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Sea Control 135 – Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, President of the U.S. Naval War College

By Ashley O’Keefe

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, president of the U.S. Naval War College (USNWC), to talk about the ways in which the College is adapting to a rapidly changing strategic environment. We’ll learn about the USNWC’s updated mission set, their outreach to the international community, and their part in the new renaissance in wargaming, among other topics.

Download Sea Control 135 – Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, President of the U.S. Naval War College 

The transcript of the conversation between Admiral Harley and Ashley O’Keefe begins below. Special thanks to Associate Producers Roman Madaus and Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode.

Ashley: Good afternoon, and welcome to this week’s Sea Control podcast. I’m Ashley O’Keefe, and I’m here today with Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, the president of the United States Naval War College. He’s a career surface warfare officer, and a foreign policy expert. He has a masters from Tufts – the Fletcher School – and the Naval War College, and he’s been the president here at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) for almost a year. We’re really looking forward to this discussion. Thank you again for being here, Admiral.

Many of our listeners have heard of the U.S. Naval War College, and most know about your core mission of educating and developing future naval leaders. There have been some big developments here in the last year, with an expanding mission set and several new initiatives launched here in Newport. Can you describe some of the impetus for those changes?

RADM Harley: The big change that we have is a function of our strategic plan – meaning that we have a plan on how we’re going to keep the College relevant. When you look at the strategic environment around us, you’ll recognize the exponential change everywhere, whether it’s in leadership or in technology. The demands placed on the educational system as a result of that exponential change require that we do things to ensure our relevance. So, some of the initiatives that we have are a function of that change – of trying to keep up with that change and maintaining our relevance.

We have a number of missions here at the college, but I’d like to start out by saying that when people say we’re the U.S. Naval War College, we’re really none of those things. We’re not U.S. – we’re an international school. Of our student body, one-sixth of them, some 110 students, are international students. We are not a naval college, we’re a joint college. We have students from all over the interagency, civilian agencies, all of the different services – we are a joint college and not merely naval. We are a war college in the sense that we study war, but we truly study the constructs of peace, the understanding of policy and strategy and the interrelationships between the two, all with a goal of preventing war. And then, probably trivial, but we’re not really a college, we’re a university, because we have four or five different colleges within our system, as well as a very large research arm that includes wargaming capacity. So, we’re really none of those things –U.S. Naval War or College. If we changed our name it would be something like the ‘International Joint Peace University,’ so it would be fairly complex.

But the impetus is really the change that’s going on around us, and so we’ve expanded our missions to reflect that change and that requirement for us to maintain that relevancy. And so we also look of course for how we can make a great institution even greater.

As you said, our principal mission, the core mission upon which everything else builds, is the education and development of future leaders. That’s our student body throughput. It’s also a reflection of our distance education capability. We have hundreds of thousands of people enrolled in our distance education programs through the College of Distance Education.

In the past, we had principally four missions, and the second one would be helping to define the future Navy. Whether that’s through fleet architecture studies, or helping to red-team those studies or helping to provide the home of thought – the strategic underpinnings of those kind of dialogues.

Our third mission was to support combat readiness, and we do that through our College of Operational and Strategic Leadership. And what they do is they have a number of advise-and-assist teams that work closely with the fleets. They participate in conferences, events, and wargaming all over the world to do that.

Our fourth mission always was to strengthen global maritime partnerships, which we do on a number of levels, including the International Seapower Symposium which happens every other year, a number of regional alumni symposia, as well as the international student throughput that goes with that.

The additional missions that we’ve added in some ways reflect things that we already do, but they also reflect expansion in these areas as well. We’ve added three relatively new missions.

The first is promoting ethics and leadership. Of course, when we talk about educating and developing future leaders, we’ve always had a leadership component, but we folded in a great deal of additional study in the curriculum and are working with the Navy Leadership and Ethics Center (NLEC) to expand the impact of our education and training provided through the education system at the various touch points. That continues to expand.

The second of those three new missions is contributing historical knowledge to shape decisions. We’ve always had a strong history here reflected in world-class archives and our History Center, and we’re expanding our Maritime History Center to be a Maritime History and Research Center. We’re trying to build this into a hive of activity. Understanding history is critical. History may not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme, as they say. So, having a world-class history research center here is critical to our future development within the College. Of course, in the 1970s, Admiral Stansfield Turner had the Turner revolution, in which he imbued history throughout the entire curriculum, and it remains to this day part of the national treasure of being able to attend this College, the historical underpinnings that you get in terms of understanding strategy and policy.

The last mission is providing input to the international legal community. We do that through our Stockton Center. That center contributes to the international dialogue on everything from the law of the sea, to law of war, to conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, and simply so much more. The impetus was indeed the change that’s going on around us – the need to maintain our relevance here at this extraordinary institution and these new missions are simply a reflection of that need.

Ashley: Thank you, Admiral. It must be a really exciting time to be here at the War College. When you talk about these new missions –  or at least, writing down the things that were already happening to some extent – what is some of the work that you see coming out of places like the Maritime History Center, the Stockton Center, that’s exciting to you? What do you think are some of the impacts that you see coming from those places inside of the War College?

RADM Harley: Well, I would think that we’re at the forefront of so much of the thinking in so many different areas. So, illuminating history is the contribution of the History Center, again soon-to-be renamed History and Research Center. History has that critical role in so many things we do, and again, there’s so much history embedded in the institution. But also within our curriculum, providing that historical foundation, which, often for many of the students with very technical backgrounds, is the first time that they get this extent of the historical underpinning. And then the Stockton Center contributes an enormous amount at the maritime level, the national level, and the international level. On the issues of the day – key, critical issues that you see every day, such as the law of the sea issues in the South China Sea, vis-a-vis China, or the law of war, or conflict prevention, or the interfaces with the United Nations… it’s pretty extraordinary, the things that we’re doing.

I’ll just torture you with this idea of using those kind of examples of history and of the international law center as simply being a reflection of the contributions that the College makes at the national level. We’re continuing to expand how we ensure that relevancy of those seven missions. We’re doing that through what I call the “izes.”

The first of those is that we’re going to continue to operationalize the Naval War College. We’re doing that by enhancing the operations analysis that we do in concert with the Naval Warfare Development Command as well as the modeling and simulation that takes place within the Pentagon and other places. We’re operationalizing in terms of the way that we’re adding additional warfighting education to our curriculum. We’re adding particularly in terms of sea control and all-domain access. We’ve reflected the strategic environment in which we live through the stand-up of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute here last fall so now we have world-class experts in a critical area of geopolitical interest for our nation.

We also are navalizing our curriculum. We’ve always been a joint college, at least for the past several decades, but I think that we’ve become reliant on this idea that sea control is something that you already have, and in today’s world of anti-access capabilities, it’s really important that we teach sea control and maritime capabilities, all in accordance with the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.

