Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, August 29, 2015

An Excerpt from Amalie Flynn's Wife and War

It is my pleasure to post an excerpt from the wonderful writer and poet Amalie Flynn's memoir, Wife and War. You might recall that we interviewed Amalie back in 2012. You can find that interview here. We at CWCP are big fans of her work. Indeed, I find her writing very accessible and moving, making the consequences of war and violence real and vivid. She takes readers to places that many scholars and analysts and pundits don't go or don't even think about. We hope you enjoy.




I am thinking about movement today.

I am thinking about movement and about its absence.

            About a bomb lodged underneath the unarmored Ford pickup truck my husband drives, every single day, up and down the road they call the Highway of Death. About how a bomb will force his pickup, up, into the air, and how it will force his body, up, into the air. About how his head may blow up or fly, fly across the road, his head, and land somewhere else.

            I am thinking about how, here, at home, time feels like it is standing still while my husband is away. And about how time marches on. About how horrible this deployment is, but, as the days turn into months, how it has gotten easier, and even more enjoyable, this time I have now, time which is only my time.

            I am thinking about America. This country I live in, about how we all seem to pretend the war is not happening. Because I am thinking about movement today, thinking about movement and about its absence.


            I watch the news, sitting, here, on my bed, which used to be our bed, except, now, my husband is gone. And I am watching the war on television again, this footage that has been edited and squeezed into something that can fit between two commercials. How this war has become a product, packaged into tearful homecomings and loyal dogs and sweet wives.

            I have seen this happen before.

            How 9/11 was turned into a tourist attractions. T-shirts and car decals and miniature Twin Tower snow globes.

            But the truth, I say, out loud, to the television.

            The truth is something different.

            The truth is that war and terror are this. An amputated leg, a dead body, a road littered with bombs, a lost country, with children, children like ours, living in war, and soldiers coming home, soldiers who have given so much, that they have nothing else to give.




            When you are a military wife, your life is full of holes.

            Your husband goes to war.

            He is gone. And there is a hole in the calendar, the hole where days fall and never come back, where time has stopped but still goes on. And while he is gone, you think about it, about what can happen. You think about him getting killed. And about how, how they will lower him into a hole, dug into the ground, a flag draped over the coffin. You think about him getting shot, a hole in his head, where the doctors will put a metal plate. You think about him getting blown up, blown up by a roadside bomb, his right leg amputated, that missing limb. And you don’t know yet. You don’t know about the other holes. More holes, the holes that will come later, if you are lucky, lucky enough, and he comes home alive.

            My husband has been gone for one year.

            And I think about it, about what can happen, all the time. As I lay, in our bed, a hole next to me, this space where his body used to be.

            On 9/11, I fell, down, in the street,

            After the Tower fell, down, behind me.

            A man I did not know lifted me up,

            His fingers in my armpits,

            Asking me, a thick German accent,

            What is your name and how, when I told him,

            He smiled, repeating it, Amalie

            Because my name is German too,

            Pointing up, to a window,

            On the side of an office building,

            And I followed him up a fire escape,

            Into an empty room, empty desks, empty chairs,

            Sitting in a chair at a desk, someone else’s.

            And using the telephone, calling my mother,

            Saying the words I am still alive.

            Now my husband is calling me, calling me from a payphone in Kabul, his voice, almost lost, in static, telling me, how, he is still alive. And I know. I know what those words mean. How they really mean, I almost died today.


            It is early morning in Afghanistan, not even five your time, I say, into the telephone, to my husband, who is breathing, back, to me, on the other end. And I am distracted, because I am busy, driving somewhere, the radio on, and our son, talking, in the backseat.

            I say, it’s your Daddy, to my son, but into the telephone, to my husband, who is standing at the front of a long line, ready, in full battle rattle, helmet, armor, fatigues, boots, and gun, but waiting, waiting for his turn to call me, and hear my voice, before he goes, just another day, driving down the Highway of Death.
            And when I hang up the telephone, things feel heavier.

