Are there connected Chinese strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons (domains) of maritime, space, and cyberspace? If so, what are they and what could the United States do about them?
By Tuan N. Pham
Part 1 of this two part series explored the cross-domain nexus between the maritime, space, and cyberspace global commons by examining the latest Chinese white paper and strategies. Repeated refrains included the Chinese Dream (national rejuvenation); global interests, peace and development, security, and the development of national laws to advance China’s national interests in the three contested battlespaces. Special emphasis was given to the contentious concept of cyberspace sovereignty in support of national security and social stability. With this backdrop, Part 2 will now derive possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the interlinked global commons and discuss how the United States could best respond.
The Chinese Dream
Chinese Manifest Destiny. Chinese strategists have long called for a comprehensive and enduring set of strategies to better integrate and synchronize the multiple strategic lines of effort in furtherance of national goals (ambitions) and as part of a grand strategy for regional preeminence, and perhaps ultimately global preeminence. China’s dream of national rejuvenation may be the answer to their calling. The prevailing leadership’s sentiment appears now expansionist and revisionist. The time has come for Beijing to finally abandon the long-standing state policy of “hide capabilities and bide time” championed by the iconic former President Deng Xiaoping; right a perceived historical wrong; put behind the painful humiliation of the past; and assume its rightful place on the world stage as a destined global power. China is unquestionably a confident economic juggernaut and rising global power, able to manifest its own national destiny – the Chinese Dream – and dictate increasing power and influence across the contested and interlinked global commons in support of national rejuvenation.
Global Commons Sovereignty (Economic Prosperity vs National Security). Beijing’s maritime activities are driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory” crucial for its national development, security, and status. China seems to regard space and cyberspace very much in the same manner in terms of economic potential (value) and sovereign territory that requires developing and defending respectively. For now, there appears more policy clarity, guidance, and direction for sovereignty in cyberspace, while space sovereignty seems more fluid and may still be evolving policy-wise. Nevertheless, Beijing still needs to balance two competing national priorities – developing the domain economy (economic prosperity) and defending domain rights and interests (national security) – in all three contested and interlinked global commons. Many anticipate the initial emphasis will be on the economy since it is an enduring asymmetric counterbalance to the preeminent United States. The rationale calculus is simple for Beijing. Why would China opt to directly confront a militarily and economically stronger United States now when it can subtly and quietly undermine American preeminence through lasting economic partnerships and enduring political agreements (bilateral preferably and multilateral when necessary)? Beijing can always recalibrate later based on the fluid strategic conditions and confront Washington more directly and forcibly when opportunities arise, or if and when the balance of power shifts more in its favor.
Shaping Law to Support Strategy. Last year, China announced its intent to create new domestic maritime laws in support of its evolving maritime strategy. These developing domestic maritime laws bear watching as a possible harbinger for the other contested and interlinked global commons of space and cyberspace and as an attempt to right a perceived historical wrong. The former is part of a continuing effort to set the terms for international legal disputes that Beijing expects will grow as its domain reach expands; the latter reflects China feeling disadvantaged (and taken advantage of) by a Western-dominated system of international laws established when it was weak as a nation and had little say in its formulation. In general, the broad legal approach makes a lot of legal, political, and military sense from Beijing’s perspective. China wants to set the enabling conditions for its future strategies across the contested and interlinked global commons in terms of implementation and sustainment. Beijing seeks to expand its domain borders through buffer zones. It will buttress and justify with legal underpinnings its growing domain presence and operations and also exert greater control within those buffer zones. China seeks to eventually shape international laws and norms (and develop accompanying domestic laws) to be more equitable and complementary to its national interests.
U.S. Strategic Opportunities
Maintain Preeminence. Just as maritime preeminence is necessary to guarantee the freedom of the seas, so too are space and cyberspace preeminence needed to guarantee the freedoms of space and cyberspace. By committing to preeminence in all three contested and interlinked global commons, the United States will better protect its critical strengths; enhance its deterrence posture by being able to impose larger costs, deny greater benefits, and encourage more restraint, and reverse the growing perception of American decline. Having complementary domain policies and strategies fosters unity of effort, optimizes resource allocation, sends a strong deterrent message to potential adversaries, and reassures allies and partners. To do otherwise invites strategic misalignment and miscommunication and encourages potential competitors like China to further advance their counter-balancing efforts in the maritime, space, and cyberspace global commons.
Protect the Global Commons. Now is not the time to cede territory in the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace. China pursues very broad, long-term, and synchronized domain policies and strategies, and may view any perceived U.S. force posture reduction as another opportunity to reset the international accepted norms in its favor. Reduction may also increase Beijing’s confidence in its ability to shape and influence Washington’s decisions and encourage China to press the United States for additional domain concessions in return for vague and passing promises of restraint while it quietly and steadily expands and strengthens its positions in the global commons.
