In this week’s episode of Sea Control: Asia Pacific, Natalie Sambhi chats with Nadia Bulkin, a Senior Associate at The Asia Group, on Indonesia’s history of violence, its turn towards democratic nationalism and what that means for the country today. They delve into legacies and policy implications of military rule and colonialism. Natalie and Nadia also discuss the recent confrontation between Indonesian and Chinese coast guards in the South China Sea. Lastly, they explore Nadia’s passion for writing ‘socio-political horror’ fiction and what literature and film can teach us about understanding Indonesia’s psychology.
Nadia Bulkin is a Senior Associate at The Asia Group where she is the defense industrial team lead. Nadia holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service and graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College with a B.A. in Political Science and a double-minor in Economics and Environmental Science. She is fluent in Indonesian. Read her fiction writing here.
Coming to you from Washington DC, Natalie Sambhi, Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute interviews Phuong Nguyen, Associate Fellow with the Southeast Asia Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies on Vietnam’s evolving foreign policy and strategic posture. Natalie and Phuong discuss the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-rig incident between Vietnam and China and the complex ties between both countries, Vietnam’s new strategy in resolving maritime disputes, the limits of expanding security cooperation with the United States, and the increasingly salient role of the Association of Southeast Asian nations. Phuong also highlights major developments in Southeast Asia to look out for in 2016.
After a long wait, the US Navy resumed FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations in the South China Sea (last carried out in 2012) on 27 October, with USS Lassen sailing within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief Reefs, and conducting actions incompatible with innocent passage, in order to make it clear Washington does not recognize any territorial waters arising from the artificial islands built by Beijing through reclamation on low-tide elevations. On the other hand, in line with long-standing American policy, the US also emphasized that it was not taking sides concerning the underlying territorial disputes, and that freedom of navigation operations were aimed at any excessive maritime claims, underlining this by also sailing through waters around features claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Commentary has focused on the need for further FON cruises, and on China’s response, including the possibility of Beijing declaring an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone).
Freedom of Navigation is indeed one of the pillars of both the post-war open economic system drawn up during the Second World War, and of the traditional American reliance on the ability to move troops by sea (in line with the British Empire, and its tandem Royal Navy – Indian Army). Therefore, contesting Chinese maritime claims is indeed an important policy goal, and furthermore one that should be shared by other maritime democracies. However, we must ask ourselves whether this is all. Furthermore, the time may have come to consider whether agnosticism on territorial claims is a sustainable policy, and whether the US can afford to see allies like the Philippines lose further territory to the PRC.
Even if FON operations become a regular feature and China’s extensive reclamationwork turns out to pose no obstacle to peace-time navigation by merchantmen and warships, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that there is no price to pay for failing to confront Beijing. First of all, an extensive network of man-made islands could make it much more difficult to operate in the region in the event of hostilities. Second, by condoning the violent taking of contested territories, the principles enshrined in the UN charter and in UNSC Resolution 502 would risk becoming irrelevant.
Concerning the latter, being neutral concerning territorial disputes can be interpreted in two ways. Up to now in the South China Sea it has meant Washington not supporting any competing claims. However, this is no longer enough. The Philippines’ marines have been making a heroic stand at BRP Sierra Madre, guarding Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal / Ren’Ai Jiao) while surrounded by hostile ships bent on preventing their resupply. However, given the much larger forces available to China, this strategy may not be sustainable. Furthermore, despite an existing mutual defense treaty and growing capacity building assistance (also provided by Japan), Washington has de facto been signaling Beijing that the occupation of the Second Thomas Shoal would not be considered an attack on Filipino territory. This increases the risk of a miscalculation, should China come to believe that the US will stand on the sidelines in such an scenario. Mutual defense treaties are not of much use if restricted in their geographical scope.
An alternative policy would be to embed USMC personnel in their Filipino counterparts, while explicitly announcing that despite still not taking sides on the ultimate issue of sovereignty, the US considered the Second Thomas Shoal (and other disputed territories currently under actual control by Manila) to fall within the purview of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. American policy would then be to actively seek to prevent changes on the ground, including expelling Filipino military personnel from the Second Thomas Shoal, while still pressing for a mediated (or arbitrated) solution, in line with US support for the international arbitration bid currently under consideration by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Preserving the status quo requires extensive work on the BRP Sierra Madre, or its replacement by another ship or structure. In other words, America would be moving from passive neutrality to active neutrality. From merely declaring that differences must be settled peacefully in accordance to international law, to helping freeze the status quo so that revisionist powers are not tempted to gain in the field of battle what they should only be claiming in the diplomatic table or the courtroom.
