By Nicholas Consonery and Willis Sparks
For China's top leaders, this is not a good time for confrontations with the neighbors. The country's once-a-decade leadership transition is expected to unfold this fall, and neither outgoing nor incoming officials want uncertainty or ugly international headlines to interfere with the official choreography.
Thus the worry that Asian governments like the Philippines and Vietnam, emboldened by a commitment from Washington to maintain a robust strategic presence in the region, are pushing more aggressively to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea. More worrisome still, China's leaders face patriotic pressures from within for a forceful response.
China and its neighbors could be working together on joint oil and gas exploration in these disputed waters. Proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the South China Sea are estimated to be as high as 213 billion barrels, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. If accurate, that's larger than the proven oil reserves of all but Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. But territorial disputes continue to block efforts to prove these estimates, and the potential for open hostilities in the area is growing, threatening to disrupt trade flows and stoking regional tensions.
The most recent conflict is the impasse
between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough
Shoal, a small island 100 miles off the coast of the Philippines
claimed by both countries. In April, Philippine naval vessels discovered
Chinese fishing boats in a lagoon of the Scarborough Shoal, provoking a three-month
standoff in which Beijing used trade barriers to pressure Manila, which called
on Washington for help. Though the standoff seemed to have been resolved in
June, there are still Chinese fishing boats in the shoal.
Manila is pressing the issue both to stoke national pride at home, to justify greater defense spending, and to draw the U.S. deeper into territorial disputes. Vietnam has similar motivations, though Hanoi appears to have less appetite for tension than Manila at the moment. Neither Chinese neighbor wants to punch toe-to-toe with Beijing, and cooler heads are always likely to prevail. But confrontations at sea can spin beyond the control of state officials back on shore.
There is a similar problem in Beijing. When Chinese officials discuss how best to manage territorial claims in the South China Sea, there are lots of negotiators seated around the table. Local leaders, maritime police, customs and border officials, as well as representatives of national oil companies and the Chinese Navy each have their interests to assert. Any of these actors can play to increasingly hawkish public opinion to operate outside the limits set down by senior leaders.
That's why, though the leadership would like to put a lid on territorial tensions, China has been making so much South China Sea news in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) opened nine blocks for exploration in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Not long after, a spokesperson for China's Defense Ministry announced that the navy was conducting combat-ready patrols in the area.
In months to come, China's top leaders will do their best to strike a delicate balance-to appease belligerent voices at home and within the government while reassuring outsiders that China is not becoming more aggressive. But each time one of the neighbors makes another provocative move, Beijing's balance becomes a bit harder to maintain.
Nicholas Consonery is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
By Ayham Kamel
It may be tempting to view the plethora of recent gatherings -- the Arab League summit, the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Cooperation Forum, and the Friends of Syria conference -- as evidence that the global community is getting more serious about addressing the violence in Syria. But the summits really just exposed the rifts among the relevant players that will prevent a viable and coordinated response. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in turn, will profit from the lack of coherence; he will only nominally entertain Kofi Annan's peace plan as he maintains his grip on power, and the bloodshed will worsen.
International powers remain hesitant regarding any form of direct intervention. They considered initiatives calling for buffer or humanitarian zones, but ultimately no country seems prepared to act. Key powers appear to be pursuing their distinct policies, with only a hint of coordination.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar will provide extensive support -- including arms -- to the Syrian opposition, but are unlikely to supply the heavy arms that would lead to an immediate change in the balance of power. Heavy arms are more difficult to smuggle and training rebels would be much more challenging than during the Libyan conflict. Moreover, the escalation could provoke an un-calculated response from Assad's military. While their interests differ, the two powers see Assad's survival as a threat to their influence. Riyadh's purpose is to limit Iran's regional influence. Meanwhile, Doha has invested significant diplomatic and political capital in the struggle against Assad and any failure to deliver would represent a tangible setback to its prestige. Behind the armament policy is also a deep concern that if Assad regains control, Damascus and Tehran would aim to destabilize the al Saud and al Thani ruling families' grip on power.
Arming the rebels, who have had trouble obtaining ammunition sine the regime began its extensive military campaign in early February, will provide much needed psychological support and will help weaken Assad's forces. While the resolve of Syria's opposition will not abate, arms from the Gulf will neither arrive overnight nor will they immediately change the balance of military power, which is still heavily tilted in the regime's favor. An equally important element of the Gulf strategy is providing monetary incentives to officers in the Syrian army to incite defections. But Assad has built multiple safeguards to prevent defections, a tactic he inherited from his father.
