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U.S.-China Tensions and How Unmanned Military Craft Raise the Risk of War

This article originally featured in the Nikkei Asian Review under the title, “US-China tensions — unmanned military craft raise risk of war,” and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Evan Karlik

The immediate danger from militarized artificial intelligence isn’t hordes of killer robots, nor the exponential pace of a new arms race.

As recent events in the Strait of Hormuz indicate, the bigger risk is the fact that autonomous military craft make for temping targets – and increase the potential for miscalculation on and above the high seas.

While less provocative than planes, vehicles, or ships with human crew or troops aboard, unmanned systems are also perceived as relatively expendable. Danger arises when they lower the threshold for military action.

It is a development with serious implications in volatile regions far beyond the Gulf – not least the South China Sea, where the U.S. has recently confronted both China and Russia.

If China dispatched a billion-dollar U.S. destroyer and a portion of its crew to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait, a war declaration from Washington and mobilization to the region would undoubtedly follow. But should a Chinese missile suddenly destroy an orbiting, billion-dollar U.S. intelligence satellite, the White House and the U.S. Congress might opt to avoid immediate escalation.

“Satellites have no mothers,” quip space policy experts, and the same is true for airborne drones and unmanned ships. Their demise does not call for pallbearers, headstones, or memorial statues.

As autonomous systems proliferate in the air and on the ocean, military commanders may feel emboldened to strike these platforms, expecting lower repercussions by avoiding the loss of human life.

Consider when Chinese naval personnel in a small boat seized an unmanned American underwater survey glider in the sea approximately 100 kilometers off the Philippines in December 2016. The winged, torpedo-shaped unit was within sight of its handlers aboard the U.S. Navy oceanographic vessel Bowditch, who gaped in astonishment as it was summarily hoisted aboard a Chinese warship less than a kilometer distant. The U.S. responded with a diplomatic démarche and congressional opprobrium, and the glider was returned within the week.

U.S. Navy oceanographic gliders record temperature and salinity, and are remotely piloted from a round-the-clock operations center in Mississippi. (U.S. Navy photo)

Lately, both Chinese and Russian navies in the Western Pacific have shown themselves bolder than ever. Early in June, south of Okinawa, the Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov came within tens of meters of the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville.

In September 2018, the American destroyer Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation transit near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea; it nearly collided with a Chinese destroyer attempting to ‘shoulder’ the American vessel off its course through these hotly contested waters.

In coming years, the Chinese military will find increasingly plentiful opportunities to intercept American autonomous systems. The 40-meter prototype trimaran Sea Hunter, an experimental submarine-tracking vessel, recently transited between Hawaii and San Diego without human intervention. It has yet to be used operationally, but it is only a matter of time before such vessels are deployed.

The U.S. Navy’s nearly $3 billion ‘Ghost Fleet’ initiative aims to develop a total of 10, 2,000-ton unmanned warships. Boeing recently edged out Lockheed Martin to begin construction of four extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles, each capable of transiting twelve thousand kilometers autonomously, for $43 million.

China’s navy may find intercepting such unmanned and unchaperoned surface vessels or mini-submarines too tantalizing to pass up, especially if Washington’s meek retort to the 2016 glider incident is seen as an indication of American permissiveness or timidity.

With a captive vessel, persevering Chinese technicians could attempt to bypass anti-tamper mechanisms, and if successful, proceed to siphon off communication codes or proprietary artificial intelligence software, download navigational data or pre-programmed rules of engagement, or probe for cyber vulnerabilities that could be exploited against similar vehicles.

No doubt Beijing is closely watching how the Trump administration responds to Iran’s downing of a Global Hawk surveillance drone on June 20, assessing U.S. willingness to punch back in kind, or to escalate.

Nearly 100,000 ships transit the strategically vital Singapore Strait annually, where more than 75 collisions or groundings occurred last year alone. In such congested international sea lanes, declaring a foreign navy’s autonomous vessel wayward or unresponsive would easily serve as convenient rationale for towing it into territorial waters for impoundment, or for boarding it straightaway.

More than 4,000 AI and robotics researchers have joined an open letter advocating a ban on autonomous offensive weapons that function without human supervision, and this past March, the U.N. Secretary-General decried such machines as “politically unacceptable, morally repugnant,” and worthy of international prohibition.

Such limits or controls on artificial intelligence would be immensely more difficult to verify when compared to existing inspection regimes for nuclear missiles or centrifuges. In the meantime, urgent action is needed.

A memorandum of understanding signed five years ago by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese defense ministry, as well as the collaborative code of naval conduct created at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium, should be updated with an expanded right-of-way hierarchy and non-interference standards to clarify how manned ships and aircraft should interact with their autonomous counterparts. Without such guidance, the risk of miscalculation increases.

An incident without any immediate human presence or losses could nonetheless trigger unexpected escalation and spark the next conflict.

We should fear that, much more than killer robots.

Evan Karlik is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He served last year as a Defense Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives. His views are his own and are in no way intended to reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: (Feb. 1, 2019) The Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned sea surface vehicle developed in partnership between the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).(U.S. Navy photo)

Strategy On Top of the World, Pt. 2: Regional Arctic Perspectives

Read Part One here.

