In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss regional realignment in the Sahel region of Africa. Subjects include the Nigerian coup, the new dictatorship belt stretching from Sudan to Guinea (Red Sea to the Atlantic) through Chad, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, Russian influence and historical legacies, the decline of Western influence and the emergence of the Wagner PMC as the new East India Trading Company with military, diplomatic and economic roles to play in the pro-Russian tilt currently underway in that geographic transition zone between Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. There was much ground to cover so have a look/listen here.
Last week former President and Prime Minister, now Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council Dimtry Medvedev warned that Russia would use nuclear weapons if its forces in Southeastern Ukraine were on the verge of defeat, using the argument that the region was Russian and the use of nuclear weapons was a justified act of self-defence. Meanwhile, in the coming few days we shall witness the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dawn of the nuclear (weapons) era. And coincidentally or not, in recent weeks the movie “Oppenheimer,” about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” was released to popular and critical acclaim. That got me to thinking about where the world stood today when it came to the potential use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The situation is not good.
As it turns out I have an indirect connection to the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project that Oppenheimer directed and which led to the devastation of the two Japanese cities. Using that as a potential “hook,” I pitched the idea of doing a podcast on the subject of nuclear and other arms control efforts to my “A View from Afar” co-host Selwyn Manning. He asked that we also consider potential solution sets to the currently sad state of affairs when it comes to nuclear, chemical and biological arms control agreements, where the conventions that have been agreed upon are now either suspended, have lapsed or are being ignored. It seems that, as I have written about previously, in times of global systemic realignment, norms erosion and violation is a defining feature of the transitional moment. As things stand, solutions are hard to come by because although technical fixes are available, decisions about the use of WMDs are ultimately political. That was true for the Manhattan Project in 1945 and it is true today, and in today’s world the political will to renew and enforce arms control and non-proliferation agreements is not a universal value. It is a sobering realisation, one that drove Oppenheimer into anti-nuclear activism back then and one that we are confronted with now.
Your can catch the podcast here.
Last year the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Solomon Islands signed a bilateral security agreement that includes police training and port visits by Chinese security advisors and naval vessels. This includes training in “crowd control” and protection of Chinese investments in the Solomons and opens the door to the possibility of forward basing of Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) assets in the archipelago. Needless to say, Western governments, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, reacted negatively to the deal (whose terms have not been entirely released), as have some members of the Pacific Island Forum community.
This year, the Australia, the UK and the US formally signed the AUKUS nuclear submarine agreement whereby Australia would first acquire, then manufacture nuclear powered submarines based on US and British attack submarine designs. The PRC and several Pacific Island Forum (PIF) states reacted negatively to the agreement (which may violate the 1997 Treaty of Rarotonga establishing a South Pacific nuclear free zone), although other Western Pacific Rim nations were either muted or supportive in their responses.
Also this year the US and Papua New Guinea (PNG) signed a bilateral security agreement that will allow US forces to operate on and from PNG soil and which includes a significant economic development component as part of the package. More recently, Japan and New Zealand signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement that is focused on joint operations in the South Pacific, initially for humanitarian reasons (such as the recent disaster relief efforts after the volcanic eruption in Tonga, where Japan participated) but opening the possibility of future joint military training and exercises in kinetic operations, especially in the West and SW Pacific maritime security environment. This follows on an intelligence-sharing agreement between Japan and NZ signed last year that allows better Japanese access to the 5 Eyes signals and technical intelligence collection alliance involving the US, UK, Australia and Canada as well as NZ, and which may pave the way for eventual Japanese integration into the alliance. Since intelligence sharing is part of military synergies and interoperability between different armed forces, this sequence of bilateral agreements would seem to be a natural progression in the NZ-Japanese security relationship.
What does all of this have in common? it is part of what might be seen as balance of power gamesmanship between the PRC and various rival powers in the SW Pacific region. Balances of power are, as the name implies, about balancing the power of one or more states against that of other states. These balances involve military, economic and diplomatic power and/or influence projection. Some so-called balances of power are actually not balanced at all and involve the domination by one state of a given strategic arena. This was the case for the US in the greater Pacific basin from WW2 up until recently. Now, with the decline of the US as a unipolar international “hegemon” and the rise of an emerging multipolar world that includes the PRC as a Great Power contender, the Western reaches of the Pacific basin have become a zone of contestation in which US and Chinese influence and power projection compete.