The U.S. is willing to overlook, perhaps even support, GCC efforts to weaken Assad. But Washington is definitely not interested in playing an active role. It is concerned about Saudi Arabia's and Lebanon's support of Salafist rebels and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's call for jihad in Syria. While Sunni monarchies in the Gulf benefit from rising sectarianism in Syria, the U.S. interest in long-term regional stability could be compromised if the Sunni-Shia confrontations spread to Iraq and other countries. U.S. officials believe that a political settlement will be needed to prevent prolonged instability. Verbal support for the Annan process is a reflection of the desire to keep negotiations open, but U.S. officials are convinced that under current conditions the Annan plan will only enable Assad to retain power.
Assad will probably not implement key elements of the Annan peace plan, which calls for a halt of hostilities from all sides, and a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition. The regime views cooperation with the UN envoy as a way to secure the successes achieved by its military strategy and to gain some breathing space. While Annan is a shrewd diplomat, there are few reasons to think that success is in reach. Syria's opposition will probably not negotiate with Assad or agree to a settlement that keeps him in power. Meanwhile, there are no indications that the Lion of Damascus has reached a point where he would accept his own ouster.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice.
Mohammed Ameen-Pool/Getty Images
By Maria Kuusisto
While Barack Obama's travels are focusing international media attention on India this week, rival Pakistan is on the brink of major political change. Increased violence, this summer's flooding, and the aftermath of the global recession has left most Pakistanis feeling increasingly insecure, and President Asif Ali Zardari's government has done little to ameliorate these anxieties.
Now it seems that just two years after the fall of former president (and general) Pervez Musharraf, the military may once more intervene. Only don't expect a coup like the one that brought Musharraf to power in 1999. Despite a long history of meddling in Pakistan's politics, the army is likely to stay behind the scenes this time and force the government to improve governance or face significant reshuffling.
The evidence pointing to intervention is unusually strong at the moment. Pakistan is beset by problems-political, economic, social, and security-related. Zardari's ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is distracted by its battle with a hostile supreme court and largely disinterested in governing. The government has been unwilling and unable to introduce urgently needed financial reforms, which are necessary to bring the country's runaway fiscal deficit under control. Zardari has also failed to increase revenue collection by introducing a value-added tax. Instead, Islamabad has been resorting to a variety of quick-fixes, such as borrowing from the state bank, to finance its growing spending commitments. These moves are undermining the economy, hindering recovery, and fuelling inflation.
Meanwhile, social tensions-always a threat in this fractious, multiethnic country-are running high. People feel abandoned by the government: They're struggling to support themselves economically and afford basic food stables and services. These frustrations are manifesting themselves in protests, violence, crime, and terrorism. The law-and-order situation is particularly volatile in Karachi, the largest city and commercial capital. More than 1,200 people have been killed in the city's recurring waves of politically motivated clashes between rival groups and targeted killings this year. Hence, more and more of the public feels that the PPP's lassitude is leading to anarchy and undermining Pakistan's national interests.
The country's elites are looking for someone -- anyone -- to get them out of their current fix. Neither the PPP nor the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are up to the job of challenging and replacing Zardari. The president is highly skillful in intimidating his enemies and incentivizing his allies within the PPP, making it hard to form a united front inside the party against him. Moreover, the PML-N is more comfortable in being an opposition force and remains reluctant to take over the responsibility of running the country. That leaves the army as the only viable challenger. Pakistan's elites have begun calling on the military to intervene for the sake of national interest, before it's too late.
In the old days, everyone in Pakistan knew what this meant: a coup and a military government. After all, a military government has run Pakistan for more than half of its history. This time, however, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayani knows that stepping in directly would damage the military's domestic and international reputation, which he has carefully rebuilt since Musharraf's resignation in 2008, and could trigger a backlash. More importantly, Kayani knows that the military can't afford to jeopardize the aid it gets from Washington -- money (to the tune of $7.5 billion over five years in civilian assistance and $2 billion in military assistance) that the United States has linked to Pakistan's ongoing democratic process. The military's resources are already strained by its counterterrorism operations and flood relief efforts and it desperately needs those dollars from Washington.
Yet Kayani also knows he can't just sit and watch Pakistan's deepening crisis from the sidelines. He's under increasing pressure from others in the military and the country's influential elites -- who comprise his political power base -- to do something. In Pakistan, it is often said, only half-jokingly, that the country doesn't have a military, the military has a country. Now, the army's leadership is becoming worried that it may not have a country for long if it lets the political, economic, and security situation further deteriorate. As a result, expect Kayani to begin putting pressure on the PPP to improve governance, but from behind the scenes. The general, unlike his predecessor, will carefully evaluate the political mood (both domestically and internationally) and follow constitutional processes in challenging the current political set-up.