We’re also futurizing the College. We’ve got our expanded and much more robust cyber curriculum, we’re teaching unmanned systems, we’re teaching space, we’re teaching the new and emerging technologies that influence the strategic environment. Within that futurization initiative is the creation of an Institute for Future Warfare Studies, which is going to allow us to look 30 or more years out into the future, instead of the tendency to look a very short period of time out, because of exponential change. But you can study future probabilities, and you can look that far out, and you can look at force architectures that would be required to work in that environment thirty years from now.

And then the last thing that we’re doing in terms of those “izes” is that we’re internationalizing our College. And by that I mean that we’re expanding the international interfaces that we have and we’re increasing the number of regional alumni symposia that we execute with our international  graduates in between our International Seapower Symposia that we conduct every two years. We’ve increased the number of Chief of Naval Operations International Fellows that we have onboard as part of our faculty. In fact, just a month ago, we brought on the former head of navy from Japan, Admiral Takei, so now Professor Takei is part of our faculty and staff. He brings a great deal of warfighting and educational experience to help shape the contours of the education that we provide both to our student body throughput, but also to our wargaming, and to our advise and assist teams that are really all over the world. This fall, we hope to bring on board the former head of navy from Norway. In doing so, we’ll have the Atlantic experience, the Arctic exposure, and obviously some NATO experience. So that will increase our CNO international fellows to four, and we’ll look to continue to expand that program because of the great skill sets that they can bring to the College and to the education for our individual students.

So those four “izes” really put into context the means and the lines of effort by which we aim to increase the relevance of this great institution.

Ashley: It’s exciting that as the College expands and creates value on so many different levels that it’s not insular, it’s really very global in perspective. And many of our listeners are in fact not in the U.S. – they’re foreign naval officers, they’re otherwise interested maritime security people. So when we think about how the College does interact, I understand that you take in foreign naval officers for education, but what are some other places where the College is collaborating internationally, maybe you could talk about the regional alumni symposia and what those bring to the table.

RADM Harley: The big effort that we make is the International Seapower Symposium here in Newport. The next one will be in the fall of 2018. That will be a largely attended event; it’ll have something on the order of 85 heads of navy here. To keep the momentum going between the International Seapower Symposia, we do hold these regional alumni symposia. About a month ago, we held one in Lima, Peru. It was focused on the Americas – all the way from Canada to South America. Simply extraordinary – we talk regional and local issues, we bring world-class experts in from the respective nations as well as from the U.S. Naval War College.

It helps us maintain the alumni relations and develop a deeper understanding of the issues that affect the regions. And we rotate, throughout the cycle, to get to all the different areas of the world. Our next one is scheduled for this fall. It will be in the Middle East, and then we’ll be in Asia in the spring, then we’ll do the International Seapower Symposium next fall, then keep the rotation going between Africa and Europe. So it’s a pretty exciting opportunity to maintain those alumni relations, and their connections to the College that many of our international student graduates have come to know and love and respect for the contributions that we make in this international dialogue.

Ashley: One more last hot topic before I let you go, sir. Everybody loves to talk about wargaming. It’s been hot since, I suppose, Sims and Luce, but today we’re talking about it as well. So what are some of the new developments? I see it pop up a couple of times in some of those new mission areas that you talked about – could you maybe just explain a little bit more what you’re doing here?

RADM Harley: I think you’re right, there’s certainly been a renaissance in wargaming, led by Deputy Secretary Work in the Pentagon, and we’ve revitalized our wargaming program in a number of different ways. We’re really focusing hard on integrating the wargaming through the ops analysis community. By that I mean with the folks who do modeling and simulation and those who do experimentation. So, there is a greater effort to have that level of integration, so that your wargaming is informed by the experimentation that’s taking place. The experimentation that you’re doing is informed by the wargaming that you’re doing – and apply that same argument to the interfaces with modeling and simulation.

We’re also slowly expanding the amount of wargaming that we do with the student body. We of course have groups that are student-led. That’s essentially their elective while they’re here at the College. But we’re trying to get wargaming exposure to every student who comes through this great college, so everybody will have an opportunity to participate in wargaming.

We’re expanding the analysis that we’re doing in the wargaming, putting the appropriate focus on the quality of the analysis to make the quality of the wargames even better through the strategic enterprise of our Navy. The scheduling of the gaming has been refined to the point to offer the optimal output for the capacity that we have, and integration with all of the other entities that do wargaming as well. So you’re absolutely right, there’s so much going on with our wargaming, with our research, all integrated into the broader Navy analytic agenda. We’re excited about the ability to imbue each and every student with a fundamental understanding of  the contributions that wargaming can make.

Ashley: Well, sir, I think that you’re going to get a spike in applicants here as our CIMSEC listeners all get excited about the things that the College is doing, and just how vibrant this community is here. Is there anything else that you wanted to cover or leave our listeners with anything to close?

RADM Harley: Well, I’m humbled and honored to serve here at your USNWC. We do look forward to being able to maintain the dialogue with the international community, providing appropriate strategic thinking to our national leadership, particularly on maritime issues. We do so much to contribute to that dialogue and we’re just honored and humbled to be a part of that dialogue that takes place in this most demanding and complex of times.

Ashley: Thank you again for your time this afternoon, Admiral!

Rear Admiral Jeff Harley is the President of the U.S. Naval War College.

Ashley O’Keefe is the CIMSEC Secretary for 2016-2017. She is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. 

Trump-Xi Summit, Looking Back One Month Later

By Tuan N. Pham

As the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the Trump-Xi Summit a month later? 

Last month, I wrote an article titled “After the Summit: Where Do U.S.-China Relations Go From Here?” where I posited that China appeared to have a lot to be gratified about in 2016 in terms of advancing its rising regional and international role. The 6-7 April Trump-Xi Summit was the latest strategic signaling to the world that Beijing has abandoned its longstanding state policy of “hide capabilities and bide time” and will now assume its rightful place on the world stage as a destined global power. I also suggested that the heavily choreographed summit seemed more about atmospherics than substance as evidenced by President Xi’s exacting protocol demands prior to the summit, President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against Syria during the summit, and the summit itself not yielding any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year. One month later, as the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the summit?

Part 1 of this two-part series asks what the perceived and actual outcomes are from a Chinese, American, and international perspective. Part 2 will then ask which leader came out relatively stronger, what the ramifications for U.S.-China strategic relations are, what to expect when Trump visits China later in the year, and finally where the strategic opportunities are for the U.S. and how Washington can leverage them.