Other balances of power may be between two or more states sometimes operating as partners against common rivals and sometimes operating as sub-sets of a larger arrangement. Most balance of power subsets involve regional subsets of global rivalries.For example, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were European regional balancing vehicles contained within the larger bi-polar balance of power between the US and USSR during the Cold War. The contemporary rivalry between the Sunni Arab oligarchies and the Persian theocratic regime in Iran is a Middle East example of a regional balance of power in which competition for influence and support for armed proxies is part of the balancing game.
In East and Southeast Asia, several states have joined US-led coalitions in order to balance out the increasing PRC military presence in that part of the world. The Philippines, Singapore, Malyasia, Vietnam and Thailand, to say nothing of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, all have bilateral military-security agreements with the US that are specifically designed to help counter Chinese power projection in Western Pacific Rim area of operations (AOR).
A way to think about this multi-tiered/multi-faceted geopolitical balancing is to envision as what economists call a “nested” game, i.e. a game or games played within a larger game or games. The largest game sets the broad contours of what happens within it, with smaller games or subsets focused on specific meso- or micro-aspects of the larger (macro) game and with each level of games reinforcing balancing plays on the others. A less academic way is to think of balance of power games as being akin to a Matryoshka Doll with the largest game holding within it a number of smaller subsets that give internal substance to the overall representation.
The action/reaction dynamic between the PRC and rival powers involves a) the attempt to ring-fence the PRC in terms of its power projection in order to limit its capability to influence, via the threat of coercion or otherwise, regional politics; and b) the attempts by the PRC to break out of the corralling project erected against it. Arguments aside about whether the breakout move or the ring-fencing project came first, that is now a fait accompli. The dynamic is out in the open in the South China Sea, where the PRC has abandoned its insular, land-based strategic perspective and announced its maritime presence with its island-building project in international waters and its increased deployments of armed vessels off the coasts of its littoral neighbours as well as out into the blue waters of the West and Southwestern Pacific.
In return, the US has shifted sixty percent of its naval assets to the Pacific (rather its traditional focus on the Atlantic), and moved significant contingents of long-range bombers and fighter aircraft to bases in Guam, Okinawa and in the near future Australia. It has bolstered troop numbers and rotations in places like the Philippines, South Korea and Australia and increased the tempo of joint exercises with a host of regional partners. Likewise, the French have increased the size of their Pacific army and naval fleets (headquartered in Noumea and Papeete, respectively), as well as the number of exercises with Australian and US forces in the SW Pacific. The ring-fencing versus breakout balancing project, in other words, is well underway.
For a podcast discussion based on this post, please head to “A View from Afar.”
This begs a larger question. Does the PRC have legitimate interests in the Pacific and as a Great Power should those interests be understood and respected? Think of the Belt and Road Initiative and other large Chinese investments in foreign infrastructure development and resource extraction and the great risks that they carry. Accordingly, the PRC has an interest in maintaining access to major sea lanes and potential resource opportunities in the Pacific region. The question is whether it wants to work in accordance with international norms and in concert with the international community on things like freedom of navigation and regulation of seabed mining or does it wish to control sea lanes and set its own rules when it comes to exploiting natural resources in the Western Pacific.
The issue seems to be not about the legitimacy of PRC interests but the way it behaves in pursuit of them. The South China Sea is an example: bullying of neighbors, violating international norms with its island-building projects, the illegitimate extension of sovereignty claims over the whole South China Sea basin, the attempt to claim and control key choke points in international waters like the Taiwan Straits. All of these moves would seem to set a bad precedent for PRC power projection aspirations further South and are therefore the basis for regional concern about its growing presence. Then there is the issue of governance and PRC checkbook/debt diplomacy reinforcing corruption in the PIF states.
All of this suggests that, contrary to expectations two decades ago, the PRC behaves like a bad global/regional “citizen.” It violates norms and the rules based order and ignores established codes of conduct regarding the pursuit of national interests when projecting power and influence abroad. It is militarily and diplomatically aggressive when asserting its claims abroad, and as the pandemic response demonstrates, it is less than transparent and truthful when dealing with the motivations for and consequences of its actions.
To be sure, it is equally true that the “rules-based international order” was made for and by Western Great Powers before and after WW2, and the PRC is correct in noting that when calling for a new global regime that is not dominated by Western interests. Western colonialism and neo-imperialism has much to answer for. But it should also be understood that the setting of international rules by Western powers was as much a form of self-limiting strategy o themselves as it was an imposed (Western dominated) status quo.
