East Asian maritime tensions

One of the most contentious issues in SE Asia these past few years has been China’s island building projects in one of the region’s biggest flashpoints – the South China Sea, most of which Beijing claims as its own. Its claims to the waters are not going unchallenged – on October 27 the USS Lassen led the first freedom of navigation (FON) patrol to challenge China’s territorial claims. Tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines have been especially pronounced – China conquered the Paracels from Vietnam in the 1970’s and has claimed and seized numerous islands, reefs, and shoals in the Spratlys, claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. These waters may contain substantial hydrocarbon reserves, besides the vast fish stocks. Some of these reefs are being converted into artificial islands – in effect “unsinkable aircraft carriers” via the construction of runways, harbours, and probably hosting surveillance listening posts. Since the bulk of maritime trade between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East must pass through the South China Sea, it may be China’s response to a Malacca strait challenge since it would too be in a position to tighten the noose. Naval skirmishes between China and rival claimants to the water continue. The Philippines scored a small victory in October after the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration agreed to hear claims made by the country against China’s attempts to justify almost complete sovereignty over the South China Sea via its “9 Dash Line” and claiming its artificial islands are eligible for a 200 nautical mile EEZ, contrary to UNCLOS.

Sino-US Rivalry In South East Asia

An increase in US- Chinese competition for SE Asia in the next decade is likely. U.S. strategic interest in the region declined with the end of the Cold War, its attention mainly diverted to crises in the Middle East and Europe, and later to a significant engagement with the Muslim world as part of its War on Terror. But a rising China has re-engaged America’s attention: in 2003 Thailand and the Philippines were named Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA) allowing closer defence cooperation with the U.S. In 2011 it announced an increase in military deployments in the region as part of it’s ‘Asia Pivot’. The U.S. has been able to take advantage of regional discontent with Chinese bellicosity to encourage an unofficial balance of power coalition formation including Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and extra-regional states such as Australia and India. Vietnam has been particularly irked by Chinese actions – the state has fought numerous skirmishes with the PRC since 1979, including a military defeat in the Paracels in 1974. The intensely independent state, which seems to enjoy nothing more than fighting great powers, has acquired a number of high-tech Kilo-class submarines from Russia, although this appears part of a generally upward trend in naval armaments in the region. The Philippines has reversed its anti-American position of the early 90’s – in April 2014 it signed a 10-year Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement granting the U.S. temporary access to Philippine military bases.

Sino-Japanese Rivalry In South East Asia

Japan has sought to counterbalance China’s expanding reach in the Asia Pacific realm by putting pressure on it in the South China Sea via security cooperation with some states in the region. This forms part of a balance of power logic but may also be a response to China’s pressure upon Japan in the East China Sea and claims on Japan’s Senkaku islands. Japan is also increasing its investment levels in SE Asia to balance Chinese investments, most recently China’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ initiative which runs parallel to its Eurasian integration schemes. Japanese PM Abe has also pushed for military normalization via constitutional reform which would allow the removal of restrictions on its use of armed forces which many see as motivated by growing Chinese power.  Japan is also negotiating access to an airbase in the Philippines as well as donating military equipment and assisting the country with defence modernization. These developments may translate into increasing geopolitical risk going forward but have to be seen as the necessary workings out of regional geopolitics in a post-Cold War environment compounded by a rising China.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

A quick talk with Joel Wing @ MusingsOnIraq

What are Sunni – Shia relations in the country like today?

Relations between the sects in Iraq are complicated as ever. The Sunni community has suffered from deep divisions ever since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Sunni provincial politicians are largely siding with the Shiite led government in Baghdad because they are on the frontline against the Islamic State. The main Sunni party Mutahidun in Baghdad is unwilling to compromise with the Shiite coalition the National Alliance on things like the National Guard bill even though it would help their constituency. The tribes are all over the place. Some have sided with the Islamic State, some are with Baghdad, and some are sitting on the fence. On the Shiite side there is a lot of suspicion about Sunnis being IS sympathizers. Populations in cities like Mosul have been written off, and the huge number of displaced from places like Anbar are seen as potential threats as well. Ironically, what the two communities have in common is that they both feel like they are victims. The difference is that they blame each other for their plight.