A precedent for this are Japan’s Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China and Taiwan. After some doubts and conflicting reports on whether the US-Japan Security Treaty extended to them, Washington explicitly announced that they did, while remaining non-committal about ultimate sovereignty. Japan, having greater maritime and naval capabilities than the Philippines, employs a different strategy to protects the islands, shielded by the country’s coastguard without any permanent ground deployment. Should Tokyo decide, or be forced, to permanently deploy some ground troops, it would also be positive to see USMC personnel embedded in them. We could also mention the occupation of Iceland during the Second World War, before Pearl Harbor.
Being neutral in a territorial dispute does not just mean supporting its peaceful resolution in accordance with international law. That is only the case when all sides involved renounce the use of force. When one refuses to take this step, and regularly resorts to it, notwithstanding the fact it is mostly of the non-lethal kind, the only alternative to appeasement is active neutrality, meaning a deployment designed to provide a tripwire, lessening the risks of miscalculation and signaling that aggression will not be condoned. Only this can provide the necessary incentives for a future peaceful resolution of the conflict, where Washington would indeed be neutral concerning its outcome, yet having avoided neutrality regarding how it came about.
Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be foundhere.
The fight over funding the federal government and raising its debt limit may be over for the moment, but other debates rage on. One of the more vexing ones that has been touched upon most recently in the arguments over possible military intervention in Syria is the relationship between America’s defense posture and its role in the world.
Both parties, in fact, seem to be at a loss in grappling with this question. While the Administration has had to walk a fine line regarding appearing weak over threats made with regard to Syria and landing the U.S. in a war it does not want, the Republicans and like-minded conservatives have been debating amongst themselves policies ranging from American retrenchment, advocated by the likes of Rand Paul, and paying the price of continuing and indeed extending American primacy, as advocated by organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute.
Lost in the heated argument, however, are certain immutable facts regarding the situation America is actually in when it comes to defending itself and its allies. The picture that emerges does not look good either for those who want America to come home or for those who favor a more expanded international security role. Looking at it, though, is the first step toward any kind of sane defense policy, one which probably will not resemble that advocated by either camp.
Submitted for consideration, therefore, are eight of these realitiesm:
1. America’s defense posture is driven largely by its expensive and possibly unsustainable counterproliferation policy.
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, and to some extent before, U.S. foreign policy has fixated on preventing the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons. While the exact number of weapons held by states already recognized as nuclear powers (particularly the five declared nuclear states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty) might be up for negotiation, the U.S. has endeavored with all the means at its disposal to prevent new nuclear powers from emerging. Although a wide variety of policy tools are at the U.S.’ disposal to accomplish this, the most critical ones have involved the U.S.’ overall military posture: the U.S. has sought either to reassure allies that it would come to their aid (with its nuclear arsenal) if they were attacked, or else to use force to prevent hostile states from acquiring nuclear arsenals of their own. The former policy has encompassed the likes of South Korea, which the U.S. is reported to have talked down from building its own nuclear arsenal in the 1970’s. The fact that three key U.S. allies in the Pacific – Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – could easily go nuclear in a matter of weeks or months if they ever feared for their safety and doubted U.S. resolve reinforces the point: the U.S. has to maintain enough spare military capability to defend these allies if it wants to convince them they do not need nuclear arsenals of their own.
It used to be that the U.S. protected key allies because they could not protect themselves. Increasingly, the U.S. protects its allies because it fears they will protect themselves.
Interestingly, this also has effects when it comes to the U.S.’ management of its nuclear deterrent against larger powers. Since the U.S. military cannot be everywhere at once, a critical component of the U.S. security umbrella is its willingness, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons in a crisis – this being the case, it cannot renounce the first-usage of nuclear weapons as some arms control advocates have suggested. That is, unless, of course, it comes up with far, far more conventional resources, for the problems of which see what follows.
As for preventive warfare, the fact that this policy led to a woefully misguided war in Iraq – in which suspicions of a nascent nuclear arsenal turned out to be completely false – has not prevented two successive U.S. presidents – Bush and Obama – from threatening the use of force to shut down or delay the Iranian nuclear program. (While it is essentially too late to do anything about North Korea’s nuclear program, the latter is almost certainly the exception that proves the rule: the U.S. has done everything it could afford to do, and it remains militarily engaged, even if it has avoided open war.)
