America is a slowly boiling frog

Last year, in a post discussing the United States’ non-response to Chinese aggression in waters off Alaska and the South China Sea, I closed with the frustrated lament that “America is like the proverbial frog that does not realize it’s slowly being boiled to death.”

Two days ago, in an article in the Wall Street Journal about China’s recent deployment of weapons to occupied islands in the Spratlys, an unnamed US military official was quoted as follows:

It’s certainly part of what we have seen as the continuum of the progress of what the Chinese are doing there … This is a classic case of the frog slowly boiling.

You read it here first, folks.

frog

China in Alaska, part II: turning the other cheek

If foreign warships intruded into American territorial waters near a critical and undefended military base, you might expect that reasonable countermeasures be taken, like shadowing the vessels with military aircraft, dispatching some troops to shore up the garrison, and summoning the ambassador of the offending state to demand an explanation. But this is 21st century America, where NASA’s primary mission is offering therapy to the Muslim world and international LGBT rights are considered a national security priority.

Nothing frustrates this Administration more than the intrusion of great power politics on its post-modern foreign policy agenda. Recently this was on display by President Obama’s reaction to the Russian intervention in Syria (“This is not some superpower chessboard contest”). Last month it was visible in the confused response to the PLAN’s Alaskan pleasure cruise.

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China in Alaska, part I: sending a message

Nearly seven years ago, when China deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to join international counterpiracy operations, I remarked on the historical significance of the occasion as China resumed blue water operations for the first time in centuries.

We’ve come a long way in seven years. In August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent seven ships to conduct exercises with the Russian navy in the waters near Vladivostok, including an ampbibious landing drill with 200 Chinese marines. Joint exercises of this sophistication and ambition are newsworthy in their own right, but the real story occurred after the training concluded on 28 August. The PLAN flotilla took a bit of a detour on the way home.

On 2 September the flotilla was reported to be operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to that state. This caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among U.S. officials, who purported to be baffled as to why the PLAN was operating so far north:

US government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”

Not to worry, though. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reassured the press, three different times, that the vessels were not behaving in a threatening manner and were staying in international waters.

Except they were not. On 4 September the Wall Street Journal reported that the flotilla had, in fact, entered U.S. territorial waters as it transited the Aleutian Islands and steamed south into the Pacific. This seemed to increase the confusion among American observers:

“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in the growing commercial activity in the Arctic.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. First, what Beijing was actually signaling by its foray into U.S. waters; second, the bemused and feeble American reaction, which suggests an unspoken political imperative to avoid giving offense to China.

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A Language Putin Understands

Following Russia’s overt intervention in eastern Ukraine late last month the rhetoric from Kiev has dramatically shifted in favor of peace, with President Petro Poroshenko himself pushing legislation to grant the rebellious areas a high degree of autonomy. Vladimir Putin has been largely victorious, for he has accomplished his objective of weakening Ukraine, stalling its integration with Europe and keeping it subservient to Moscow. Aside from the hopelessly outclassed Ukrainian military, the only opposition faced by Putin has been a mild and entirely ineffective sanctions regime. With a ceasefire apparently holding, European leaders will hasten to remove even these limited sanctions and resume normal relations with Moscow. The liberal understanding of foreign policy that informs most EU and NATO capitals does not equip them for dealing with an outlier like Putin, who understands the world through a vastly different paradigm. The debellicized nature of European policymaking has denied the West political instruments that had the potential to resolve the Ukraine crisis on much more favorable terms. Instead of surrendering the initiative to Putin by responding to each aggression with token sanctions, the US and Europe should impose costs on Russia asymmetrically. Two possibilities come to mind immediately:

1. Transnistria

h/t The Economist

h/t The Economist

This small, heavily industrialized sliver of land east of the Dneister river achieved de facto independence from Moldova following a brief war in 1992 when Russian troops intervened on the side of Transnistrian separatists. Still host to a small garrison of Russian troops, Transnistria’s economy has major steel, agricultural, textile and criminal sectors. It also has very long and open border with Ukraine. The enclave is completely isolated from Russian territory, though the recent annexation of Crimea has closed the distance significantly. Conceivably, Ukraine could threaten to occupy the entire territory. Short of that, it could attack Russian forces in the territory, forcing them to surrender and thus giving Kiev a major bargaining chip against Moscow.

2. Kaliningrad

A thorn in NATO's side

A thorn in NATO’s side

The speciousness of the Russian pretext for intervening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (protection of Russian minorities from neo-Nazi hordes in historically Russian territory) is thrown into sharp relief by Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave along the Baltic coast that was historically German before being conquered by the Soviet Union in World War II, whereupon the population was decimated and expelled. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO eastward, Kaliningrad is now completely surrounded by NATO states. If 3 to 5 NATO brigades were to deploy to Poland for “joint exercises” near the Kaliningrad border, the Kremlin would be forced to redeploy assets away from Ukraine in order to respond and its propaganda would be undermined.

***

In the last six years Russia has destabilized, invaded and dismembered two Western-leaning states along its frontier. There is a very real possibility that Putin’s next confrontation will be with NATO itself. It need not be overtly military in character; the modus operandi for revisionist powers in the 21st century is a campaign of incremental actions, each action falling below the threshold that would provoke response, which cumulatively results in a change to the status quo. Putin’s most likely course of action is to subvert the Baltic states by covertly mobilizing their ethnic Russian minorities to agitate for special political rights and possibly autonomy. Open rebellion – like what occurred in eastern Ukraine – will not be necessary. Protests, demonstrations, strikes and rioting should be sufficient. The objective is to force the Baltic capitals to grant political concessions to their Russian minorities without NATO invoking Article 5 or otherwise responding in a significant fashion. If NATO does not back them up and the Baltics capitulate, the credibility of the alliance will be shattered and the states of eastern Europe will begin aligning themselves with the Kremlin out of self-preservation, thus reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence.

The threat to NATO is significant. Pro-Russian placards and sit-ins on the streets of Tallinn will not seem a threat to most observers, but what is at stake is the future of the European order. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to be prepared to move things up the escalatory ladder, beyond the level that Putin is willing to accept.

More from O’Sullivan and Miller

Patrick O’Sullivan and Jesse Miller conclude a now-dated regional analysis of the Middle East with comments that still ring prescient:

Mackinder’s pivot was the region which the horsemen of the steppes swept out of under pressure of limited resources and internecine competition. The prize they most keenly sought lay in the region we have just delineated, now divided among the fragments of Islam, created by these riders from the plains. The source of instability now lies in the confusion of Islam. People who have been sheltered from changes in the west by the conservative, legalistic code of Islam now have to face accommodation with 400 years of technical, social and political evolution all at once. One possible reaction is to deny the morality of what has come to pass and retreat into the past as the Wahabis did and Khomeini would do. At the other extreme is a radical embracing of change in the fashion of Ataturk. Shah Reza Palavi attempted this but did not succeed. Whatever the ploys of government, the people will be caught in the quandary of going both ways at once, and social schizophrenia can lead to savage action and reaction. This imbalance, plus the presence of oil and Israel, turns this into the percussion cap of the world. (p 155)

Of Dominoes and Quantums

The Geography of Warfare, published in 1983, is a collection of strategic and political musings by Patrick O’Sullivan (Professor of Geography at Florida State University) and Jesse W. Miller (Professor of Accounting at State University of New York). Like many other similarly themed books published around the same time, the book is a wide-ranging, searching work; a modest contribution to the strategic remooring that was just beginning to occur as America recovered from the post-Vietnam haze and responded to the perceived Soviet ascent.

dominoes

Not quite so simple…

Their post-mortem analysis of the domino theory shows the value of remembering that strategy occurs in a physical plane and is still subject to geographic limitations:

Since there is no formal statement of the domino theory, in order to analyse its logical structure we can only examine the mechanics of the analogy. The elegant, rippling collapse of a row of dominoes derives from its artful arrangement in a state of unstable equilibrium so that any disturbance will be transmitted along the row. The pieces are endowed with potential energy by standing them on their ends so that each will strike the next as it falls. If a gap greater than the length of a piece separates two dominoes, the chain reaction ceases. The dominoes have three states: standing, falling and fallen. That ‘falling’ and ‘fallen’ equate with ‘going communist’ may satisfy the moral perspective of those who apply this theory. On the other hand they might have been disturbed that the fallen state was a stable equilibrium while standing was unstable. The red and white characterisation of politics implied by the analogy is not only naïve and insulting but also runs contrary to a geographical sense of uniqueness. It utterly fails to capture the significance of regional or national identity which daily we see dominating mankind’s sense of self and place.

The model treats of aggression from one end of the row as the potential energy of the first domino is translated to kinetic energy by an initial tap. It falls, registering a change to the same affiliation as the aggressor and, in so doing, imparts this character to the next domino as it strikes it down and so forth. What the necessities of similar size and appropriate spacing translate into in geographical terms is unclear. Obviously in order to land on the beaches of San Diego some very large dominoes would have to be stationed on the Philippines, Wake Island and Hawaii. The existence of a gap like the Pacific should quiet fears of the red menace wading ashore in California. In the proliferation of the theory’s use, oceans or intervening nations are obviously not seen as gaps containing the contagion, but can be conveniently erased. The nature of the contamination process is not made very clear by the analogy. ‘Knocked over’ is redolent of liquor stores rather than nations and hardly provides a rich enough description of the process to prescribe preventative action. ‘Propping up’ has been used to indicate one type of solution, but has proven difficult to translate into successful political, military and economic operations. ‘Knocking out’, the lateral displacement of one or more pieces to provide a fire-break to check the progress of the conflagration, does appeal to some military minds as a feasible action. (p. 100-1)

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