What is the extent of U.S. involvement in Iraq today?

The U.S. has a number of different programs going on in Iraq. Besides the much publicized air strikes it also has a training program going on which is focused upon both the Iraqi Security Forces and some tribal fighters in Anbar. It also has joint command centers to help strategize against the Islamic State. Finally, Washington is providing military material like anti-tank missiles, fighter jets, etc. There is talk that it might increase its involvement with more targeted raids as well. There is a lot of criticism of the U.S. commitment, but it is in line with the Obama administration’s plan to contain the insurgency.

What role does Iran play in the country?

Iran is doing a lot for Iraq. Its pilots are flying Iraqi attack jets, it’s provided a huge amount of equipment from rockets to tanks to guns and ammunition. It has deployed frontline advisers and has its own joint command center with the Iraqi forces. It is funding the pro-Tehran Hashd groups. When the Islamic State first took Mosul Iran offered Baghdad a blank check because Iraq was an ally and the militants were a threat to Tehran as well. At the same time, Iran is trying to copy its Syrian policy in Iraq, which is based upon building up its allied forces in the Hashd which are loosely connected to the state, dominate strategy, and promote itself as the protector of the Shiite. They have been very successful so far as seen by the ubiquitous presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Commander Gen. Suleimani at major battles and in social media.


How representative of all major groups is the government in Baghdad today?

Every government in Iraq since 2003 has been a national unity one, meaning every party that wins a seat in parliament is given a position in the administration. This is codified in an ethnosectarian quota system that dolls out all the top spots to the various communities and political parties. That’s a huge source of weakness as parties that both support and oppose the government are all in office leading to general deadlock on most major issues.

  is the author of the excellent Musings On Iraq (http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.co.uk/) which was started in 2008 to explain the political, economic, security and cultural situation in Iraq via original articles and interviews. He has written for the Jamestown Foundation, Tom Ricks’ Best Defense at Foreign Policy and the Daily Beast, and was responsible for a chapter in the book Volatile Landscape: Iraq And Its Insurgent Movements. His work has been published in Iraq via AK News, Al-Mada, Sotaliraq, All Iraq News, and Ur News. He was interviewed on CCTV, and have appeared in CNN, the Christian Science Monitor, The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Mother Jones, PBS’ Frontline, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Institute for the Study of War, Radio Free Iraq, and others and has also been cited in Iraq From war To A New Authoritarianism by Toby Dodge, Imagining the Nation Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq by Harith al-Qarawee, ISIS Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassahn, The Rise of the Islamic State by Patrick Cocburn, and others.

Posted in Blog, Middle East | Leave a comment

2050: Urbanization, Conflict and the Great Powers

According to the Economist, by 2030 the globes three largest economies will be the United States, India and China. Furthermore, by 2050, China and India will each be larger than the next five largest economies combined – Indonesia, Germany, Japan, Brazil and the UK. In time these two Asian giants will naturally play a “bigger role in addressing global issues such as climate change, international security and global economic governance” which means the US should let them “play a greater role on the world stage and adapt international institutions to allow them to exert greater influence.”

Beyond the sphere of international influence however, lies a more profound dynamic which could make or break these monoliths if they fail to adapt. The ever present spectre of domestic pressures as an enabler or disabler of foreign ambitions means that the nature of what it means to be a Great Power is itself changing.


Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen explains that 4 Megatrends are influencing state order in the 21st century. These are:

  • Population pressure – in the next few decades “the world’s cities are about to be swamped by a human tide that will force them to absorb—in just one generation—the same population growth that occurred across the entire planet in all recorded history up to 1960” (in 1960 global population stood at around 3 billion)
  • Urbanization – by 2050 about 75% of the worlds population will be urbanized.
  • Littoralization – by 2050 about 75 per cent of the world’s population will be living in coastal areas by the middle of the 21st century, with the vast majority concentrated in cities and urban areas.
  • Connectivity – with livelihoods increasingly dependent upon connection to the global economy via internet and logistical access often minimally available in the countryside especially in third world zones, being a part of a metropolis is becoming increasingly important. In the case of a Somali receiving remittances via a bank in Mogadishu, physical presence in the war torn littoral city is crucial.

