You’d think they could wait until America has decided if we really intend to be post-American. I mean, what’s President Obama going to do about Iran and Syria – get Qatar to bomb them? Does that really require a regional-war-scale response from Russia? And what about the South China Sea? It’s not like our new Marine contingent in Australia can do anything about China’s strong-arming of the other nations there. Nor does there seem to be much likelihood that we will react to Russia’s chest-thumping in the disputed Kuril Islands north of Japan. And when I say “react,” I mean “react at all.” For all the president’s new focus on the Pacific, we don’t seem to have any positions we intend to actually enunciate there, much less defend.
The Tumultus Post-Americanus is now well underway. The US and NATO, and our Pacific allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, have tremendous latent power, but the American leadership to focus this power for strategic purposes has gone missing. There is no initiative on our collective part – we have done nothing but react in the last three years – and possibly even less appreciation of how the world is changing. The forms of international discourse – the processes of the UN, the G-8 and G-20, the IMF – are being adhered to now because they are a convenience, not because they produce anything useful. They are brittle relics of a peace that no longer has a core, and is waiting to be breached by regional initiative.
Hiatus, for now
My sense today is that nothing is about to “break.” I believe those who sense otherwise misread the dynamics of the current situation. There is no unified actor – either a nation or a movement; e.g., Islamism – in a position today to prosecute an abruptly transformative, offensive campaign, on the model of predatory Marxist-Leninism or the outright-conquest methods of Adolf Hitler. The nations of today all know this – even Iran’s mullahs.
Russia and China are both acting under the compulsions of their traditional geopolitical motives; as important as American power is in their calculations, they are at least as concerned about each other. They cannot escape their neighborhood. Right now, Russia’s actions are, to the Russian mind, wholly defensive. China hopes to enlarge her base of invulnerable power by controlling the sea- and tradeways around her perimeter, and staking out power outposts in Central and South Asia and Africa. China sees a watershed opportunity; Russia sees a loss of stasis and a rise of Islamism, and seeks to prepare for whatever that’s going to do to her, in part by reclaiming territory she feels vulnerable and disrespected without (e.g., Georgia).
The decisive factor for political Islam – Islam focused through the lens of ideology on politics and the nation-state – is still its internal competition. Saudi Arabia and Iran have led separate factions for decades. But now an economically and militarily resurgent Turkey is seeking to put her own stamp on Islamist geopolitical leadership. And Egypt – a very large, populous, and educated nation, long held in a neutral stance by Mubarak’s effectively secular regime – appears to have entered the sweepstakes with the election of Mohammed Morsi. Some Western pundits are waiting for the Egyptian military to drop the hammer on Morsi, but I am not sanguine about that possibility. Erdogan’s Turkey, where the traditionally moderating political power of the military has been broken in the last 3-4 years, looms as an example to the region. It will take some time, as it has in Turkey, but Egypt will probably emerge as a nation-state competitor to Turkey, and she is likely to do it by emulating Erdogan’s methods.
The Muslim Brotherhood itself is boresighted on Jerusalem, but the path to that “victory” remains uncertain. Egypt, for all her geographic advantages, may not be the most obvious launching pad. Syria, which has been in Iran’s orbit for a long time, is a great strategic prize in the race to Jerusalem, both geographically and politically. Most political happenings in the Middle East right now are centered on the jockeying process for leadership of the Islamist geopolitical movement.
No one in this mix is ready right now for the fading global stasis to entirely fall apart. It serves their interests for the stasis to continue and hold their competitors in check. But within the constraints of the old stasis, they – especially Russia and China, but also India, Iran, and other affected nations – are making military preparations.
The Great Military Bust-Out of this decade has many facets; they can’t all be retailed in a single post. There are more than the ones I will mention here, but the following list includes some of the most important developments affecting conditions over which the US has exercised supremacy for the last 20 years. The challenge is underway. The world will never revert to the post-1945 “Pax Americana”; whatever stability we enjoy in the future will have to be cobbled together out of a changed geopolitical landscape.
Syria and Southwest Asia
Syria is, in key ways, merely a geographic focus of a much larger regional upheaval. The Western media persist in misunderstanding the dynamics of this situation. Russia cannot and will not allow Syria to be guided into the hands of Islamist radicals by a Western-Arab consortium. As far as Russia is concerned, Erdogan in Turkey is already an Islamist with radical tendencies, and with Mohammed Morsi, “tendencies” are not even the issue: he is an out-and-out radical.
Russia sees this, in fact, more clearly than the West does. These men are Islamists. That doesn’t mean the West is bound to adopt a hostile position toward them. It would have been nice if we had established a more serious policy on state Islamism several years ago (something Bush as well as Obama could have done better on), and taken a greater interest in the outcomes of the Arab Spring – but we are where we are. Our policy now should be to discourage Islamist takeovers anywhere else, most particularly in Syria, and to build up economic and political power around the newly Islamist nations, and clearly indicate our intent to preserve – and improve and strengthen – the conditions of Western freedom. Doing this in Syria would be a signal victory.
But we are not pursuing any such policy. Instead, we are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in its effort to take over Syria (see here, here, here, and here as well). Remarkably, the Brotherhood-led Syrian National Council was close to strategic collapse earlier this year, but the Brotherhood’s fortunes have been revived by the combined assistance of the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Objectively, the Russians are not wrong to conclude that we intend to foster Islamism in Syria, as apparently in other Arab Spring nations as well.
Russia’s concerns with security in South Asia and the Middle East are coming to a head in September in the major exercise “Kavkaz 2012.” (Kavkaz means “Caucasus.”) Kavkaz 2012 will be the most comprehensively-scoped Russian military exercise in the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving all of the conventional services, the internal security services, and even the “strategic” forces, which would include at a minimum the strategic rocket (missile) force and the strategic bomber force.
It is by no means improbable that the Russians will also simulate launches from ballistic-missile submarines – or, indeed, conduct live launches, although their incorporation in a strategic-defense scenario would be notional. The missile(s) would land, as usual, on the remote Kamchatka peninsula in the Far East. If the Russians wanted to make a really pointed statement, they could launch a missile to a “broad ocean area” impact point in the Pacific, something they haven’t done since the Cold War. They are likely to demonstrate their newest strategic missiles, in any event.
The use of strategic forces in a Caucasus-defense scenario opens up the possibility of simulated reactions against American allies, or even the United States. How it plays out will be informative, clarifying how the Russians see the security issues there, and sending a signal as to how they will respond to a US incursion (i.e., in Iran), should it occur.
The Russian forces deployed for Kavkaz 2012 in Armenia and the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – fully sufficient for a medium-scale military action – will also flank Georgia. Analysts have pointed out the alarm this must cause in Tbilisi, especially given the exercise’s objective of establishing “transit corridors” for the Russian military through Georgia, “if necessary.” Georgian independence remains a thorn in Moscow’s side; the Russians justify their posture with predictions that the US will operate out of Georgia if we or Israel go into Iran.
One of the most noticeable features of Kavkaz 2012, to those outside of the Caucasus, will be the large participation by the Russian navy. Warships will be coming from the Northern and Baltic Fleets as well as the Black Sea, and the contingent will include amphibious landing ships and naval infantry. These facts suggest an amphibious assault will be part of the exercise, probably on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia.
Reporting this past week indicates that at least one of the ships coming from the Northern Fleet will be carrying part of the arms shipment to Syria that was stopped in June when the British government had the insurance for Russian freighter M/V Alaed terminated. A flotilla of three landing ships, a destroyer, a frigate, and a fleet oiler can carry a lot of stuff – and could be a deterrent to intervention by European nations if a cargo ship or two happened to conduct the transit with them. Over the last 12 months, I would have assessed that Russia had no interest in testing such a provocation. But more and more bets are off as we head into the next 12.
Russia and Japan
One reason is that over on the other side of Asia, Russia has punctuated her participation in the US-sponsored, multinational naval exercise “RIMPAC 2012” with a major coastal exercise of her own on Sakhalin Island.
Japanese reconnaissance assets counted 26 ships from the Russian Pacific Fleet heading for this exercise on 1 July, making a showy transit of the Soya (La Perouse) Strait. Russian TV – “TV Zvezda,” or “Star,” the TV service of the Russian armed forces – announced the total number of ships involved as 40. (Presumably some ships came from Petropavlovsk rather than Vladivostok, and did not need to exit the Sea of Japan to get to the exercise area. Interestingly, “40” is the number of participants routinely being reported for the RIMPAC exercise, which is being held off Hawaii.)
