Lessons from Crimea: The Way Forward for NATO

This analysis was produced as part of the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, held in April of 2017. Since that time, Montenegro has officially joined NATO.

By Kirk Wolff

Introduction

There is no sugarcoating it: Russia’s continued aggression in Eastern Europe is not only reckless and a violation of international norms, but is illegal. In the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea, Russia showed complete disregard for the sovereignty of its neighbors and violated multiple treaties to which Russia is a party, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Under the Budapest Memorandum, Russia agreed to never use force against or in any way threaten the territorial integrity of Ukraine.1 It is clear Russia is no longer following international laws, even those it helped establish. Vladimir Putin’s desire to reclaim the perceived glory of the Soviet Union has manifested itself in illegal invasions of weaker neighbors. These actions have been met with responses from much of Europe and the United States that were, at best, toothless. The Russian Federation’s aspiration to expand its borders and sphere of influence into former Soviet states and satellites poses a great threat to the stability of Europe and has already caused instability and military buildup in Eastern Europe. Putin has never hidden his desire to restore the USSR, the dissolution of which he referred to as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.”2

NATO and Russian Pressures

Consequently, the international system is now witnessing the single most important moment in NATO’s history since the collective response to the 9/11 attacks. It is clear that continued sanctions in the vein of visa bans and asset freezes are no longer adequate responses to Putin’s actions. In order to stave off further illegal expansion by an emboldened Russia, NATO must swiftly expand to include Finland and Sweden. Deciding not to expand NATO to include these Nordic States would represent a complete failure to learn the lessons of the last decade, which occurred as a result of the rejection of Ukraine and Georgia’s attempts to join NATO. This proposed 7th expansion of NATO would include Montenegró, which has recently earned acceptance from Alliance member states.3 There is no better way to contain Russia than through expanding the alliance, the most effective collective defense organization in history and the historical counterbalance to Russo-Soviet expansionism.

Russian troops ride atop armoured vehicles and trucks near the village of Khurcha in Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia. (Associated Press)

Prior to and throughout the invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), Russia telegraphed its intention to regain its former status as a great power. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian military fell from around 5 million troops to roughly 1 million in 19944 and the capacity of those 1 million troops to exert Russian influence was questionable. Since that time, Russia’s military strength has experienced a revitalization, bringing the current number to over 3 million troops.5 The Russian military budget has increased by a factor of 5 since 1994, with a 91 percent boost in spending from 2006 to 2016.6 This boost in military spending and size transformed the Russian Armed Forces from a fledgling that could only muster around 60,000 troops to put down a Chechen rebellion in 19947 to its current status as a resurgent world superpower that successfully used covert military forces to annex an entire region of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine in 2014. Through his reforms following the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Vladimir Putin has orchestrated a spectacular comeback for Russia in a region where the nation lost almost all of its influence a quarter century ago.

The question of why Georgia and Ukraine were targeted specifically is answered by the failure of NATO to offer either nation a Membership Action Plan following the April 2008 Bucharest Summit despite the pursuit of admission to the Alliance by both states.8 It is likely that Putin was greatly relieved by this shortsighted decision by NATO, as his plans for Russian expansion were no longer threatened by NATO’s collective defense pledge. It only took four months for Russia to invade the former NATO-hopeful Georgia, in what is referred to as the first European war of the 21st Century.9 There is a reason the invocation of NATO’s collective defense measure, otherwise known as Article 5, has only occurred once in history, and that it was prompted by the actions of rogue non-state actors on 9/11. The full backing of NATO’s member states maintains peace at a level unseen in history by guaranteeing a costly counterattack to actions like the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. It is critical for NATO to learn from the mistakes of the Bucharest Summit and prevent further destabilization of Europe by accepting both Finland and Sweden into the Alliance posthaste.