By Tyler Cross

Strategy and Security – Canada’s Perspective

Canada, much like Russia, is heavily invested in the Arctic. Ranking second in Arctic interests, it also ranks second in land holdings with 1.2 million square miles found above the Arctic Circle. Canada’s northern borders have also long been secured by the vast expanses of Arctic ice, but they may find their Arctic holdings precariously exposed if ice sheets become non-existent.

The Northwest Passage dispute involving Canada is set to come to the forefront of security concerns as it becomes increasingly navigable. This dispute, however contentious, is unlikely to seriously threaten regional stability. At the same time, a solution does not appear to be in the making. The Canadians have lesser disputes over parts of the Lincoln Sea and Hans Island with Denmark and parts of the Beaufort Sea with the U.S. But all disputes are with staunch NATO allies, and they are poised to find diplomatic solutions.

There exists a dichotomy of Canadian strategy in the Arctic. Diplomatically, Canada tends to take a “lean back” approach, but at the same time there is a consistent focus on the Arctic. Of all 28 NATO countries, Canadians are the least excited to see an allied military presence in the Arctic. Multi-national military presence there, they feel, will undermine their near hegemony in large portions of the high latitudes. Anti-military cultural bias is relatively higher in Canada, and a significant portion of the populace ardently supports indigenous societies who call the Arctic home. The Canadians prefer decisions to be made by the diplomatic and intergovernmental Arctic Council as opposed to the more military-oriented policies of NATO.2 In sum, there is a general aversion to military development in the Arctic.

But ice cap depletion may bring a change of heart on High North militarization. While much of Canadian Arctic policy is characterized by a “lean back” strategy, there has been a bit of a pivot to the North in recent years. The Canadian military has developed its operational capacity in cold, remote regions. Recently, the Canadian military has purchased a new icebreaker to complement its six working ships, while creating a winter fighting school and a deepwater port in Baffin Bay. Likewise, former Canadian Chief of Defense General Walter Natynczyk has an appreciation for Arctic defense and began increased allotments to strategic security there.

Location of Baffin Bay in Canada’s uppermost reaches. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Canadians are willing to protect assets that they see as rightfully theirs, but are inclined to pursue multi-nation diplomacy at the same time.3 The dichotomy appears a bit contradictory, and they would do well to continue Arctic operations, even if they are limited. This would help rebut Russian advances and strengthen general security. The Canadians are strong NATO members and have participated in coalition efforts worldwide, making them a vital cog in mutual defense. 

Strategy and Security – European NATO States

Norway favors the most proactive Arctic defense policy of all NATO nations. They see Russia as particularly threatening, and recent history has only validated their claims. Norwegian security is driven by defense against Russia, as they feel the shadow of the resurgent giant looming over their relatively small population of five million. The Norwegian island of Svalbard, according to former NATO supreme allied commander Admiral James Stavridis, “constitutes a significant thorn in the side of Russian ambitions in the region.” Fisheries teem off the icy island’s coast, and are of great value to the Norwegians. Defense of the island and its nearby fish stocks are paramount and will be important in future defense strategy. Hydrocarbons are also of concern, and will become increasingly important as easily extracted oil is depleted on the mainland.4 

The location of the Norwegian island territory of Svalbard. (Oceanadventures.com)

Of the NATO members, Norway has the most active military in the Arctic. They see the region as the alliance’s unguarded flank, and constantly prompt other member states to be well-informed and combat ready.5 

In 2008 Russia resumed surface patrols in the waters surrounding Svalbard. The Norwegians found this deeply concerning, and it has only prompted further active preparation and defense readiness. A microcosm of the tensions played out when in 2005, one Russian fishing vessel, the Elektron, encroached on exclusive fishing zones off the coast of Svalbard. It was chased by a Norwegian Coast Guard ship. Tense days ensued, but the dispute was eventually resolved diplomatically.6 The Elektron incident was indicative of future fishery confrontations and tensions between the two Arctic states as a whole. Luckily, the diplomatic solution resolved the affair peacefully, but one must also remember that Russia was not as powerful or assertive on the world stage in 2005. While still unlikely, the chances of more confrontations are higher today than they were before. Norway, feeling rather threatened by Russia, has continued its “lean forward” policy in the years since.

Iceland was viewed as an unsinkable aircraft carrier during the Cold War. It would again be stuck between the United States and Russia in a Cold War 2.0 in the Arctic. Iceland desires the waters to their north to be a zone of cooperation. Ideally for them, Reykjavik would become a stop and central location to a North Atlantic trade highway. With oil to be found within their 200 mile exclusive economic zone, there is much economic growth potential.7 Iceland may look to distance itself militarily from the United States if a free economic zone is achieved, or if the island’s leaders fear they could become ensconced in another Cold War. It is also likely that the American military presence will reappear in Keflavik, particularly in response to Arctic tensions. If Icelanders feel threatened, they look to the U.S. Navy to assuage concerns. Iceland was a pivotal halfway point during the Second World War, and could serve as a vital way-station for the future. They are also close allies with the Danes, and this close alliance and increasing needs for mutual defense could bring the two states further into NATO and closer to the U.S.