            A machine gun hanging at my husband’s side, that conversation we just had, his words and mine, the ones I said, and the weight of the ones I forgot to say, and the days and nights stretching out in front of both of us, now, that it is done.

            But this is just part of being a military wife.
            How when your husband calls you from war, you are not always ready, even though, even though this could be the last time.


            You must miss him.

            Everyone says that, says you must miss him.

            And I always say I do, how I do, I miss him.
            But the truth is this. Deployment is hard. And deployment can be easy. My husband has been gone for over a year, now. And, yes, I miss him. But some days I don’t. I don’t miss him.

            This is deployment. It is the pain of missing him. And it is the pain of not missing him. Some days I forget about him. Because it has been so long, too long, this separation.


Amalie Flynn is an American writer and the author of WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR and two blogs: WIFE AND WAR and SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH. Flynn’s WIFE AND WAR poetry has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES AT WAR and in TIME’S BATTLELAND, has appeared in her blog for THE HUFFINGTON POST, and has received mention from THE NEW YORK TIMES MEDIA DECODER. Her SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH blog has received mention from CNN. In addition, her WIFE AND WAR blog has a global readership, with readers from over 90 countries. WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR is her first book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The American Right and Left on Gun Violence

From Aurora (CO) to Sandy Hook to Charleston to Chicago, violent gun tragedies in America, justifiably, have grabbed headline attention over the last few years. Activists decry the violence, the media spills much ink, and public officials engage in partisan grandstanding, but not a whole lot has been accomplished to solve the ongoing problem of homicide via guns. The violence continues, and thousands of innocent people are killed annually.

What do we make of all this? For sure, there’s a lot of blame to go around. One major failure is the inability of liberals and conservatives in Washington to bridge their differences and put forward effective policies. A major factor here is the ideological differences between both sides. This is what I’d like to focus on in this post. To explore these differences, let’s take a quick look at four salient gun debates that liberals and conservatives are currently engaged in. It’s the sharp disagreements on these debates, in part, effectively hamper much problem solving on guns from Washington.  

#Debate 1

Conservatives are right that more laws aren’t a panacea, as they don’t completely eliminate gun violence. Bureaucrats and their underlings make mistakes, there are administrative screw-ups and legal loopholes abound. For example, people who should be excluded from buying guns via background checks frequently aren’t prevented from doing so. They don’t show up as mental health risks, felons, etc.

But liberals are right, too, in that more laws can help reduce gun violence. Well-written and enforced laws can make it more difficult for miscreants and the troubled to gain access to weapons. It takes the White House, Congress, States, the FBI, police, judges, and so on, to get on the same page to craft and execute and monitor good legislation and to capture and punish those who violate the law. True, but that’s something that’s much easier said than done, however—as conservatives like to point out.

#Debate 2

Conservatives emphasize personal responsibility. Do the crime, do the time. They support strong, strict prison sentences for gun violence, illegal possession of weapons, etc. And they also exhort people who know and are in contact with gun violators and criminals to play their part by contacting police and mental health professionals. It’s their job as moral citizens.

Liberals say that harsh criminal sentences haven’t been an effective deterrent mechanism to prevent gun violence. Liberals would agree that 3rd parties could do a better job in being a part of the solution, but believe that there can be limits to their effectiveness and willingness to do so. Gun criminals often hang around with people who themselves aren’t great citizens, not particularly responsible, and aren’t inclined to act as community watchdogs. Moreover, in some cases, tattling could mean that people implicate themselves in crimes. So the incentive to participate isn’t always there.

#Debate 3

Conservatives argue that gun rights are enshrined in the second amendment. They are a necessary hedge against a future tyrannical American government. Additionally, conservatives argue that the right to self-defense is a constitutionally protected right and has been upheld repeatedly, even expanded, in legal cases. Hence, any attempt to sharply roll back the freedom of Americans to acquire guns violate the Constitution and should be prohibited. Simple as that.

