threat to India’s sphere of influence in South Asia. The Doklam Crisis is only the most recent evidence of Chinese encroachment on Indian or Indian allied borders, while China’s hedging strategy involves supporting India’s chief rival, Pakistan. India is the only regional actor that can offer China significant resistance without external support. The qualitatively sophisticated JSDF and Taiwanese militaries are too small to sustainably challenge the PLA absent American aid, while the Vietnamese and Philippine Armed Forces are qualitatively and quantitatively outmatched. India’s active military ranks only behind China’s numerically, while if reserves and paramilitary groups are included, the Indian Armed Forces could field nearly two million more personnel than the PLA. Moreover, as a nuclear-armed state, India can limit Chinese escalatory options in a way no other regional power can. However, India’s military is outmatched by the PLA. The PLAAF fields more combat aircraft than its Indian counterpart, and faces only three substantial regional threats aside from India – the Taiwanese Air Force, Japanese Air Self Defense Forces, and Republic of Korea Air Force (assuming the ROK is not tied down in some fashion by North Korea either through conflict or deterrence requirements) while the Indians will need to divert forces to deterring or fighting Pakistan’s Air Force in any conflict. At sea, the PLAN outmatches the Indian Navy. The PLAN’s two STOBAR carriers’ air wings match the INS Vikramaditya’s in size, while it outnumbers India in every surface combatant category. In the near future, the Indian Navy could face as much as a one-to-four disadvantage in a conflict with the PLAN. Nevertheless, India has a commanding geographic position over the approaches to and from the South China Sea, and can use both naval forces and land-based maritime patrol craft to prevent PLAN surface combatants from entering the Indian Ocean. Considering concurrent American interest in countering China’s rise, formalized cooperation between the U.S. and India would significantly improve the relative position of both countries in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.
Israel and India also share a number of direct interests outside of their present economic and military transactions. Israel is not directly threatened by China – indeed, Israeli companies have sold the PLA military technology – while India relies on Iran for a significant portion of its energy imports. However, both have a clear interest in Indian Ocean maritime security. Chinese patrols in the Indian Ocean could pressure Indian supply lines, while China’s growing economic relationship with Iran could allow it to diplomatically leverage the Islamic Republic into choking off its oil flows to New Delhi. Israel, alternatively, would be unable to respond to Chinese submarine harassment of Israeli shipping in the Indian Ocean. Despite the IDF’s military sophistication, it lacks a blue water navy, and small powers remain at the mercy of larger adversaries in conflict absent a great power partner. Additionally, damage inflicted upon the Indian economy would harm Israel’s own productivity: Israel has a clear interest in ensuring India remains insulated from Chinese economic pressure. Finally, Israel could benefit from the ability to pressure Iran from the Indian Ocean, rather than simply overland. The U.S. Navy’s current presence in the Arabian Gulf allows for greater Israeli freedom of action on land. However, Israel would benefit from having its own naval forces, giving it the ability to act more independently.
These bilateral interests cohere into a broader whole. India, Israel, and the U.S. would all benefit from a more formal maritime arrangement in the Indian Ocean, while each nation would directly or indirectly benefit from the increases to the others’ security. These overlapping strategic interests are reinforced by the broader desire of all three potential partners to combat terrorism and respond to Islamic extremist organizations. With the roots for cooperation evidently existing, one must understand how to leverage this into a more explicit framework.
Future Steps to Facilitate Cooperation
Despite the clear cooperative potential between India, the U.S., and Israel, actualizing cooperation is a difficult task. Israel would likely be hesitant to be drawn into a formalized security architecture that would commit it to defending tangential interests with force, while India would reasonably be wary of jeopardizing relations with Iran, and by extension its access to oil. Nevertheless, American policymakers can take several steps to increase cooperation and lay the groundwork for a broader Mediterranean-Indo-Pacific security architecture that can respond to increasing Chinese, Russian, and Iranian southward pressure. Four specific policy recommendations can actualize this cooperation.
First, the U.S. should consider inviting the Israeli Navy to future iterations of the Malabar Exercises. Israel’s participation at Malabar would be a public way to signal Indo-Israeli cooperation, without Israel making any formal commitments in the Indian Ocean. Ensuring the stability of military-to-military contacts between the IDF and Indian Armed Forces will help insulate the security relationship between Israel and India despite changes in administration. Other joint training exercises are possible, and would be beneficial. India already sends fighter aircraft and Special Operations Forces units to Israel for various activities – America’s CENTCOM military forces could engage in exercises along their IDF and Indian Armed Forces counterparts.