The Chinese Perspective

Looking back at China’s official public releases, think tank commentaries, and authoritative media reports of the summit, an overarching strategic communications theme was apparent across the tightly controlled and synchronized Chinese public information domain – “the summit charted a course and provided a roadmap for the China-U.S. relations, and established a new cooperation mechanism that will enhance and protect the all-important strategic bilateral relationship.” Supporting talking points shared (and probably coordinated) amongst the various Chinese interlocutors encompassed: (1) complementarity between the economies of China and the United States far exceeds any competition between them, (2) a thousand reasons for two countries to be good partners and not a single reason to damage the China-U.S. relations, (3) that China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development, does not wish to play a zero-sum game, is not seeking hegemony, and is willing to work with the United States to maintain world peace, stability, and prosperity, and (4) that the U.S. relationship with China will depend on the hope for a “new pattern of relations between great powers” based on the principle of “no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Common catchphrases used by Chinese government officials, pundits, and news media to characterize the summit included “mutual understanding, mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual shaping.”

Given the circumstances, it seems that the Chinese public diplomacy apparatus – which Beijing uses to signal its policy priorities – struggled to make the case that the summit resulted in any substantive or tangible outcomes. Instead it expended an inordinate amount of attention on the intangible personal relationship between Xi and Trump and on the former’s proposed four dialogue mechanisms covering diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges. This is not too surprising considering that Chinese think tank punditry and authoritative media reporting prior to the summit were, by and large, focused on building up Xi, jockeying for summit positions, expressing desired outcomes, and in some cases, grandstanding and hedging.            

What may be more telling is the coverage by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, think tanks, and authoritative media of areas of bilateral tensions – North Korea, Taiwan, South China Sea (SCS), and trade and commerce – during and after the summit. To date, they have been largely limited, vague, positive, and most importantly, provided no indication that Beijing is considering major changes in its policies in the aftermath of the summit.

The one exception may be North Korea. There have been sporadic dialogues in the Chinese media – most notably in the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper run by the state-run People’s Daily, that suggest a growing policy debate within China questioning Beijing’s longstanding support to North Korea, warn of potential sanctions, and caution Pyongyang if it “carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return…all stakeholders will bear the consequences, with Pyongyang sure to suffer the greatest losses.” These media commentaries, while sometimes used to test reactions to potential foreign policies, do not necessarily represent the views of the state. But the warnings appear consistent with Beijing’s recent actions to include implementation of previous United Nations Security Council sanctions and the Xi-Trump phone call on 24 April to discuss possible solutions to the North Korean nuclear issue and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

However, while encouraging, these latest Chinese cooperative moves may be motivated more by Xi’s desire to project goodwill with Trump than to help resolve the North Korean problem. Beijing has shown time and time again that its strategic interests in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and ensuring a stable North Korea along its border override its desire to cooperate with Washington to denuclearize the peninsula. The coming months will reveal Beijing’s true intent, and more importantly, its sincerity and resolve this time around. Placating words are meaningless without persistent and consistent actions. Washington should trust but verify.   

The American Perspective 

The White House praised the summit as a positive and productive opportunity for both presidents and their wives to get to know one another, and for their respective staffs to build rapport for the work ahead in reviewing the state of strategic bilateral relations and generating results-focused outcomes that would benefit both countries. Trump and Xi agreed to work in concert to expand areas of cooperation while managing differences based on mutual respect and to elevate existing bilateral talks to reflect the importance of making progress on strategic issues of mutual concern. 

Overall, the meeting details were rather sparse for policy flexibility and probably indicative of the U.S. limited objectives for the summit considering the timing and duration of the meeting: (1) get through the state visit without any enduring policy encumbrances; (2) size up Chinese counterparts for future negotiations (trade, commerce, North Korea, Taiwan, SCS, etc.); and (3) set favorable conditions for the forthcoming and more substantive cabinet-level dialogues and state visit to China. Generally speaking, a major summit within the first 100 days of taking office may be too soon, particularly with the principal nation-state competitor, understaffed national security team, and an unsettled China policy.

Despite the positive and upbeat portrayals of the summit by Beijing and Washington, there was a wide divergence on whether the state visit was a success or not amongst U.S. think tank and media analysts. Some read the lack of a joint press conference or joint press statement as a failure; while others judged the summit as successful simply because it provided an opportunity for Trump and Xi to meet, lower heightened tensions, and set the conditions for future dialogues and negotiations. However, most agreed that the U.S. missile strikes on Syria overshadowed the summit and the summit itself produced few substantive or tangible results. That being said, many saw enough pleasantry between the two sides for restrained optimism in the coming year.

The International Perspective

Most foreign media outlets were cautiously hopeful prior to the summit. Many welcomed the meeting as an occasion to reduce the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, lower the risk of a disruptive trade war with global ramifications, and explore a new constructive and stabilizing relationship between the two economic and military juggernauts. After the summit, the same foreign media outlets largely acknowledged that there were few substantive or tangible outcomes and the U.S. missile strikes against Syria detracted from the meeting. Some even intimated that the latter may have been a subtle signal to China that the United States is ready to act militarily and unilaterally when faced with threats abroad to include North Korea. Nevertheless, the cordial tone and lack of controversy were generally considered positive steps towards ameliorating tensions in U.S.-China relations during the first eventful months of the Trump Administration.  

U.S. regional allies and partners were rather anxious that Washington would make some sort of unilateral accommodation to Beijing without consultation and at their expense. In Tokyo, there had been apprehensions that the Trump Administration would attempt to use “the scent of a huge deal with China” as leverage to extract concessions from Japan, ease plans to step up pressure on Pyongyang, and give ground in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS. In Seoul, there were fears that Washington would offer uncoordinated peninsular concessions to Beijing in exchange for pressuring Pyongyang. In Taipei, there were concerns that Trump would continue to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its trade negotiations with Beijing and possibly for North Korea, too. In Canberra, there were worries of being left behind on potential economic agreements.

All appear relieved with the summit’s lackluster outcomes. Trump’s telephone calls with Japanese Prime Minister Abe before and after the meeting seemed to allay the Japanese concerns. The Korean response was generally mixed with the Korean Foreign Ministry hailing the summit as successful and meaningful, while the Korean media calling out the meeting for its lack of any agreement on the North Korean nuclear and missile issue. The Taiwanese were likely reassured that the Chinese proposal for a Fourth Communique did not come up, in which Trump would again accede to Xi’s wishes by agreeing that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it, instead of the U.S. longstanding policy that it acknowledges the Chinese viewpoint but does not accept the viewpoint. The Australians were simply content that no economic agreements were made that upset their robust bilateral trade relations with China. As for the rest of the region, the media provided limited coverage – as is typical for events outside the region – with post-summit commentary predominantly observed in Singapore. As expected, Singapore took a neutral and measured position of the summit – “does not appear to have gone badly…and achieved little more than just sketching out the challenges which lie ahead on North Korea, SCS, and trade and commerce.”

Conclusion    

This concludes the short discourse on the perceived and actual outcomes from a Chinese, American, and international Regional perspective on the Trump-Xi summit and sets the conditions for further discussion in part 2 on the assessment of which leader came out relatively stronger, ramifications for the U.S.-China strategic relations, expectations of Trump’s visit to China later in the year, and U.S. strategic opportunities and how Washington can leverage them.     