He notes that as interstate conflict decreases, an advent accelerated by the great power possession of nuclear arsenals (where the link between victory and survival is cut, according to Martin van Creveld), intra-state conflicts are only going to increase. Civil wars, the most common form of warfare since the decolonisation period, are likely to be more common, sparked in many cases by intense resource competition amongst urban dwellers.

Assad’s Syria provides a macabre example of one potential response to urban insurgencies- the wholesale levelling of cities, reducing them to rubble through the genocidal application of barrel bombs, missiles, artillery bombardment, and other terrible means. This is of course, not a viable solution, unless one has an Allawite homeland to retreat to protected by Iranian militia and Russian armaments as time may tell.

Looking ahead, it appears that as these trends continue, the pressures on states to maintain order may come at the expense of their capacities to influence regional, or indeed global order.

Consider China today: with protests and riots breaking out in multiple cities across the country on a daily basis, it is no wonder that the Chinese elites have been accused of amateurism in their dealings with other states in the region. Allowing their immensely powerful coastguard navies to initiate crises on the high seas by challenging Vietnamese fishing boats for example, and allowing the provincial elites who authorised these conflagrations to go largely unpunished, is one example of a powerful states too self absorbed in domestic management to properly play the delicate game of geopolitics.  Russia, on the other hand – with a population smaller than Bangladesh, is far more adept at foreign affairs, as the managed crisis in eastern Ukraine and Syria demonstrate.

The strategic implication moving forwards is that absent severe domestic unrest in the United States, the relative stability of the U.S. means it could have a profound advantage over its potential Asian rivals, geography and resource advantages considered. Putin maintains that democracy promotion is means of destabilizing foreign countries and unseating governments. In states with severe infrastructural challenges and ethnic tensions, the liberalization of the economy and political establishment may well lead to instability as various groups clamour for autonomy by challenging the central authority. It is no wonder then that Russia and China maintain such a heavy hand in domestic affairs. For those states particularly susceptible to these megatrends, long term and intelligent policies need to be devised to maintain order and prevent social disintegration.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Major Political Variables

Major Political Variables, according to Antoine W. van Agtmael, “Evaluating the Risks of Lending to Developing Countries”, Euromoney, April 1976, pp. 16-30.


I. Internal aspects

A. History
  • Time and mode of independence
  • Record of stability

B. Homogeneity

  1. Sense of national duty?
  2. History of conflict between ethnic or religious groups?
  3. Is there a dominant ethnic group or are groups of equal strength?

C. Forms of government

If democratic:

  1. Strong opposition parties with radically different ideology?
  2. Effective government or chaotic situation?
  3. Corruption?
  4. Voting along ethnic lines?
  5. Is government senstitve to needs of the population?

If military government:

  1. Widespread popular support or national liberation front?
  2. How strong is the army?
  3. Rivalries among army commanders?
  4. Underground opposition strong?
  5. Did military government follow ineffective, unpopular democracy?
  6. Does the regime have to rely heavily on repression or can it afford a certain degree of freedom?
  7. Do civil servants play a major role or are they alienated?
  8. What alternative power bases are there?
  9. Return to civilian rule planned?

If one-man, one-party state

  1. What if present leader dies?
  2. Are various ethnic groups represented in government?
  3. Is military large enough to be a major contender for power?
  4. Is civil service strong and independent?
  5. Is opposition effectively organized: does it have moral stature?
  6. Are there specific interest groups opposing the regime?

D. Sources of potential unrest

  1. Is there a suppressed minority group?
  2. Are the students, intellectuals, civil servants, military, businessmen, or public opinion alienated from government?
  3. Are there conflicts between the central government and traditional, regional centres of power?
  4. Is strong foreign influence resented?
  5. Is unemployment high?
  6. Has the cost of living risen sharply without offsetting wage increases?
  7. Is corruption widespread? Who are the victims?
  8. Is there a sense that the government is unusually ineffective or that there is no economic progress?
  9. Is economic progress confined to the centre or purposely spread over the country as a whole?
  10. Do the farmers own the land they till or are they mostly tenants with absentee landlords?
  11. Is the economic gap between elite and the populace widening or narrowing?