So change is coming to Pakistan, and the military may soon be sitting in the director's seat. But expect less drama than in its past performances; most of the action will stay behind the scenes for now.Maria Kuusisto is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
If this past week is any indication of what's to come, Israel could be in for some serious heat this summer. Iran is well on its way to developing a nuclear program, the international community is taking aim at Israel's ambiguous approach to its own nuclear weapons, and Israel promptly lost what was, in all fairness, a no-win situation when it confronted a humanitarian flotilla steaming toward the blockaded Gaza. On top of these issues, the most worrying near-term risk is on the Lebanon and Syria front.
Since April, the Israeli government has been saying that Syria is supplying Hezbollah with scud missiles provided by Iran. The rhetoric flared last week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hezbollah is now operating the scuds out of Syrian territory. If true, this situation would be a real game changer for Hezbollah -- given that the scuds could reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, creating a very different threat level than the group has ever posed before.
The Israelis have responded by ramping up the diplomatic pressure, publicly castigating Lebanon and Syria, and launching overflights of Lebanon. In the past week, the Israelis also launched a 5-day nationwide military-readiness exercise, publicly insisting it had nothing to do with the crisis (but predictably causing hysterics among Israel's neighbors). Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was sufficiently worried that he hopped a plane to meet with President Obama for urgent discussions. Obama's reaction wasn't quite what Hariri expected, though, as the U.S. president used the meeting to scold him for weapons transfers, which violate U.N. Security Council resolutions passed after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Dubai may be a no show, but Japan's here and not doing much. General thoughts from my conversations here:
1) The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) doesn't look like it's going to win a clear majority in upper house elections this summer. A precipitous change of events from a few months ago ... but indecisiveness and scandal has crippled Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama, who was on the Davos programme, but cancelled last minute. Hmm.
2) DJP kingmaker Ozawa is locked in a battle to the death with independent prosecutors. consensus Japanese view in Davos: a) Circumstantial evidence shows Ozawa's guilty as sin; b) Prosecutors are operating above the law, with no countervailing force to stop them, and the Japanese media is out of control; c) Careers are at stake for both sides, with no backing down. Surprisingly enough, there's a growing belief that Ozawa is forced out. But the timeline (weeks, months, or more) is completely unclear. More hmm.
3) U.S.-Japan foreign policy is heading for trouble given what looks like a scuttled military base deal ... but nobody's worried very much in the context of broader Japanese policy woes. Plus, Japan doesn't really have foreign policy (and China, as we're seeing, does). Dangerous trumps ineffectual; advantage Japan. No hmm at all.
Ian Bremmer will be blogging from Davos this week sending reports and commentary from inside the World Economic Forum.
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
One of the most frequently cited reasons you hear that attendees come out to Davos is that you can do about one month of meetings in 5 working days. In the ever faster, hyper-productive, blackberrified world, that's about as compelling an argument as you can have.
For the record, I hate blackberries. They don't sit well with my underlying sense of balance (or my tendencies towards compulsiveness), and it would make my colleagues utterly miserable. So I don't do it. Neither does U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, who I met with this morning. He then went further. "I don't do blackberries, I don't know CPR, and I can't put out a fire," he told me. His work is important, but apparently he's useless in emergencies.
Fortunately, nothing was burning during the CNBC debate this morning. Though Barney did get himself plenty worked up. We got into it a little bit on U.S. military spending, of all things. His top argument for balancing the budget was to slash military expenditures. I managed to get him to admit we needed more funds for cybersecurity. His fallback position was to stop spending for weapons that don't have enemies. If I could get him to add the caveat, "likely enemies over the next 20 years," I think we'll have a winner.
PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images
By Jun Okumura and Ross Schaap
The conventional wisdom in U.S.-Japanese relations is that things were largely fine until the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) upset the apple cart by winning control of Japan's government. Security policy observers appear to accept the idea that the DPJ has strained the close relationship that Japan's former ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had developed with the United States over the past several decades. A show of bilateral solidarity during President Obama's one-night stand in Tokyo last week has done little to change these opinions. The conventional wisdom has it wrong.