That is, the Western great powers agreed to set rules that limited their relative freedom of action in the international sphere as much as it consolidated their dominant positions within it. The reason for this was that by establishing mutually accepted self-limiting rules as codes of conduct in various arenas (say, trade), Western powers reduced the chances that competition could turn into conflict because mediation and arbitration clauses are part of the rules-based order. More than dominate the global South, they wanted to reduce the risk of unfettered competition on any front leading to conflict among them.
One of the assumptions that underpinned inviting the PRC into the WTO and World Bank was that the PRC would understand and accept the self-limiting strategy that was the conceptual basis of the rules-based order. It was assumed that by playing by the rules the PRC could be integrated peacefully as an emerging Great Power into the community of nations. The trouble is that those assumptions proved false and under Xi Jinping the PRC has embarked on a project of individual aggrandizement rather than multinational cooperation. In its military posturing and wolf warrior diplomacy, violation of things like intellectual property and patent rights, use of telecommunication technologies for espionage, violation of resource protection regulations etc., the PRC’s behaviour shows its contempt for the self-limiting premise of the rules-based order.
That could well be what alarms the West as much as any specific instance of Chinese aggression. If the rules-based order can be successfully ignored or challenged, then a turn to a Hobbesian state of nature or international state of anarchy becomes potential reality. Russia has already signalled its rejection of the rules-based order and is in a strategic alliance with the PRC that explicitly claims a need for the establishment of a new world order. Many in the global South, tired of Western imperialism, interventionism and rigging of the trade and diplomatic rules and mores of the current “liberal” internationalist system., have indicated support for a new global regime led by Russia and the PRC. Thus the concern in the West and allied nations is not about any specific action on the part of the PRC but about said actions being a trigger point that not only could lead to military conflict but to a collapse of the international consensus in support of the rules-based order (and of liberal internationalism in general).
The West-led ring-fencing coalition will argue that the matter is not about thwarting PRC ambitions but about getting it to accept the mutual self-limiting logic of the li, rules-based liberal international order. The Chinese will argue that the issue is precisely about thwarting PRC breakout ambitions to national greatness on the world stage.
In the end the argument will be made in Western security circles and amongst their allies that the regional balancing acts going on in the Western Pacific are due to the need for a defensive response to contemporary PRC military-diplomatic belligerency that, along with other authoritarian challenges, attempt to usurp the rules-based liberal international order. The PRC will counter that its breakout policies are designed to overcome years of Western-imposed containment pursuant to claiming its rightful place as a global Great Power leading a revamped multipolar international system. The arguments one way or the other are themselves evidence of geopolitical balancing at work, but the consequences should miscalculations occur or mistakes happen have the potential to make for much more than an imbalance in or rebalancing of relative power projection capabilities in the West and Southwest Pacific. At that point mutual self-limitation as a foreign policy consensus may become a thing of the past.
In the second episode of our podcast this year, Selwyn Manning and I discuss the stability and near-term future prospects for Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. All is not well.
After considerable delays related to the impact on Cyclone Gabrielle on both North Island coasts, the “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning and I has resumed. After a brief introduction talking about the storm aftermath, we follow up the previous KP post about AUKUS, then briefly talk about the Discord classified material leaks and the power struggle in Russia. You can find the podcast here.
As part of our preparations for the resumption of the “A View from Afar” podcasts, Selwyn Manning and I have been discussing topics for the first show. We have agreed on a micro/near-macro/far focus, with the first segment being about NZ, specifically about whether NZ should join the proposed “Pillar 2” of the recently announced AUKUS agreement that will see Australia acquire nuclear-propelled submarines based on US and UK submarine technologies. We will then move on to the impact of the Discord classified material leaks and perhaps, time permitting, what is going on in Russia recently. As part of my preparations, I shall use this post to outline some of the issues involved in NZ’s potential involvement with AUKUS Pillar 2.