There are other reasons why the U.S. maintains so much force projection capability, of course. What cannot be denied, however, is that as long as the U.S. remains committed to preventing a nuclear arms race along the edge of the Eurasian landmass (what the strategist and former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “arc of crisis”), its military commitments to the world at large cannot be allowed to shrink. Which brings us to…
2. There is no one else who can shoulder or share the burden of enforcing the counterproliferation regime, and a number of powerful states are seeing to it that the U.S. carries great expense from doing so.
By all publicly available accounts, Iran bled the U.S. in Iraq after it invaded to stop a purported Iraqi nuclear arsenal; it then held great influence over, and access to, the new, Shi’ite led government. The next time, wherever it occurs, will be worse. We have only to imagine what China or even Russia might do in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iran.
Conversely, there is literally no great power anywhere – not Europe, not China, not Russia – that can either wage war to stop would-be nuclear proliferators or guarantee the security of smaller states that might otherwise seek arsenals for their own defense – even if any of these states had any inclination to do so. As long as the U.S. remains committed to keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle, it is on its own. And speaking of which…
3. America’s strategic rivals are getting more powerful.
China and Russia are both modernizing their militaries. Russia plans to modernize its military extensively by 2020, with a particular emphasis on new fighters for its air force and submarines for its navy – the projected expenditure by the end of the decade amounts to $650 billion – about a third of Russia’s annual gross domestic product. (For comparison, imagine a U.S. rearmament program that deployed $500 billion a year for ten years on top of current U.S. expenditure.)
China is in the process of acquiring aircraft carriers and long-range precision-strike capabilities that will both expand its military reach and pose a problem for U.S. naval operations in the Pacific. It is in the process of testing missiles that – potentially – could sink U.S. aircraft carriers in a naval confrontation before they were in range to launch their aircraft. Iran has also tested a short-range version of this technology, which could potentially render aircraft carriers – the most lethal and most expensive assets in the U.S. military and the very symbol of American power – as irrelevant as battleships in World War Two.
Defending U.S. allies, in other words, will be more difficult in the next ten years than in the past twenty. Of course, that’s only if the U.S. can even use its military in such a scenario, because…
4. America’s greatest strategic rival is also its greatest foreign creditor.
The U.S.’ ability to defend its allies is in one sense dependent upon the goodwill of the state it might have to defend many of them from, namely, China. Although as of this writing U.S. federal debt is essentially being monetized (at the rate of about $85 billion a month) by the U.S. Federal Reserve, once the long-anticipated “taper” begins, the U.S. will once again be resorting to foreign credit markets. To date, China, with about $1.3 trillion of the $12 trillion of U.S. debt held by the public, is the U.S.’ largest single foreign creditor, narrowly beating Japan’s $1.15 trillion. (In the larger picture, about 47 percent of U.S. federal debt held by the public is owned by foreign governments.)
It is far from clear what might happen to the U.S.-China debtor-creditor relationship – or the U.S.’ relationship with any of its other international creditors – in a crisis. But at the moment, with the U.S. running deficits in excess of $700 billion annually, a situation that, although ameliorated by the sequester, will get worse in this decade as entitlements are strained by an aging population, the U.S. has to tread carefully. We do not know what would happen to the bond markets if the U.S. attempted to fight a war its foreign creditors disapproved of. There are powerful incentives for foreign creditors to say nothing (they obviously do not want their assets to fall in value), but that is not the same thing as saying that there are no risks. Speaking of budgeting…
5. Where the defense budget is concerned, it doesn’t get any better than this.
A less-remarked-upon consequence of the fiscal “sequester” has been a slow erosion of overall U.S. military readiness. On 19 September, the chiefs of staff of the various armed forces testified before the House Armed Services Committee that extension of the current fiscal path prescribed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – the fiscal compromise that led to the so-called “fiscal cliff” and “sequester” of government spending – would leave U.S. military readiness at an all-time low. Most dramatically, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno’s testimony, 85 percent of U.S. Army brigade combat teams would be unready to fulfill their mission requirements. All of the services have already furloughed civilian employees as a result of the sequester, and all of them now face personnel cuts in fiscal year 2014.