The Grand Strategy of Russian Resurgence

The United States and NATO have been operating without a grand strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union, and consequently, Russia has implemented its own grand strategy that takes advantage of this stunning lack of action by the West. Russia is clearly, though not officially, following the grand strategy laid out in the Foundations of Geopolitics by Alexandre Dugin. The book has had a considerable impact on Russian foreign policy and was adopted as an official textbook at the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Naval War College, where senior officers and government officials receive graduate degrees related to policy.10 Major points of the work include (among other goals) separating England from Europe, dismantling Georgia, and annexing Crimea,11 all of which have been at least partially accomplished through Russian pressure, overt or otherwise. Not only have the arguments laid out in Dugin’s work been mirrored by Russian policy, but Dugin has even been made a major foreign policy advisor to the Putin regime12 and enjoys considerable influence and contact with the parliament and military.13 One major goal listed in the plan that has yet to be accomplished is the annexation of Finland. This, along with continued aggressive actions against Finland, shows that there is an imminent threat to Finland from Russia. If Finland fails to act quickly to join NATO, it is likely to be next in line for Russian expansion, in partial fulfillment of Dugin’s grand strategy for resurgent Russia.

Russian T-26 light tanks and T-20 Komsomolets armored tractors advancing into Finland during the Winter War, 2 Dec 1939. 

In both Finland and Sweden, support for accession to NATO has been growing due to the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. Russia has significantly ramped up operations and drills in the vicinity of Finland to such a degree that both Finland and Sweden are actively seeking new defensive agreements with western nations including the U.K. and U.S.14 Multiple Russian jets have violated Finnish airspace, further showing Russia’s disregard for the sovereignty of any of its neighbors.15 Additionally, Russia has been working to increase Finland’s dependency in order to further pull it into Russia’s economic and political sphere of influence. One such attempt involves energy, where Russia is attempting to undermine the Finnish energy sector and even create an artificial energy crisis which would drive Finland to rely heavily on Russian government and energy firms.16 Like Georgia and Ukraine, Finland was once part of Russia, and such historical ties were used as justification for both of Putin’s illegal invasions.17 18 In fact, the Winter War of 1939 was started by Russia in an attempt to reabsorb Finland; it resulted in Russian territorial gains from Eastern Finland.19 Based on the recent Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine, it is not outside of the realm of possibility for Russia to make another attempt to regain Finland. Sweden has felt the increased pressure from Russia as well, as evidenced by the extreme step the Civil Contingency Agency of Sweden took in December 2016 of telling towns to reinitiate Cold War era counter-invasion measures, including bunker systems and military drills.20 All of this represents a return to the great power conflict of the Cold War. Additionally, this demonstrates the clear and present threat to both Finland and Sweden from Russia that NATO would best solve.

The Current State of Partnership

Convincing the people of Finland of the necessity of NATO membership appears to be reliant on Sweden agreeing to join simultaneously. Support for a military alliance with Sweden is high, with 54 percent of Finns supporting such an alliance in 2014 while only 36 percent oppose21, so the people of Finland could be persuaded to support NATO if their friend Sweden agrees to join as well. That same year, Gallup found that 53 percent of Finnish citizens would support joining NATO if the government of Finland recommended the move.22 Since Finland already recognizes the importance of a military alliance with Sweden, it clearly can be convinced of the necessity of NATO as well. In Sweden, support of NATO membership has been on the rise. For instance, in 2015 the Centre Right Party joined two other major Swedish political parties to support NATO membership after having previously opposed the measure,23 which further indicates the political tides of the nation are turning in support of NATO. Not only is the move towards membership a necessity for these two nations, but it is also entirely within the realm of possibility in the near future.

Both Finland and Sweden have been longtime members of the Partnership for Peace (PfP)24, a NATO program which aims to build stronger relationships with non-Alliance members.25 Participation in the PfP is often seen as a pathway to membership since so many current NATO members were originally part of the PfP. This is crucial, because under Article 10 of the treaty all members must be unanimously confirmed; the fact that Finland and Sweden are already contributing to the collective defense of NATO shows that they would be valuable assets to the Alliance. Both Finland and Sweden sent troops to support NATO actions in Afghanistan, and Sweden was part of NATO’s 2011 mission in Libya.26 Due to their willingness to participate in operations, Finland and Sweden are clearly military assets to NATO, thus clearing the collective defense hurdle of NATO.