AUKUS Pillar 1 involves the forward rotation of US Virginia class attack submarines based in Guam to HMAS Stirling outside of Perth, Western Australia beginning in 2027 and then the introduction of Australian nuclear-powered submarines based on the Virginia Class and UK Astute class attack submarines in the 2030s, followed by a new Australian class (the AUKUS class) in the 2040s. The SSNs (designation for nuclear powered attack submarines) will have the capability to conduct extended patrols off of New Zealand’s East Coast (which the current Collins-class diesel-electric Australian submarines cannot do) without entering NZ territorial waters (the 12 mile limit). This allows them to monitor adversary surface and submarine activity in and around NZ’s EEZ and further off-shore as well as conduct the submarine intelligence collection and intercept operations that modern submarines are primarily used for in times of peace. Undersea fiberoptic cables linking the US and Western Pacific are a major point of interest to all nations with a submarine intelligence operations capability since these are the main data exchange conduits across and within the Pacific that can be used for both offensive as well as defensive purposes in times of peace as well as war. The AUKUS submarines will certainly be used to these intelligence collection and interception ends.
It is very likely that, as has been the case with RNZAF P-3 maritime patrol and ASW aircraft in recent decades, the new RNZAF P-8 maritime patrol/ASW aircraft will be in regular contact with Australian and US naval assets, including the new RAN submarines. There is nothing new in that since the NZDF works towards seamless interoperability with Australian defense forces on land, sea and air and regularly conducts joint operations with ADF, US and other “friendly” forces across all battlefield dimensions, including tactical signals and technical intelligence. In a sense, nothing changes for NZ in terms of its defense posture now that AUKUS is in place. What does change is the modernity of the Australian naval platforms that it will be able to interact with in future operations as well as the broader range of Australian submarine coverage around all NZ shores (which in turn frees up US submarines for patrols further North in the Western Pacific). Otherwise, the current status quo remains.
For its part AUKUS Pillar 2 involves the non-nuclear, mostly economic and scientific aspects of the agreement. NZ would not have to loosen its non-nuclear status in order to participate in Pillar 2, either with regard to the submarines themselves or the land-based technologies that might be based or developed on its soil. The technologies involved include quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, nano-technologies, unmanned aviation and sub-surface platforms, various sensing capabilities (e.g. acoustic, thermal, electronic, cyber) and related supply chain industries that have the potential for commercial as well as military-intelligence applications. For the Australian military industrial complex, AUKUS is a win-win. For NZ defense industrial circles, the same might apply if NZ joins Pillar 2.
When the agreement was announced Australian authorities touted the economic and scientific benefits that will accrue to Australia as a result of its signing. As the host state, Western Australia will not only see HMAS Stirling upgraded and jobs added to it in order to accomodate the presence of the nuclear submarines, but Perth and other parts of the state are envisioned to be in line to get some spill-over business in the form of input suppliers to the base. Seeing that, other Australian states have lobbied the federal government for a piece of the potential economic pie, noting for example that South Australia has a well-established boat-building capability and Victoria and New South Wales have extensive high technology sectors clustered around their main urban centres. Business leaders have joined the defense and security community in highlighting the high tech, value-added nature of both the products being developed as well as the jobs created by involvement with Pillar 2 initiatives.
Where does that leave NZ? A little while ago Minister of Defense Andrew Little said that his government “might consider” involvement in Pillar 2 once the specific details of it become known. His focus was strictly on the economic ripple effects and possible benefits to NZ of involvement in the scheme. However, in the past week Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has rejected the very idea of involvement in Pillar 2, stating that policy decisions “are made by cabinet,” not by officials in the foreign or defense ministries. She went on to say that involvement in AUKUS was contrary to the “Pacific Way” of consensus building on key regional policy issues. This suggests that there is a fracture between the left and right wings of the Labour Party on the subject, something that will undoubtably come back into play as the October General Election draws closer.
We can safely assume that as a means of burnishing its conservative security and pro-business credentials, National will welcome involvement in Pillar 2 should it win in October. That is, to paraphrase notorious Iran invasion hawk Donald Rumsfeld, a “known known.” It may therefore be a better strategy for Labour to walk back its interest in Pilar 2 at least until the elections are over, if for no other reason than to not court problems with potential coalition partners like the Greens and Te Pati Maori. For their part, Australian security and business elites are unlikely to want to share the potential wealth of Pillar 2, so to speak, with NZ precisely because NZ politics is too unreliable when it comes to defense and security, especially when nuclear anything is involved. Unless Australian businesses are involved on NZ soil, why should the economic benefits of AUKUS extend beyond Australia, the US and the UK? As far as the agreement goes, NZ might as well be Canada in terms of economic involvement, and the Canadians do not constantly display a virtue signaling posture when it comes to nukes. From the standpoint of the principals involved, NZ is just trying to free-ride on their hard work.
