South Sudan, China, Japan – four things to know

  1. China intervention While China has long professed its non-interventionist intentions in the developing world, including Africa. But now is attempting to broker peace in the South Sudan, where a political struggle in the world’s youngest nation threatens to descend into civil war. For China, the decision to get involved is likely less geopolitical than geo-economic. China buys an estimated 80 per cent of South Sudan’s oil exports. Anything that blocks energy access to China is a threat to the Chinese Communist Party, because it could upset the economy and by extension society in China.
  2. China confidence Quite possibly China feels emboldened to test its hand at intervention in African affairs as it perceives a power vacuum in South Sudan and a US that is absorbed by problems in the Middle East. As the Globe and Mail writes, the US has been blamed for being “far too indulgent” to the human rights abuses and corruption in South Sudan. Meanwhile:
  3. China has already been “making mediation efforts,” the Chinese minister told a news conference, calling for an “immediate cessation of hostilities and violence.” He is expected to meet delegations from both sides during his visit to the Ethiopian capital….By taking a role in the South Sudan crisis, Beijing could help to weaken U.S. influence in the oil-dependent country.  That would seem to be a bonus to China’s goal of assuring steady supply of oil.

  4. Japan in Africa Japan is ramping up its diplomatic and aid efforts in Africa as well. As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi tours Ethiopia, Djibouti, Ghana and Senegal, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visits Mozambique, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Oman, according to AFP. Abe will have officials from 50 Japanese companies pledge $577 million worth of loans to Mozambique for infrastructure supporting Japanese mining.
  5. Japan’s peacekeeping Japan’s participation in peace-keeping operations in the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) and anti-piracy missions in Africa give Japan a laboratory to showcase the use of its military in modern way. That is, well within the bounds of international norms. This in turn helps advance Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s goal to revise the nation’s constitution to allow its military to function normally, free of the purely-defensive constraints imposed on it, after WWII. Currently, the Japanese Self-Defense Force isn’t legally allowed to use force to defend South Sudanese civilians, for example.As Jeremy Taylor and Michael Walsh at the US-based Nation Bureau of Asian Research write:

     “UN-sanctioned operations in East Africa continue to provide Abe with a distinct political advantage in pushing forward military normalization measures. The product of the policy decisions of five separate administrations, these missions remain difficult to politicize given that the two dominant parties have endorsed them.”

    Importantly, Japan’s deployment in South Sudan gives Japan an opportunity to demonstrate a central plank of its new National Security Strategy. Japan says it’s seeking to be a “proactive” contributor to peace “based on the principle of international cooperation.” The strategy should hardwire Japan into multilateral arrangements such as these. The flap over the ammunition sent to South Korean troops notwithstanding, Japan’s participation in the UN Mission runs counter to the notion of a remilitarized nation acting as a destabilizing force.

Why Americans don’t care about China’s tensions with its neighbors

US media coverage of the USS Cowpens incident with China’s nascent aircraft carrier group has been half-hearted at best. For much of the US, foreign policy is synonymous with the Middle East. That means for the US’s Asian pivot to have it’s full effect, Americans will have to begin thinking about Asia in a way they haven’t done since the Vietnam War. That’s a big ask of a people who are clearly war weary after the Iraq disaster and the War in Afghanistan.

Peter Beinart, famous for his change of heart on the Invasion of Iraq, makes some revealing and valuable observations about where the China Challenge sits in the US political spectrum. The bottom line is, as he says,

Were the neo-imperialists [in US politics] able to turn toughness on China into a Republican cause célèbre, liberals might respond. But without the familiar cast of Bush-era villains to rally against, it’s hard to get progressive pundits interested.

The isolationist urge is on full display in the US these days, attractive to both Democrats who questioned the rashness of George W. Bush’s terms and Republicans who hold isolationism as a core principle. Beinart writes that the most strident voices in US politics today will be the ones questioning why the US has be involved in the region (although I don’t think that’s exactly true).

On both left and right, the voices gaining the most traction fall into a third camp, which questions why America needs to be patrolling the Western Pacific at all. To people like Greenwald and Paul, who have expended vast energy battling post-9/11 infringements on personal liberty, tension with Beijing must look like another excuse to rev up the national security state. That means they’re unlikely to focus much attention on what happens in the South China Sea, either.

So the Obama administration finds itself in the odd position of making hugely consequential decisions about how strongly to resist China’s expanding reach in the absence of virtually any high-profile debate in Congress or the media. Would more public discussion improve Obama’s policies? Who knows? But it would force the administration to explain publicly why it’s worth risking war to ensure American access to bodies of water most Americans have never heard of. We’re better off hearing those arguments presented—and challenged—now, while our ships and theirs are still 200 yards away.

On a recent trip to the US, I was struck by how little Americans were aware of the tension between China and it’s neighbors and how blind Americans were to the reasons behind a possible China-Japan conflict. Yet, the Chinese style of engagement is to consistently apply pressure – so it may be for Americans that China only comes on the radar if it continually causes friction with the US in a variety of areas. But I don’t see that happening. Until, of course, there is a full-blown international crisis.

A US-Soviet analogy for the Asia-Pacific situation

A really disappointing piece by an American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Auslin on China’s regional aggression. But before I proceed, recall that the AEI was a real hotbed of thinking behind the disastrous Iraq War – so treat thinking about war from this group with great caution.

With that warning on the table, Auslin gives some background to the Chinese military build up in Asia, and what a looming threat it’s going to be for US allies – as evidenced by China declaring its air defense identification zone and its plans to “reportedly” purchase Russian Su-35 fighters, “among the most advanced in the world.” He then goes on to lament the effect budget cuts are having with military planning. Note to Auslin, you might want to have a look around the AEI for the austerity hawks and ask them if budget cuts aren’t the solution to Obama’s America.

Auslin bemoans the cutbacks and the questions the US military’s ability to respond to China’s assertive/reckless behavior in the Pacific. It’s debatable if China’s air defense zone (already ignored by the US) is the opening move of a new Pacific War. But Auslin already has a solution for the US challenge in Asia. What’s the fix? Why spend up on the military, of course. He quotes US Air Force General ‘Hawk’ Carlisle discussing the readiness of US pilots in the region:

Perhaps Gen. Carlisle’s biggest concern is the reduction in flying hours. Regular training keeps U.S. pilots the best in the world. In 2014, however, the Air Force plans on cutting flying hours by 19%. With sequestration and budget cuts, American combat air forces currently are getting only between five and eight hours of flying per month. “That’s unacceptable,” Gen. Carlisle says, noting that the U.S. is approaching the training level of Soviet forces in the Cold War, which hampered their flying ability.

Yes, but General Carlisle and Mr Auslin, it wasn’t the Soviet pilots’ readiness that brought down that Communist country; it was the fact the Soviets spent so much on their military they failed to properly invest in and fund a livable, viable society. Today, there is a risk that China successfully leads the US toward a costly and risky arms race in which China fakes large military expenditures that the US actually makes. (links) And there is a real opportunity cost involved with these kinds of choices.

Analogies between the fortunes of the US and Soviet Union are inevitable. But one the most worrying parallels is of a country on such perpetual war footing that it can’t focus on keeping its own people clothed, fed and employed.

But don’t expect the military geniuses at the AEI to tell you this.

China-Japan East China Sea tensions to escalate after China declares an air defense zone over the sea

Expect tensions between China and Japan (as well as tensions between China and the US ) after China declared an air defense zone over a large chunk of the East China Sea, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are administered by Japan. 

The US has responded, the Japanese have lodged a protest with the Chinese, and apparently the Chinese have already dispatched patrols. Some have predicted an Asian war in 2013 because of this ongoing issue.

This is coming as the US tries to tie a bow in the Iran nuclear saga. The US’s Asia pivot means turning away from the Mid-East as the prime-time event of US foreign policy and spending more time on Asia. That’d because in 2013, events in Asia pose a bigger threat to US national security. 

Attached, a map of the overlap between courtesy M. Taylor Fravel Embedded image permalink

Here is the map China released.