Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When You Slaughter Your People, Don’t Use Gas: States’ Interests and the Limits of International Institutions

Below is the script of a presentation I gave last week at a seminar co-sponsored by Ikahan and Indonesia Defense University. Held at Hotel Borobudur, in Jakarta, the seminar was titled "After the Arab Spring: Lessons for the Indonesia-Australia Defence Relationship." Presenters reviewed the Arab Spring, discussed the lessons for multilateralism, and distilled the implications for Australian-Indonesian shared interests. Speakers included Prof. Amin Saikal and Dr. Rodger Shanahan, of the Lowry Institute.

The Arab Spring, which erupted more than two years ago after a fruit seller in Tunisia committed suicide by self-immolation, began with so much promise. People in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, rose and deposed aging autocrats that ruled for years. Many believed, with much enthusiasm, that the region was taking the first steps toward democracy.

While there were initially some holdouts, notably Qaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, at that time the majority of talking heads in the media predicted that these autocrats would soon fall, especially after the international community seemed to prepare to intervene on the side of the people, after the besieged autocrats began to crack down on the rebelling populations.

For instance, in Libya, international intervention managed to tip the scale in favor of the rebelling populace. Qaddafi was overthrown and executed in 2011, thanks to the intervention by the United Kingdom and France, which was supported by the United States and approved by the United Nations Security Council.

In fact, Fareed Zakaria, a respected journalist and scholar on international relations, made an argument that the Libyan case offered a new model of international intervention. We might continue to see a combination of strong demand for outside intervention from locals and regional and international legitimacy that allows a multinational coalition to assemble and to intervene.[1]

Today, however, what many believed as a spring period of blossoming democracies has given way to the Arab Winter. In Egypt, the population went to the street, supporting the return of a military dictatorship that deposed the unpopular yet democratically elected Moslem Brotherhood government. Libya is close to anarchy, with the central government unable to actually rule the entire nation. In Syria, the popular revolt has been hijacked by jihadists and Bashar al-Assad’s regime seems to be regaining strength, even though it will take a lot of time and resources before the rebellion is quashed. In the meantime, the international community stays silent, even though the death toll in Syria has passed over 100,000 and is still growing.

So what went wrong? Why is the international community suddenly impotent in light of the Arab Winter? Why isn't there an international coalition to help the beleaguered rebels in Syria?

Here we see the limitations of international institutions. International institutions only work when the power-holders in the institution are in accord on what to do and what not to do. In Libya, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were able to convince both Russia and China that the intervention on Libya was only limited, solely to protect civilians. At the same time, Libya was not that critical to the interests of both Russia and China. Granted that Libya has oil, but Libya only produces two percent of global oil production.

Syria, however, is different, even though Syria is not an oil-producing country. It is geo-strategically important for both Iran and Russia. For Iran, Syria provides a link to its Hezbollah client in Lebanon that allows Iran to project its power to entire Middle East and threaten Israel. For Russia, Syria is too close for comfort. Any chaos in Syria could spill into Russia’s restive Caucasian Republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. Thus, for Putin, it is much more preferable to strengthen Assad, keeping him in power.

While China doesn't really have a dog in Syria, it watched with dismay as its silence in Libya was seen as a blank check for regime change. As it always opposes any international intervention in foreign states' domestic affairs, fearing that it would create a precedent that would pave the way for international interference in its restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, China then ganged up with Russia to prevent direct international military intervention in Syria.

Moreover, in Libya the risk-averse Obama could rely on both the United Kingdom and France to supply the muscle, while the United States, due to domestic opposition to international interventions, provided support, such as 75% of aerial refueling flights, 70% of intelligence and surveillance flights, and munitions. In Syria, however there is no state willing to provide the necessary military power for such an intervention.

Furthermore, in Libya, the rebels managed to unite, perhaps only temporarily, but long enough to create a united front called Transitional National Council; meantime, in Syria, the rebels don’t speak with one voice. In fact, there are many internal fights, squabbles, and not to mention, infiltration by al-Qaeda linked international jihadists that actually reduce the international support to the rebellion. In fact, in the United States, Senator Ted Cruz, in his opposition to any intervention by the United States in Syria, acidly declared that the United States “is not Al Qaeda’s air force.”

It is only after Assad (most likely his underlings) used chemical weapons on the civilians that the world and Obama finally, half-heartedly, reacted, leading to Nicholas Kristof’s observation on Twitter that, basically, the message to dictators is “when you slaughter your people, don’t use gas.”