During this display of force, Dmitri Medvedev, in his revolving political role, made another pointed visit to the disputed Kuril Island of Kunashiri, about 14 miles off the coast of Hokkaido.
Japan isn’t failing to react to the deterioration of her security environment, which from 2010 to now has entailed large naval groups from Russia and Japan transiting ostentatiously through the straits that crisscross her archipelago – along with multiple forays by Russian strategic bombers near Japan’s air space (see here as well), including a five-day exercise in April featuring 40 (there’s that number again) Tu-95 and Tu-22M bombers.
The Japanese diet passed new legislation last month – landmark legislation that truly (if incrementally) signals the end of post-World War II geopolitical conditions. In amending Japan’s 1950s-era Basic Law on atomic energy, the upper house in June quietly added language authorizing the use of nuclear technology to “contribute” to “national security.” Blogger (and TOC correspondent) Ampontan outlines the Japanese partisan politics behind the move; the regional geopolitics behind it are blindingly obvious. I concur with Ampontan that any undertaking to actually acquire nuclear weapons will involve a lot of time. But a door has been opened that the Japanese themselves held firmly shut for nearly 60 years. When the decision to arm is made, I expect Japan to act quickly.
Also hat-tipping Ampontan, I note that the diet voted in late June to permit military space development. With Russia, China, the Koreas, India, and Iran all pursuing military space development, this seems like a sensible and timely decision.
Japan was, moreover, about to sign a pathbreaking military agreement with South Korea in late June, but that event was derailed at the last minute (almost literally), very possibly because of the recent decisions in Tokyo on defense policy. Media reporting cites a popular outcry in South Korea against the pact, and that was undoubtedly an important factor. But the two Japanese defense-policy moves came only days before the proposed signing ceremony, and seem to have been a surprise in Seoul. It appears the natural allies across the Sea of Japan will continue their mating dance a bit longer.
US and China
Alliances of convenience have become the order of the day in the Tumultus Post-Americanus. With China laboring to intimidate her neighbors in the South China Sea, the US and still-socialist Vietnam have rediscovered each other. A busy Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also “signaled” in late June that the road was perhaps being paved for a strategically obvious US military relationship with Myanmar (formerly Burma, back when we disapproved of the ruling military junta).
If the path to reform in Myanmar continues under President Thein Sein, and the US obtains new engagement opportunities there, the Obama administration will have an important success. Its significance should not be overstated – Myanmar will remain a client of China, and we should be extremely wary of shipping arms to Myanmar under any circumstances – but having the entrée with this long-closed regime is a positive change for the US position in the region.
It is also a move China considers provocative. And the momentum from unified strategic purpose is with China at the moment. The US is all over the place: instead of stating clear interests and objectives and tending our relations with our longstanding allies on that basis, we are proclaiming the region “important,” rooting around for new allies, and effectively shifting our strategic position by abruptly but vaguely signaling new decisions on where to put forces and conduct military operations.
It’s by no means a bad thing for our military posture in the Far East to undergo changes. But the jerky, impolitic manner in which the changes have been insinuated (or blurted out) has been detrimental, overall. Rather than trying to promote a set of positive conditions in the region, we are mainly maneuvering against China – and it shows. If our desired end-state is merely a cowed China, we have chosen a narrow and negative goal, one it will be impossible to achieve. This approach is as unsustainable as the approach of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam.
China, meanwhile, is acting on positive – if undesirable – goals. Recent reporting confirms the establishment of a new strategic missile brigade in Guangdong province, overlooking the South China Sea (SCS). Heroic claims about the capabilities of the “carrier-killer” DF-21D missile need not be given credibility for the geographic reality to be obvious: China can rain missiles down on the entire SCS and much of the archipelagic littoral surrounding it, including the Philippines, China’s rival for seabed resources off of the Philippines’ north coast.
The most basic American interest in the SCS is as a vital seaway for global commerce from the Pacific to the Strait of Malacca. Wielding influence over a sea as island- and shoal-infested as the SCS is as much a matter of influencing the adjacent coasts – i.e., the decisions of their political owners – as it is of navy-versus-navy confrontations. China’s intentions go beyond protecting her maritime claims; Beijing wants to establish a veto over anyone else’s activities in the SCS, and to that end has pursued a coordinated effort to claim mastery.
Navies leading the charge
The tactics have been modified with time, however. As recently as a year ago, the Chinese navy reportedly “harassed” an Indian warship heading through the SCS for a port visit in Vietnam. In May 2012, however, an Indian naval task group heading from the Philippines to South Korea was given an unsolicited “escort” from the Chinese navy as it transited international waters in the SCS:
[W]hen the Indian naval squadron led by ‘INS Shivalik’ was on its way to South Korea from the Philippines, the People’s Liberation Army Navy provided an unwanted escort.
Although the Indian ships were in international waters, a Chinese frigate sent a message “welcoming” the contingent to the South China Sea and sailed along for the next 12 hours.
Airborne reconnaissance patrols are one thing; we would expect China to conduct those, as we do off of our coast. An exchange of naval signals when warships encounter one another is normal. But the Chinese “escort” goes well beyond the formalities that are appropriate in international waters. It is a gesture of ownership, implying that foreign navies are in the SCS at China’s sufferance. Such a signal is not sent because China wants to start a conflict or necessarily force other navies out, but rather to create a pattern of “enforcement” and de facto governance. This Chinese initiative could clearly tip over into a posture that would become unbearable for other nations, including all those whose ships and goods move through the area.
Meanwhile, the antipiracy operations off Somalia have produced a new combination of naval power: a joint antipiracy operation by China, Japan, and India, which kicked off in February 2012. South Korea joined the Asian-navies operation last month.
These four nations have conducted antipiracy operations for over three years now, but until this year had not created a vehicle for a joint effort. South Korea was participating in the multinational task force, CTF 151, and has held command of it on multiple occasions since its inception. The other three nations have operated tactically outside of the multinational framework, although all are participants in the overarching deconfliction forum, SHADE. China – along with Russia – has consistently preferred performing escort of merchant ships to conducting general security patrols, and it appears that the Asian-navies operation will focus on escort.
That may be the main reason the four Asian nations have decided to combine forces. Conspicuously absent from the group, meanwhile – which may be informative – is Russia. In theory, there is nothing wrong with the other nations combining. But such new combinations are always evidence of a perceived inadequacy – for security concerns or other national interests – in the existing combinations. And that, in turn, is always the harbinger of a season of instability.
Russia and Israel
Circling back to the other side of Asia, we may conclude with another strange-bedfellows combination: that of Russia and Israel. Vladimir Putin visited Israel at the end of June, and engaged in some of the most startling activity ever seen from a Russian leader (h/t: Emet m’Tsiyon):
On President Putin’s visit to Jerusalem, he donned a kippah and went to pray at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple. As one press report has it, at the close of his visit, Putin turned to one of the Russian Jews present and said:
I came here to pray that the Temple should be rebuilt, and I wish that your prayers will be fulfilled.
Putin had more honeyed words for his Israeli hosts. Touring the Wall, he said “Here, we see how the Jewish past is etched into the stones of Jerusalem.” This is not quite a formal recognition of Israeli claims to the Old City, but it is much more than Israelis usually hear.
Walter Russell Mead attributes this pounding torrent of amity to Israel’s oil and gas discoveries, but there is more to it than that. Since the earliest days of the Arab Spring, Russia has seen Israel as a natural ally in the fight against Islamism. Bibi Netanyahu had met with little encouragement from Moscow since he became prime minister again in 2009, but when he visited Medvedev in March of 2011 he was received with acclaim, as I wrote at the time:
But in the meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday, Medvedev was uncharacteristically enthusiastic and chatty…
Medvedev’s main message from the meeting illuminates the reason for this friendly tone. His primary concern is Islamist terrorism and the increased likelihood of it in the wake of what he calls “tectonic shifts” in the Middle East.
“We are more than right to hold this meeting, as the terrorists must know that they do not achieve their wicked goals,” the Russian leader said, while also expressing his condolences for the terrorist attack in Jerusalem, “which harmed innocent people.”
Medvedev ended the meeting by urging Netanyahu to fight the terrorists, after both men had spoken of that as their common objective.
If Russia hopes to settle matters in Syria to her advantage, she may need some selective passivity from Israel. There’s no saying whether she will get it, at least on those particular terms. But in their opposition to the spread of Islamism, Russia and Israel do have an important interest in common.
The unpleasant truth about all these nations and their common interests is that none of them has the power to advance those interests without increasing the world’s instability. As long as all the momentum lies with them and their efforts, instability will be with us for quite a while.
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