Despite this, neither nation could take on Russia alone. Swedish military experts found that if attacked by Russia, the nation could only hold out for one week27, further highlighting the need for NATO to step in and prevent another Crimean crisis. Opponents of NATO enlargement may argue that Sweden and Finland fail to meet the requisite military spending requirement of the Alliance, which is 2 percent of GDP. This is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it is far more important to keep Russia in check and have nations remain in America/NATO’s sphere of influence than to worry about the arbitrary 2 percent requirement. Demanding Sweden and Finland to increase their spending before joining will not create any measurable increase in NATO’s military effectiveness, as the U.S. spends around $650 billion dollars on defense.28 The next closest Alliance member spends a mere 60 billion dollars.29 It could be reasonable to require that both nations set a goal of reaching the 2 percent threshold within a decade, but the situation in Europe is too precarious to hesitate on such a minor issue. The true goal of NATO is maintaining the post-Soviet world order through the maintenance of the current spheres of influence.

The second reason the 2 percent requirement is irrelevant is the fact that only 5 of the 28 members currently meet the requirement. Based on publicly available military budget information, of the 28 NATO members, Finland outspends 14 before even joining and Sweden outspends Finland as well. Allowing Russia to continue to destabilize all of Europe because Finland and Sweden fail to meet a standard that over 80 percent of current NATO members also fail to meet is shortsighted.

Conclusion

For Finland, Russia’s western neighbor, the stakes are quite high. Putin has made multiple threatening statements in opposition to NATO enlarging to include Finland. These statements should be disregarded, as an identical scenario played out almost a decade ago in Georgia and recently in Ukraine. As mentioned earlier, Putin publicly opposed Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and shortly after NATO decided not to include the two nations, both were invaded by Russia’s military. The only way to secure the stability of Northern Europe is through the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO, since this provides the closest thing to a guarantee against Russian intrusion, as admitted by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who said in 2016 that Russia “will never attack a member state of NATO.”30

There is a choice for NATO currently: either allow Russia to expand its sphere of influence even beyond the bounds of the former USSR into the Nordic States, or learn from the examples of Georgia and Ukraine by blocking expansionism through a 7th enlargement of the Alliance. We are clearly in a new era of great power conflict, and for their own safety Sweden and Finland must join their Nordic neighbors under the collective defense shield of NATO. NATO must recognize the dawn of this new era and learn the lessons of Crimea. The move to add Finland and Sweden to NATO is not only plausible, but entirely necessary to safeguard the stability and peace that Europe has enjoyed since the fall of the USSR.

Midshipman Kirk Wolff is from Morristown, Tennessee and is studying political science as a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2018. He can be contacted at wkirkwolff@gmail.com.

The author would like to thank Dr. Gale Mattox at USNA for her help.

References

[1] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances. 1994.

[2] Ellen Barry and Steven Myers. “Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West.” New York Times, March 18, 2014.

[3] Edward Joseph and Siniša Vuković. “Montenegro’s NATO Bid.” Foreign Affairs, December 22, 2016.

[4] Dmtri Trenin,. “The Revival of the Russian Bear.” Foreign Affairs, May & June 2016.

[5] “Russian Military Strength.” Global Firepower. 2016.

[6] Sam Perlo-Freeman, Aude Fleurant, Pieter Wezeman, and Siemon Wezeman. “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015.” SIPRI Fact Sheet- Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2016, 4.

[7] Trenin, The Revival of the Russian Bear

[8] Adam Taylor. “That time Ukraine tried to join NATO — and NATO said no.” Washington Post, September 4, 2014.

[9] “Post-Mortem on Europe’s First War of the 21st Century.” Centre for European Policy Studies Policy Brief, no. 167

[10] John Dunlop. “Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics.” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of       Post-Soviet Democratization, no. 41 (January 31, 2004): 1.

[11] Ibid., 2-8.

[12] Henry Meyer and Onur Ant. “The One Russian Linking Putin, Erdogan and Trump.” Bloomberg,        February 2, 2017.

[13] Dunlop. Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics. 12.

[14] Julian Borger. “Finland says it is nearing security deal with US amid concerns over Russia.” The         Guardian, August 22, 2016.

[15] Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl. “Estonia, Finland say Russia entered airspace before U.S. defense pact.” Reuters. October 7, 2016.