Denmark is an Arctic state by virtue of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Greenland has been an important location for NATO defense, especially because of the bases the Danes provide. In addition to its strategic importance, predominantly through early missile warning, Greenland has increased in importance lately with the discovery of natural gas deposits, and Denmark will look to aggressively map the Arctic floor in search of more resources while simultaneously increasing military presence. Their claims are likely to go all the way to the North Pole itself, and Copenhagen will look to back its claims with naval presence.8 In 2009, the Danes began establishing an Arctic military command.9

Iceland officially has no standing military, although its Coast Guard and Crisis Response Units are fully military in all but name. It is largely for this reason that the Danes have complete naval access to Icelandic ports. The two states also work as an alliance within the NATO alliance. Iceland acts as a strategic stopping point for Danish ships in transit between Greenland and Europe.

The United States should prioritize the Danes, as their provided NATO bases in Greenland are vital to Arctic defense. A relic of the Cold War, Thule Air Force Base, located on the island’s northwestern edge, was one of the most vital ICBM missile detection bases monitoring potential missile routes over the Arctic.

American Strategy – What To Do?

The NATO alliance helps defend the Arctic. Thule Air Base is a good example of cooperation in the Arctic, as it is home to approximately 400 Danes, 50 Greenlanders, three Canadians, and 140 Americans. Locked in ice nine months of the year, sea lanes are opened by a Canadian icebreaker. While extreme in location, being found 700 miles above the Arctic Circle, it is a good example of inter-alliance cooperation on top of the world.10 Activity in the Arctic is predicted to increase and could bring about similar bases in the future.

Thule Air Base (Wikimedia Commons)

For the United States, this would likely begin in Alaska, where there has already been talk of further military development. But it will be important for planners to learn about the particular challenges and needs of Arctic militarization and prepare as traffic flows increase and the ice melts. The United States military will be unable to secure and protect all of the Arctic alone, and much of this will fall to NATO allies. Cooperation will be paramount in times to come.

The Russian Federation’s prioritization of the Arctic will be a primary driving factor in security strategy. Until 2009, the United States did not even have an articulated policy on the Arctic.11 But as the Arctic takes on new importance, American strategy will hopefully diversify and strengthen. Besides remote locations and harsh weather, the U.S. will face difficulty with a lack of inter-agency doctrine and cooperation in the Arctic. Plus the Arctic takes on new meaning with North Korea’s development of ICBMs that can reach the United States, where missiles have to travel through and over the Arctic in order to reach American soil.12 The U.S. will also have to consider both fighting and search and rescue forces, which will lack resourcing and enjoy limited interest from policy-makers.

But nonetheless, progress is being made. The Department of the Navy, including the Coast Guard and Marine Corps, have created a joint cooperative strategy that recognizes the opening of sea lanes in the Arctic. Their strategy recognizes new challenges. The Navy’s currently stated goal in the Arctic is “to foster and sustain cooperative relationships with other Arctic nations and, within the joint, interagency, international, and academic communities, to improve its understanding of the Arctic environment, enhance its ability to predict changes to it, and prevent or contain any regional instability, through the creation and maintenance of security at sea.”13 This is an encouraging start. There is a strong environmental focus, and understandably so. But Russian militarization in the High North will require the further development of security in this somewhat neglected region.

The United States needs to foster close allegiances and play a leadership role in NATO. In the summer of 2007, Russia explorers planted their flag on the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, deep in the Arctic and far beyond their exclusive economic zone. They claimed this underwater ridge for themselves.14 As if their militarization was not enough, the Russians are claiming international waters as their own, attempting to monopolize natural resources in the High North. It will take a concerted effort on the part of the NATO allies to rebuff the advances of the Russians, and deter them from claiming internationally recognized areas of open sea.

The Lomonosov Ridge (shown in dark blue) links Greenland’s continental shelf with the North Pole. The red dotted line shows the extent of the five Arctic countries’ claims on the region under existing international law, which allows them to claim ownership of land up to 200 miles from their northern borders. (Dailymail.co.uk)

What is worse is that rules for free trade in the Arctic are meager. Moscow cannot be allowed to form hegemonic control of the Arctic and dictate terms retroactively. By mid-century, it is predicted that warm summers will see no polar ice coverage. If this happens, and Russia has an early and strong head start, freedom of navigation could be severely jeopardized. Plus, some of Russia’s Arctic stations are mobile.15 Control and mobility would provide a substantial advantage in a zone of conflict. By comparison, NATO stations are stagnant and sporadic. It will take a rejuvenated effort and concern for defense to appropriately meet this challenge.