More pointedly, as Jim Rolfe kindly alerted us in his comment below, most of what might be covered in Pillar 2 is already (at least seemingly) covered by the Five Country Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP). The TTCP is an extensive science and technology information-sharing arrangement between the 5 Eyes partners that covers a broad range of defense and intelligence-related scientific and technical subjects. Perhaps there are substantive and technical aspects to Pillar 2 that extend beyond what is covered by the TTCP remit and hence can be seen as a complement to or upgrade of already extant arrangements or a means of piggy-backing on what is already there when it comes to defense, security and intelligence industry collaboration. Remember that the pitch coming from Minister Little (as far as can be discerned) is about economic benefits that have the potential for “dual use” (i.e. military and civilian) applications, with the attendant spin-off civilian commercial effects highlighted rather than the military-security related flow-on effects per se.
One argument against NZ involvement in Pillar 2 is that it will be seen as a provocation by the PRC and thus invite retaliation. The PRC has a record for over-reacting to perceived snubs and NZ is a very dependent and hence vulnerable trade partner of it. Unlike Australia, which has strategic minerals that the PRC needs for sustain its industrial development and economic growth, NZ exports low value-added primary goods and derivatives to the PRC (think milk powders, lamb and beef, paua, crayfish and logs). When the PRC cut off Australian imports because of a diplomatic row, it went after things like wine and other non-essential goods, not the strategic minerals. NZ has no such export diversity from which to choose from when it comes to selective PRC trade sanctions, and with a third of its GDP grounded in primary good exports to the PRC, the direct and ripple effects of Chinese retaliation would be severe.
But there is a catch. The PRC already well knows which side NZ is on when it comes to international security affairs. It is well aware that NZ is part of 5 Eyes if for no other reason than the PRC is a prime target of 5 Eyes intelligence-gathering efforts, which includes a role for the NZ signals and technical intelligence agency, the GCSB. NZ has a military alliance with Australia, is a non-NATO NATO ally and has not one but two bilateral security agreements with the US (the Wellington and Washington agreements). Involvement in Pillar 2 is not necessarily an anti-PRC turn in NZ’s defense posture even if it may indirectly help the ring-fencing strategy that the US and its Pacific allies are currently undertaking vis a vis the PRC in the Western Pacific.
For the PRC, there are far more immediate concerns: the diplomatic-security (not full military) QUAD alliance involving Australia, India, Japan and the US; the recently renewed bilateral defense and security ties between the US and the Philippines, including forward basing rights for US troops as well as regular joint exercises; the change in the Japanese constitution that moves away from pacifist principles and which has facilitated a dramatic increase in defense expenditure, including on offensive weapons; the so-called US military “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific which has seen a majority of its naval assets moved into that theater along with increased numbers of amphibious troops such as the recently established US Marine expeditionary force based in Darwin and forward deployment of increased US Air Force assets in Guam; and the revitalisation of bilateral defense pacts between the US and various Southeast Asia states such as Singapore, which now has a permanent US navy presence at its naval base at Changi. There is the pushback from the US and regional allies against PRC belligerency towards Taiwan and its sovereignty-expanding island-building projects in disputed atolls across the South China Sea. The ramifications of all of these potential contingency scenarios are more pressing when it comes to Chinese military planning, so it is doubtful that NZ signing on to Pillar 2 will cause the PRC to react in an unexpected way even if it has that track record of over-reaction to perceived slights.
Plus, there is way for the PRC to exploit an advantage when it comes to NZ’s potential involvement in Pillar 2. It can use its extensive intelligence networks inside of NZ to try and obtain sensitive information about the industries and technologies involved as well as the political and military decisions that may surround them. Without firing a shot the PRC may well be able to undermine some aspects of AUKUS if it uses its intelligence assets in NZ and Australia wisely and adroitly. We can only assume that the NZ intelligence community is aware of this possibility and along with its AUKUS partners is planning counter-espionage efforts accordingly.