Most liberals are willing to bend on the primacy of the 2nd amendment. They think the problem of gun rights is serious enough to create laws that circumscribe gun rights. Besides, the 2nd amendment was written at a time in which the American republic was nascent and fragile, and when their experience with harsh British rule was fresh on their minds. Times have significantly changed, say liberals.

Moreover, what can citizens really do by hoarding weapons individually or collectively? The asymmetry in power between the government and private citizens has only widened over time, particularly as technology has improved. After all, Washington, backed by the military, has state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems, and, of course, nuclear power. Americans can’t compete with all that.

Debate #4

And then we have the data. They mean different things to different people. Let’s look at just a small sample to illustrate my point.

As liberals point out, the US is an increasingly militarized society—its military oversees the largest defense budget in the world, US police forces are rapidly arming themselves to the teeth with military-style weaponry, and US citizens are awash in guns. American citizens are speculated to hold about 300 million firearms, or about .9 per person. That per capita rate is 50 percent higher than the next most armed country, which is Yemen, a war torn basket-case. The US is much, much more prone to gun violence compared to other modern industrialized democracies. In fact, on gun violence, the US looks more like Mexico than, say, Britain or France. And mass shootings are on the upswing—though still rare.

But conservatives, meantime, are correct in highlighting the fact that gun violence is actually down since the peak violent days of the early 1990s. And while the US has recently averaged about 33,500 gun deaths per year (from 2000-2010), a little under two-thirds of those fatalities have been suicides, not homicides. Moreover, data indicate that defensive uses of weapons occur just as often as offensive uses of weapons, and that such uses of weapons are frequently effective. According to, “studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was 'used' by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

So as we can see, both sides do make good points. But partisan mudslinging, while appealing for political reasons, misses much of the story of gun violence, as neither side has captured the full truth of what’s going on here. Unfortunately, bridging the ideological differences has been and will continue to be tough.

Entrenched partisan politics—interest group politics, the role of money in elections, and the voice of the hardliners on both the right and left in America—make compromise extremely difficult for those officials in Washington who might be willing to bend on their ideological positions. And even in the face of especially horrific events like the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school murders, which claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 staff members (plus the gunman’s mother and the shooter himself), the right and left in America really couldn’t find much common ground—at least not enough to begin to work toward remedying the problem of gun violence.

So is all hopeless? Not exactly. In a future post, I'll set forth and examine some of the best ways to reduce gun violence in the US.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Greece Crisis

The below conversation between CWCP’s Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman took place over email between July 13 and 15. We hope you enjoy!

Brad Nelson: So now that it appears a Greece deal with the EU and creditors is done, let's take a step back and look at some of the consequences of the events over the last few weeks. Who (or what) comes out the big winner of this mess? Anyone?

Yohanes Sulaiman: There are winners for sure. But big winners? Nope. Germany wins, but got a bad hit to its reputation. Tspiras wins the deal and referendum and applauds from people like Paul Krugman (second thought, that may not be so good), but that’s only after wrecking Greece’s economy and causing regional panic. The EU? Yes it’s still united, but it looks so wobbly. Obama? He is a non-factor here.

Probably former Finance Minister Varoufakis, the game theorist economist, is the biggest winner. His name is praised to high heaven by every leftist and will probably get a plum teaching job! Putin, by doing nothing but just looming around, also managed to make the EU nervous and pulled Greece closer to it. Perhaps Hollande also could make a claim as saving EU, but he was a bit player here.

BN: For me, the winners are: Germany and Merkel, who flexed her diplomatic muscles and got the Greeks to capitulate. We can pretend that France still matters a great deal, but the truth is that Germany runs the show.

The other winners are the EU and the Euro and supporters of European integration, at least for now. The bloc suffered a major crisis, looked shaky, bent, but, in the end, didn't break. However, over the long-term, I'm not sure of the continued viability of the EU. The usual critique--at least one of them--has been that the EU contains one batch of countries that are strong economies and one that's weaker and unsteady. At this point, the EU probably has multiple tiers of countries--relatively strong economies (Germany, Britain, Poland), steady but low growth ones (France), and weak and wobbly economies (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal).