Second, the U.S. can encourage further defense cooperation by making a concerted effort to win over the Indian market. The Indian military largely uses Soviet and Russian equipment. All but six percent of the Indian Army’s main battle tanks, and 20 percent of its combat aircraft, are Russian made or designed. Two-thirds of the Indian Navy’s attack submarine fleet, and slightly under half of its large surface combatant fleet of guided missile destroyers and frigates were produced in Russian shipyards. The U.S.’ high-cost systems, and Israel’s smaller industrial base, makes it difficult to imagine either one of them singlehandedly crowding out Russian production. But at least when it comes to surface combatants, one could envision Israeli or American ships being increasingly represented in the Indian fleet, with Israeli and American-designed small surface combatants competing for purchase. Moreover, the Indian Navy’s undersized submarine fleet offers U.S. producers an opportunity to revive diesel-electric submarines, and produce cheaper platforms to counter growing Chinese numerical superiority. Just as the British shipbuilding industry benefited from building capital ships and surface combatants for foreign nations before the Great War, American shipyards could help expand and maintain critical wartime capacity by producing warships for friendly and allied foreign powers. This could extend to IDF and American tanks and other armored vehicles replacing Soviet and Russian alternatives. Israel’s unmanned expertise is a critical facilitating factor. The Indian Air Force already uses Israeli UAV’s, namely the IAI Harop, a loitering munition, the IAI Searcher, a light scout platform, and the IAI Heron, a MALE reconnaissance and strike UCAV. Not only will demand for these sorts of platforms grow, as armed forces globally develop their understanding of teaming between manned and unmanned assets, but increases in AI technology will likely lead to a fully unmanned fighter aircraft in the next two to three decades. India, the U.S., and Israel would all benefit from research and production of such platforms – or risk being left behind by their Russian and Chinese rivals, who are undoubtedly engaging in developing those capabilities.
Third, American diplomacy can help decrease Iran’s role in India’s energy supply by leveraging energy supplies in the Eastern Mediterranean’s Leviathan Gas Field and other neighboring energy deposits. Current exploration indicates that these newly-discovered Eastern Mediterranean resource deposits contain upwards of 16.5 trillion cubic feet of gasoline. Combined with an increase in already high exports from Saudi Arabia, and a concerted effort to export North American oil and natural gas to India, the U.S. can decrease the proportion of India’s Iranian energy imports, and thereby give India the ability to more openly cooperate with the U.S. and Israel by lessening energy security risks.
Fourth, the U.S. should explore political and military relationships with India to increase security in the Indian Ocean. The present Indo-American relationship is remarkably similar to the early stages of Anglo-French cooperation before the First World War. The 1912 Anglo-French Naval Convention, in which Britain offered to secure the North Sea and France’s Atlantic coastline in return for France’s safeguarding of British interests in the Mediterranean, allowed Britain to concentrate its forces against the Imperial German Kaiserlichmarine while maintaining a degree of security in other global chokepoints. Even if implemented successfully, the PLAN will outnumber the U.S. Navy by nearly 150 ships in 2030, and could outnumber the U.S. Navy as early as 2020, and has nearly achieved numerical surface combatant parity today.Most dangerously, between 2025 and 2035,the U.S. Navy’s ship numbers will hover between 310 and 320 – such a disparity increases potential instabilityAbsent a colossal shipbuilding program, the U.S. Navy’s only hope for parity will involve transferring the vast majority of American combat power to the Pacific, while easing force commitments elsewhere. Turning Indian Ocean and Arabian security over to the Indian Navy, in return for American guarantees to protect shared Indo-American interests in the South and East China Seas, may therefore be a preferable solution. At a minimum, the U.S. should consider joint basing arrangements with Indian facilities in the Southern and Western Indian Oceans, replicating the Royal Navy’s commanding position in the Indian Ocean during the Second World War. Israel could also benefit from such an arrangement – its submarines could refuel and resupply from Indian bases, or Indian support ships, enabling more consistent presence on Iran’s southern flank.
Conclusion – Forging the Strategic Relationship
Seldom does the international environment explicitly conform to the goals of high policy. Sophisticated strategies can easily unravel when they encounter certain facts on the ground. However, this makes identifying the points where a state can exert its influence even more critical. The confluence of interests between Israel, India, and the U.S. creates such a situation. With proper American policy action, the U.S. can effectively further its interests in the Near East, Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific, and potentially build a lasting partnership that stabilizes critical regions stretching from Cyprus to Ceylon.
Harry Halem is an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations and Philosophy. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi shake hands at a joint press conference in the president’s house in New Delhi, India, on January 15, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)