Dominate the Narrative. To compete with Beijing short of conflict, Washington needs to reframe the narrative that China dominates with accusations of containment. The United States could be more proactive and seize the messaging initiative like it does in the maritime domain. Former Secretary of Defense Carter hit the right resonance notes during the Shangri La Dialogue in June and in the November/December 2016 edition of Foreign Affairs with his gentle reminders to the region of America’s traditional role as the principal underwriter of maritime security, political stability, and economic prosperity in the Indo-Asia-Pacific; warning China not to build a “Great Wall of self-isolation”; and using the catchall concept of “principled security network of alliances and partnerships” to outline a vision that the United States has long sought to describe. The same needs to be done in the contested and interlinked global commons of space and cyberspace. The “balancing” message needs to be reiterated at every opportunity and at the highest level, and synchronized throughout the whole-of-government and with allies and partners. There can be no U.S. policy seams or diplomatic space for Beijing to exploit. In short, acknowledge that both countries have competing visions and encourage China to act as (or become) a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.
Seize the Initiative. The maritime strategy and accompanying domestic maritime laws are coming, but China has not said when. The same can be largely said in the space and cyberspace global commons. Hence, Washington could privately and publicly ask Beijing now for discussions and briefings on its developing domain strategies and laws; challenge vague or problematic content and context, such as how the security and economic pieces fit together, and inquire how they comport with international law and rule of law, and if they do not, why not. Otherwise, silence concedes the strategic initiative to Beijing and allows it to control the strategic narrative.
At the end of the day, the strategic window of opportunity to shape and influence Beijing’s developing domain strategies may soon close for Washington. To China, U.S. inaction implies tacit acknowledgement and consent to execute its domain strategies and strategic ambitions unhindered and unchallenged. At stake is nothing less than U.S. preeminence in the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace, and ultimately as a global power. For decline is a deliberate choice, not an imposed reality.
Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: The Tianhe-2 Chinese supercomputer at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha. (Zhao Zilong/Imaginechina, via Associated Press)
Are there connected Chinese strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons (domains) of maritime, space, and cyberspace? If so, what are they and what could the United States do about them?
By Tuan N. Pham
Last November, I wrote an article titled “China’s Maritime Strategy on the Horizon” highlighting a fleeting strategic opportunity for Washington to shape and influence Beijing’s looming and evolving maritime strategy. I posited that Chinese maritime strategists have long called for a maritime strategy; China’s maritime activities are driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory” crucial for its national development, security, and status; and Beijing may be trying to fill domestic legal gaps that it sees as hindering its ability to defend territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS), and justify its growing activities in international waters. The latter point is underscored by recent media reports from Beijing considering the revision of its 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law, which would allow Chinese authorities to bar some foreign ships from passing through Chinese territorial waters. If passed, this will be another instance of China shaping domestic maritime laws to support its developing and evolving maritime strategy, and part of a larger continuing effort to set its own terms for international legal disputes that Beijing expects will grow as its maritime reach expands.
I then further suggested that Beijing’s forthcoming maritime strategy will shape its comportment and actions in the maritime domain in the near- and far-term, and perhaps extend into the other contested global commons of space and cyberspace as well. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I explore this potential cross-domain nexus by examining the latest Chinese space white paper and cyberspace strategies. In Part 2, I will derive possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the interlinked global commons and discuss how the United States could best respond.
China’s Space Activities in 2016 White Paper (December 2016)
“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry, and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly.”
On December 27, 2016, China’s Information Office of the State Council published its fourth white paper on space titled “China’s Space Activities in 2016.” The paper and the preceding 2011, 2006, and 2000 papers largely follow a pattern of release, sequenced and synchronized with the governmental cycle of Five-Year Plans that are fundamental to Chinese centralized planning. Last year’s paper provides the customary summary of China’s space accomplishments over the past five years and a roadmap of key activities and milestones for the next five years.
Since the white paper was the first one issued under President Xi Jinping, it is not surprising that the purpose, vision, and principles therein are expressed in terms of his world view and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. Therefore, one should read beyond the altruistic language and examine the paper through the realpolitik lens of the purpose and role of space to the Chinese Dream; the vision of space power as it relates to the Chinese Dream; and principles through which space will play a part in fulfilling the Chinese Dream. Notable areas to consider include Beijing’s intent to provide basic global positioning services to countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road in 2018; construction of the Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor; strengthening bilateral and multilateral cooperation that serves the Belt and Road Initiative; and attaching the importance of space cooperation under the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) cooperation mechanism and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Although the white paper is largely framed in terms of China’s civilian space program, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is subtly present throughout the paper in the euphemism of “national security.” The three references in the purpose, vision, and major tasks deliberately understate (or obfuscate) Beijing’s strategic intent to use its rapidly growing space program (largely military space) to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power. In short, China’s space program does not have structures in place that make meaningful separation between military and civil programs, and those technologies and systems developed for supposedly civil purposes can also be applied–and often are–for military purposes.