How does the EU, with its sclerotic institutions and internal divisions, deal with this issue over the coming years?

YS: Merkel and Germany sure flexed their muscles, but at what cost? As you said, the viability of the Euro is in serious question. Granted, they could argue that Greece is exception, and I tend to agree and actually sympathize a lot with Berlin. But it cannot be denied that the optics are bad, and this situation created lots of internal resentment; and with EU's dysfunctional way of doing business, Greece and supporters could cause problems, though this might be a long-shot scenario.

But if this happens, then EU either has to transform into more federalized system—doubtful that they have enough support for that--or more dysfunctions and collapse might well result.

BN: I think the EU either has to tighten (a more federalized system, as you suggested) or loosen (give individual members more freedom to cope with their own issues and problems, something that might have been helpful in the Greek case) to remain meaningful. The current status quo isn't working. I suspect bureaucratic inertia, internal divisions, etc., will prevent any kind of structural and institutional change, leaving the EU weak and crisis-prone. 

Let's turn to the other side of events, the so-called losers. Who or what are the losers of the Greek crisis?

YS: Obviously, the EU. We've discussed how this entire fiasco brings the EU to brink, and unlike other crises the EU doesn't emerge stronger here. The idea of unity is questioned.

Yes, Greece is an extreme case in which Athens is really badly governed and the leaders seem not to be willing to play by the rules. Thus, it’s not surprising the idea of a “Grexit” is discussed so openly. How about other EU members? Hungary? Romania? How many have skeletons in their closets waiting to explode? If they do, my guess is the EU won’t do anything until the shit hits the fan.

BN: The losers, to me, are the Greeks, both the Greek government and the people of Greece. The government gambled that it could get a better deal by showing that its people were against austerity and reform. It lost that bet. In fact, I wonder how long Syriza will remain in power. Rumors say that there will probably be a cabinet reshuffle, but that might not be all. One has to think there are limits to how far and long the junior members of the political coalition will go in supporting Tsipras's moves and actions.

Meantime, the Greek people were permitted to voice their political preferences on a deal via referendum, but ultimately those preferences were ignored. Reality trumped poker playing and the government, despite the outcome of the referendum, had to negotiate with the EU and concede to German demands.

How do you think all of this plays out over the long-term for Greece?

YS: Long-term, it depends on whether Greece is willing to reform. I am very pessimistic, however. Expect another encore sooner or later. I mean, reforms imposed from outside rarely work unless there is strong domestic support, which is currently nonexistent in Greece considering the no vote. A majority of Greeks hate austerity and are angry with Germany.  This showed in the referendum results, when a majority of Greeks voted no simply because they consider that a rejection of German policy proposals.  Any reforms that sound like they originated from Berlin will be difficult for Greece to swallow.

BN: I agree with your pessimism; my main concern is the complexity of the issues at stake. Greece needs domestic reform, sure, but there are others things as well. It needs better governance, as you indicated. The Greek people need to be on board with any economic and legislative changes. Greece also needs debt forgiveness, something the IMF has suggested. Are creditors and the EU willing to go along with that? How does Greece stimulate enough economic growth to begin to get out of the hole it’s in? And mind you, all of these actors and actions have work in relative sync with one another. Is that likely? And who provides the leadership on all of this? Merkel? At what point do the Germans get sick of bailing out and providing leadership to the weak and troubled of the EU? And what cues are Spain, Portugal and Italy taking from the Greek drama?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why the European Union will not give in to Greece's demands