The U.S. alone will be unable to counter Russian challenges, particularly north of the European theater. But help from NATO allies and close friends will act as a counterbalance. It will not take a large force to provide security in the Arctic, but a well-equipped and mobile one. Arctic exercises with active NATO members will be highly beneficial in identifying problems with joint warfighting maneuvers. Finland, Norway, Canada, and Denmark should be incorporated in these activities, and other allies should be invited. Swedish involvement would be ideal. It would also be wise to consider opening the military base in Keflavik, Iceland again. It was decommissioned as a military station just over a decade ago and is an active airport today. The station could help keep an eye on the growing Russian submarine fleet, and would greatly benefit both the Navy and Air Force to gather intelligence from this forward observation post. Additionally, its proximity to Reykjavik would make it a more tolerable post for servicemen when compared to other High North stations like remote Greenland.

In order to avoid security dilemmas, military exercises should be complemented by dialogue with Russia. One of the best avenues of discussion is via the Arctic Council, where Russia and the Arctic NATO states are members. Council meetings occur frequently, and include scientific, military, and geopolitical topics.16 Dialogue through the Arctic Council will be one way to soothe relations with Moscow in this region.

Break the Ice

Building icebreaker capability will be absolutely paramount to security and science in the Arctic. Icebreakers provide the ability to maneuver and supply remote bases. It is here that the United States is at its greatest disadvantage when compared to Russia. Currently the United States Coast Guard operates only one active icebreaker, the Polar Star. The other two icebreakers are inactive and at the end of their service life. And the Polar Star, many years removed from her christening, has seen 40 years of service and is set to retire in the early 2020s. By contrast, Russia operates 40 icebreakers, seven of which are nuclear powered. They are also building their new icebreaking nuclear powered flagship, the Arktika, slated for service before 2020.17 

Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr smashes through layers of ice just feet away from a group of adventurers in northwestern Russia. (Anton Panov/Oper_11 via Instagram)

The previous Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, implored Congress to fund the building of new icebreakers. He found success, albeit somewhat limited. Zukunft asked for three heavy and two medium ships, and the first heavy icebreaker will be completed in 2023.18 This is an encouraging start, but the U.S. has a long way to go before it can compete with Russia or even smaller states in frozen seas. Finland has seven, Sweden seven, Canada six with another on the way, Denmark four, and China three with more in development.19 Congress will need to get serious about funding if it wants to compete in the Polar regions and enforce freedom of navigation in navigable ice flows. Luckily, the construction of each icebreaker pales in comparison to substantial Navy projects. The cost will be comparatively low, but the repercussions great.

The advantage of building icebreakers is that they facilitate freedom of navigation and trade in the Arctic. While the ice may be receding, northern shipping lanes will still be covered in ice for much of the year. Some lanes that have opened up remained locked in ice year-round, but the ice is thin enough for an icebreaker to pass through.

Ships looking to traverse the open ocean cannot rely on Russian help. As nice as cooperation will be, it is unlikely. When speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Admiral Zukunft said “I don’t think you’ll see tranquility about to break out.”20 Likewise, he openly discussed the idea of outfitting future icebreakers with cruise missiles. It suffices to say that it will take until 2023 for the next U.S. icebreaker to be completed, and Russia will complete two more by 2020, both possibly outfitted with cruise missiles of their own.21

Conclusion

The High North will almost certainly be a zone of competition. If Russia can take a hegemonic role there, it will lean on its military presence and the relative lack of international rules and norms for it to control the region. The Chinese are not far behind. American absence from the Arctic has weakened its stance with respect to great power competition and serves to upend the Navy’s stated mission of freedom of navigation. In a contentious Arctic, Russia will be unlikely to provide icebreaker coverage to international shipping and will try to claim resources and open sea. The United States Coast Guard must lead the way, and find close support from the other military branches.

The United States must remain a player in the Arctic Council and coordinate NATO defense in Arctic and near-Arctic regions. As long as the NATO alliance is strong, Russia will be deterred from exceedingly brash actions. With a strong presence, freedom of navigation will reign and peace can continue.

Tyler Cross recently completed a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University. He will continue his career in international security cooperation.

Bibliography

Bender, Jeremy. “This is What Its Like to Live at The US’ Most Remote Air Base.” Business        Insider. Last modified Nov. 24, 2014. http://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to- serve-at-thule-air-base-2014-11.

Clark, Wesley. “Russia: Cold War 2.0?.” Lecture at the Michael V. Hayden Center for      Intelligence, Policy, and International Security, Arlington, VA, March 5, 2018.

Dibb, Paul. “The Geopolitical Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Strategic and            Defense Studies Center, June, 2014.

Eckstein, Megan. “Zukunft: Changing Arctic Could Lead to Armed U.S. Icebreakers in Fleet.”    USNI News. May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2017/05/18/zukunft-changing-arctic-            environment-could-lead-to-more-armed-icebreakers-in-future-fleet.

Hill, David D. “Force Projection, Strategic Agility, and the Big Meltdown.” Naval War College. May 18, 2001.

Kofman, Michael. “Russia’s Fifth Generation Sub Looms.” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings        Magazine 143, no. 10 (Oct. 2017).

Roberts, Kari. “Jets, Flags, and a new Cold War? Demystifying Russia’s Arctic Intentions.”         International Journal 65, no. 4 (2010): 957-976.