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

Featured Image: Talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday and Friday have put bilateral ties back on track. (AFP)

Sea Control 134 – The South China Sea with Vasco Becker-Weingberg

By Matthew Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Professor Vasco Becker-Weingberg of Universidad Nova in Lisbon, Portugal, about the South China Sea. The interview, conducted by Roger Hilton of the University of Kiel, address topics including the role of the Law of the Sea, the oil sector, private security contractors, and everything in between.

Download Sea Control 134 – South China Sea with Vasco Becker-Weinberg

The transcript of the conversation between Vasco Becker-Weinberg (Vasco) and Roger Hilton (Roger) begins below. Special thanks to Associate Producer Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode.

Roger: Hello CIMSEC listeners and welcome to another edition of the Sea Control podcast series. My name is Roger Hilton,  and I am a non-resident academic fellow for at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University. With no shortages of geopolitical crises erupting today, our podcast could not come at a more timely moment. One global topic that is especially prone to unpredictability is the evolving list of security threats dominating the South China Sea (SCS). Thankfully, I have the pleasure of hosting Vasco Becker-Weinberg as our guest for this episode today. Vasco is a law of the sea professor at the Universidad Nova de Lisboa, and a coordinator of the LLM program on the maritime economy and the law of the sea at Nova. His contribution to the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security outlines the very security issues dominating the SCS. Vasco, thank you for joining us.

Vasco: It’s my pleasure.

Roger: After reading your piece, it is clear that there are a litany of issues in the SCS outside of the region’s well-publicized territorial disputes.To lay the groundwork for the conversation, can you start by explaining to our listeners how the maritime space is currently organized, and some of the threats that we are going to discuss today?

Vasco: We’ll probably focus on maritime jurisdiction in the SCS,  also perhaps refer to the seabed activities in the disputed maritime areas, meaning what is the regime applicable to these areas, and current threats–perhaps piracy, armed robbery, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)–must be addressed as well.

On the issue of maritime jurisdiction, just briefly, it’s important that our listeners understand that this important maritime area is not no-man’s-land in the sense that this dispute has the result of two or more overlapping claims. These claims have to be based on the legal title recognized by international law and claims have to be made clearly to other states. What we see today in the case of the SCS is that some of these claims or claiming states, to be precise, neither put forward the basis on which they make their claims (i.e. their respective legal title), and second, what is the location (precisely) of the disputed maritime areas. So therefore this creates a sort of cloud of legal uncertainty regarding some of these claims.

To make matters even complex, our listeners should know that different offshore features have different legal regimes. So, the legal codification of the feature as an island or as a rock, for example, has different consequences in the type of maritime zones it can project. When we refer to maritime zones, essentially, we refer to territorial sea, to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). So in the case of a rock, a rock can project a territorial sea (TTS) up to 12 NM but if the legal status of this feature is an island or should be considered an island, then it can actually project a 200 mile EEZ. So the differences are actually quite significant. Of course, the tendency is that claiming states would always consider these offshore features to be islands, so that they can actually project greater maritime zones, and therefore, there’s an inherent stress between different claiming states between claimed offshore features. And in this respect, recent international jurisprudence has been extremely helpful in clarifying exactly what the relevant criteria in terms of what is a rock or an island. But let me point out that although there is recent jurisprudence on this matter, the debate is still very much alive.

When it comes to jurisdiction of states, it’s important to understand that the further you go from land towards the sea, the rights of states are not as intense as they are closer to shore. So, in the territorial sea of 12NM, that’s the first fringe of sea that’s closer to land, and states exercise more rights of sovereignty. But when we refer to sovereignty at sea, it’s not the same thing as sovereignty on land. There is no concept of private property at sea, for example, and you cannot cross the territory of another state. There is no right for you to do so without that state’s permission. Whereas in the TTS, for example, there is the right of innocent passage for certain vessels that comply with the conditions listed in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There’s no similarity between this right of innocent passage and any other right on land.

Then, forgetting about the contiguous zone, then after the TTS is the EEZ. The EEZ has its own special regime because it is neither TTS nor is it part of the high seas. It allows you to develop economic activities. It’s not exclusive, it’s economic. There’s very little that gives the state exclusivity in the EEZ. And finally, on the seabed and subsoil adjacent to the baselines of the TTS, we have the continental shelf. The continental shelf has been recognized as existing beyond the will of the coastal state to declare a continental shelf. It means that state exercises exclusive rights of sovereignty for the purpose of exploration of the resources of the shelf. There’s an erroneous perception some might have that the whole continental shelf is an extension of land sovereignty from the coastal state.It’s not that. It’s only focused on resources. And to end on a simple note, the current UNCLOS was developed on a resource-based approach, and a sectoral approach. Therefore, the whole issue of economic issues at sea and environmental resources is quite central to how the current legal regime has developed in recent years.

Roger: Thanks for such a comprehensive introduction. Undoubtedly, all of the technical and legal information you outlined is critical to understanding the activities in the SCS. It’s definitely a lot for the states in question to consider. Let’s get to some specifics now. As you state, tensions among the claiming states have shrunk the prospects for the delimitation of boundaries either via agreement or compulsory mechanisms. Against this backdrop, how do states interact legally in this gridlock?

Vasco: Well it’s true that it has become very difficult for states to agree on a compulsory set of mechanisms – meaning, resorting to a third party or any other means of settling the dispute. On the other hand, the fundamental reason why states have not been able to come to an understanding or an agreement is precisely  the lack of clarity regarding some claims and some legal titles.

So what are states bound to do if they can’t reach an agreement? International law is quite clear in defining these obligations. The first principle is the preservation of the maritime environment. In the disputed area, claiming states can’t act as if it’s a no-man’s land and have different conduct in that area. So they have a fundamental obligation to protect the marine environment, which states are bound to. Another obligation is that of the freedom and safety of navigation. Just because it is a disputed maritime area, the rights of third-party states are not shrunken. So guaranteeing that other states can freely exercise the freedom of navigation is extremely important. Unfortunately, what happens is that this sort of competitive behavior has developed in recent years in the SCS, particularly with oil and gas, therefore placing offshore installations that are neither identified, or were placed without notifying other states that this was happening. Of note, in a disputed maritime area, no state may develop the resources of that area without the consent of all states that are also claiming that same area, since a claim to that area is also a claim to those resources. So, a state, if he wants to develop, he must first seek the consent of all other states. Of course, this is not an easy task. Another case that is also important is that if a state finds out that there are important marine resources in a disputed area, he has the obligation to inform the other states that these resources exist.

How can we develop these obligations? Based on two fundamental principles of international law. First, good faith, of acting with good faith, and the principle of cooperation.

Roger: The legal dynamic in theory seems to work, but in practice it might be overshadowed by the disproportionate capabilities of the competing states. It’s undeniably a difficult challenge to preserve the diverse ecosystem of the SCS while simultaneously developing the lucrative trade in the region. That trade will only increase as the region becomes a hub for global finance. This is the perfect segway into the dangers of nationalism being injected into the negotiations for disputed areas. I think you’d agree that this hinders progress during negotiations, as any international compromise can be interpreted domestically as a form of capitulation. Should the listeners expect to see more of this in negotiations, or will it diminish moving forward?

Vasco: You put the question in an interesting way. If we are focusing on the SCS, but if you look at many disputes around the world, first, there’s no obligation to draw maritime boundaries, and many boundaries in the world are still pending the limitation or any form of settlement. You know, there are many examples. And in many of these cases, because it’s part of defending the territorial integrity of any state, throughout history governments have used nationalism to create a sense that there’s no giving up of claims or of territory. So, this nationalistic rhetoric is precisely to reinstate their claim for territorial integrity. 

But having said this, it’s interesting to see that in one case, of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), two years ago the PRC government announced the Belt and Road initiative, which also included the Maritime Silk Road initiative. These are an interesting approach by the PRC, and involves strong nationalistic rhetoric. It’s important to understand that all states in the SCS have their own nationalistic rhetoric at home. This new approach, the belt and road initiative, is precisely focused on economic development and increasing efficiency in transportation of goods, not only in the region but beyond. It involves connecting port infrastructures, making sure there’s security and safety, and these are all important for creating a dynamic of cooperation between states. So, if you want, things can be thought of in this way –I think states will continue this rhetoric, even though it’s not helpful in its outcome, and secondly, I think the tendency will be to continue developing some sort of cooperation between both claimant states and regions. The threats that claiming states and regions are facing are common to both, and cooperation will become an inevitability.

Roger: Maybe what distinguishes the SCS, which involves so much competition, is that the current operation of jurisdiction in the SCS is a minefield to navigate on a daily basis. So in your opinion, the functional link you mentioned earlier, it seems to serve its purpose of facilitating the compartmentalization of relations, but can this model be sustainable long term? Where are the shortcomings likely to be exposed?

Vasco: The international law isn’t without its shortcomings. Where many skeptics of international law focus is on the lack of effectiveness of international law to uphold its own decisions. We saw that recently with an arbitration between 2 states in the SCS where one state refused to participate, or to comply with the award. Therefore, one can very well ask ‘ok, we have international law, the obligations are clear, but then do states just continue doing what they are doing’? But that’s how it is. The global awareness of maritime disputes and the need to continue increasing cooperation will lead to the need for agreement on a specific dispute to take place. The problem of the SCS regarding other disputes is the intricacy of the different claims, and of course the importance of the SCS for international trade. Therefore, it’s quite a complex situation.

Is it sustainable to continue with the current dispute? Well, there are many cases around the world where disputes regarding maritime boundaries have existed for centuries and states nonetheless have had an entente cordiale, some sort of understanding to allow them to continue. It is important to look to the Law of the Sea and to the Convention to understand that the convention gives us the mechanisms not only to promote cooperation but also to help with the very important element of saving face.

I’m referring specifically to joint development, which is an alternative to states that do not agree on a maritime boundary, either by agreement or by compulsory settlement mechanism, but still manage to find this legal solution. It is not prejudicial and has no bearing on the claims they have made. This allows the two states to achieve economic development in a disputed maritime area. Then of course this would be an optimal result, but there are many different types of agreements states can make before they get to this optimal agreement. For example, making sure that there are mechanisms for 2 states that claim a disputed area to implement environmental assessment mechanisms that allow both of them to act in a way that preserves and protects the marine environment. This may not be a satisfactory answer to your listeners, but it’s the one that’s possible given the current legal framework.

Roger: Against this complicated legal backdrop, you mention that while disputed areas aren’t subject to the sovereignty of a coastal state, that does not mean that seabed activities are exempt from an internationally binding legal regime, which is a positive, both in terms of trade and protection of the environment. Can you elaborate on the procedural duties of this in an international law context–the difference between the lack of jurisdiction in disputed areas and seabed activities?

Vasco: The first thing we should be aware of is that there are thousands of offshore installations at sea. In many parts of the world, these installations are located in areas under the jurisdiction of a particular state, and therefore they’re accounted for. We know where and what they are, and we can monitor the safety procedures they’ve implemented. For example, around each installation there should be a security zone–not only to prevent some sort of collision, but also to ensure that the activity itself can take place safely.

In the SCS, we don’t have as much information as we would desire. Firstly, many of these offshore installations are in disputed maritime areas–very difficult to reach considering the military tension around them, and secondly, some of these installations have actually passed their service date, more than 30 years, and some have been abandoned, they’re just sitting there at sea. This can represent a hazard not only to the environment, but also to safety of navigation.

International law provides us with rules for states in these conditions. Firstly, the law of the sea is the law of the continental shelf. So, it’s impossible to construe the option that a state could be allowed to develop the resources in an area and not be responsible for exactly how those resources are developed. So the lack of clear jurisdiction doesn’t mean that all states concerned don’t have the obligation to protect the environment (and this is very clear and specific measures under international law) and also to protect the freedom of navigation. For example, if you have an offshore installation abandoned, then the state that put the installation there in the first place is responsible for all damages resulting from that offshore installation, be that complying with the obligation of dumping waste to the sea, or if there’s a spill after it’s no longer in use. The state that placed that installation will have to be responsible under international law.

Roger: It’s all very relevant and valid. As the region is developing, it’s a very new experience that it is responsible for upholding environmental standards. We’re hoping that with more time and experience, it will get a little more familiar and rigidity at administering these practices. In your text, in the post-Deepwater Horizon era, you identified how the EU and its member states have tried adopting common standards without impacting the jurisdiction affecting the national maritime areas. This is also backed up by UNCLOS Art. 192, which says that all states, including the landlocked states, have the duty and obligation to protect and preserve the maritime environment. Can you detail the EU’s practices, and if this model is realistically transferrable to the states in the SCS?

Vasco: Well the EU does not exercise jurisdiction over the maritime areas belonging to its member states. It does, regarding one activity, fisheries, and regarding other activities, it shares confidence, if you want to put it simply, with the member states. But the rights of coastal states, regarding maritime zones, that too stays with the EU member states. What happened was until we had the Deepwater Horizon incident, the notion of the financial implications and magnitude of the environmental impact were completely unrealistic compared to what we saw actually happened there, both in terms of indemnities that have been established, and other standards. It’s important to know that Deepwater Horizon was not in compliance with many international standards, but the problem there was of significant human error.

So the EU, after what we saw, took and made security of offshore installations and safety a priority for the EU, and also put forth legislation for states to implement at the national level. Another important organization putting forth valuable guidelines is the International Maritime Organization. All of these efforts made at a global level also have an impact on the SCS. In the SCS, for example, ASEAN has taken to heart the preservation of the maritime environment and encouraged member states to adopt measures. But you can’t really compare. What we have in the EU in terms of political integration is quite unique compared with other world regions.

Roger: Could standards not rise without political integration?

Vasco: That’s precisely what we’re going to say. There is today a very clear understanding of the standards around the world. It would be very easy to determine certain options and see whether they’re operating within the international legal framework. There’s consent given by all relevant states, that they would abide by those standards, and subject to inspection and so on and so forth. The problem is there is very little information and there could possibly be much more about these offshore installations. So yes, they’re subject to international standards and the industry itself is very different these days than it was several years back. The industry is very aware, and continues to increase its own self-regulation. Standards these days in most places around the world are very high.

Roger: It’s hard to compare the two, but moving forward even without the political integration, we can all wish that they will collectively voluntarily want to raise the standards for the general use of the area.

Vasco: There’s another element to this. The fact is that many oil companies around the world actually have their headquarters outside of the region. I’m thinking of oil companies based in the EU. We now have international jurisprudence and domestic courts where you are allowed to sue the mother company that isn’t located in that specific country where it is not upholding the level of standards, but back home. For example, if the company which is based in the EU opens a branch in another country where perhaps the levels of compliance are lower than those in the home state, the parent company can actually be sued for failing to exercise due diligence, or failing to comply with international standards. So the approach can be sometimes very frustrating, but we have a series of new mechanisms in development to make sure that when a company goes abroad, it doesn’t do whatever it feels like, but complies with the standards of its home state. These situations have rapidly developed and you’re seeing more and more situations where parent companies are actually sued for violations outside the home state.

Roger: Good to know there are some mechanisms to keep companies in check if the political integration isn’t there on the national level. Shifting gears, we’ve spoken about the legal governance and how seabed activities are conducted in disputed maritime areas. There are some major hard security issues that we would be foolish not to talk about. The rise of professional piracy, as well as the menace of trafficking weapons are all increasing substantially. Consequently, both of the issues are not confined to the SCS but to a global area. Let’s start with trafficking of WMD. What has the response been in the SCS?

Vasco: What we’ve seen in recent years is the increasing number of private military security companies. Statistics show that ships that have members of private security companies significantly reduce the cases of incidents occurring. These cases often occur when security personnel are not onboard the ships. But it’s a double-edged sword. Although international law recognizes this is the situation–there are these companies operating onboard the ships–it raises the problem of the presence of firearms aboard ships and the training of these elements is complicated. And their own role on the ship  such as their relationship with the captain, the crew. It creates a lot of added difficulty.

Nonetheless, similar to what happened with the oil and gas industry, private security companies are increasing their own self-regulation. This can be a huge risk  for them if they’re not applying best standards when defending or being present onboard a ship. At the end of the day, responsibility falls with the flag state. The flag state has the obligation that these companies operating onboard the vessel actually comply with the laws of that flag states. Regarding the protection of human life, that is fundamental. Some states, there are many European states that don’t allow the presence of firearms and ammo onboard their own vessels. So there is some request by the shipping industry that many states develop the legal framework allowing the presence of military and security personnel onboard the ship.

The other element of response that’s been extremely effective is increasing level of sharing of information and intelligence and cooperation between national agencies. It’s not possible to control every ship at sea. Or, even far more impossible, to put armed guards on every ship. Flag states can’t put a guard or policeman or army personnel on every single ship. If you look at what happened the anti-piracy efforts that were undertaken by the EU and others, particularly in the Gulf of Aden, even with all the military power that was put into place in the region, we were only capable of monitoring very small portions of the space. Therefore, it is a very complicated issue and probably private security companies are the most efficient way to combat the threat. In addition to sharing of information and intelligence, which will make it possible to combat in a holistic way the proliferation of WMD.

Roger: This is all true, but it puts both commercial carriers and nautical tourism in a very difficult situation based on the security concerns. The listeners should take note of two very important cases. In 2008, the motor vessel Sirius Star was hijacked by pirates and was carrying oil cargo valued at $100 million USD, which was later negotiated for a year later in the millions sum, the largest ransom ever paid. So this is on the commercial side. In the other issue, in regards to the private security companies, some off-duty Italian marines inadvertently killed some Indians who appeared to be assuming a negative position in February of 2012. So how do companies manage security for their cargo and their tourists against such dangerous security concerns?

Vasco: Well, this is a very difficult question. In the first case, regarding the robbery of oil, that can only be fought efficiently and stopped if we try to find out how this practice has developed. You’ll be surprised to find out that in some parts of the world, for example in the Gulf of Guinea, there is a huge connection between the robbery of oil, piracy, and the financing of terrorism in other states of the the Gulf of Guinea, and also connection with illegal unreported and unregulated fishing. But that probably would take us to an entirely different podcast.

The problem really is that states have to call into port to supply. So, the safety and security of port infrastructure is also a key element to ensure that ships can call into port in a secure manner. But the professionalism of pirates and those committing robbery at sea is also increasing tremendously. Therefore, it makes it even more difficult for traditional players of the shipping industry to combat this without the support of a larger network. Meaning cooperation not only between states but also between agencies and those working at sea.

Regarding the Enrica Lexie case, this is very interesting because in this case there were two marines aboard the ship, and so the issue of diplomatic immunity has also been raised. Many questions were asked not only regarding the position taken by Italy as the responsible state, but also India, because not only was it Indian nationals who were mistakenly shot, but the area where the incident took place is also a disputed area. Since then, some sort of agreement has been reached. But this is a phenomena that we’ll continue to witness if states don’t establish legal binding guidelines for personnel aboard their vessels. At the end of the day, the flag state will be accountable if it does not exercise its obligation of due diligence to make sure the people on the ship are qualified to carry arms and use them if necessary onboard a ship.

Roger: It seems there’s a bit of tension between the increased communication and cooperation between states and the private sector, which on an ad hoc basis might want to continue with private security companies. Despite international law considering the use of force as a last resort, it appears the great challenge governing private security companies is the legal harmonization, as you said. Based on all the research out there, it doesn’t look like there’s a standard operating procedure that’s in the pipeline that might be able to produce real guidelines about how universally they should operate with arms aboard the shipping vessels.

Vasco: The IMO has made significant efforts and has put forth important guidelines that IMO member states should implement. But the situation is very complicated when you consider the size of trade. Maritime trade will increase. We’re now seeing super containers and as more countries have access to industrialization and become exporters of goods, we have no other option than to create and implement these guidelines in all parts of the world. Without them it can become extremely complicated. It’s a two-edged sword, as I said. We know that the presence of these private security companies is extremely useful and effective, but on the other hand we still see some states reluctant to enact legislation and enforce guidelines onboard their ships. Without the flag state doing that, these military private security companies can find themselves in a very dubious situation.

Roger: We’ll have to keep a close eye on this. As the listeners have heard, there’s no shortage of issues for the SCS. Do you have any last operational takeaways for the listeners?

Vasco: The SCS is not very different from other parts of the world, except that the awareness of international public opinion has become greater. The Gulf of Guinea situation is extremely complex, but the difference between the Gulf of Guinea and the SCS is that in the Gulf of Guinea we’ve witnessed a lot of maritime delimitation, initiatives, joint development, etc. So although the situation can be extremely complex and even seem hopeless, there are also in the SCS many positive examples of not only regional cooperation but also bilateral cooperation. However, there’s a road still that has to be done, and one of the key elements that will contribute is if states undertook and implemented many of the agreements that they’ve already addressed. I think that would be a positive development if states plus ASEAN and China would implement the principles they agreed to many years ago–like the 2002 Code of Conduct, and eventually, the Code of Conduct that would safeguard that these obligations would be rightfully implemented.

Roger: Vasco, amidst all the global turbulence, it’s nice to see that you’re seeing a couple of positives. Hopefully they’re not too overshadowed by all the negatives that dominate the press. No doubt your feedback today gave us a lot to think about in the SCS and globally. You can find more information in the Routledge Handbook online. Thank you again, Vasco, and goodbye.

Vasco Becker-Weinberg, Dr. iur. (Hamburg), LL.M (Lisbon), is a professor at the Faculty of Law of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and a qualified lawyer at the Portuguese Bar Association. He is the coordinator of the LL.M program on Law and Sea Economy and is undertaking post-doctoral studies in public international law at NOVA. He was previously legal advisor to the Portuguese Secretary of the Sea (2013-2015) and a full-time scholar at the International Max Planck Research School for Maritime Affairs at the University of Hamburg (2008-2012).

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control. He is also Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and CEO of Blue Water Metrics.

Can America Give Offshore Balancing a Chance?

By Aaron Richards

America’s Grand Strategy

Whether you are an academic, a member of the Armed Forces, or an America citizen whose main news outlet is Fox News or CNN, a common term heard in American politics is strategy. In a security environment where challenges grow by the day, we hear our leaders in government outline our national security strategy, military strategy, economic strategy, and other approaches to securing America’s interests. However, a concept that may be unfamiliar to the average American is grand strategy.

The various definitions for grand strategy center on a common theme. For the purpose of this article, grand strategy can be defined as the use of power by leaders through diplomatic, economic, military, and political means to defend their respective nation-states and interests. The United States’ grand strategy has been evolving since the 19th century. President James Monroe articulated his policy in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine, which is arguably America’s first grand strategy, “The American continents…are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” President Monroe’s call for developing a new order in the Americas paved the way for the U.S. to expand its economic and military power throughout the Western Hemisphere. 

During World War II, U.S. grand strategy under President Franklin Roosevelt focused on multilateralism with the ends being the “reestablishment of a stable international order, a prosperous global economic system, and a U.S. population free from military threat at home and abroad.” America’s superiority enabled it to succeed in its objectives in both the European and Asian theaters, leaving the U.S. as the world’s superpower following the war.

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, America’s view on the world changed drastically, given that 19 hijackers successfully executed the greatest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. As a result, President George W. Bush iterated to the world his grand strategy for the United States, which can be summarized as a strategy of preemption:

“The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction — and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. [The] United States will, if necessary, act preemptively…in an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world’s most destructive technologies.” 

Just as with the previous two U.S. presidents, Presidents Bush and Obama, President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office as a wartime president. Each U.S. President in the 21st century has had to justify the need for American troops in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. President Obama’s foreign policy legacy will likely be remembered with triumphs, such as the raid that led to Osama bin Laden’s death and brokering a nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 [The United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members (the P5); China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany]. And failures; including his reluctance to act in Syria after publicly stating President Bashar al-Assad must go and Obama’s drone policy which which has encouraged the proliferation of armed drones and the associated legal ambiguities involving their use. Given the complex geopolitical world we live in today, it may be appropriate to adopt a new approach to address today’s challenges in securing American interests. One such approach is offshore balancing.

What is Offshore Balancing?

Offshore balancing is a strategy that can allow the United States to preserve its interests at home and abroad, without weakening its relationships with allies. Offshore balancing in today’s international systems, as defined by Jon Mearsheimer (R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government), advocates “preserving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf” and encouraging “other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, [the U.S.] intervening itself only when necessary.” Based on this definition, the United States is capable of protecting its position as the world’s sole superpower for the future while ensuring security at home.

It is evident that the U.S. will remain a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, as no state currently poses a threat. However, the same cannot be said for the U.S. in other regions of the globe.  Potential hegemons that offshore balancing would be aimed at addressing include China, Russia, and Iran. In each of the three regions mentioned above, offshore balancing requires a “balancer” to maintain America’s interests abroad ranging from securing trade routes to preserving the national security of allies.

Offshore Balancing in Action: Asia

In Asia, the United States should leverage its strategic alliances with its partners in the Asia-Pacific to balance against the rise of China. The U.S. should combine the use of soft and hard balancing strategies with its Asia-Pacific allies to demonstrate that China’s aggressive behaviors in the region will not be tolerated. The key partner the U.S will need to rely upon in balancing against China’s rise is Japan.

Japan remains wary of China’s intentions in the Asia-Pacific, especially regarding territorial disputes. In February, three Chinese Coast Guard ships entered waters near a chain of islands claimed by both China and Japan in the East China Sea. Japan controls the chain and calls them the Senkaku Islands, while China calls refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands. Washington has taken a strong approach in reassuring its commitment to Japan’s territorial claims, for instance, coordinating with Tokyo to revise their Mutual Defense Guidelines (MDG) in April 2015. Given China’s growing strategic threat in the region, the updated MDG focuses on developments in military technology, improvements in interoperability of the U.S. and Japanese militaries, bilateral cooperation on cybersecurity, the use of space for defense purposes, ballistic missile defense, and cooperation in defending Japan’s outlying islands and of sea lanes relied upon by many Asia-Pacific states.

Additionally, the U.S. will need to rely on other local powers to contain China (e.g., South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines), as a stronger Japan is unlikely to counterbalance China’s rise alone. The U.S., with the agreement and cooperation of its regional partners, could develop Anti-Access and Aerial Denial (A2/AD) zones in the region to demonstrate collective strength against China’s unwillingness to abide by international law. Such a U.S.-led effort would include multilateral cooperation to build “a greater reliance in the region on short-range, tactical airpower as well as quieter, faster attack submarines and small, fast frigate-sized warships with robust anti-ship cruise missile capabilities; an expanded inventory of long-range anti-ship missiles” deployed on ships and aircraft at sea. 

Conducting such a transition will require improvements in training with allies, information-sharing, embedded military advisers, and prepositioned supplies to build a competitive advantage against China of strategic capabilities in the region that are to be used for defensive purpose only. China seems to have no issue with continuing its aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific, thus the United States should be proactive in incorporating offshore balancing measures to secure the interests of America and its allies.

Offshore Balancing in Action: Europe

With the case of Europe, the United States and its European allies have stated their concerns over Russia’s action in the past few years and what may potentially be on the horizon for Moscow. Arguably the strongest multilateral security organization in the world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is a collection of 28 states promoting democratic values and encouraging cooperation on defense and security issues to build trust and prevent conflict between allies. As part of the NATO members’ commitment to collective security, each member is expected to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) toward defense spending. Currently, only five nations meet that commitment, with the United States spending over $660 billion in 2016. While America’s support is needed to deter Russian aggression in Europe, there are approaches in which the U.S. can lessen its financial burden on providing NATO security but maintain the trust and security of its European allies.

Soldiers from Poland’s 6th Airborne Brigade and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division during the NATO allies’ Anakonda 16 exercise near Torun, Poland. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

For instance, increasing the U.S. military footprint in Europe may not be as effective in countering Russia’s growing role in Europe. Recent strategic documents coming from the Kremlin state Russia’s goals in the region include maintaining a military advantage over NATO (which Russia sees as a threat to its security) and politically controlling neighboring spaces and countries to create buffer zones as protection from invasions and external instabilities. Thus, the U.S. should allow its European allies to bolster its own security forces and posture while Washington leverages its soft power to develop a selective engagement approach to strengthen European partnerships and counter Russian influence. The U.S. can serve as an offshore balancer to Russia in Europe by providing security assistance to NATO allies to “increase pre-positioning, develop stronger deterrence measures for the Black Sea…and exploit technologies including longer-range aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and stealthy platforms to address Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.” 

If a scenario were to occur whereby Russia antagonizes European allies, the U.S. can deploy necessary troops or capabilities to deter further Russian aggression. In the long-term, allowing European allies to lead in their collective security allows the U.S. to support when  required and demonstrate to Russia that Europe is capable of countering Russian bellicosity.

Offshore Balancing in Action: Middle East

With the Middle East, the United States has, and will continue to have, strategic interests in the region; including the promotion of a more stable and prosperous region with increasingly effective governance, improved security, and trans-regional cooperation to counter state and non-state actors posing a threat to the U.S. and its allies. However, there needs to be a balance between America’s direct role in shaping the region and the need for a proactive, lead role from its Middle East partners who are more directly affected by the security environment of the region.

In the Middle East, an offshore balancing approach should not be viewed as abandoning our allies, but requiring regional powers to “bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, [America’s] military strategy is [to be] oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.” The implementation of offshore balancing can be directed toward countering Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Gulf region.

While the United States was able to broker a nuclear accord with Iran in 2015, Washington remains concerned about Tehran’s malign activities in the Gulf. As Central Command’s (CENTCOM) commander  General Joseph Votel stated at a recent Congressional hearing, “Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world” due to Iran’s “malign influence across Iraq and Syria,” and efforts to prop up the Syrian regime and exploit Shia population centers. To counter Iran in the region to prevent the Islamic Republic from attaining regional dominance, the U.S. does not need to engage in extensive intervention, rather, it will need to rely on its strategic partners in the region.

The United States should focus on bolstering its support for those Middle East states in which Iran has been proactive in building its influence; specifically Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. In Syria, Iran continues to bolster the Assad regime, contributing to the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. A more assertive, military-centric approach to finding a solution in Syria is unlikely to prevail, but rather elongate the dire situation in which millions of Syrian civilians are fleeing or being killed.  To move toward a negotiated transition will require “a willingness to apply American resources more forcefully toward a diplomatic outcome that meets the minimum requirements of all relevant actors—including security for all civilians regardless of sect.” Washington should focus on resolving the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as it is unknown if and when a political solution will be achieved. Focusing on counterterrorism activities such as airstrikes aligns with U.S. security interests, but continuing to stock pro-Western militias (if they are discernable versus those backing Syria and Iran) may lead to long-term fighting as even those against the Assad regime have their own oppositions amongst one another. A political solution is needed in any case in Syria, a failed state for the foreseeable future, even if it requires Iran and/or Russia as the leading adjudicator.

As for Lebanon, it seems that Beirut has faded as an area of strategic value for the U.S. in recent years. Iran’s influence includes military, political, cultural, financial, and religious programs “aimed at enhancing the image and strength of Hezbollah, justifying Iranian presence and influence in Lebanon as well as its ties with Hezbollah, and turning public opinion in Lebanon against the United States, Israel and Sunni Arab countries.” Iran’s influence in Beirut continues to grow, especially since Lebanon gained a new president and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first top diplomat to meet with him. With the new U.S. administration, President Trump will need to engage with Lebanon more actively and increase U.S. financial and military commitments to the country.

Washington must make it clear to the Lebanese government that it opposes all forms of Iranian military aid to the Lebanese army. Instead, the U.S. government should work with its regional allies to develop a strategy to strengthen Lebanon’s state institutions to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon; whether by improving training and military-to-military cooperation to build sustainable security forces that are more competent than Hezbollah or increasing support for programs, such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, to enhance America’s image in Lebanon’s Shiite community. If President Trump and his administration want to sustain their strategic interests in the Gulf region, our leaders will need to re-evaluate their comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges of the Middle East.

Conclusion

The examples of offshore balancing approaches provided above may or may not be applicable to today’s security environment in the next week, month, or year. The world we live in today continues to evolve and the future is uncertain to an extent. Thus, the United States can gradually shift toward acting as an offshore balancer in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf until the international setting changes requiring Washington to react more aggressively.

The United States is not always in the position to lead from the front to solve international crises, however, its involvement is probably needed given its influence across the globe. A majority of Americans prefer the U.S. to focus on domestic issues, however, implementing a reactive posture in dealing with challenges in each strategic region of the globe will result in long-term setbacks in achieving U.S. security interests abroad. Offshore balancing in practice should be not perceived as isolationism, either by Americans or our international partners. Washington must collaborate with its allies to prevent emergence of revisionist hegemons to ensure U.S. security at home and around the world. 

It is difficult to deny that we live in a multipolar world with a vast array of security challenges. As an offshore balancer, the U.S. can rely upon nuclear deterrence, air power, and naval power to ensure its interests and the security of its allies. Concrete vital interests should determine America’s commitments abroad, rather than credibility determining commitments and thus commitments determining interests. With a cohesive strategy and commitment from leadership, the United States can be a successful offshore balancer —maintaining U.S. security interests without weakening its relationship with its allies who should now act in a greater role in preserving security in the world’s more strategically important regions.

Aaron Richards currently works as a Senior Analyst within the Defense & National Security Sector of Deloitte Consulting LLP. He holds a Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Affairs from Hofstra University. Aaron was recently nominated to the George C. Marshall Fellowship Class of 2017 sponsored by The Heritage Foundation. Aaron has also written on other national security issues for the Ecologic Institute’s Arctic Summer College and Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) conference series.

Featured Image: Map of WWI by G.F. Morell. (Advocate’s Library Edinburgh)