While the Arab League was united in supporting the rebellion by awarding Syria’s seats to a coalition of Syrian opposition, and both Saudi and Qatar have gave military and financial contributions to the rebels, the assistance remains limited, as none of the Gulf States are willing to intervene directly. They share the same dilemma the United States faces, as they are unsure who they loathe more: the rebels, who are partially comprised of members of the Moslem Brotherhood and jihadists, or Assad, who is backed by Iran, and thus a threat to Saudi Arabia’s security interests.

What are the lessons for ASEAN, beyond not using gas to kill civilians?

First, it has to be noted that both ASEAN and the Arab League shares many common characteristics, notably in their lack of enthusiasm for a much closer union similar to the European Union. Both ASEAN and Arab League nations are fiercely independent, unwilling to have other states interfere in their domestic affairs.

As a result, similar to the Arab League, it is very difficult for ASEAN members to create a strong united front when there is no common interest in responding to threats.

Second, international organizations are seldom prepared for unexpected and yet predictable challenges to the status quo (which is often termed as "known unknowns"). Granted, the timing of Arab Spring was unexpected. Yet there had been a lot of indications that beneath the calm imposed by the authoritarian governments, the people were restive and dissatisfied with status quo.

This brings me to a third lesson: location matters. Both Egypt and Syria's strategic locations prevented forceful international interventions due to competing interests from their powerful neighbors. Libya, on the other hand, is not surrounded by powerful states with clear goals and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and that allowed the international community to intervene once they were able to agree on at least some sort of goals and course of actions.

Fourth, international organizations are only as important as how its strongest members want it to be. The lack of action from the United Nations in Syria was due to the inability of the Big Five in the Security Council to reach an accord. Saudi fears of Iran prevented Riyadh from using the Arab League to pursue stronger military options in Syria, even though Saudi Arabia didn't have qualms about intervening strongly, militarily in Bahrain.

In ASEAN, the most important state is Indonesia, which has a vested interest in maintaining peace and stability in the region and preventing neighboring powers from intervening in Southeast Asia. Therefore, Indonesia needs to show its leadership and start asking the question: what does it want with ASEAN?

[1]Fareed Zakaria, “How the Lessons of Iraq Paid Off in Libya,” Time Magazine (September 5, 2011)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Japan's Foreign and Defense Policy Under Abe, Part III

As you might expect, given that my last post on Japan discussed the sunny side of Tokyo’s security policies, this piece explores their downside, particularly from the perspective of American interests and values.  Let’s start with the least serious and move toward the gravest danger of Japan’s foreign and defense policy.

First, there is the risk that Japan’s shift in security policy might turn off the U.S. The logic is that the U.S. could grow concerned that Japan’s foreign and defense policy appears too assertive, too aggressive to its neighbors, thereby unnecessarily dialing up the hostilities and tensions in the region, especially in East Asia. All of which would place the U.S. in a precarious situation, on a number of levels. There is evidence that some American officials already harbor, at least to a limited extent, these concerns.
As pointed out by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat:
U.S. officials have expressed concern to their Japanese counterparts over Tokyo’s plans to develop the capability to conduct offensive assault operations against other countries in the region.
“One of the American officials attending bilateral talks on foreign and defense policy cooperation late last month in Tokyo asked the Japanese side to consider the possible negative fallout on neighboring countries if the Abe administration embarks on such a policy shift,” Kyodo quoted an unidentified Japanese official as saying.
The report went out to say that U.S. officials asked for clarification on which countries Japan would develop the capability to attack, and asked Japan to not worsen tensions with China and South Korea.

All of that said, however, fears of souring U.S.-Japan ties are a long way off. The U.S. views Japan as a useful bulwark against the rise of China, really, a key pillar of the so-called Pivot. And the U.S. seems fairly enthusiastic about Japan’s intention to move toward more muscular security policies. As outlined in my last post, Team Obama has strengthened its cooperation with the supposedly hawkish Abe government, arguably rewarding Tokyo for taking measures to create a more equal security partnership.

Second, Japan’s security policies could fracture the U.S.-led alliance in Asia. Most notably, there is the chance that changes in Japanese foreign and defense policy might create huge rifts between Tokyo and Seoul, which could hamper the ability of the liberal, Washington-leaning coalition to balance and contain China’s moves throughout the region.  
Yes, there are historical factors that make relations between Toyko and Seoul sometimes complicated and difficult.  For instance, the two sides have failed to resolve the issues arising from Japanese colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. And both sides are engaged in a longstanding territorial dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan.

But there are contemporary factors in play as well. Since Shinzo Abe re-entered office, Japanese-South Korean ties have been frayed. There is the perception within the Park Geun-hye administration that Japan, under Abe, is veering to the hard right, that it’s hawkish, increasingly nationalistic, and insensitive to the extent of its oppression of its former colonial subjects.  In fact, according to Via Meadia, “The legacy of the women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers has been a difficult sticking point in relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Several Japanese politicians and Abe himself have wondered what the fuss is all about, and the mayor of Osaka even said that comfort women were ‘necessary.’”

All of this has taken its toll on political and strategic cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Consider these things: while new South Korean leaders usually head to Japan on their first overseas trip, Park travelled to China instead. “Later she proposed building a monument in China to the South Korean soldier who assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister and then-Resident General of Korea Ito Hirobumi in 1909.” It seems Abe was unwelcome in Seoul for Park’s inauguration, so his deputy, Taro Aso, went in his place. The almost agreed upon security-intelligence pact of 2012 remains stalled, with no final deal in sight. An upcoming trilateral meeting between Japan, China, and South Korea looks like it won't be held because of "strained ties." And it doesn't look like Abe will meet his counterpart in either country anytime soon. According to a Japanese government source, "Taking into account the Chinese and South Korean attitudes, and the schedules of the leaders of the three countries, it will be difficult to arrange a Japan-China-South Korea summit by the end of this year."

Of course, as many international relations scholars, particularly realist academics, would expect, it's very possible that the exigencies of balance of power politics will override any rough patches between Japan and South Korea. In other words, fears of a rising, dominant China might well force Tokyo and Seoul to push aside their differences to work together to balance against Beijing. But even if this does happen--something that's likely, but not guaranteed, by the way--both sides will have to swallow their pride. This is definitely something to watch.

Third, as suggested above, Japan's foreign and defense policy could trigger an escalation of tensions and tit-for-tat actions that proves unmanageable and difficult to contain.

We already know that China is concerned about Japan's muscular security policies, as various officials have made on- and off-the-record comments expressing such sentiments. Just check out the Global Times for a healthy dose of these views. China is fully aware that a beefed up, more assertive Japan makes life more difficult for it within Asia--tougher to expand its influence, get its way on maritime issues, and pressure neighbors or local institutions, among other things.

With this in mind, it's possible that China might try to consolidate various gains sometime soon, before Japan fully implements all parts of the planned changes in its foreign and defense policy--in short, the point at which Japan would be better equipped to challenge China. So as one example, China could attempt to press further, perhaps more aggressively, its claims in the South and East China Seas. But already, China has made a few recent moves that have, in my view, taken the wind out of Abe's sails.

It has strengthened its relationship with South Korea, which, combined with its good ties to North Korea and improving relations with Taiwan, squarely backs Japan into a corner, maybe even laying the groundwork to isolate Japan in the future. The recent trips by Xi and Li Keqiang to southeast Asia is an example of China wooing countries on the sideline like Indonesia and entrenching its influence over institutions like Asean and Apec. Given these moves by China, perhaps it's not surprising that Japan has sought to bolster its military ties to the U.S.

So what we are seeing is a cycle of retaliatory moves by China and Japan. Sure, we've seen such moves in the East China Sea, where both sides have engaged in a game of chicken with their patrols, vessels, and aircraft. But in a broader sense, on strategic matters, both China and Japan have engaged in tit-for-tat moves. For now, this hasn't led to too much danger. But keep in mind that neither side is backing down. And the longer this continues unabated, with cycle likely escalating in intensity over time, the likelihood of something bad happening increases.

And adding to the complexity of this relationship is the rise of Chinese and Japanese nationalism.  Political activists in Japan and China have criticized, engaged in protests, and even dabbled in hate mongering and criminal activity against the other side. But hard feelings aren't restricted just to the small class of activists. As stated in Walter Russell Mead's blog: "According to a poll in August, an astonishing 93 percent of Chinese and 90 percent of Japanese have negative opinions of the other country." It is these pervasive attitudes that could make it difficult for Japan and China to de-escalate their words and actions if tensions spiral out of control. Even worse, as the riots and protests last year in China illustrate, nationalists--on either side--could directly contribute to hostilities.

All of this suggests a worrisome caldron of toxic forces between China and Japan, and they require the U.S. to walk a fine line in its relations with both states. Certainly, Washington wants to support Japan's security and encourage efforts--whether by Japan or others in Asia--to hem in a Chinese bid for regional hegemony.  At the same time, though, the U.S. can't push Japan too hard to contain China, for that would only antagonize Beijing and prompt China, feeling encircled and threatened, to resist more vigorously the coalition aligned against it. After all, China could attempt to squeeze the U.S. out of the region entirely. All of this would put Team Obama (and its successors in the White House) in the unenviable position of having to defend American interests in Asia while managing heightened tensions in East Asia with a very formidable rival. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Japan's Foreign and Defense Policy Under Abe, Part II

A few weeks ago, if you recall, I wrote a post on the recent shifts in Japan’s foreign and defense policy. There, I merely outlined those shifts and changes—some are already underway, some are in the planning stages—and provided the contextual background for them. Surely, that post only begs the following question: What do we make of the policy transformations afoot in Japan? Well, there are several ways to approach this question. Given my intellectual interests, I’ve been monitoring how Japanese foreign and defense policy impacts America’s goals and interests in East Asia and Asia more generally. And in parts II (this post) and III (to follow soon) of my analysis on Japan, I will address these issues. Specifically, here, in part II, I explore the sunny side of Japanese foreign and defense policy—that is, the things in which American policymakers and officials can take comfort.  

To begin, the most obvious point is that Washington is pleased that Japan is standing up to China, not rolling over in the face of Chinese demands and aggressiveness. Japan, much like the Philippines and Vietnam, has protested against China’s maritime claims and encroachments in the South and East China Seas. But more than that, Japan’s changes in foreign and defense policy serve to balance against Chinese power and actions, which is good news to America. The U.S. doesn’t have to worry about providing all of the military muscle to combat Chinese advances in the region; it has a committed partner in Japan, one that’s willing and increasingly capable of blocking undesirable Chinese moves, including China's domination of Asia.  

All of this has led to better cooperation with the U.S. Of course, because of concerns about China, America is going to try to deepen ties with its Asian allies, such as Japan, regardless of their military and defense capabilities and posture. That said, I get the sense that Team Obama wants to reward Japan for its recent assertiveness and confidence in its foreign and defense policy. Put simply, if Japan is willing to enhance its military capabilities, so as to enhance its self-defense, keep China in its place, and protect the U.S.-infused liberal order in Asia, then Washington would like to strengthen and expand its security partnership with Tokyo.

As an example, this past week Defense Chief Chuck Hegel and Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Japan and sealed a significant security agreement, which “includes provisions for a new missile defense system in Japan, stations American surveillance drones at Japanese air bases, and provides for coordination on cyber threats.”

Moreover, keep in mind that a host of countries throughout Asia--in East Asia and Asia-Pacific and South Asia, especially--are also pleased with the changes in Japan’s foreign and defense policy. As pointed out by Ted Galen Carpenter:

Several East Asian nations now seem to view Japan as an important strategic counterweight to China. When asked how his government would view a rearmed, non-pacifist Japan, Philippines Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times “We would welcome that very much.” He added, “We are looking for balancing factors in the region, and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.” And such opinions are being put into action. In January 2013, Tokyo and Manila agreed to enhance their cooperation on maritime security. Ties are also growing between Japan and Singapore, as well as between Japan and Australia on such matters. Worries about the need to balance China’s growing power is evident as well in the recent summit between Prime Minister Abe and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which cooperation even on the highly sensitive issue of nuclear technology was high on the agenda.

Certainly, not all countries in Asia are on board with the shifts in Japan’s foreign and defense policy, and Japan is well aware of this. Indeed, what Japan is trying to do is to tiptoe a fine line by bolstering its self-defense capacity while also reducing the worry and concern that local countries might have with a more muscular Japanese foreign and defense policy. In short, Japan seeks to signal that it's a defensively, rather than offensively, motivated state, one that poses no harm to its neighbors.

Toward that end, Shinzo Abe has taken steps to assuage Japan’s wary neighbors and lower the overall temperature in the region: "He has refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and employing provocative rhetoric towards his neighbors, even calling Vice Premier Taro Aso to task after he made an appalling comment on what Japan can learn from Nazi Germany. Most importantly, he maintains Japan's official apologies on the war and comfort women despite fears he would dilute these statements." Additionally, in the last two weeks, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has attempted to mollify concerns that the SDF might fight wars in distant lands if Japan loosens the restrictions on collective defense, saying "such a scenario isn't being entertained by current debate.

Japan has also tried to improve relations with China. Over the last few months, Abe has dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki and special advisor Isao Iijima to Beijing to improve inter-state relations. Abe has also called for a leadership summit with Xi Jinping, and he even approached Xi on the sidelines of the latest G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, extending his hand for a greeting. The rub, of course, is that China will only talk to Japan if Tokyo admits the islands in the East China Sea are in dispute, something the Abe government is reluctant to do thus far.

Japan has also attempted to reinforce its longstanding image as a peaceful, cooperative country in the world. Japan has broached the idea of acting as a mediator between Iran and the U.S. Additionally, word is that the Abe administration has offered workers and aid to assist in the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. “Already, Tokyo has dispatched six staffers, some of whom are SDF members, to the OPCW, and the government is looking into whether it will be possible to send them into Syria to actually help in the removal effort. The report suggested that the SDF members were personnel who had previously worked at OPCW.”