Rozman, Gilbert. Strategic Thinking about the Korean Nuclear Crisis Four Parties Caught            between North Korea and the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Slayton, David and Brigham, Lawson W. “Can the US and Russia Preserve Peace in the Arctic?”            Investor’s Business Daily, May 13, 2015.

Spohr, Kristina. “The Scramble for the Arctic.” New Statesman 147 (March 9-March 15, 2018):    22-27.

Stavridis, James. Sea Power The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans. New York:         Random House, 2017.

Titley, David and St. John, Courtney. “Arctic Security Considerations and the US Navy’s            Roadmap for the Arctic.” Naval War College Review 63, no. 2 (2010): 35-48.

Todorov, Andrey A. “The Russia-USA Legal Dispute Over the Straits of the Northern Sea Route            and Similar Case of the Northwest Passage.” No. 29 (2017): 62-75.

“Zukunft to Congress: US Must be Serious About Icebreaker Acquisition,” U.S. Naval Institute    News. Last modified May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2018/04/17/zukunft-congress-u-s-must-serious-icebreaker-acquisition.

Zysk, Katarzyna. “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: AMBITONS AND CONSTRAINTS.” Joint Force   Quarterly. 57 (2010): 103-110.

References

[1] Stavridis, pp. 344-345.

[2] Ibid., pp. 345-347.

[3] Ibid., 345-346.

[4] Ibid., p. 351.

[5] Ibid., pp. 351-352.

[6] Roberts, pp. 958, 968.

[7] Stavridis, pp. 349-350.

[8] Ibid., pp. 350-351.

[9] Zysk, p. 109.

[10] Jeremy Bender, “This is What Its Like to Live at The US’ Most Remote Air Base,” Business Insider, last modified Nov. 24, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to-serve-at-thule-air-base-2014-11.

[11] Stavridis, p. 353.

[12] Ibid., pp. 353-356.

[13] David Titley and Courtney St. John, “Arctic Security Considerations and the US Navy’s Roadmap for the Arctic,” Naval War College Review 63, no. 2 (2010): pp. 42-43.

[14] Roberts, p. 958.

[15] David B. Hill, “Force Projection, Strategic Agility, and the Big Meltdown,” Naval War College, May 18, 2001, pp. 4-5.

[16] Stavridis, p. 338

[17] Ibid., p. 357. Some estimate Russian icebreaker capability is higher, as much as 44 in fact (source: Eckstein article)

[18] Eckstein.

[19] Stavridis, p. 357.

[20] “Zukunft to Congress: US Must be Serious About Icebreaker Acquisition,” U.S. Naval Institute News, last modified May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2018/04/17/zukunft-congress-u-s-must-serious-icebreaker-acquisition.

[21] Eckstein.

Featured Image: Crewmen walk across the ice toward the US Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC POLAR STAR (WAGB 10). The POLAR STAR, first Coast Guard icebreaker to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent, has paused during its journey to give crewmen “ice-liberty.” (PA1 Ed Moreth, USCG)

Strategy On Top of the World, Pt. 1: The Outlook for Arctic Competition

By Tyler Cross

In 1827, Sir William Parry of the British Royal Navy made the first serious attempt to reach the North Pole. Captain of the Hecla, he and his crew reached 82°45’ N, a record for humanity for the northernmost latitude reached; it remained unbroken for 49 years. Exploration of the Arctic, closely related with the search for the ever-elusive Northwest Passage, became the fascination of explorer and layman alike during the 19th century.1 But frozen in time and locked in ice, the Arctic was impassable, mysterious, and unobserved until the early 20th century. 

The High North that Parry and other explorers tried to reach was quite different from the Arctic today. Polar ice caps are receding at a steady rate. The titanic expanses of ice sheets are shrinking, exposing greater topography at the top of the world.

This will present unique security challenges for the 21st century. The Arctic may become a highway and natural resource center in the future. Tensions between NATO states and Russia are already palpable, and are poised to increase. Security challenges are driven in part by trade and resource potential in the Arctic Ocean. Oil, natural gas, immense fisheries, and potential maritime highways via the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route are likely sticking points.2 The Russian Federation has, through its own renewed tension building and aggressions, positioned itself as the principal potential adversary in the High North. Moscow sees great developmental opportunities in the Arctic. The Russians are far greater equipped – both psychologically and materially, for staying power in the frozen wilderness. It is an integral part of Moscow’s future plans.

Time lapse of the relative age of Arctic sea ice from week to week since 1990. The oldest ice (9 or more years old) is white. Seasonal ice is darkest blue. Old ice drifts out of the Arctic through the Fram Strait (east of Greenland), but in recent years, it has also been melting as it drifts into the southernmost waters of the Beaufort Sea (north of western Canada and Alaska). Video produced by the Climate.gov team, based on data provided by Mark Tschudi, University of Colorado-Boulder. (NOAA via Climate Central)

In contrast, high latitudes receive far less attention and interest in the United States. The NATO alliance, driven particularly by the Arctic nations, will be pivotal in a joint security role there. Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, all NATO allies with shores on the Arctic Ocean, should be incorporated and extensively consulted. Finland, another NATO partner in the Arctic but with no direct access to the Arctic Ocean, and Sweden, a friendly security partner with ties to the alliance, will also play their respective roles in mutual cooperation.