E. Drastic political changes

  1. Will a change in government or a coup lead to a drastic change in political orientation or economic chaos?
  2. Is there a chance of a civil war?
  3. Would a coup lead to political paralysis and a counterswing?
  4. Would the next political regime be more/less likely to renounce or reschedule debt for political/ideological reasons?

II. External aspects

A. Dangers of war

  1. Is the area as a whole explosive or calm?
  2. Are there major sources of conflict with neighbours?
  3. Will war seriously impair the economy?

B. Economic relations

  1. Is there a threat of an effective economic boycott?
  2. Are relations with major donors stable?
  3. Are relations with World Bank and IMF healthy?
  4. Are there plans for political agreements with major trade-blocs for ensured access to major markets?
  5. Does the county want to increase US investment and trade?
  6. Does the US government have any leverage?


Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Maduro’s Crude Fate

Chavez’s 21st century socialism was built out of support from the poor and funded by high oil prices beginning in the early 2000’s. The ironic thing is that this experiment in 21st century socialism was only made possible thanks to the Free Market intrigues of Wall Street investment banks whose speculative activities contributed to about 60% of the increase in crude prices since 2003. The Revolution was financed by Wall Street. Supply and demand came 2nd. The great Bolivarian leader may have been reading those futile peak oil blogs (ASPO?) and imagining that his model of social development was guaranteed – the natural correction to societal collapse about to hit the western world as energy availability dwindled. Chavez died when crude prices were hovering around $100 a barrel – his successor Nicolas Maduro managed to ride the wave of post-Chavez sentiment for all it was worth but ultimately succumbed to the infernal logic of a socialist economy plugged into a capitalist framework – as these two graphs from Stratfor nicely demonstrate, Maduro’s popularity can be directly plotted against the global price of crude. Oil at $100 a barrel saw Maduro’s support at around 50% – $50 a barrel saw support drop to 50%. Vladmir Putin has also been unable to escape the horrid political logic of the petro-state, his country is experiencing a deep economic crisis. Putin and Chavez were cut from the same cloth – populist leaders struggling against American hegemony and NATO encirclement, providing unending vocal support for America’s Axis of Enemies and promoting vague concept of new world orders, which now appear bricked.

With the price of crude oil expected to remain between $50-$60 a barrel through 2017, it stands to reason that Maduro’s party will lose the upcoming election, but its not certain that the opposition will be able to turn things around without a herculean effort.

Images from stratfor.com

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Venezuela’s protracted crisis

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is in the midst of a protracted crisis as severe economic recession and political repression contribute to social instability. Public frustration is rising due to a shortage of consumer goods and triple digit inflation, weakening support for President Nicolas Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Parliamentary elections set for December 6 may well see significant gains by the opposition, but there are indications that the regime may not accept defeat peacefully.

Venezuela has been hit especially hard by the drop in crude oil prices since July 2014. Relying on crude oil for 96% of external revenues – priced at $117 a barrel to break even owing to the cost of social programs initiated by former president Hugo Chavez- has led to a GDP collapse of 10% this year. Price controls, a rigged exchange rate system and near hyperinflation have seen domestic industry as well as imports collapse, resulting in the country’s infamous “long queues” of people hoping to buy scarce necessities. Even hospitals are without key supplies. Frustration with high crime rates and economic woes led to the mass demonstrations that rocked the capital, Caracas in 2014, leaving over 40 people dead. Maduro’s response to the protests included the predictable denunciation of foreign interests attempting to undo the ‘revolution’ via economic warfare and conspiring with the opposition, leading to the arrest of key opposition figures, including Leopoldo Lopez of then Voluntad Popular, one of the 30 coalition parties comprising the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD – a coalition housing “ideologies from Marxism to free-market conservatism, united only by a shared loathing of the government” – The Economist ) now led by Jesús “Chúo” Torrealba.