The “sequester” was part of a larger effort to control federal spending at a time when deficits had topped $1 trillion a year. Although federal discretionary spending is now being cut in accordance with these measures, little has been done to address the most important long-term drivers of federal debt: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and related entitlement spending, all of which are likely to increase as members of the postwar baby boom generation hit retirement age (the first people generally thought to belong to that demographic began to reach age 65 in 2011). Until these large segments of the federal budget are addressed, even the sequester will not keep deficits down. The latest CBO projection has U.S. federal debt held by the public beginning to climb relative to GDP around the year 2018 after a temporary decline. This, of course, assumes nothing goes seriously wrong with the U.S. economy in the interim.
Not only do deficits remain a long-term problem, but when faced with a choice between their retirement programs and their foreign policy, or between investment capital in an anemic economy and their foreign policy, it is quite likely Americans will choose the former, and there is little that can be done about this for the foreseeable future. It is simply unlikely there will be much more money for anything more than maintaining the status quo in the near future, and even that will be costly and politically divisive.
(It is sometimes claimed either that defense should be excluded from a solution to America’s fiscal problems or that the required increases in defense spending to maintain the status quo are minimal. Neither is persuasive. Political realities dictate that all options remain open for solving America’s fiscal problems, and however small the increases that are asked for may be, the fact remains both that more will ultimately be needed later and that literally nothing is available. It is not possible to discuss spending increases and budget cuts at the same time.)
In the face of rising challenges to its interests and its allies, the U.S. will have to make do with what it has. And it hasn’t been very good about that so far…
6. America’s defense procurement process is hugely wasteful, makes it near-impossible to know how much we “need,” and could cause the U.S. to lose a war.
There is far, far too more that can be said about this than there is space here to write, but, in short, there are serious problems with the way the American military gets its weapons that are rooted in the structure of American governance itself. Put simply, defense projects are local employment programs even when they are national liabilities. Even congressmembers who want to avoid excessive defense spending find it difficult to resist the temptation to vote for programs that route defense money to their districts. In many respects, they would be foolish not to, since, unless a concerted effort is made, the money will likely be spent somewhere regardless, and, from the point of view of their constituents, might as well be spent in their districts so as to recoup tax dollars that would otherwise go elsewhere.
The result is so well-known it has led to its own peculiar slang, documented by defense reform advocates such as Donald Vandergriff, Pierre Sprey, Chuck Spinney, and others. “Front-loading” refers to a contractor offering Congress an overoptimistic cost projection for a weapons system, on the theory that when it costs more, Congress will sink in the requisite extra cash. “Gold-plating” refers to making a weapons system as complex, elaborate, and expensive as possible, the better not only to sell more goods to the federal government, but also to spread the ensuing expenditures among more congressional districts to make a program harder to kill.
The result can be seen in weapons systems like the F-22 and F-35. As a number of defense analysts – notably Pierre Sprey, James Stevenson, and Robert Dilger – have noted, these fighters are larger, more visible, and (certainly in the F-35’s case) less maneuverable than an F-16, have less fuel available for combat, have poor pilot visibility due to the need to maintain “stealth,” probably are not very stealthy since their vaunted targeting radar systems amount to a homing beacon for missiles and since stealth coating is notoriously difficult to maintain, cannot operate at the same operations tempo due to the need for complicated maintenance, and cost several times more than an F-16. The Air Force’s F-16C fighters were obtained in the 1990’s for about $30 million apiece in today’s dollars; the “flyaway” cost (the pricetag for a single new model, without research or maintenance costs) of an F-22, before the program was cancelled, was $137 million. The flyaway cost of an F-35 ($153-199 million, depending on the version) has now exceeded that figure. Ironically, the F-22 was cancelled because the F-35, which was not designed for air combat and has fewer capabilities, was supposed to be cheaper.
(It is often claimed that one advanced “5th generation” fighter such as the F-22 can defeat several F-16’s. This occurs in tests where the F-16’s are not allowed to use radar-seeking technology to target the F-22’s, and in which radar-guided missiles from the F-22’s are assigned unrealistic kill probabilities. In either case, this ignores the fact that one can get several F-16’s and their pilots for the cost of one F-22. It also ignores the historical fact, documented in a 2006 presentation by James Stevenson, that, because of the dynamics of air combat, the more planes that are involved in an engagement, the closer to 50-50 their odds of survival become, regardless of how they are built.)
What this means in practice is that equipment that are too expensive to replace all at once are replaced slowly, resulting in aging. Sometimes this has alarming results: in 2007, older models of the F-15 had to be grounded because they were too old to fly safely; replacements have been slow in coming. Given the costs involved, the F-35 is currently projected to replace all of the Air Force’s F-16 fleet by sometime in the 2030’s.