Cooperation with Moscow, while ideal, is unlikely. Contingencies must be prepared. Russian capability, at least for trade supported by icebreaking, dwarfs that of the United States. NATO allies and Northern European friends also largely outpace U.S. icebreaking capability. The development of icebreakers will be a focal point of the road ahead. They open sea lanes in the warmer months, facilitating trade and movement of the naval surface fleet. Of secondary concern is China, which has an active duty icebreaker capability and is currently using its icebreakers to explore potential oil drilling sites that could impede U.S. economic zones in the Arctic.3

Security in the Arctic Ocean will grow in importance as the polar ice caps shrink. Therefore the United States, in conjunction with NATO allies, must develop appropriate security doctrine and measures that confront the dangers of the High North and Russian militarization in order to provide freedom of navigation in this often neglected theater.

Less Ice, More Activity

The Arctic is a treasure trove of natural resources. It is also the least understood ocean. Thus, the story of security there has an air of mystique and discovery. Largely untapped resources exist, and much of them are yet to be discovered. Humanity has mapped the surface of the Moon and Mars to a greater extent than the ocean floor of the Arctic. But what is generally understood is that there are vast resources to be harnessed. It is estimated that 30 percent of the world’s untapped hydrocarbons can be found in the Arctic, including a full 25 percent of proven hydrocarbon reserves. Much nickel, platinum, palladium, lead, diamonds, and other rare Earth metals are there as well.4 In the 21st century, there will be a maritime “gold rush” to the upper latitudes once conditions permit.

Russia, an energy giant, has made great economic strides in the 21st century through the export of oil. It has found dependable markets in Europe and Northeast Asia. Even NATO member states with unfriendly relations with Moscow find themselves largely dependent on Russian oil imports. Likewise, in Northeast Asia, new markets have been found in historically unfriendly states, like South Korea.5 Vladimir Putin is now looking to the Arctic to help solidify his nation’s status as Eurasia’s energy giant. And as the economic, industrial, and military power of Russia and China increase, they will both look to the Arctic as a natural resource center from which they can pull materials.

The Arctic is a considerable source of fisheries. In the United States, 50 percent of fish stocks originate within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the coast of Alaska. Many of the other Arctic states have similar extensive fishing operations off of their immediate coasts. There is great competition and overfishing beyond the EEZs.6 In future food crises, industrial fishing will be forced to venture farther to find plentiful stocks, and many will certainly look to the Arctic. Increased economic competition and interest will likely drive a greater need for security. This will in turn lead to a degree of militarization previously unseen in the Arctic. 

If for no other reason, U.S. interest is prompted by increased trade. One of the core stated goals of the United States Navy is upholding the principle of the freedom of navigation. Currently, the U.S. Navy is the world’s enforcer of free trade on the open ocean and carries exponentially more of the burden than any other state’s navy. If the Arctic finds itself inundated with commercial fishing interests between competing states, especially ones desperately looking to compensate for declining fish stocks elsewhere, the Navy will likely be pulled toward the Arctic.

It would behoove decision-makers to recognize the future of the Arctic’s importance, and they must be willing to provide security to American and allied civilian operations there if in danger. But the U.S. Navy is currently stretched thin, focusing on protecting freedom of navigation and security, especially in the Pacific, while supporting other interests worldwide. The opening of the Arctic Ocean and its subsequent intensive economic development will almost certainly require naval expansion. If prepared with doctrine now, later challenges will be mollified.

One of the biggest driving factors in sending more naval forces to the Arctic will be newfound trade routes that come from melting ice caps. The Northwest Passage, long a source of fascination for countless explorers, Parry included, is rapidly becoming a viable trade route. But as the ice thins and becomes a potential sea lane, the future of the Northwest Passage remains unclear. The sea route stretching from Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea runs through Canadian waters. The Canadian government would like to see this recognized as their own territorial waters, while other maritime powers, particularly the United States, would like to see the region be recognized as an international highway.7 Far more contentious and potentially volatile is the Northern Sea Route. With the potential to cut transit distance between Europe and Asia by 40 percent, the Northern Sea Route could become an international highway in a more open Arctic. But disputes over its use between the United States and Russia date back to the 1960s. Then and today, Moscow treats the passage as territorial waters over which they have control. The United States, in its freedom of navigation mission, declares that the lanes must be open. Russia will continue to exercise claimed rights, citing the Law of the Sea, that the straits are their historic territorial waters. Under such provisions, they can claim modern legislation.8 Russia’s economy is largely dependent on energy exports, and it may look to diversify and tax shipments moving through the Northern Sea Route. Putin may try to use the opening lanes as a source of steady income and as a pressure point on other powers. He will also likely use militarization in the High North to enforce and buttress territorial claims.

Optimal September navigation routes for ice-strengthened (red) and common open-water (blue) ships traveling between Rotterdam, The Netherlands and St. John’s, Newfoundland in the years 2040-2059. (Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science). Click to enlarge. 

Another developing commercial route is in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia’s Easternmost reaches. The United States Coast Guard reported a 120 percent increase in Bering Strait traffic from 2008 to 2012.9 The Bering Sea is unforgiving and with all of this increased traffic there are bound to be more sailors in danger due to the intense weather and equipment failure that often occurs in these locations. Barrow, at the northern tip of Alaska, is generally accessible only by air, but traffic will increase in the warm summers to come. Remote Arctic littorals near Alaska experience year-round tempestuous weather, little cellular coverage, and limited search and rescue availability. The nearest USCG air station to Barrow can be found in Kodiak, 1000 miles away. In the words of Admiral James Stavridis, “All of this means that if a mariner is in trouble in the Arctic, he or is she is in serious trouble.”10

Traffic has grown at an unprecedented rate, and now is the time to develop more search and rescue proficiency and capability. Much of this will fall on the Coast Guard, but it is unfortunately underfunded and understaffed despite the fact it will bear the greatest burden in a developing Arctic. Creating new or better search and rescue capabilities in Alaska is substantially cheaper than most military projects. The funding would be comparatively little, but the repercussions great. This will be a continuous theme in the Arctic, and some modern investments in Coast Guard capabilities will not come easily, but they will be well worth the effort and remain economical within the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security budgets.

As of 2011, Russia and the U.S. created the new Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement. The safety realm seems to be one of the few topics their armed forces can agree on. Russia has been developing ten search and rescue bases along its Northern Sea Route, yet this development coincides ominously with more militarization in the same area.11 But cooperation between Russian and American Coast Guards will be beneficial in saving lives. More cooperative capability for search and rescue will hopefully not coincide with greater tensions vis-à-vis military development. The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement is an encouraging step in separating great power rivalry from life-saving operations that benefit all.

Strategy and Security – The Russian Federation

The Arctic is central to the Russian worldview. Part of the Russian identity is that of the rugged individual capable of self-sustaining life in harsh, cold climates. The High North, with its frigid tundra and plentiful natural resources, is integral to the very fiber of Russian culture. In addition, Russia has the largest population living above the Arctic Circle, totaling approximately four million.12 By contrast, the Arctic is far removed from the culture of American society. It would behoove strategists to appreciate these cultural difference when approaching security concerns and understanding motivations. The world’s northernmost reaches will never hold the same societal importance to Americans as it does to Russians.

Perhaps more so than the average Russian, leaders in the Kremlin look to the High North with envy. Putin’s plans for Arctic development can be thought of like former President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy. Much of Moscow views the Arctic similar to how the 44th president saw the Western Pacific, a place of developmental opportunities and of increasing importance to national strategy. According to The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation Through 2020, the Arctic is set to become Russia’s “top strategic resource base by 2020.”  Furthermore, the Kremlin did not rule out military conflict in the region if this strategic goal was threatened.13 A large portion of the National Security Strategy document was devoted to the Arctic, embodied in the “Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Through 2020 and Beyond.” Included was a plan to strengthen military presence.

A Russian soldier stands guard in front of a Pantsir-S1 air defense system on Kotelny Island, part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago located between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea, Russia. (Vladimir Isachenkov/Associated Press)

Putin’s pivot to the North is not just economic, but also militaristic. The Arctic is home to the North Sea Fleet, which includes much of the Russian ballistic missile submarine fleet. During the Cold War, American and Soviet nuclear submarines played endless “cat and mouse” games in the frigid, quiet waters beneath the Arctic ice.14 Despite the thaw of the Cold War, tensions have again risen to significant levels, and Russia has a large military that it is willing to utilize. This was illustrated in 2008 with the short war against Georgia, in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, and from 2015 to the present day in Syria. In recent years, the number of troops in Arctic bases has increased, and the bases themselves have grown with haste. As the polar ice caps recede, there will be a strong inclination to develop naval capabilities to defend newly exposed northern shores.15

Russian military and economic development in the Arctic will be linked in the coming decades. Military centers are not far from important sources of income. Approximately 22 percent of the Russian Federation’s GDP is produced above the Arctic Circle. Russian sources claim that as much as 90 percent of their hydrocarbon reserves can be found in the Arctic, concentrated mostly in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea.16 The Barents Sea, situated north of the European theater, is naturally critical to the Russians. Murmansk and Arkhangelsk are two of Russia’s most important historical cold water ports. Both are situated at the southern reaches of the Barents Sea, or at the northern tip of Europe. Both ports are home to the Northern Fleet, and Murmansk is the administrative center of the fleet. And important offshore natural resources can be found not far away from long-established military bases in Russia’s most militarized regions.

A map showing the location of the Barents Sea north of Russia and Norway, and the surrounding seas and islands. (Wikimedia Commons)

Russia is an oil producing giant, and where Gazprom is the largest Russian energy firm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is tightly controlled by the Kremlin, and when Gazprom makes money, the state makes money.17 Putin and his associates will look to jealously guard their economic development in the Arctic, and the Kremlin has explicitly stated it needs a “necessary combat potential” in the Arctic. Regular border guard patrols out of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk were re-activated in 2009, reminiscent of the Soviet Union days. Around this time, it was announced that a new Arctic Spetsnaz unit would come into existence.18 In March of 2015, Russia practiced the largest Arctic military deployment since the Cold War when it mobilized 45,000 soldiers, 3,360 vehicles, 110 aircraft, 41 naval vessels, and 15 submarines in a force readiness exercise.19 Likewise, submarine capability beneath the ice has been revitalized and Russia’s submarine fleet has grown. While some militarization is probably just for basic security purposes, much of it coincides with the protection of expanding oil wealth generated near and within the Arctic Circle.

The Russian Federation’s true power at sea, like the Soviet Union before it, lies in its submarine fleet.20 And nowhere is a submarine force more independently powerful than under the Arctic ice. Russia’s submarine force is plentiful, but aging. Moscow has accordingly begun developing Russian submarine capabilities that will make the fleet formidable well into the 21st century. In the Russian Navy’s 2011-2020 modernization plan, it has completed the construction of three Borei class ballistic missile submarines and two Yasen-class guided-missile submarines, along with the refurbishment of Soviet-era nuclear powered subs. By 2021, Russia plans on completing five new Borei-class ships and four to five new Yasen-class ships by 2023.21 With assets to guard in the Arctic, Russia’s increasingly formidable submarine force will likely look to increase patrols in these icy waters. Maneuvers and rhetoric, however, have not gone unnoticed and have begun to attract the attention of NATO.22 And although the Russian military is outmatched by NATO in certain dimensions, a Russian military advantage in the Arctic is conceivable.

Conclusion

The Arctic, with great potential for development and cooperation, is also a theater of growing tension. For this reason, the U.S. must give much greater priority to the Arctic. Development of strategic planning is the first move – something that has only recently begun to appear. It is encouraging that defense planners and policy makers alike have recognized this, but there are great improvements still to be made. The second move is the creation of serious military capability in the High North, spearheaded by the United States Coast Guard, which at present lacks the ability to sustain operations in the frozen wilderness of the planet’s northernmost reaches.

The story of Arctic security invariably involves the Russian Federation. Moscow is motivated by prestige, nationalism, and economic potential. Vladimir Putin has made public his intentions to defend and build Russian pride.23 This will be transposed to the High North. In recent history Moscow has pursued an active military policy, and this trend is poised to continue. Understanding Russian motivations and goals in the Arctic will be imperative in creating sound Arctic defense policy.

Tyler Cross recently completed a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University. He will continue his career in international security cooperation.

References

[1] Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, (New York: Anchor Books, 2014), p. 21.

[2] James Stavridis, Sea Power The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 332-333.

[3] Megan Eckstein, “Zukunft: Changing Arctic Could Lead to Armed U.S. Icebreakers in Fleet, U.S. Naval Institute News, May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2017/05/18/zukunft-changing-arctic-environment-could-lead-to-more-armed-icebreakers-in-future-fleet.

[4] Stavridis, pp. 329, 332.

[5] Gilbert Rozman, Strategic Thinking about the Korean Nuclear Crisis Four Parties Caught between North Korea and the United States, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 91-93.

[6] Stavridis, p. 332.

[7] Andrey A. Todorov, “The Russia-USA Legal Dispute Over the Straits of the Northern Sea Route and Similar Case of the Northwest Passage,” Arktika I Sever, no. 29 (2017): pp. 71-73.

[8] Ibid, pp. 62-65.

[9] Stavridis, pp. 333-334.

[10] Ibid., pp.336-337.

[11] David Slayton and Lawson W. Brigham, “Can the US and Russia Preserve Peace in the Arctic?,” Investor’s Business Daily, May 13, 2015, p. A13.

[12] Stavridis, pp. 341-342.

[13] Kari Roberts, “Jets, Flags, and a new Cold War? Demystifying Russia’s Arctic Intentions,” International Journal, 65, no. 4 (2010): p. 966.

[14] Stavridis, pp. 342-343, 354.

[15] Ibid., p. 342.

[16] Katarzyna Zysk, “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: AMBITIONS AND CONSTRAINTS,” Joint Force Quarterly, 57 (2010): p. 105.

[17] Roberts, pp. 963-964.

[18] Zysk, p. 107.

[19] Kristina Spohr, “The Scramble for the Arctic,” New Statesman, 147 (March 9-March 15, 2018): pp. 22-27.

[20] Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Fifth Generation Sub Looms,” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine 143, no. 10 (October 2017).

[21] Ibid. The Yasen class is commonly referred to as “Severodvinsk” in NATO circles.

[22] Zysk, p. 109.

[23] Paul Dibb, “The Geopolitical Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” Strategic and Defense Studies Center, June 2014, p. 5.

Featured Image: Navy Seals training for winter warfare at Mammoth Mountain ski area in California on December 9, 2014. (U.S. Navy Photo by Visual Information Specialist Chris Desmond)

Dealing with the Dragon

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

By Philip A. Shull

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

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

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

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

Rules as Objective Requirements vs. Optional Tools

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

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

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

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

Understanding China’s Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Wall Separating Common Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competitive Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

Featured Image: istockphoto.com