As a result of the crisis, Maduro’s approval ratings have dropped drastically: A poll taken in October reflected a 29% support base for Maduro compared to 44% in mid 2013. Another poll saw support for Chavismo – the left-wing ideology associated with Chavez – drop from 55.9% in 2013 to 21.3% in September 2015. Identification with the opposition increased from 31.6% to 68.3% in the same period. Defeat in the legislative elections pose a personal threat to many high officials being investigated for drug trafficking charges including the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. In an attempt to attract support, the regime has increased imports of much needed resources and Maduro recently announced a 30 % increase in the minimum wage. The PSUV also benefits from the use of state resources for partisan campaigning as well as powerful media support while a number of MUD candidates have been disqualified, others arrested on spurious charges.

The months ahead may witness clashes between demonstrators and colectivos – armed civilian government supporters, especially in the aftermath of expected electoral fraud. The Ministry of Defense has declared that security forces are authorised to use lethal force against protesters. Maduro may be tempted to suspend the elections on the grounds of a national security crisis should defeat appear likely. Should the MUD emerge with a supermajority, the PSUV and military may refuse to recognise the win. This is consistent with Maduro’s recent statements that he will refuse to accept defeat. Discontent within the regime-entrenched military is growing however and is likely to support Maduro since the army has itself been deeply implicated in drug trafficking charges. A MUD majority will give the coalition the power it needs for a referendum on recalling the president in 2016, as well as replacing cabinet ministers and chavismo Supreme Court Judges. Another scenario involves the PSUV dominated legislature voting a reduction in its power before handing over the reigns, thus leaving the executive in a stronger, almost dictatorial position. These moves may aggravate the already unstable political environment expected in 2016.


Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

U.S. – China relations

The U.S. – China relationship is an interesting example of the strategic consequences of globalization. Consider the seemingly bizarre situation in which the American superpower is actively investing in and thus facilitating the rise of China, which is becoming a greater threat not just to American interests around the world, but to global order itself?

Increased military spending and armaments production, as well as newly awakened strategic ambitions are all the result of a China with new-found capabilities and confidence, which followed the reforms of Deng Xiapoing. The problem is that these ambitions are bringing the country to loggerheads not only with the states in its maritime neighbourhood, but with the U.S. itself. Tensions over China’s island building activities in the South China Sea, threatening the internationally recognized legal frameworks that govern maritime affairs is one example of a rising power that sees world order as fluid, changeable, and changing.

Edward Luttwak, the brilliant strategic thinker and author of The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy argues that the U.S. supports this arrangement at an unacceptable cost. Free trade may mean higher corporate profits in the short to medium term but comes at the cost of the slow deindustrialization of America. Luttwak writes it is “beneficial for Americans as consumers, borrowers, and financiers above all, while being harmful to Americans as workers and producers”. The CCP aim is to perpetuating this “unbalanced economic relationship for as long as possible, or rather until China emerges as the richer and more advanced country.”

Luttwak explains that there are three China policies at work in the United States; those of the Treasury, the Pentagon, and State Department; policies which often work at cross purposes.

The Treasury Department “in its everyday bureaucratic operations the U.S. Treasury is indifferent to the condition of U.S. industry, and specifically to the sharp decline, or outright disappearance, of entire industrial sub-sectors because of the unconstrained inflow of cheaper imports, notably including imports from China”. They are primarily interested in the trade imbalance which generates huge surpluses on the Chinese side, some of which flow into Wall Street. He writes that “the U.S. Treasury, under its current leadership as before, actively favors China’s economic growth and technological advancement –having no departmental responsibility, or perceptible concern, for the inevitable relationship between China’s overall economic and technological capacity and its resulting military aggrandizement.”

In the middle is the State Department, which maintains a balanced policy according to Luttwak, including:

  • proactive cooperation with China on a multilateral initiatives
  • containment , or an “energetic coalition building.. which is to be available to our friends who are threatened by the rise of china”
  • polite “ideological warfare” against the CCP invoking human rights etc.

On the opposite side is the ‘excessively antagonistic ‘Pentagon policy which emphasises the ‘containment’ side of State Department policies, putting China as the prospective “Main Enemy” justifying calls for increases in military spending and procurement programs. It also gives the “enthusiastic” Department of Defence a real enemy for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the elusive Islamist bogeyman providing a frustrating experience in high altitude bombing, dead end nation-building and the terrors of urban warfare.

The question is at what point do the benefits of interdependence outweigh the strategic costs of a Rising China?

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment