My Lowy Essay for May: ‘Stop Fetishizing US ‘Credibility’ and ‘Red-Lines’’


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For the Lowy Institute this month, I wrote a response to this preposterously irresponsible and inflammatory Economist cover a few weeks ago. Normally I like the Economist a lot. I agree with their liberal economics and broad support for the advance of liberal democracy. I have written and spoken for the Economist Group and so on. But this cover is just neocon scaremongering. Does no one remember how just 5-10 years ago, everyone wanted American restraint and an end to ‘cowboy diplomacy’? Well that’s what you’ve got in Obama – caution, measured steps, no polarizing grand visions. The Euros even gave him a Nobel for that. But I guess managerialism is just too boring. If POTUS isn’t blustering about the end of history and the global triumph of liberty, then newspaper editors get twitchy and see ‘decline’ everywhere. Sigh…

Anyway, here’s the response essay:

The Economist this week stepped into the widening debate about US credibility provoked by Obama’s caution in the Middle East and (less so) East Asia. And unfortunately, like so many neocons and liberal internationalists, it seems unwilling to learn what should now, post-Iraq, be fairly obvious lessons about hegemonic over-extension and the fetishization of US ‘credibility’: Obama’s restraint and caution are not ‘weakness;’ he is not ‘abandoning’ the allies; constantly analogizing US intervention decisions to Munich or appeasement is pretty facile; constant US intervention erodes the public’s medium-term support for military action, breaks the US fiscus, and ignites local nationalist blowback.

There is already a pretty good response literature on this piece (Sullivan, Beinart, also here and this). I would just add a few points:

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Guest Post – Dave Kang: ‘Military Spending in East Asia is Lower than You Think’


The following is a guest-post by my good friend Dave Kang. Dave teaches international relations at the University of Southern California. If you are working on East Asia, you really should know his stuff; if you don’t, get to it. Below he complements his recent TNI essay with the full flow of charts and graphics. This post is a very important rejoinder to the constant assertion (think Robert Kaplan) that East Asia is on the brink of war and that everyone is freaked out by China. The thing is, East Asian military spending doesn’t actually suggest that at all. Data first everyone…

“In a recent National Interest essay I argued that military expenditures in East Asia do not appear to be excessively high. In this post I’d like to post the figures that informed the TNI essay (for some reason, TNI made me take out all the graphics – isn’t that what the web is for?). The figures are quite vivid, and help explain why I made the fairly straightforward interpretation of the data that China’s neighbors, according to IISS and SIPRI, aren’t balancing it the way everyone says they are.

The standard way in which security scholars measure a country’s militarization is to measure the “defense effort” – i.e., the ratio of defense expenditures to GDP. The defense effort serves as a proxy for domestic politics: the share of its economy that a nation devotes to the military reflects a nation’s priorities, and the trade-offs the country chooses to make. When countries perceive a significant external threat, military priorities take precedence over domestic priorities such as education or social services. In times of relative peace, countries are more willing to devote a greater share of their economy to domestic priorities – perhaps the best example of this was the ephemeral “peace dividend” following the Cold War. Putting Latin America next to East Asia also allows for a much better sense of scale and comparison (Figure 1).

Figure 1: East Asian and Latin American defense spending, 1988-2013 (% of GDP)

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Countries: China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia.

Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela

Source: Information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), http://www.sipri.org/databases/milex, 2014.

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My Diplomat Essay for May: ‘No, Crimea is Not a Model for Aggression in Asia’


The essay below is a local reprint of my essay for the Diplomat magazine this month.

The motivation was a lot of the panicky response in Asia after the Crimea annexation that something like that might happen in East Asia. I don’t really see that at all, to be honest. Sure Asia is dangerous – that China-Vietnam spat right now  is pretty hairy – but remember that East Asian conflicts are mostly over open, unpopulated sea-spaces whose economic value is minor or unproven. China taking the Paracels or Spratlys is not exactly an Anschluss. Is it bad? Of course. Should China be resisted? Absolutely. But China is not nearly as paranoid and thuggish – at least internationally – as Putin. So yes, if we have to contain China we can. I’ve argued that myself – so please don’t tell me I’m some panda-loving hippy. But we don’t need to rush to cast Crimea as some big lesson for Asia. Rising, prestige-accruing China is not declining, angry Russia, and the local circumstances – most obviously the lack of any Chinese irredentist claims – are pretty different.

Here’s that essay:

“Since the invasion of Crimea, there has been a lot of panicked talk that the annexation is re-defining international relations, violating established international law, throwing the post-WWII/post-Cold War order in Europe into chaos, and so on. Putin has been analogized to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton, and both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright were quick to bring up the specter of the 1938 Munich conference. There has been a steady drum-beat from US conservatives that Obama is weak, appeasing, lacks resolve, and so on.

Some of this is true. Certainly ethnic irredentism smacks of Hitler’s ploy at Munich, but the implication of the ‘Munich analogy’ is that this is but a first step, unseen by weak, appeasing western statesmen, toward future invasions. This is almost certainly not true for Putin. The US and NATO are vastly more powerful than Russia, and without the rest of the old Soviet empire, there is no possible way Putin could launch a second cold war against an expanded NATO. Putin’s thuggery is more a local challenge to the European order and the European Union, a desperation move from panic and paranoia. We should not lose perspective.

So out of hand did this hawkish exaggeration of Crimea become, that a backlash set-in. Micha Zenko noted the obviously hypocrisy of US officials suddenly praising international rules and sovereign non-interference. Fred Kaplan noted how NATO does in fact retain the ability to defend itself. And Fareed Zakaria usefully reminded everyone that the ‘Long Peace’ and gradual decline in war violence are in fact real secular trends not debunked by one event.

This essay is a part of this response literature, but focused on Asia, where there has been a flurry of similarly exaggerated suggestion that Crimea could be a model of local aggression (here, here, and here – or here for the most egregious on Obama’s ‘capitulation’ in Asia). Unsurprisingly, much of this focuses on China, moving to take either the Senkaku/Diayou Islands or a strip of northern North Korea (the latter has been kicked around in the South Korean press). But much of this is hyperbole, some of it rather irresponsible. And a lot of it feels like US neoconservatives and defense hawks using Crimea as a political cudgel against a president they dislike and defense budget cuts they detest. Crimeas are apparently like Pleiku streetcars – wait long enough and you can always circle back to preferred arguments.

But it is far too early and the Crimean situation probably too unique for these conjectures. By way of illustration, consider this ‘what Crimea means for Asia’ piece by my friend Brad Glosserman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brad argues:

1. Putin took Crimea, ergo realism is the ‘coin of realm in foreign policy’ and liberal theories on the decline of war are wrong. This is too simple. Crimea is one event; it has resulted in few casualties; it seems likely, in spite of the rigged poll, that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to belong to Russia; it is not at all clear that Russia’s army could sustain a serious occupation of even eastern Ukraine; a full-scale invasion would galvanize NATO overnight, and so on. By contrast, liberal theories of international politics continue to explain a lot – most obviously the very large democratic security community that reaches from eastern Europe all the way west and south to parts of east Asia and Australia. One event does not buck this well-documented trend.

2. ‘National identity matters’ in Asia. But few Asianists said it didn’t. It is well-known that Asian regionalism has broadly failed; that Asian elites and populations are statist and nationalist; that Asia is not going to integrate along EU lines, and so on. Realism does indeed have reasonable analytical purchase in Asia, but that does not mean realism can explain the above mentioned security community very well, or that east Asian statism means conflict. East Asia has been at peace since 1979, but realists and hawks have been predicting war there since the end of the Cold War. The Asian peace may be a ‘cold peace’ but has proven surprisingly durable. These inaccurate predictions should be admitted by those who want to ramp up the pivot and expect a major Sino-US competition.

3. China abstained on the UN Security Council Crimea vote; it is balancing the West with Russia. This is also too fast and a little slippery. China’s behavior on Senkaku is not as aggressive as the conventional wisdom suggests. China is extraordinarily dependent on Western export markets. There is little undisputed evidence that China and Russia are meaningfully working together. China probably abstained at the UN for the same reason everyone else is keeping their powder dry on Crimea: no one really knows what Putin is up to; no one knows how far he intends to push. Crimea was a big surprise to everyone, including to the hawks who are now claiming it is the natural outcome of Obama’s weakness.

4. Crimea could be a template for conflict in Asia, because it too has territorial disputes. This massages the regional differences too much. First, to even call Crimea a ‘model’ of conflict is to accord it far too much significance too soon. (To be fair, Brad does not actually use that term, but much of the Crimea-Asia writing in the last two months pushes in this direction.) Second, Asia’s territorial problems are not irredentism which underlay both the Munich and Crimean annexations. I know of no Chinese irredentist claims in East Asia; no one in China speaks of ‘liberating’ ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example. (Taiwan might be considered Chinese irredentism if one really stretches the category, but that has long been a well-known issue.) Curiously, the only serious irredentist possibility in east Asia I can think of is Korean claims on northeast China. Korean history books teach that early Korean kingdoms stretched far north of the Yalu, and China and Korea have fallen into historiographic spats on this. But I know of no serious Korean politicians demanding Chinese territorial concessions there.