The white paper highlights concerted efforts to examine extant international laws and develop accompanying national laws to better govern its expanding space program and better regulate its increasing space-related activities. Beijing intends to review, and where necessary, update treaties and reframe international legal principles to accommodate the ever-changing strategic, operational, and tactical landscapes. All in all, China wants to leverage the international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to advance its national interests in space without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of space power may prove more favorable.
China’s National Cyberspace Security Strategy (December 2016)
“China will devote itself to safeguarding the nation’s interests in sovereignty, security, and development in cyberspace.”
On the same day as the issuance of the “China’s Space Activities in 2016” white paper, the Cyberspace Administration of China also released Beijing’s first cyberspace strategy titled “National Cyberspace Security Strategy” to endorse China’s positions and proposals on cyberspace development and security and serve as a roadmap for future cyberspace security activity. The strategy aims to build China into a cyberspace power while promoting an orderly, secure, and open cyberspace, and more importantly, defending its national sovereignty in cyberspace.
The strategy interestingly characterizes cybersecurity as “the nation’s new territory for sovereignty;” highlights as one of its key principles “no infringement of sovereignty in cyberspace will be tolerated;” and states intent to “resolutely defend sovereignty in cyberspace” as a strategic task. All of which reaffirm Xi’s previous statement on the importance of cyberspace sovereignty. At last year’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Xi boldly exclaimed, “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyberspace development, model of cyberspace regulation and Internet public policies, and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing.”
Both the space white paper and cyberspace security strategy reflect Xi’s world view and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream. The latter’s preamble calls out the strategy as an “important guarantee to realize the Two Centenaries struggle objective and realize the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Therefore, like the white paper, one should also read beyond the noble sentiments of global interests, global peace and development, and global security, and examine the strategy through the underlying context of the Chinese Dream. What is the purpose and role of cyberspace to national rejuvenation; the vision of cyberspace power as it relates to national rejuvenation; and through which principles will cyberspace play a role in fulfilling national rejuvenation? Promoting the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative, raising the international telecommunications interconnection and interaction levels, paving a smooth Information Silk Road, and strengthening the construction of the Chinese online culture are some notable areas to consider.
The role of the PLA is likewise carefully understated (or obfuscated) throughout the strategy in the euphemism of “national security.” The 13 references in the introduction, objectives, principles, and strategic tasks quietly underscore the PLA’s imperatives to protect itself (and the nation) against harmful cyberspace attacks and intrusions from state and non-state actors and to extend the law of armed conflict into cyberspace to manage increasing international competition – both of which acknowledge cyberspace as a battlespace that must be contested and defended.
The strategy also puts high importance on international and domestic legal structures, standards, and norms. Beijing wants to leverage the existing international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to develop accompanying national laws to advance its national interests in cyberspace without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of cyberspace power may become more favorable.
China’s International Strategy for Cyberspace Cooperation (March 2017)
“Cyberspace is the common space of activities for mankind. The future of cyberspace should be in the hands of all countries. Countries should step up communications, broaden consensus and deepen cooperation to jointly build a community of shared future in cyberspace.”
On March 1, 2017, the Foreign Ministry and State Internet Information Office issued Beijing’s second cyberspace strategy titled “International Strategy for Cyberspace Cooperation.” The aim of the strategy is to build a community of shared future in cyberspace, notably one that is based on peace, sovereignty, shared governance, and shared benefits. The strategic goals of China’s participation in international cyberspace cooperation include safeguarding China’s national sovereignty, security, and interests in cyberspace; securing the orderly flow of information on the Internet; improving global connectivity; maintaining peace, security, and stability in cyberspace; enhancing international rule of law in cyberspace; promoting the global development of the digital economy; and deepening cultural exchange and mutual learning.
The strategy builds on the previously released cyberspace security strategy and trumpets the familiar refrains of national rejuvenation (Chinese Dream); global interests, peace and development, and security; and development of national laws to advance China’s national interests in cyberspace. Special attention was again given to the contentious concept of cyberspace sovereignty in support of national security and social stability – “No country should pursue cyberspace hegemony, interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, or engage in, condone or support cyberspace activities that undermine other countries’ national security.” The strategy also interestingly calls for the demilitarization of cyberspace just like the white paper does for space despite China’s growing offensive cyberspace and counterspacecapabilities and capacities – “The tendency of militarization and deterrence buildup in cyberspace is not conducive to international security and strategic mutual trust – China always adheres to the principle of the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes the weaponization of or an arms race in outer space.” Incongruously, a paragraph after discouraging cyberspace militarization, the strategy states that China will “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities in terms of situational awareness, cyber defense, supporting state activities, and participating in international cooperation, to prevent major cyber crises, safeguard cyberspace security, and maintain national security and social stability.”
This concludes the short discourse on the latest Chinese space white paper and cyberspace strategies and sets the conditions for further discussion. Part 2 examines possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace, and strategic opportunities for the United States.
Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: June 3, 2013. Assembly of the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft and the Long March-2F carrier rocket at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China’s Gansu Province. (Xinhua/Liang Jie)
In Europe, France is distinctive in claiming that its boundaries actually extend outside Europe into the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, i.e. the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ through its overseas departments (département d’outre-mer), and overseas territories (territoire d’outre-mer), which are considered integral parts of France, and indeed thereby of the European Union. These Indo-Pacific possessions also have large Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). These give France important maritime interests to be maintained, and if need be defended, by the French Navy. French maritime strategy is two-fold. Firstly, locally-based naval ships patrol in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Secondly, regular deployments from metropolitan waters of the Jeanne d’Arc Group; the battle group centered around the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and amphibious helicopter carrier Mistral, along with supporting destroyers, frigates, nuclear attack submarines, and air surveillance. As the current Chief of Staff Admiral Prazuck noted “our commitment to freedom of navigation calls for deployments to the Asia-Pacific zone several times each year.” Jeanne D’Arc 2017 consisted of a four-month deployment from March-June 2017 in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, described by France as “Indo-Pacific space … which is admittedly a long way from [metropolitan] France, but not from our territories.”
In the Indian Ocean, France’s possessions of Mayotte (population around 227,000) and Reunion (population around 840,000) in the southwest quadrant, are both considered as an “overseas department” (département d’outre-mer). They operate as “interlocking military stations” (Rogers), together with military facilities in Djibouti. In the southern (Terres Australes) quadrant are the uninhabited Kerguelen, St. Paul & Amsterdam and the Crozet islands which operate as “overseas territories” (territoire d’outre-mer) administered from Reunion. This residency status is why France was a founding member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) established in 2008. France keeps a permanent naval presence at Reunion. This is further strengthened by regular deployment into the region of the Jeanne d’Arc carrier battle group; eight times during 2001-2017, which has included regular biannual joint exercises with India (Varuna since 1993) and the U.S. (Operation Bois Bellau in 2013).
In the Pacific, France is to be found in New Caledonia (population 270,000), Wallis & Futuna (population 12,000), and French Polynesia (population 270,000). Both New Caledonia and French Polynesia were admitted as full members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in September 2016. French “maritime naval zones” and local naval units are centered on New Caledonia and French Polynesia. It is from New Caledonia that France hosts the biannual Croix du Sud humanitarian and relief exercises. France has participated in a range of Pacific security mechanisms since their foundation; namely the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (1988 onward), with Australia and New Zealand in the FRANZ mechanism (1992 onwards), with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand in the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group (1998 onwards), and the South Pacific Defence Ministers mechanism (2013 onward.
Five key documents provide the strategic background to this Indo-Pacific maritime role:
France and security in the Asia-Pacific (2014, 2016)
Each of these can be looked at to see the development of this Indo-Pacific maritime role for France.
A national strategy for the sea and for the oceans (2008)
December 2008 witnessed the release by the Prime Minister’s Office of a Blue Paper titled A national strategy for the sea and for the oceans. This represented a call for future action. François Fillon’s ‘Preface’ as Prime Minister, was clear, “France has decided to return to its historic maritime role.” The 2008 Blue Book emphasized France’s overseas possessions and their EEZs:
“France, with its overseas départements and territories, is present in every ocean […] The creation of an economic zone has given France jurisdiction over nearly 11 million square kilometres of maritime space (of which more than 96% surround the overseas possessions), second only to the United States.” (p. 12)
These Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) were of significance for their resources, “many of France’s maritime assets are thus associated with these large overseas economic zones where this country has exclusive rights to resource exploitation” (p. 46), and “most of these zones are in the Pacific (around French Polynesia and New Caledonia) and the Indian Ocean (around the Kerguelen Islands)” (p. 46).
French naval power was stressed; “the French Navy’s wide range of capabilities maintain its [France’s] rank and presence throughout the world’s seas” (p.14). However, French naval assets remained a matter for French sovereignty:
“At the present stage of construction of the European Union, France does not intend to permanently allocate any of its sea-borne capabilities to an EU body or agency. France will continue to provide support for action coordinated by the EU or one of its agencies, by seconding the capabilities it chooses for specific periods of time or tasks” (p. 68).
Within the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean was of immediate maritime importance for France, “the Indian Ocean is consequently well placed for the expression of France’s maritime policy, whether in our regional policy or in the action we promote with Europe, for example, against piracy” (pp. 72-73).
Maritimisation: La France face à la nouvelle géopolitique des océans(2012)
Continuing structural shifts towards the Indo-Pacific were noted, “the centre of geopolitical gravity is moving eastwards, highlighting the riparian nations of the Indian Ocean and Pacific” (p. 205). Given French possessions, “as a result there cannot be a maritime strategy without an overseas strategy (tr. p. 133), and that “the control of the maritime spaces is one of the keys of French power and influence on the international scene” (p. 140). Sea lane security across the Western Pacific, South China Sea and Indian Ocean was identified as of first rate importance for France, “more than ever, control of this maritime route between Europe and Asia becomes a major strategic issue” (p. 36)
In part this was a question of criminal activities and piracy, but what was also significant in this document was its repeated noting of Chinese naval growth (pp. 79-81,86,178) in which China’s naval assertiveness in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Indian Ocean (described as China’s ‘string of pearls’) was noted as a growing challenge to French interests, “what is at stake are our interests throughout the Indian Ocean and Pacific” (tr. p. 206).
Conversely, what the Senate report critiqued was French reductions of overall naval strength, including reductions in planned building of one aircraft carrier rather than two, and eight rather than seventeen Aquitaine-class anti-submarine frigates; which meant that “in other words we have reduced [naval] assets while the threats increased” (tr. p. 209). Consequently, the Senate report observed a future weakening of France’s maritime assets in the southern Indian Ocean (“a sharp deterioration in surveillance and intervention capacities on the high seas,” tr. p. 166) and in the southwest Pacific (“major capability disruption, with a strong impact on sovereignty and assistance missions in the national maritime areas […] with the withdrawal from active service of the Guardians of the Pacific in 2015. Years 2015 to 2019 appear to be particularly critical” (tr. pp. 166-167).
Defence and national security(2013)
In April 2013 a White Paper was published titled Defence and national security. The highest defense priority listed by it was simple “protect the national territory and French nationals abroad” (p. 47). While it painted a rosy picture of security in Europe (coming before Russia’s incorporation of the Crimea in 2014), France’s “national territory” of course extended outside Europe into the overseas departments and overseas territories. The 2013 White Paper made a point of highlighting (p. 14) that most of the overseas possessions were in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and came complete with around 1.5 million French nationals and resource-rich EEZs. Consequently it reiterated “France’s commitment as a sovereign power and a player in the security of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific (p. 29).
French Indian Ocean interests were highlighted, in particular the threat to them posed by piracy:
“The security of the Indian Ocean, a maritime access to Asia, is a priority for France and for Europe from this point of view […] The fact that the European Union’s first large-scale naval operation was the Atalanta operation against piracy clearly illustrates the importance of the Indian Ocean, not only for France but for Europe as a whole” (p. 56).
In those waters, a significant developing strategic partnership was highlighted whereby “as a neighbour[hood] power in the Indian Ocean, France plays a particular role here, reinforced by the development of privileged relations with India” (p. 56).
In the 2013 White Paper, China was now appearing as a concern (which it had not been in the 2008 White Paper) for France, given that “the equilibrium of East Asia has been radically transformed by the growing might of China” (p. 57). Conversely, the strategic partnership announced with Australia in 2012 was welcomed as showing their convergence on “regional matters relative to the Pacific and the Indian Ocean,” and more widely “it also confirms a renewed interest in a French presence on the part of countries in the region” (pp. 57-58).
National strategy for security of maritime areas(2015)
“Present in all seas and oceans around the world […] France thus has considerable assets which constitute coveted wealth and help to assert its position as a great maritime power. They give us rights, particularly to preserve our sovereignty and our sovereign economic rights […] our maritime area contributes to our rank as a major world power […] confirming its [France’s] rank as a major maritime power and its intention for economic development through sea” (p. 3).
Maritime threats came explicitly from piracy, but also implicitly from China:
Certain powers […] from East Asia […] are developing significant naval capabilities which could be able to counter our freedom of action at sea, pursue territorial ambitions in disputed maritime areas and thus threaten freedom of navigation in international waters” (pp. 4-5).
French strategic remedies were internal balancing through “maintenance of a good level of ocean-going projection capacity, mainly provided by the resources of the French navy” (p. 49); and partly external balancing to “strengthen maritime cooperation with third-party States” (p. 42).
France and security in the Asia-Pacific(2014, 2016)
The Ministry of Defence document France and security in the Asia-Pacific was first released in April 2014 and then updated in June 2016. Whereas the 2014 document referred nowhere to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a geographic (and geo-strategic/geopolitical) term, the June 2016 version referred to it repeatedly, three times in Le Drian’s ‘Forward’ and five times in the main text.