[16] Rebecca Flood. “Finland warns Russia is becoming ‘more aggressive’ with nuclear power threat.” The Express UK, September 1, 2016.

[17] “Russia moves toward open annexation of Abkhazi, South Ossetia.” Eurasia Daily Monitor 5, no. 74. April 18, 2008.

[18] Barry. “Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West.”

[19]“The Soviet-Finnish War, 1939-1940.” Military Review, July 1941, 1-16.

[20] “Swedish towns told to ‘make preparations regarding the threat of war and conflict’ with Russia.” The Telegraph, December 15, 2016.

[21] “Majority of Finns back Swedish military union.” The Local. March 24, 2014.

[22] Verkkouutiset explained: The people willing to join NATO, if the state leadership so wishes.” Verkkouutiset. March 25, 2014.

[23] “Swedish centre right in favour of NATO membership.” Reuters. October 9, 2015.

[24] “Signatures of Partnership for Peace Framework Document.” NATO. January 10, 2012.

[25] “Partnership for Peace programme.” NATO. April 7, 2016.

[26] Gabriela Baczynska. “Wary of Russia, Sweden and Finland sit at NATO top table.” Reuters. July 8, 2016.

[27] Suvi Turtiainen. “Sweden and Finland Face Their Russian Fears.” Die Welt (The World, German). April 9, 2014.

[28] Ivanna Kottasova. “These NATO countries are not spending their fair share on defense.” CNN.com. July 8, 2016.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Just Visiting: Russian aggression is pushing Finland and Sweden towards NATO.” The Economist, July 7, 2016.

Featured Image: Soldiers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the U.K. and the U.S. conduct a convoy June 10 into the field-training portion of Exercise Saber Strike. (Latvian MoD/Gatis Diezins)

Davy Jones Isn’t Done with Us Yet

The following essay is the second place finalist for CIMSEC’S 2017 Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest

By Chris Rielage

Cheaper, deadlier A2/AD weapons make a strong Navy a necessity, not a luxury.

The broad reasons for having a strong Navy remain the same as in past generations: the Navy protects U.S. trade; projects power from our isolated continent; and through ship deployments and port calls, adds weight to our diplomatic efforts. While these missions remain constant, the nature of piracy and area denial will evolve rapidly: weapons are becoming more capable and widespread, and the rise of unmanned ships will shift the focus of piracy and blockades from crews to cargo and hulls. If the U.S. intends to maintain open trade and a peaceful world order, it will need a Navy prepared to confront these changes.

New Weapons

On October 1 2016, the former HSV-2 Swift was hit and nearly sunk off Yemen by an anti-ship missile fired by Houthi rebels. Though the actions of a U.S. task force, led by the USS Mason and USS Ponce, over the following month prevented the rebels from blocking the passage, it ended up exchanging further fire with the Houthi three different times. While this particular incident ended well, the mere fact that a non-state actor had the resources, training, and will to use anti-ship cruise missiles to try and block a vital strait represents a shift in naval warfare.

While those particular missiles were likely provided by Iran, other, more threatening weapons are available on the free market. For example, a major Russian arms manufacturer offers the Club-K missile system: a matched set of four Kalibr anti-ship cruise missiles, a modern and widely used design, ready to launch in a standard 40-foot shipping container. This class of weapons can allow their users to threaten major surface vessels for as little as $10-20 million.

These types of deadlier, cheaper, and more independent weapons are the future of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) technology. Once limited to great powers, serious area denial capability will soon be open to any minor power with ready cash. These new actors need not even invest in extensive systems; using a few Club-K-like systems hidden among more mundane shipping, they would be able to threaten wide areas with relatively few actual weapons.

The intelligence needed to target these weapons effectively is also growing more widespread. Since detailed and up-to-date shipping information, based on public AIS data, can be pulled from the internet, initial-stage targeting is a relatively simple matter. Additionally, firms like IHS Jane’s track military deployments and provide detailed analysis of satellite imagery to their customers. As launch prices drop below $1000 per pound and electronics further shrink, satellites are likely to become even more open to small actors. The French Spirale system, for example, recently demonstrated a ballistic missile detection network with only two 120 kg orbiters. As launch technology continues to mature, led by private firms like SpaceX and Blue Origins, it is only a matter of time before satellite surveillance networks come within the reach of small nations and powerful non-state actors.

In other words, the resource threshold to blockade or interfere with sea lanes is going down. Weapons are becoming cheaper, better hidden, and less dependent on a large infrastructure. The required intelligence is cheaper, and in many cases, freely available. This evolution comes at a particularly bad time, as sea lanes are becoming both more vital and more vulnerable.

New Weaknesses

The long-term, multi-century shift towards globalization continues relatively unabated. In the year 1600, the entire annual sum of trade between Scandinavia and the Baltic region was about 90,000 tons, spread out over a thousand freighters; in 1940, moving that same mass of cargo required only nine Liberty Ships, while today, the same amount of goods would barely half-fill a Chinamax.

It is worth addressing, while protectionism and insularity are popular buzzwords, they don’t reflect a realistic long-term approach. With the unique exception of North Korea, economic insularity has always proven temporary throughout history. The global economy is not shaped like a chain, but a spiderweb; trade will continue organically even if individual nations are removed from the network.

As resources move over the sea, they naturally tend to travel through dangerous areas, because of cost and time concerns. Shipping routes have always been dictated by geography; this is why Iran could threaten fuel routes during the Tanker Wars in the 1980s, why Somali pirates have been such a priority, and why control of the First Island Chain is such a concern for China and its competitors. The future will be no different. Whether the waters off the Middle East, or unstable portions of East Asia and Central America, the most popular sea lanes and bottlenecks are in the most dangerous areas of the world.

Unlike in the past, though, freighters of the future may have no crew to protect the ship or to be ransomed. Though automated container ships may seem far off, building drone or autonomous ships is simpler and cheaper than self-driving cars. While the unmanned ships will have to deal with the same problems, like corrosion and storms, that mariners have always confronted, the sea is an environment with few of the obstacles, such as pedestrians and speeding neighbors, that make land vehicles so difficult to automate. This will lead to a different model of piracy and blockades. With no crew to capture or ransom, there will be less incentive not to simply liquidate cargoes or destroy vessels.

Globalization will only continue in the long-run, sending more riches over the sea. Shipping lanes will take the same dangerous courses they always have, and ships will have no crew to protect them. While the potential reward to blockading or interfering with sea lanes will go up, the fact that drone ships have no crew to endanger will vastly simplify the process of doing so.

New Challenges

Up until now, commerce raiding (or its illegal twin, piracy) had to be one of three things: 1) limited in scope, like Confederate raiders or the Emden; 2) coastal, as in Somalia or Indonesia; or 3) carefully targeted, like the English hunts for Spanish treasure galleons. Proper blockades could only be accomplished by major powers with large, professional navies. In the near future, that will no longer be the case.

Any nation, from North Korea to South Sudan, will have the resources to institute an effective blockade; if Yemen is any example, even rebels and non-state actors could have power over sea lanes. However, these small A2/AD forces will always have fewer resources than the peer-level A2/AD we face in Russia and China. As the USS Ponce and USS Mason proved in October, U.S. task forces can defeat them. However, if current trends of fleet readiness and ship numbers continue, that edge will not last long; we will simply run out of ships to send. If we intend to maintain superiority, the U.S. will need to be deliberate about building a better Navy, soon.

Chris Rielage is an incoming midshipman at Stanford University.

Citations:

LaGrone, Sam. “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack.” USNI News, 12 Oct. 2016, news.usni.org/2016/10/11/uss-mason-fired-3-missiles-to-defend-from-yemen-cruise-missiles-attack. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Stott, Michael. “Deadly New Russian Weapon Hides in Shipping Container.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 26 Apr. 2010, www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-weapon-idUSTRE63P2XB20100426. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

LaGrone, Sam. “USS Mason ‘Appears to Have Come Under Attack’.” USNI News, 15 Oct. 2016, news.usni.org/2016/10/15/cno-richardson-uss-mason-attacked-cruise-missiles-off-yemen. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Kramer, Herbert J. “SPIRALE.” EoPortal Directory – Satellite Missions, 2012, directory.eoportal.org/web/eoportal/satellite-missions/s/spirale. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Jane’s Satellite Imagery Analysis. IHS Markit, www.ihs.com/products/janes-satellite-imagery-analysis.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Großmann, Harald. “Perspectives for Maritime Trade – Cargo Shipping and Port Economics.” Maritime Trade and Transport Logistics, hdl.handle.net/10419/102539. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Featured Image: Battle of the Chesapeake (Wikimedia Commons)

Naval Power in the 21st Century

The following essay is the third place finalist for CIMSEC’S 2017 Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest

By Matthew Lidz

The United States is a continental land power bridging the earth between two mighty oceans. Through our presence at home ports in both the Atlantic and Pacific and forward deployed forces in Asia and Europe we can rapidly project naval power to virtually any spot on the globe. Our naval forces deter threats, support economic growth, maintain global political stability and perform vital counterterrorism missions. These missions are essential to 21st century national security. 

Despite the myriad threats that face our nation in this complex and volatile world, it is difficult to build consensus for United States foreign policy. There are some that argue that we should withdraw to our borders and focus solely on our own interests. However, I argue that this instinct denies a fundamental truth of global security; security is achieved through engagement and not through isolation. 

As the United States was emerging from its tradition of isolationism in the late nineteenth century, President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, viewed the Navy as the big stick of American foreign policy. President Roosevelt recognized the ascendancy of America on the world stage and saw the Navy as an effective instrument through which we could visibly demonstrate our commitment to peace, protection, and prosperity.

If war is diplomacy by other means, then the intelligent, strategic use of naval power is a key instrument for both deterrence and war fighting. The presence of the U.S. Navy off a hostile coastline visibly demonstrates national resolve and, through their presence alone, may prevent future hostile attacks against the U.S. or its allies. Through its ability to launch operations with aviation assets and cruise missiles the Navy can strike deep and with lethal force into hostile territory without the need to commit ground troops to a protracted conflict.

90 percent of world trade travels via the seas.  Maintaining safe passage for international trade is in the vital economic interest of the United States and its allies. International Waters or the High Sea is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State.” The treaty also says “The exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles.” To simplify, international waters are all waters that are 200 nautical miles outside a country’s exclusive economic zone. By maintaining a constant presence in the world’s shipping lanes, the United States Navy plays a critical role in ensuring free trade throughout the world.

I was born 18 months before the events of September 11, 2001. Like me, every member of my generation has no memory of life before September 11. The global war on terror was a constant presence in our collective consciousness and will continue to shape the world in which we take our place as adults. Maintaining a strong Navy is imperative for the continued economic and military security of the United States in the 21st century. The Navy’s abilities to project force, apply lethal force and deter threats are essential to the maintenance and protection of vital U.S. interests throughout the world.

Matthew Lidz is from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He is currently a freshman at the University of Richmond 

Works Cited

“Business.un.org.” United Nations. United Nations, 1 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

“Commodities: Latest Crude Oil Price & Chart.” NASDAQ.com. NASDAQ, Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.nasdaq.com/markets/crude-oil.aspx>.

Iata. “Search.” IATA – Price Analysis. International Air Transport Association, 1 Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.iata.org/publications/economics/fuel-monitor/Pages/price-analysis.aspx>.

Perlman, Howard. “How Much Water Is There On, In, and above the Earth?” How Much Water Is There on Earth, from the USGS Water Science School. United States Geological Survey, 2 Dec. 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

Petty, Dan. “Navy.mil Home Page.” The US Navy — Fact File: Aircraft Carriers – CVN. United States Navy, 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=200&ct=4>.

Stavridis, James, and Frank Pandolfe. “From Sword to Shield: Naval Forces in the War on Terror.” Naval Forces in the War on Terror. The Naval Institute: Proceedings, 1 Aug. 2004. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.military.com/NewContent/0,13190,NI_Navy_0804,00.html>.

“United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” (2013): n. pag. United Nations. United Nations, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf>.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Sep. 20, 2016) Sailors assigned to the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) man a phone and distance line while conducting a replenishment-at-sea with the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) during Valiant Shield 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christian Senyk/Released) 

After the Shangri-La Dialogue – For China, So What and Now What?