5. The move into Crimea means the US should re-double the Asian pivot. In fact, it likely says the opposite – that the US might be looking at a sustained stand-off with the Russians that will pull US resources into eastern Europe. Much of the security writing on East Asia assumes that the US is a source of stability and that Chinese power is a rising threat. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but it is also true that Asia has not had a major inter-state conflict since 1979 (China’s brief invasion of Vietnam). An alternative literature notes that Asian military expenditures are not nearly as high as US hawks would have you think and that Asia is much more stable than we realize. It may be that Asia under a bland, developmentalist Chinese oligarchy is more stable than eastern Europe menaced by a clownish, paranoid, prestige-seeking Putin. Again, we should not judge so rapidly. Particularly, we must be careful not cast China too quickly into the role of the regional villain like Germany 1914 or the USSR 1945. That is not clear yet.

The realist-hawk-neocon take on east Asia may indeed turn out to be right (this is probably the best statement of that case). But it is far too early to jump to large conclusions on Crimea’s ‘demonstration effect’ in Asia. China has a very long and well-known record of defending sovereignty. It is likely that the Chinese are upset with Putin’s open violation with this principle. They likely abstained on the Crimea vote to avoid giving the West a ‘win’, but it would be an extraordinary volte-face in Chinese foreign policy if Beijing were to suddenly endorse the rewrite of borders by force. Senkaku and the South China Sea dispute are not strong counter-evidence either. Both are nearly empty maritime spaces. China’s claims on them are indeed capacious and should be resisted, but they are far less threatening than Crimea, which was the annexation of a developed, populated land-space. Again, Asia’s cold-peace, while cold, may be more stable than we usually think.

So if Crimea encourages US allies in Asia to take their own defense a little more seriously, then so much the better. But there is little evidence to date that China (or anyone else in Asia) has picked up a ‘Crimea model.’ Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that US hawks and neoconservatives deeply dislike Obama, remain strongly committed to US hegemony, and will use events to support that. Let’s go a little more slowly…”

My CSIS-PacNet Newsletter on US Alliances in Asia: Balance-Positive, but Downsides should be Admitted Too


So I wrote my first article for CSIS the other day – for their PacNet series on Asia-Pacific issues. If you aren’t on the PacNet list-serve already, you probably should be. They have pretty good reach, and they manage to get a lot of good people to write for them – so who knows how I got a call. My thanks to the editor, Brad Glosserman for soliciting me.

This essay (below the jump) is a tweaked version my original essay for the Diplomat. The argument is the same, only Brad made it a little sharper and more pointed than in the original. So here I will take a moment to respond to some of the ‘you’re-appeasing-the-Chinese’ comments I have gotten. The point of the essay is not to suggest that the US should leave Asia. Instead,

1) We (Americans) should realize there are unintended consequences to our actions out here. I think we sometimes miss that due our nationalist blinders that an American presence in the world is an automatic good. It is almost always mixed, as we should know by now with our up-down involvement in the Middle East. This tries to illustrate that.

2) The good things that America is supposedly bringing to Asia are almost never measured. They are just assumed under a miasma of American exceptionalist awesomeness: we are awesome, therefore our presence is Asia is good for them. Instead of assuming in classic American Whig fashion, that all good things go together, how about a little more modesty?

So, yes, if your black/white alternative vision for Asia is Chinese regional hegemony, then US East Asian regional hegemony is great. Until China liberalizes/democratizes, we should probably stay, and that is probably a good thing. I agree that China is sort of a threat against which we should be hedging. (But Dave Kang makes an argument that China’s neighbors’ military spending does not actually suggest they see China as a big threat.) But, there might alternatives to a big militarized pivot and tacit cold war with China. Maybe some kind of concert with China, Japan, India and Australia, plus smaller powers, can be arranged. Also, we need a way to prevent East Asian allies (and ‘shadow-allies’ like Indonesia or Vietnam) from free-riding on us too much. (NATO free-riding is very severe and is crippling the response to Crimea, so it is actually pretty important to get US Asian allies to step-up.) I am not yet convinced that these alternatives to a Sino-US cold war are impossible – hence this essay. But yes, Chinese behavior in the East and South China Seas gives me pause too. It is hard to know the right way forward here.