The source of this mistaken belief centers on the DPJ's electoral promise to review the 2006 U.S.-Japanese agreement that would move the bulk of a US Marine base out of the center of Ginowan, a city of nearly 100,000 in Okinawa, to Guam. The remainder -- a large contingency of helicopters-would relocate to a more remote location near Nago, also within Okinawa. The DPJ's indecision on whether to move ahead with construction of a new airfield above a coral reef near Nago seems to have thrown a wrench in the works, but the real difference between the DPJ and the LDP is simply in the visibility of its reluctance to give Washington what it wants.
The disconnect here is in overestimation of cooperation from the LDP. The long history of this redeployment headache gets left out of most accounts of the current controversy. The initial U.S. force redeployment deal was agreed in 1996, and the new airfield and redeployment were supposed to be completed by 2004. Instead, after seven years without progress, both sides went back to the bargaining table, a process that eventually yielded the 2006 agreement. Yet, more than three years of LDP rule later, authorization of construction at the airfield still falls to the new DPJ government. In other words, the LDP agreed to give the United States what it wanted ... and then did virtually nothing to make it happen.
So what has changed? The DPJ, not to mention its coalition partner the Social Democratic Party of Japan, is much more openly antagonistic to the 2006 agreement. The visibility of that reluctance has moved the US to respond publicly on an issue that slid by without action on a much lower profile during the Bush years. Unusually blunt public statements from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, insisting on quick implementation of the 2006 agreement, generated headlines -- and much chatter on bilateral strains. Though the Obama administration appears to have taken a step back, agreeing to set up a joint working group on the Ginowan issue, it continues to reject the one alternative that the Japanese Foreign Minister has been pursuing on his own -- moving the Marine helicopters to Kadena Air Base, an idea which the locals also reject.
That the United States started from a position of intransigence on renegotiation isn't remarkable. But this doesn't mean that's where the issue will end. The U.S. side has waited 13 years; it has no practical reasons to reject a technically and politically viable alternative even if it means a few more years of delay. In fact, further delay is the next likely course of action/inaction. The two sides have been stuck on the status quo conundrum for 13 years for reasons we can only guess at, but likely include operational requirements that leave little or no room for a non-Okinawa solution, while no other viable Okinawa alternative is in sight.
That said, the DPJ's political links to the anti-U.S. military presence in Okinawa, the SDP presence in the coalition, and the unfortunate political calendar, including a mayoral election in January in Nago and an Upper House election in the summer of 2010, are making it exceedingly difficult for the DPJ leadership to make up its mind to accept the lesser evil and give the go-ahead to construction work at Nago.
All this dictates the continuation of the status quo. But then, such a turn of events -- or the lack of one -- should not come as a surprise. In reality, history shows that for U.S.-Japanese relations, there's much less difference between the DPJ and LDP than meets the eye -- in principle or in practice.
Jun Okumura is a senior adviser to Eurasia Group and Ross Schaap is Director of Comparative Analytics.
ISSEI KATO/AFP/Getty Images
By Ian Bremmer and Willis Sparks
To mark 60 years in charge, China's Communist Party threw a lavish party last week, a triumphalist pageant with enough military hardware on parade to fill the nightmares of would-be "dragon slayers" for years to come. It was a reminder that China has developed advanced fighter aircraft, military satellites, the Dong Feng 21 missile (also known as the "aircraft carrier killer"), and has been working toward production of a first aircraft carrier of its own -- an asset that would enable China to project naval power further from its shores than ever before. As if the visuals weren't enough, the celebration included a 2,000-member military marching band.
So will China one day pose the 21st century equivalent of a Soviet-scale military challenge to America's geopolitical dominance? That's unlikely. China wants to extend its influence throughout East Asia, protect the commercial traffic that provides the oil, gas, metals, and minerals that feed China's growing economic appetite, and project national pride. It will one day pose a broader military threat than it does now, but its economy has grown so quickly and its living standards have improved so dramatically over the past two decades that it's hard to imagine the kind of catastrophic, game-changing event that would push its leadership to upend a profitable status quo and confront American leadership outside Asia. China's leaders know their government won't be ready anytime soon to bear a superpower's burdens. Their primary goal is to bolster their political control by generating prosperity for the Chinese people. Why would it allow anything short of the most dire and immediate threat to its territorial integrity to ignite a military conflict that would sever its web of commercial ties with countries all over the world -- and, in particular, with its three largest trading partners: the European Union, the United States, and Japan?
Beijing's primary military concern is the risk of a direct or proxy conflict with the United States over Taiwan. But the Chinese leadership knows that no U.S. government will support a Taiwanese bid for independence, and why should China invade the island when it can co-opt most of Taiwan's business elite with privileged access to investment opportunities on the mainland? Globalization has been good to China's Communist Party, and wars are bad for business.