By Tuan N. Pham

Singapore hosted the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) from June 2-4. The dialogue was well attended by defense ministers from the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, and France, with other regional countries sending varying levels of defense representation. One conspicuous divergence from previous dialogues was the Chinese delegation, who curiously sent a relatively low-ranking representative. From 2013 to 2016, the Chinese delegation was led by a deputy chief-level People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general officer. This year, Beijing sent Lieutenant General He Lei, the Vice President of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science.

Many have speculated about China’s motives, and Shannon Tiezzi of The Diplomat offers one of the best analyses to date. The focus of this article is to build on the extant analysis and explore whether the deliberate choice produced a diplomatic win or loss for Beijing. To do so, I will recap some of the rhetoric aimed at China during the SLD along with the Chinese response.     

China’s Decision

Why did China send a “lower-ranking” representative with no formal government position and no apparent defense credential to lead its delegation to Asia’s premier security forum? Tiezzi provided some possible explanations (analytical baseline) in her well-written article titled “Why is China Downgrading Participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue?”  She suggested that Beijing’s decision was a preemptive and subtle refutation of the SLD’s agenda, and pointed to a deeper problem that China has with the annual dialogue itself. The stated agenda of “upholding the rules-based regional order, practical measures to avoid conflict at sea, and nuclear dangers in the Asia-Pacific,” made Beijing an easy target of reproach for its provocative actions in the South and East China Seas (ECS/SCS) and perceived inability to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile development ambitions. Beijing also chooses not to discuss its maritime disputes in any multilateral forum, asserting that bilateral negotiations are the appropriate mechanism debating such contentious issues. The SCS is a recurrent SLD topic – and China, much to its chagrin, has little influence over the non-friendly –and the Chinese might say hostile – agenda.

Besides a desire for bilateral negotiations, other explanations for the lower-ranked SLD representation include Beijing not wanting to undermine its public diplomacy campaign of global governance and desire to extend its strategic momentum from the inaugural Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing 14-15 May and the 19th China-European Union (EU) Summit (CES) in Brussels 1-2 June. Since the release of a white paper outlining its updated foreign policies on “Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation” last January, Beijing has pushed a harder strategic narrative of global benevolence. China’s guiding principles for its new altruistic foreign policy are based on its Confucian culture of universal peace and sharing, and are rooted in its belief that the 21st Century is an epoch of globalization and economic interdependence. Ideally, a strategic network will be established in all the regions of the world to achieve “universal peace, international order, and global prosperity.”

China will increasingly be called upon to find solutions to global challenges (and opportunities), such as terrorism, climate change, free trade, and economic development. In his opening BRF remarks, President Xi Jinping stated that “we should build the Belt and Road into a road for peace, road of prosperity, road of opening up, road of innovation, and road for connecting different civilizations.” While at the CES, Premier Li Keqiang said that China and the EU are “contributors and beneficiaries of world multipolarization and process of economic globalization, and under the current situation, China and the EU should confront the instability of the international situation with a stable bilateral cooperation.” 

Note: On 2 June, Beijing unexpectedly announced the cancellation of the 2017 Xiangshan Forum – annual regional security conference organized by China and widely seen as a rival (counter) to the SLD – due to pressures at home and abroad. Cited reasons include major leadership reshuffles, clashes with other events, and a desire to allay fears of Asian neighbors.            

Rhetoric Aimed at China

Beijing’s decision to downgrade its footprint at the SLD may not be so surprising considering the keynote speech by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, remarks by American Secretary of Defense James Mattis during the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), and comments by Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada during the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order). Important highlights from these speeches include:

– Turnbull asserted that Asia’s future peace and prosperity depend on preserving the rules-based regional order that has worked so well for so long. He suggested that China can only expand its strategic influence to match its economic might within the bounds set by the same rules-based regional order; implied that Beijing was undermining that order in Asia by unilaterally seizing or creating territory and militarizing disputed areas; warned that a coercive China would drive its regional neighbors to bolster alliances and partnerships between themselves and the United States; and exhorted his regional neighbors to assume greater responsibility for their own security and prosperity.