There has been much discussion already about the "Grexit" and its possible implications to Europe and the global economics, so I won't touch that. What I want to discuss, however, is the logic behind Greece's negotiating strategy, which is supposedly based on game theory. In fact, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greece Finance Minister, is a noted expert on game theory and even wrote a book on it. The strategy, as glimpsed by the New York Times:
Those on the other side of the negotiations are “portraying me as an irrational fool, which is doing my work for me,” Mr. Varoufakis said. “I’ve been stoic. I haven’t let myself get agitated.” Speaking like a true game theorist, he added, “I know who I am and I know they know who I am.”
Apparently, Greece is playing a game of chicken, where due to a weak hand, one of the strategies to get the best outcome is to act recklessly, irrationally, taking the path that everyone thinks and knows would give the worst reward out of all possibilities and thus forcing the other "rational" actors to give concessions. For instance, many believe that if Greece is forced to exit, then it would be disastrous to the European project.

The problem with this strategy is that the other players must have some confidence that this will be the only game of chicken that they will ever play again.

The European Union is playing on long-term game. Yes, Grexit will be very costly. Yes, it will be disastrous to the "European Project." At the same time, the leaders of European Union, especially in Berlin, must realize that if they, in the end, concede to Greece's demands, what will prevent Spain or Italy, which also had to implement painful economic reforms, to play the same game? Or worse, it's possible we could observe another stunt like this from the Greek government. Why would or should the European Union keep surrendering to the blackmails of its weakest and irresponsible members? As noted even by the Italian Prime Minister:
If there is a mass get-out clause over the rules, what will happen in Spain in October? And in France in a year and a half? It is one thing to ask for flexibility amid abidance by the rules. It is another thing to think that one is the craftiest of them all, in other words to be the one that does not abide by the rules. We want to save Greece. But the people of Greece also have to want that.
In other words, EU members don't want a rerun of these chaotic and destabilizing events and thus might have to make Greece, especially Syriza, an example of what happens if anyone dares to pull another stunt like this.

Plus, the fact is that most likely key players such as Germany believes the European Union is much more prepared for "Grexit" today than back in 2009. In other words, they believe that they will survive the game of chicken simply because they have a much stronger car.

So, rather than getting the best possible outcome, the Greek government is actually making a disastrous bet that could end up making it roadkill.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Charleston Shooting and the Deep Roots of America's Racial Violence

Authorities have announced the arrest of Dylann Roof, who is suspected of the shooting at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was arrested during a traffic stop in North Carolina after law enforcement authorities received a tip from a local business. Roof was reportedly cooperative with the police during his arrest, and has been extradited to South Carolina.

US President Barack Obama addressed the tragedy, stating that he and First Lady Michelle Obama knew members of the parish personally. The president also touched upon the issue of gun ownership in the United States, saying: "At some point, we as a country have to reckon with the fact that this type of massacre does not happen in other advanced countries".

Of course, the notion that outsiders or external forces can influence American white supremacists groups and individuals is not unheard of. Many such groups in the US openly display the Nazi swastika and other symbols of white supremacist movements. It is interesting, however, that Roof's display of white supremacy symbols from outside the US did not entail Nazi paraphernalia. Rather he openly displayed on his jacket the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and the flag of Rhodesia (a British colony which broke away from the UK in 1965 under white rule until the end of a civil war in 1980, when it was renamed Zimbabwe under its current ruler, Robert Mugabe).

The shootings come at a time of high racial tensions in the United States, with several incidents of police killings of young African Americans surfacing in the media, and attacks on police in retaliation as well.

The incidence of the shooting in Charleston is based in part on reported racial tensions in the city, specifically regarding the lack of political empowerment of the large African American community (few reportedly hold positions of civic responsibility, especially in proportion to their numbers in the city). Nevertheless, there is also a deep historic symbolism with regard to the shooting transpiring in Charleston. As a port city, Charleston was a major hub of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. After the US Revolutionary War, Charleston actually had a relatively high (18%) population of so called "free people of color". Later, Charleston would become a major center of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, although it was not in the spotlight as much as places like Birmingham, Alabama.

The symbolism we can glean from what happened in Charleston is that the issue of race relations and racial violence is not a new phenomenon and not something we can easily address. This is perhaps obvious to an American reader, but many outsiders unfamiliar with the historic intricacies of US race relations are often unaware (as I have discovered when several of my non-American friends have said "Why don't you guys just fix the problem?!). A city which has had such a central role in the issue of race in America should hopefully help remind us that this is a problem with deep rots, and it is at the roots that we can find a resolution.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shootings, and to their loved ones.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Shangri-La 2015

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivers his speech about "The United States and Challenges to Asia-Pacific Security" during the 14th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue (IISS) Asia Security Summit, Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
(Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter; AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Over the weekend, the annual Shangri-La defense dialogue took place, as usual, in Singapore. As you might expect, the latest events in the South China Sea (SCS) dominated the agenda and conversations there.

Keep in mind, there was concern, especially from the Chinese side, that US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter would take a hard stance against China at the summit. After all, in recent weeks, there have been rumblings that the US was prepared to more strongly counter China's moves in the SCS, as momentum has been reportedly growing in the White House and the Pentagon for new and better responses. Carter himself said that the US might send planes and ships in and around Chinese-created installations in the SCS to signal America's view that China's construction has gone way too far and too fast.

At Shangri-La, Carter put forward a firm defense of America's commitment to the rule of law internationally and freedom of navigation in the SCS. Carter declared that China's reclamation projects do not amount to state sovereignty. He called for all reclamation activities, not just those undertaken by China, to stop--which pleased the Chinese attendees, who have been calling attention to countries like the Philippines that have also been building outposts in the SCS. Carter also made sure to emphasize his desire for peaceful, non-militarized outcomes in the SCS, good military-to-military relations with China, and the continuation of cooperation between both sides. On balance, Carter put forward a good recitation of US national interests in the SCS, but in way that didn't really didn't offend China, at least according to Chinese attendees.

Meantime, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Sun Jianguo, who led China's delegation at the summit, defended the typical spin we hear from Beijing. In particular, he said China's reclamation projects in the SCS were legitimate and justified, argued that China's efforts are part of an effort to provide regional public goods, denied that the country is destabilizing Southeast Asia, and recognized that setting up an ADIZ over the SCS is possible. He also ignored many of the questions posed to him during a Q&A session, including a pointed question from Bloomberg's Josh Rogin, who asked "with whom China is cooperating and who other than China is winning in the South China Sea?" in her write-up of Shangri-La, Bonnie Glaser calls China's performance at the summit "a missed opportunity for China to address the concerns about Chinese intentions and behavior that were raised throughout the two-day meeting by defense representatives and scholars from around the world, but most importantly from China’s neighboring countries."

With all this in mind, here are some brief thoughts about the Shangri-La Dialogue and the US-China clash in the SCS more generally:

(1) It should be very apparent that China isn't backing down in the SCS, which should be troubling to all parties with a vested interest in what happens there. It considers the SCS its turf and, as a result, a core national interest on which compromise is unlikely.

(2) There is a growing disjuncture between words and deeds from Team Obama. Reports of occasional tough talk from Secretary of State John Kerry and defense chief Ashton Carter haven't been matched by actions on the ground from the US. And at least on the surface, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of thought within US circles given to pushing back against China, to ramping up and sharpening its deterrent strategies and mechanisms. Interestingly, as Rogin points out:
Following Carter’s remarks, Asahi Shimbun journalist Yoichi Kato pointed out that Carter’s rhetoric is not really new and has not thus far resulted in any halt in Chinese expansion of its military presence in disputed territories – in fact China has only escalated its aggression. He asked Carter what the U.S. is actually prepared to do to back up its rhetoric with concrete action.
 Carter had no real answer, pointing back to his contention that Chinese actions are not just something for Washington to deal with. He predicted that eventually China will pay a price for alienating its neighbors, but didn’t indicate that the U.S. has any real plan to ramp up the pressure. 

(3) The above point, not surprisingly, has fed the perception within China that Team Obama is not just tied down and distracted, but weak and unwilling to respond meaningfully to its moves throughout Asia. That, in turn, has led China to believe that it has a free hand in the SCS.

(4) The US urgently needs to put together a comprehensive plan for the SCS. At Shangri-La, Carter did reveal a $425 million maritime initiative to assist in building up the capabilities of Southeast Asian nations. Carter didn't reveal many specifics about this initiative, but it won't be enough to stabilize the region. More needs to be done. For starters, I recommend the suggestions I sketched out in my last blog post.

(5) If push comes to shove with China, the US will find trouble formulating an adequate response for reasons beyond simply foreign policy distraction and lack of leadership resolve. Those things matter, but arguably even more so does the policy preferences of Americans. So for instance, are American citizens willing to devote treasure, and perhaps blood, in defense of rocks and reefs in the SCS? Are they willing to defend a country, Vietnam, that their home nation fought a protracted war against not so long ago? Do they understand the importance of the SCS to international trade and shipping? Do they care if the current steps that China is taking is paving the way for Chinese hegemony in Asia?My guess is an unequivocal no on all four counts, which means it's going to be terribly difficult for Team Obama to mobilize domestic support for significantly more pressure on China. This just isn't a fight Americans want to have right now, especially with so many other threats, such as ISIS and Russia, that have been pushed forward, if not outright trumped up, by Washington and the American media.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

American Policy on the South and East China Seas

A Chinese land reclamation project in the disputed Spratly chain in an image from the Philippine foreign ministry.

Photo from Philippine Foreign Ministry of a part of China's reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

Arguably, the most ominous issue at stake right now in the Obama presidency does not involve Vladimir Putin or ISIS; instead, it's centers on China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas. This knotty set of issues threatens to tarnish his legacy and harm US national interests over the long-term.

How severe is the crisis? Let's put it this way: Obama is the US president who so wanted to focus on Asia, with an eye on China, but he might be the one who effectively ceded Asian hegemony to China.

His so-called pivot initially tried to create an image of a tough, muscular US that's fully invested in Asia, one that China shouldn't even think of messing with. The problem, as we now know, is that the pivot lacked teeth. The hardline parts of the pivot weren't significant enough--neither in speed nor capability--to deter china from or punish it for unwanted behavior. The US does plan to shift more military assets to Asia, but by the year 2020. That could be too late. The US has also promised to send and rotate 2500 marines to Darwin, Australia. But those numbers are hardly enough to contribute to playing a strong role in securing the Asia-Pacific. In fact, some Australians immediately saw the perils of the Marines deployment: they're just enough to send a signal that America and Australia might be militarizing against China, thus a provocative move, but not enough to guard against an irritated, threatened China.

Even the TPP, the large free trade pact that's been negotiated for over a decade now and is a crucial part of Obama's pivot, has a strategic, tough guy element to it. The US favors the TPP because it will allow Washington, along with its friends in Asia and the Americas, to write the economic rules of the 21st century, while squeezing China out of such a chance to do so. But such logic is likely misguided. After all, China will be such a large part the world economy going forward that keeping Beijing out of the rule-writing process will only doom the effectiveness of the pact.

Despite the pivot, China decided to test America's commitment to Asia, especially to America's friends in the region. In November 2013, Beijing set up an ADIZ in the East China Sea, which was an effort to place a significant swath of the sea under its control, including islands and waterways contested by Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Team Obama criticized the ADIZ, but did little else. In short, the US was willing to abide by China changing the facts on the ground, which, as expected, alarmed countries like Japan that fear being abandoned by the US and left alone to deal with the growing Chinese behemoth.

Since 2012, China has also sought, with success, to change the facts on the ground in the South China Sea. It captured the Scarborough Shoal, though it's also claimed by the Philippines. Chinese vessels have repeatedly harassed Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen, ramming their boats and blasting them with water cannons. In 2015, China placed an oil rig in the South China Sea, despite Vietnamese protests, in an effort to search for energy deposits. Although China moved the rig after about a month, it proved its point: China can come and go in the South China Sea, doing whatever it pleases, without impunity. And the latest developments there are even more worrisome.

Earlier this year, china has ramped up its reclamation projects in the South China Sea. What this means is that China is building on reefs and rocky surfaces, many of which are either submerged in water or barely visible above water, to create man-made islands and outposts that, the Washington believes, totals more than 2000 acres. The presence of these new land features gives Beijing increasingly greater de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea. Why? China is setting up airstrips and bases on these islands, which gives Beijing the requisite muscle to enforce its claims in the area. Some China watchers believe that all the resources now pouring in the South China Sea means that Beijing will impose an ADIZ in the south.

Once we put the pieces of the East and South China Seas puzzle together, that's when we see the real consequences. If China controls both seas, it would be in a good spot to bully East and Southeast Asian nations. And from there, particularly given China's advancing military capabilities, Beijing could turn further beyond its borders by asserting itself vigorously in the Indian Ocean. Hence, this is a wake-up call to the US, of course, but also to Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, and India.

In my view, the above scenario, if it comes true, means that China will be on the road to achieving hegemony in Asia. The last straw happens when China refines and perfects its A2/AD capabilities. Such a situation would lead to a number of troubling possible outcomes: it would make navigating in the air and seas miserable for the US as well as other Asian-Pacific nations; American troops and bases in Japan and South Korea would be in a precarious position; China would be in a ripe position to intimidate if not dominate its Asian neighbors; China would also be well stationed to set the rules on security affairs in Asia.

Whether because Team Obama has been asleep at the wheel, distracted, overly optimistic about Chinese intentions, or some combination of the three, the White House's response to Chinese moves in the South and East China Seas has been purely reactive. Here's what the US has done: it's called for a moratorium on the reclamation projects by all parties in Asia, including China, of course. It's criticized China, saying that Beijing is using its military muscle to bully its neighbors. It also has been beefing up its ties to Vietnam and the Philippines. the US has upgraded its defense guidelines with Japan, and is even considering conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with Japan. Additionally, to further send a signal to China of America's seriousness about stability in the area, Obama has said that Japanese claims in the East China Sea fall under the US-Japan security treaty.

Is all of this enough to make China think twice before continuing its expansionism? I'm pessimistic, though I'm not the only one. There are calls within Washington, and among policy analysts, to place higher costs on China, to punish China, as it expands outward and flouts international law and norms. John McCain, for instance, has called for Washington to cease inviting China to participate in RIMPAC exercises. Perhaps, but it should start thinking about harsher, more creative measures as well.

In brief, I recommend a two-pronged approach. First, the US should try to impose costs on China's actions in the South and East China Seas. It's currently doing a better job of that in East because of its strong ties to Japan. But the US should also firm up its commitments in the South China Sea. It should expand its military assistance to Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as any other claimant nation. It should publicly, vigorously support both countries diplomatically during maritime skirmishes with China. It should do much, much more to shame China for its acquisitive actions. The US might also want to prepare for the day in which it might need to extend security commitments to Vietnam and the Philippines. Among other things, a major challenge for the US would be finding a way to make this form of extended deterrence credible in the eyes of Beijing.

Second, the US ought to think about forming a maritime league of democracies that spans across Asia. Most importantly, the US should recruit Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and India. These four countries are powerful, influential, politically open and free, and geographically consequential. Indeed, they ring the South and East China Seas and the Indian Ocean. If these four countries could effectively work in concert on the high seas, along with the US, they just might be able to contain China from breaking out of its neighborhood, thereby hemming in, if not pinning down, China. Yes, it wouldn't be easy, and any signs of a proposed league could provoke China into bellicose behavior. That said, if we think tying down Gulliver is the right thing to do--whether to preserve regional stability or to guard the existing liberal order--then it's an idea to weigh heavily for the future.

***Note***An expanded version of this post has been published by E-International Relations. You can find that piece here.