Certainly, China has ambitious military modernization plans. With 2.3 million soldiers under arms, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is already by far the world's largest. It has reportedly invested considerable time, effort, and money in cyber-warfare technology. Its total military budget probably doubled between 2003 and 2009 to about $70 billion. But that's still only about 12 percent of what the United States now spends on its military each year -- and an even smaller percentage if supplementary U.S. spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is included.
The problem for U.S. policymakers over the next several years is not that the unipolar world order will give way to a multipolar but to a non-polar system. In other words, it's not that America has company on the global stage but that it must continue to carry so much weight on its own-and at a time when pressing problems at home will limit the American public's appetite for ambitious foreign-policy commitments.
Over the past 20 years, U.S. analysts have scanned the horizon in expectation of potential challengers to America's great power advantages. The European Union was already struggling to manage the latest round of expansion before the financial crisis gave EU leaders another reason to avoid potentially onerous new commitments abroad. Russia's leaders may be unhappy with the geopolitical status quo, particularly when it comes to the balance of power within several former Soviet republics. But they're far too preoccupied at the moment with the protection of domestic markets, banks, and companies from the worst effects of the financial crisis to embark on any long-term plan to build a threat to U.S. power outside its immediate neighborhood. India has market reform issues to manage and security worries flowing across the border from Pakistan. Within the Western hemisphere, Brazil appears to have no grander near-term aspirations than to promote stability in Latin America, jumpstart an economic recovery, find new ways to profit from its recent oil discovery, and to play a broader leadership role among developing states.
It's not a challenge for dominance, but a growing vacuum of power that should worry Washington. The more important questions for the next decade are: Who will take the lead on building a new global financial architecture that reflects 21st century realities? Who will take the lead on multilateral efforts to address climate change? Who will create a new (and more credible) nonproliferation regime? Who will provide momentum behind Middle East Peace talks? Who will provide the leadership to ensure that G20 summits don't simply turn into G8-style photo opportunities with a wider angle lens?A decade from now, who will carry that weight?
Feng Li/Getty Images
by Ian Bremmer
In Afghanistan, even the good news isn't so good. The country managed to hold a presidential election in August, but there aren't many people inside or outside the country who considered it free and fair. It looks increasingly like Hamid Karzai will win without a second round, but his legitimacy will remain under a very large, very dark cloud. He'll face open revolt from Tajiks in the north, who overwhelmingly opposed his candidacy. And as evidenced by the significant recent expansion of terrorist bombings in Afghanistan's major cities and the assassination last week of the country's second-ranking intelligence officer, it will even become harder to secure Kabul. No one should have much confidence that a second round would do much to restore Karzai's credibility.
In addition, military operations against the Taliban inside Pakistan achieved some actual success this summer, but that has probably pushed some militants across the border into Afghanistan to harass coalition forces there. U.S. casualties have increased, though that's not surprising given the more aggressive operations of larger numbers of US troops. But last week's U.S. bombing on a Taliban target, which killed dozens of civilians, is just the latest in a series of setbacks for coalition military operations.
More worrisome: It's becoming increasingly clear that Afghanistan won't be able to stand on its own anytime soon. U.S. military officials report that the training of Afghan soldiers is well behind schedule. For the next two or three years, with coalition forces at their present levels, Afghan troops won't be nearly strong enough to maintain even the current level of security, let alone make any meaningful contribution to an aggressive counterinsurgency effort.
Afghanistan, more locals than ever
want the US
out, whatever the cost. There's also dwindling support for the war in the United
States, as the American media increasingly turns its
attention from an economy beginning to improve toward the growing death toll in
Within the Obama foreign-policy team, there looks to be a growing divergence of opinion on what to do next. There appears to be an internal consensus that the current strategy isn't working. But senior officials appear more divided on whether to "go long" or "go home." In the go long group, those who want more troops and more resources because "failure isn't an option," we see Secretary Clinton, envoy Richard Holbrooke, most of the generals on the ground, and most Republicans in Congress. In the go home camp, those who want to pull troops out before things get much worse, are Vice President Biden, most of Obama's political team, and a growing number of senior Democrats. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to have grown much more skeptical.
In short, Afghanistan is becoming Obama's first lasting foreign-policy crisis. A major terrorist attack somewhere in the world carried out by militants trained in Afghanistan could shift international public opinion toward greater engagement. Short of that, U.S. public opposition to the war will likely grow steadily over the coming year, bringing the issue to a head just in time for U.S. midterm elections and driving a wedge between members of the president's own party.
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.