– Mattis called out China for disregarding other nations’ interests and international law, militarizing the SCS, and undermining regional stability. He reiterated that the United States would continue “to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the SCS and beyond”; urged China to recognize that North Korea has become a strategic liability and cautioned Beijing that seeking cooperation on Pyongyang did not mean Washington would not challenge Chinese activities in the SCS; and restated the United States’ steadfast commitment to the defense of Taiwan as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). 

Lieutenant General He Lei, vice-president of the Chinese PLA Academy of Military Science, talks with foreign officials during this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. (chinamil.com)

– Inada leveled similar criticism against China in her speech. She implied that Beijing bore most of the responsibility for the extant regional instability; criticized China for “unilaterally” altering the status quo in the ECS and SCS and undermining the rules-based regional order; called out China for its continued destabilizing militarization of the SCS; urged Beijing to follow international law and respect last year’s tribunal ruling on the SCS; and expressed support for U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the SCS.

Chinese Response

The Chinese response was expectedly swift and coordinated, but ultimately uninspiring. The Chinese delegation held a media briefing on the summit’s sidelines at the end of the second day, defending China’s position as a rising power that abides by international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; repeating longstanding policy positions on Taiwan, North Korea, and SCS; and expressing frustration that Beijing is unfairly singled out for criticism. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs followed the tepid response the next day and called out Mattis and Inada’s statements on the SCS and Taiwan as “irresponsible” and recycled previous talking points:

– China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters, and stays committed to peacefully resolving disputes with countries directly concerned through negotiation and consultation and upholding peace and stability of the SCS with Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries.

– China respects and safeguards all countries’ freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS under international law, but definitely opposes certain country’s show of force in the SCS under the pretext of navigation and overflight freedom, challenging and threatening China’s sovereignty and security.

– China builds relevant facilities on the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions for people stationed there, and better defending its sovereignty and performing China’s international obligations and responsibilities.

– Thanks to the efforts of countries in the region, the situation in the SCS Sea has calmed down and turned positive.

– The Senkaku Islands have been part of China’s territory since ancient times; patrol and law enforcement activities by Chinese government vessels in the relevant waters are justified and legitimate; China is resolute in safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and will continue with its patrol and law enforcement activities in the future.

– China’s position on the Taiwan question is clear-cut and consistent; China stands firmly against the so-called “TRA” unilaterally made by the United States and requires the United States to honor the One-China policy and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués.

– China is clear and consistent about opposing relevant countries’ deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and again urge them to immediately stop the deployment.  

So What and Now What

Given the circumstances, Beijing may have miscalculated. By downgrading its presence at the SLD, China ceded the strategic narrative and initiative to the United States. Specifically, Beijing yielded Washington and its regional allies and partners a public platform to stake out their strategic positions, counter the Chinese strategic messaging, and further encourage China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

To date, Beijing has “2 (wins), 2 (losses), and 1 (tie), and 1 (undetermined)” in major international affairs for 2017 – Xi underperformed at the Trump-Xi Summit; Xi recovered and outperformed at the BRF; Li acquitted himself (and China) well at the CES; the SLD delegation seemingly did not; and the inaugural U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (D&SD) resulted in no joint U.S.-China readout, fact sheet, or outcomes document – indications suggest dialogue made no significant progress on North Korea or the SCS; and the G20 Summit outcomes are still being ascertained. Next up are the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Danang (Vietnam) 11-12 November, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila (Philippines) 13-14 November, and the second Trump-Xi Summit in Beijing (TBD).

All in all, the apparently poor showing at the SLD was a setback for Xi’s 2017 strategic agenda. He wants and needs a successful diplomatic year to build political capital and momentum leading into the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in late 2017. There is widespread speculation that Xi is trying to promote more members of his faction to the Central Committee and the Politburo, a necessary interim step if he wants to change CPC’s rules to serve an unprecedented third term as president (and/or retain his other two titles of general secretary of the CPC and chairman of the Central Military Commission) and maintain power and influence beyond 2022.

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

Featured Image: Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks during the International Institute for Strategic Studies 16th Asia Security Summit in Singapore on June 2, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

Skip to toolbar