While this is a particularly egregious example, what is true of the latest fighter weapons systems is true of other systems as well. The piling on of irrelevant and expensive systems and the obsession with high technology over tactical function doomed the Army’s Future Combat System; similar concerns have been voiced regarding the Littoral Combat Ship and other naval vessels.
What all this means is that discussion of how big the defense budget should be becomes meaningless when no one knows how much waste is acceptable. Likewise, it means that the U.S. may soon field weapons systems that are both too few in number and inadequate for the missions they are assigned – a situation that, if push came to shove, could cause America to lose a war.
A concerted effort to resolve this state of affairs in favor of better, cheaper weapons systems that could be delivered on time would require achieving consensus among a large number of lawmakers from both parties in both houses of Congress, in order to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma involved in funding defense programs. The problems involved are obvious to anyone who reads the news.
Supposing that something could be done, advocates of reform of defense procurement often suggest that the defense budget be cut in the hopes that austerity will force sanity on the process. But it is not clear that it would force enough sanity, particularly given that the U.S. is facing rising military challengers, and particularly given that the U.S. faces tough choices about how to deploy its power in the world that it has yet to address. In particular…
7. The U.S. is a sea and air power that has been acting like a land power.
As many, from Alfred Thayer Mahan to scholars such as Karen Rasler and William Thompson, have noted, sea power – the type of power that can be projected globally – is crucial to maintaining supremacy worldwide. (In modern times, airpower also contributes to this capability.) Major world powers maintain their preeminence by their ability to strike anywhere across the globe, as well as their ability to keep sea lanes open to their commerce and keep potential foes at arm’s length. Sea powers are more easily challenged when they become bogged down on land – spending money on large, expensive land wars such as modern “nation-building” means a military top-heavy with land forces that are only deployable in a limited context. (Rasler and Thompson’s book advancing this argument, The Great Powers and Global Struggle, although rather technical, is very much worth a read for those with a serious interest in this subject.)
When resources become scarce and a world power is starved of fiscal oxygen, one would expect blood to concentrate in vital organs: one would expect it to abandon land-based commitments in favor of maintaining its navy and, in the modern era, its air force. Yet the fact is that the U.S. has spent most of the past decade involved in manpower-intensive, land-based police operations that forced it to push all available surplus resources into increasing the size and capabilities of its two land services, a trend that has only recently been reversed and will take time to undo. Since that time, virtually all of the debate surrounding U.S. foreign policy to date has concerned foreign nation-building, rather than the more pressing question of how to maintain naval and aerial preeminence in order to deter potential adversaries from attacking us or our allies and respond quickly in an emergency.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter.
8. Nothing in the foreign policy debate within the U.S. to date has addressed these basic problems.
Those who want America to take a more modest view of its international role must deal with the reality that the nuclear counterproliferation regime – which everyone professes to be concerned about – depends on a large, flexible, and forward deployed U.S. military and a massive alliance network. These concerns cannot simply be wished away; they drive to the very heart of what the U.S. has to fear in the modern world, more so even than great power rivalry in its own right. They determine which allies the U.S. must keep and protect, in which regions American power must be deployed, what type of arms races the U.S. must engage in, who is the enemy, who is a friend, and, in short, who matters. There is no easy way out of this problem. To pursue American retrenchment over the long term is to decide – probably for our lifetimes – that a world full of nuclear armed states would be an acceptable price to pay for whatever benefits are sought by drawing down our forces and our posture.
On the other hand, those who want America to intervene in conflicts such as that in Syria, and believe this type of intervention to be crucial to the national security, must address the fact that there simply isn’t any more money for such activities, and that there are more important things to be worried about. They are, at best, missing the point altogether. At worst, they are wasting valuable resources at a time when no expenditure can be thought unimportant – when the money simply isn’t there.
It would be good if, in the course of our public debate about our role in the world, which, like it or not, we will have, we paid attention to these troublesome facts that do not seem to want to go away.
Cirincione, Joseph. Bomb Scare: The History & Future of Nuclear Weapons. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. (For U.S. reassurance of South Korea, see p. 57)
Wheeler, Winslow (ed.). America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress (in particular, “Reversing the Decay of American Air Power,” the chapter by Pierre Sprey and Robert Dilger on the future of U.S. air superiority). Stanford University Press, 2008.