Internal and external balancing was apparent in Le Drian’s ‘Forward,’ with strategic partners identified in the region:
“As a state of the Indian and of the Pacific Oceans, owing to its territories and its population, France permanently maintains sovereignty and presence forces there in order to defend its interests and to contribute to the stability of the region alongside its partners, primarily Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The long-existing links with the latter are tightening and France will continue to be committed in all aspects of regional security” (2016: p. 1).
The absence of China as a ‘partner’ was noticeable. Conversely, in a shot across the bow for Chinese restrictions in the South China Sea, an item unmentioned in the 2014 profile, Le Drian pledged that “responding to tensions in the South China Sea, France, as a first-rank maritime and naval Power, will continue to uphold freedom of navigation, to contribute to the security of maritime areas” (2016: p. 1).
In the main text, clear maritime priorities were flagged up. In a new comment, the 2016 paper stated:
“France has started to rebalance its strategic centre of gravity towards the Indo-Pacific, where it is a neighbour[hood] power […] Our armed forces stationed overseas and our permanent military basing in the Indian and the Pacific oceans confer to France a presence which is unique among European countries” (2016: p. 2)
Both the 2014 and 2016 papers stressed France’s maritime presence in the same wordage:
“France is present in all of the world’s oceans, owing to its overseas territories […] and thanks to its blue-water navy […] France’s primary obligation is to protect its territories and population (500,000 in the Pacific and over one million in the Indian Ocean)” (2016: p. 6).
Both papers used identical wording with regard to the geoeconomic significance (“extensive fishing, mineral and energy resources”) of France’s Exclusive Economic Zones, “located mainly in the Pacific (62%) and Indian Oceans (24%),” for which “France performs its protective mission thanks to its defence and security forces stationed in the region” (2016: p. 6).
A new issue, Chinese “reclamation works and the militarization of contested archipelagos” in the South China Sea were seen to “threaten the security of navigation and overflight,” on which France already “regularly exercises its right of maritime and air navigation in the area” (2016: p. 2).
On the domestic front, the envisaged spending cuts of 7 percent for the 2016-2019 period were instead replaced in April 2015 by a 4 percent increase of 3.9 billion euros to underpin stronger oceanic maritime strength and with it a strengthened Indo-Pacific profile. Forward planning (Actualisation de la programme militaire 2014/2019) envisages that France “ will therefore consolidate its political commitment in Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific … through its defense cooperation, an active military presence, [and] the development of strategic partnerships” (p. 6). France’s reassertion of its maritime position was completed with the ratification in February 2017 of the ordinance Espaces maritimes de la République Française (‘Maritime spaces of the French Republic’), which emphasized France’s intention to maintain, and defend its position in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. March 2017 witnessed a $4 billion frigate program being launched by the French defense ministry.
Meanwhile, France is actively pursuing Indo-Pacific maritime avenues. Le Drian remarked on conflict potential in the “Indo-Pacific region” at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2016; such that “France will therefore play its part in our collective responsibility to preserve and strengthen the stability and security of this region,” working with “our partners, in particular India, Australia, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia and even Japan,” with China absent from the listing.
In such a vein, the trip to India by Le Drian in September 2016 was the occasion for him to assert that “France confirms here that it is a credible actor of the Indo-Pacific zone, where – as I have been saying ceaselessly we have a prominent role to play” in the future. France’s strengthening links with India were on show in January 2017 at their Dialogue on maritime cooperation, explained by France as a “significant strengthening of cooperation between our respective navies for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”
France’s strengthening links with Australia were on show in March 2017. The Joint Statement drawn up by Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, emphasized defense and security cooperation, especially naval, bilaterally and with third countries – “particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.” Given France’s strengthening links with India and Australia it is no surprise to find Le Drian in September 2016 arguing for a France-India-Australia trilateral framework; “we need to think of a three-way partnership that includes India if we want security in the Indo-Pacific region.”
France’s strengthening links with Japan were on show in the Franco-Japanese Joint Statement of January 2017 which talked of common Indo-Pacific concerns (“strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific ocean”), and French naval presence (“a regular and visible naval presence in all maritime areas, including in the Indian and Pacific Oceans”). The visit of the Japanese leader to France in March 2017 was the occasion for France to pledge further military cooperation, “especially on the naval plane in the Pacific.” One sign of this will be France’s powerful Mistral amphibious helicopter carrier leading U.S. and Japanese troops in exercises at Tinian in the West Pacific in May 2017 in an implicit message to China.
Three Indo-Pacific maritime issues await French attention. In April 2016 at the Shangri-La Dialogue the French Defence Minister Le Drian argued since “the situation in the China seas, for example, directly affects the European Union,” so shouldn’t “the European navies, therefore, coordinate to ensure a presence that is as regular and visible as possible” in those waters?” EU responses remain unclear.
Two Indian Ocean related issues remain for French maritime strategy. Firstly, how far will French naval forces based in the Gulf continue operating against Daesh/ISIS forces in the Middle East, and how far there will be wider jihadist backlash in the Indo-Pacific? Secondly, the EU’s anti-piracy ATALANTA operation in the Gulf of Aden, currently renewed until 2018 and to which France has been contributing naval assets, has so far been run from Northwood in the UK. Given that the UK is due to leave the EU by April 2019, it would be logical for France as a resident power in the region and significant naval power to take over the coordination of the ATALANTA operation, if it continues.
Finally, Chinese maritime cooperation with Russia is of some concern to France. China-Russia joint naval exercises carried out in the Western Pacific and South China Sea help China’s maritime assertiveness in Indo-Pacific waters; but conversely the China-Russia joint naval exercises carried out in the Mediterranean and Black Sea help Russian maritime assertiveness in those European-related waters.
What this study has shown is that French maritime discussions have explicitly rediscovered the geo-economic and geopolitical significance of France’s possessions and strategic interests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. France has become more active in deploying maritime assets and developing maritime partnerships in the region. This represents a structural shift in France’s maritime focus. Any change of administration, following the French Presidential Elections in April-May 2017, is likely to maintain this self proclaimed “rebalance” to the Indo-Pacific.
David Scott is an independent analyst on Asia-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer, a regular presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn in 2017, and the Managing Editor of European Geostrategy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: France’s Mistral amphibious helicopter carrier ship docks on the Neva River in St. Petersburg November 23, 2009. (Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk)
This article originally featured on The Navalist and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.
By LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN and Professor Richard J. Harknett
The United States has been operating without a Grand Strategy for nearly 25 years. First, it was essentially on auto-pilot in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union (the grand strategic endstate of containment) and then post-9/11 it became tactically oriented in reacting to global terrorism. Over the past 16 years, a flux in the distribution of power internationally has begun as the United States has relied on coercive force in an attempt to manage terrorist capacity and its gap in power is not guaranteed to be sustained without a strategy to do so. Great powers rise and fall because, over time, they tend to choose policies which accelerate the balancing dynamic of other competing states. Today, while the United States remains the leading state in an imbalanced global system, traditional realist theory suggests that international systems tend toward balance and we should expect a turn to a multipolar world. The National Intelligence Council’s January 9th released quadrennial Global Trends Report suggests a similar conclusion.
This is not preordained, however, if U.S. policymakers were to return to leveraging true American strength. The United States is still a relatively young Great Power and can choose policies that can stretch its advantages. Thus, while actors will balance against it, the United States can remain preponderant for some period of time. This is because it enjoys its position as a foundational power, rather than a coercive power. The majority of the world benefits from the foundations that have been laid in the aftermath of the Second World War and, therefore, there is significant incentive to buy-in and work within the current American-led incentive structure–most states are rewarded by the imbalance and thus it is not the driving force that traditional analysis suggests. This gap in power is tolerable to a majority of state and non-state actors because it is leveragable by them.
However, perpetuating an imbalanced system where the U.S. remains the foundational power will not sit well with actors like China, Russia, Iran and a few other revisionist actors. Indeed they are all working hard to challenge the current system to make their own rules and pursue their own interests.
Yet the incoming administration may have an opportunity to fundamentally reorient the pieces on the grand strategic chessboard, and perhaps retain a position of strength that has been ebbing over the past few years. It appears that the President and his team are open to a different view of Russia as a great power. They seem amenable to Mr. Putin’s realist view of the world, and his naked pursuit of Russian interests.
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s comments about Communist China, and his apparent willingness to rethink America’s “one-China” policy seem to indicate that on some instinctual level, Mr. Trump considers the PRC to be a greater threat than Russia. On that matter, he is probably correct. Russia is essentially a vulnerable great power heading in the wrong direction. Communist China, on the other hand, while facing its own internal inconsistencies, has the capacity to challenge the United States in terms of economic, military and political power.
Quite simply then, the new Administration may be in a position to reverse the realignment of the Nixon era (but in Nixonian fashion) and enter into a tacit alignment with Russia as a geopolitical balance against Communist China, thereby sustaining the imbalanced system. There are a number of reasons why this might be advantageous to both the United States and Russia, but we should acknowledge up front that it will not come without significant cost. And this is not the mere “reset” that was recently attempted. In geopolitical terms, this is effectively bringing Russia into the western orbit.
The core unknown is whether Russia can be a satisfied great power in an imbalanced system? The answer is possibly yes, if its status is based on seats at the table of global governance, it is convinced that it is not susceptible to outside aggression or collapse, and that its particular form of domestic governance can persist.
Russia is a weakening great power on its current course demographically and economically. A new relationship would have to emphasize that there is a fundamental benefit to Russia of leveraging U.S. foundational power, rather than risking the cost of opposing U.S. coercive power. Russia should understand that challenging that coercive power would lead to its swifter demise. It lost the first Cold War and the U.S. can actively isolate it again and turn the energy (oil price) weapon against it if the Russians want to challenge the U.S. This is not a containment for containment sake argument, but rather an invitation to Russia to become a western power coupled with a hard power argument of the consequences that would follow from not accepting the invitation. What needs to be made clear is that the Russian hope of undermining western institutional legitimacy will not be tolerated anymore, but that there is an alternative to competition. This is a “tough love” message, but one in which Mr. Trump and his Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson may be uniquely qualified to deliver.
In order for this to happen, Mr. Trump will have to convince Mr. Putin that Russia has a “losing hand” as it were, and that Communist China is a greater long term threat to Russia than the United States or the west. Russia is currently under severe economic sanctions from the west due to its invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, and while Mr. Putin remains popular for now, even he knows that the Russian people will not tolerate for long growing economic depravity. Mr. Trump can effectively say, “I can get you out of this mess.”
And indeed there is growing concern even within Russia of China’s overt interest in the sparsely populated, but resource rich Siberian expanse. The Russian people are intimately familiar with several thousand years of history, to include numerous invasions from the Asian steppe hordes. Of course in recent history, Communist China attacked the Soviet Union in 1969. Russia is beginning to note the frequency with which Communist China now talks of reclaiming the territory lost during its “Century of Humiliation” – much of that territory being taken by Imperial Russia. (This includes the city of Vladivostok which was ceded to Russia by Imperial China in 1858.)
Can a Trump Administration conduct a strategic realignment with Russia? While the West will be under pressure to “negotiate a deal” likely involving forswearing further NATO expansion or the integration of former Soviet states into the EU, it should resist this temptation. Remember, Russia has a losing hand in this relationship, and is contracting both demographically and economically. Rather, Mr. Trump has to convince Mr. Putin that any lifting of sanctions will be followed by American investment which would effectively “stop the bleeding” in Russia. However, there would be no rollback on NATO – the Baltics and Eastern Europe are not going to be discarded. One clear question is the motivations of Mr. Putin: does he want Russia to retain global recognition as a great power and will cut a deal to do so, or is he too much a product of his KGB legacy and sees the “West” as an unremitting enemy with which no deal is safe? He will recall promises of the 1990s that were not kept, so trust building will be essential. The choice of Mr. Tillerson as Secretary of State could be critical in establishing that trust.
For the United States, bringing Russia into a Western orbit could provide significant advantages. First, it diverts the PRC’s attention back to its 2,600 mile long border with Russia. This will require the PRC to reconsider its reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), perhaps away from building a power projection force back to a land-oriented border protection. And the PLA still relies largely upon Russian designed and supplied military equipment, which would hopefully be curtailed or stopped.
Second, it advances the goals of the United States relative to India and Vietnam, who also maintain a friendly relationship with Russia and heavily relies on Russia as a military supplier. India has historically been non-aligned, though friendly to the former Soviet Union/Russia. A rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia relieves a source of tension with Vietnam and India, and opens the door for an alignment between the world’s two most populous democracies and a former war enemy of China.
Third, it does permit the U.S. and Russia to resume and enhance counter-terrorism relationships. It may even open opportunities for the United States and Russia to conduct joint operations in the Middle East against ISIS. To be clear, Russian insistence that the Assad regime remain in power would have to be dropped. However, the U.S. and Russia can probably find a mutually acceptable third party to rule in Syria over time
As of yet, there is no evidence that the incoming Administration is thinking along these lines. It would require a deft bit of diplomacy and “deal making” to convince Russia to throw its lot in with the United States as opposed to remaining the junior partner to the PRC (whether or not Russia realizes it is the junior partner is an open question). However, the warm words exchanged between the incoming Trump team and the Kremlin may be an opportunity. How unsubstantiated reports of deeper campaign Trump-Kremlin ties will impact moving forward is unknown, but in a world in which perception is reality, a President Trump would now have to pursue such a realignment strategy more openly than Nixon did with China. If they could pull it off, future relations with Communist China could look very different than the current trajectory it is on right now.
To quote Star Trek VI, there is an old Vulcan proverb that “Only Nixon could go to China.” Well, perhaps “only Trump could go to Russia.” We shall see if he can seize this opportunity.
LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is a Cryptologic Warfare Officer assigned to the staff of U.S. Cyber Command. He holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Central Florida and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
Professor Richard J. Harknett is the former Scholar-in-Residence at U.S. Cyber Command and currently an inaugural Fulbright Scholar in Cyber studies at University of Oxford, United Kingdom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or U.S. Cyber Command. The authors offer an academic-based explanation for possible policy change, rather than personal advocacy or rejection of any possible policies.