Here is that CSIS essay:

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My Lowy Post on Obama’s Asia Trip – Watch Every Interest Group Instrumentalize it for its Own Purposes


PHOTO: Barack Obama waves as he walks down the stairs from Air Force One at Fiumicino Airport on March 28, 2014 in Rome, Italy.

So Obama is off to Asia this week for a quick trip that is inevitably being over-hyped by every Asia analyst on the planet as some major turning point in the US relationship with Asia. It’s not: below is re-printed my original, ‘watch-elites-manipulate-the-Obama-trip’ comment for the Lowy Institute. The spin will be over-the-top as every Asia pundit races for media exposure. Presidential trips are a great opportunity for the analyst community to posture and hyperventilate about how Obama ‘must’ do this, ‘has’ to do that.

Yawn.

Most of that is bunk. A lot of that is 1) analysts trying to demonstrate their own relevance and self-importance – is it surprising that Asia hands defend the Asia pivot so vociferously? But there is also 2), the unwillingness of a lot of Asia hands and hawks to admit that the US does not actually ‘have’ to do anything in Asia. America has huge freedom to move here, and Asian states – both allies and China – need the US way more than we need them. Where would Asian economies be without the US consumer? And even China might be nervous about a US forces withdrawal given the open balancing behavior that would likely spark in Japan, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. So ignore all the commentary that the US ‘needs’ Asia; the real story is the opposite and that space which that gives the US to play hard-ball on things like Asian mercantilism and North Korea.

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My Diplomat Essay for April: Unintended Consequences of US Alliances in Asia


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So this month for the Diplomat I wrote a speculative essay on US alliances in Asia – reposted below, original here. I think some people over-read it to mean that the US should leave Asia or that I endorse Chinese regional hegemony or whatever. I don’t. As I say in the piece, I still think the US presence is balance-positive, especially as China is moving from the ‘peaceful rise’ to capacious maritime claims off its east coast. Instead this was to be a thought experiment – an effort to tease out whether US regional alliances have negative impacts, given that almost all the discussion rather blithely assumes the opposite. I think the first possible downside suggested below – that China won’t cut North Korea loose until the US leaves Korea – is particularly strong and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Ideally, this analysis would encourage thinking on mitigating these unintended side-effects.

Here is that essay. If you follow CSIS’ ‘PacNet’ series (which you should btw), a variant of this will come out there shortly:

“The conventional wisdom on US alliances in Asia, at least in the West, Japan, and Taiwan (but not necessarily in South Korea), is that they are broadly a good thing. One hears this pretty regularly from US officials and the vast network of US think-tanks and foundations like CSIS or AEI and their many doubles in Asia. US alliances, we are told, provide stability. They keep China from dominating the region. They hem in North Korea and defend the powerfully symbolic South Korean experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism. They prevent the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan and a spiraling regional arms race. In short, they re-assure.

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My Lowy essay for March: Are N Korean outbursts in the Yellow Sea ‘Communication’?


Is this what’s going on in these regular Yellow Sea clashes?

Last week, I wrote an essay for Lowy on why these North Korean outbursts in the Yellow Sea take place so regular – most recently this week. Lowy editor Sam Roggeven suggested the above scene from 13 Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an example my argument. That’s a nice catch I hadn’t thought of. It would be awfully nice if we had better information from North Korea by which by to make these judgments. For my similar, earlier thinking on North Korea crisis behavior, see this on the 2013 spring war crisis.

Here’s that essay:

“Yesterday North Korea conducted artillery exercises in the Yellow Sea (West Sea). Approximately one hundred rounds feel across the border, prompting the South to counter-fire and scramble F-15s to the area. (Here is a useful write-up of the incident.) South Korean residents of local islands were evacuated. No casualties were reported, and the incident seems to have ended.

While unnerving, there is little reason to believe these sorts of incidents will spiral out of control. They are surprisingly regular, and South Koreans have tuned them out to a certain extent. (I live in South Korea and, while I used to respond with alarm, I have now slipped into the apathy I see around me.) I did not even know about it until a foreign journalist asked me if this would lead to a serious conflict. It will not, and the real ‘kremlinological’ question is what, if anything, North Korea is trying to signal with these shootings. I see three possibilities, although it should be admitted that we have little evidence from North Korean decision-making by which to verify the following speculations:

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