A significant aspect of AUKUS is that it violates the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty (an update of the 1986 Treaty of Rarotonga), especially Article 4 relevant to nuclear propulsion and the storage of fissile material. The stationing of the AUKUS submarines at HMAS Stirling may be an attempt to circumvent the Treat by claiming that the base is located on the Indian Ocean and outside of the SPNFZT area of coverage. But the truth is spelled out in the language of the original Treaty as well as its refinements. This is the area covered by the SPNFZT:
Should Australia breach (which is what many believe that it is doing) or renounce the SPNFZT, then it sets a precedent for other nuclear states to establish a non-weapons nuclear presence in the South Pacific if they can find a willing partner in the region (say, by forward basing a nuclear powered submarine in a Pacific Island Forum country much as the US will be doing at HMAS Stirling later this decade). The recent PRC-Solomon Islands bilateral security pact opens the door for such a possibility, and if that does in fact occur in the Solomons or elsewhere, then the taboo on stationing nuclear material of any sort in the region will have been broken.
On balance, for reasons both internal to NZ as well as those intrinsic to Australia, NZ involvement in Pillar 2 is in my opinion at least temporarily dead in the water. When it comes to high tech/value added production, perhaps NZ is better off supporting its nascent gaming, unmanned avionics and rocket booster-building industries rather than those associated with AUKUS, especially because the ripple effects of AUKUS will be felt in NZ anyway, however lightly in terms of public consumption. Moreover, with non-involvement the threat of PRC retaliation is mooted and the costs of conducting increased counter-espionage efforts against it are avoided as well.
From a political-diplomatic standpoint, Minister Mahuta may be right: NZ participation in Pillar 2 is letra morta.
After the Cold War the consensus among Western military strategists was that the era of Big Wars, defined as peer conflict between large states with full spectrum military technologies, was at an end, at least for the foreseeable future. The strategic emphasis shifted to so-called “small wars” and low-intensity conflicts where asymmetric warfare would be increasingly carried out by Western special forces against state and non-state actors who used irregular warfare tactics in order to compensate for and mask their comparative military weakness vis a vis large Western states. Think of the likes of Somalian militias, Indian Ocean pirates, narco-guerrillas like the Colombian FARC, ELN and Mexican cartels, al-Qaeda, ISIS/DAESH, Boko Haram, al-Shabbab, Abu Sayyaf and Hezbollah as the adversaries of that moment
Although individual Western states configured their specific interpretations of the broader strategic shift to their individual geopolitical circumstances, the broader rationale of SOLIC (Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict) made sense. The former Soviet Union was in disarray, with Russia militarily weakened, diplomatically shrunken, economically plundered and political crippled. Its former Republics were yet unable to independently exploit their material resources, and some of its former vassal states in the Warsaw Pact were seeking NATO membership. NATO itself had lost it main purpose for being, since the threat of major war with the USSR (the original rationale for its creation) no longer existed. The PRC had yet to enjoy the economic fruits of fully embracing capitalism in order to buy, borrow and steal its way to great power status and thereby shift away from its defensive land-based strategic posture. In a swathe of regions “failed states” awash in local armed disputes replaced proxy regimes and propped up despots. In other words, there were no “big” threats that required “big” wars because there were no “peers” to fight. The strategic emphasis shifted accordingly to countering these types of threats, often under the guise of “peace-keeping” and nation-building multinational missions such as the ill-fated ISAF mission in Afghanistan.
More broadly, the strategic shift seemed right because the world had moved from a tight bipolar system during the Cold War, where the US and USSR led military blocs armed with nuclear weapons, to a unipolar system in which the US was the military, economic and political “hegemon” dominating global affairs. At the time US strategists believed that they could single-handedly prevail in 2.5 major regional wars against any adversary or combination of adversaries.That turned out to be a pipe dream but it was the order of the day until the sequels to 9/11. Even then, the so-called “war against terrorism” was asymmetric and largely low-intensity in comparative terms. Other than the initial phases of the invasion of Iraq, all other conflicts of the early 2000s have been asymmetric, with coalitions of Western actors fighting much weaker assortments of irregulars who use guerrilla tactics on land and who did not contest the air and maritime spaces around them. As has happened in the past, the longer these conflicts went on the better the chances of an “insurgent” victory. Afghanistan is the best modern example of that truism but the persistence of al-Shabbab in Northern Africa or emergence of ISIS/DAESH from the Sunni Triangle in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime demonstrates the validity of the notion that guerrilla wars are best fought by insurgents as protracted wars on home terrain. In other words, apply a death by a thousand cuts strategy to foreign invaders until their will to prolong the fight is sapped.
When I was in the Pentagon in the early 1990s the joke was that bomber pilots and tank operators would need to update the resumes in order to become commercial pilots and bus or truck drivers. Money moved away from big ticket items and into the SOLIC community, with a rapid expansion of SEAL, Green Beret, Ranger and Marine Recon units designed to operate in small group formations behind or within enemy lines for extended periods of time. If the Big War moment culminated in “Shock and Awe,” the SOLIC strategy was two pronged when it came to counter-insurgency (COIN) objectives: either decapitation strikes against “high value targets” or a hearts and minds campaign in which cultural operations (such as building schools, bridges and toilets) supplemented kinetic operations led by allied indigenous forces using the elements of military superiority provided by Western forces. This required familiarisation with local cultures and indigenous terrain, so investment in language training and anthropological and sociological studies of societies in which the SOLIC units operated was undertaken, something that was not a priority under Big War strategies because the objective there is to kill enemies and incapacitate their war effort as efficiently as possible, not to understand their culture or their motivations.
SOLIC turned out to be a mixed bag. The US and its allies found out, yet again, that much as like in Viet Nam, indigenous guerrilla forces were often ingenious, inspired and persistent. They learned to get out of the way when Western forces were massed against them, and they knew how to utilise hit and run tactics to frustrate their enemies. It was only when they made mistakes, like ISIS/DAESH’s attempt to create a territorially based Caliphate in Northern Irag and Northern Syria, and then engaged in a protracted defence of its base city Mosul, that they were decisively defeated. Even then remnants of this group and others continue to regroup and return to the fight even after suffering tremendous setbacks on the battlefields. As the saying goes, it is not who suffers the least losses that wins the fight, but instead it is those who can sustain the most losses and keep on fighting that ultimately prevail in a protracted irregular warfare scenario. Again, the Taliban prove the point.
During the time that the West was engaged in its SOLIC adventures, the PRC, Russia and emerging powers like India invested heavily in military modernisation and expansion programs. While the US and its allies expended blood and treasure on futile efforts to bring democracy to deeply entrenched authoritarian societies from the barrel of a gun, emerging great powers concentrated their efforts on developing military power commensurate with their ambitions. Neither the PRC, Russia or India did anything to support the UN mandates authorising armed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in fact Russia and the PRC funnelled small arms to the Taliban via Pakistan, another yet nuclear armed but unstable state whose utility lies in its strategic ambiguity when it comes to big power conflicts. That fence-straddling posture will eventually be called.
However the future specifics unfold, that move to new or renewed militarisation was an early sign that the unipolar moment was coming to an end and that a multipolar order was in the making. Meanwhile, politics in the West turned inwards and rightwards, the US withdrew from Iraq and ten years later from Afghanistan without making an appreciable difference on local culture and society, with the entire liberal democratic world responding weakly to the PRC’s neo-imperialist behaviour in its near abroad and increasing Russian bellicosity with regards to former Soviet states, Georgia and Ukraine in particular (to say nothing of their direct influence operations and political interference in places like the US, UK, Germany and Australia). The challenges to US “hegemony” were well underway long before Donald Trump dealt US prestige and power a terminal blow.
Things on the strategic front came to a head when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The West and NATO had responded weakly to the annexation of the Donbas region and Crimea by pro-Russian separatists and Russian “Green Men” ( professional soldiers in green informs without distinctive insignia) in 2014. The same had occurred in Georgia in 2008, when Russian forces successfully backed pro-Russian irredentist groups in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Vladimir Putin read the West’s response to these two incursions as a sign of weakness and division within NATO and the liberal democratic world in general. He figured that an invasion of Ukraine would be quick and relatively painless because many Ukrainians are of Russian descent and would welcome his troops and prefer to be part of Mother Russia rather than a Ukrainian government presided over by a comedian. NATO and the US would dither and divide over how to respond and Russia would prevail with its land grab. And then, of course, Russia has a legion of hackers dedicated to subverting Western democracy in cyberspace and on social media (including in NZ) and better yet, has acolytes and supporters in high places, particularly in the US Republican Party and conservative political movements the world over.
In spite of all of these points of leverage, none of the Kremlin’s assumptions about the invasion turned out to be true. Russian intelligence was faulty, framed to suit Putin’s vainglorious desires rather than objectively inform him of what was awaiting his forces. Instead of a walk-over, the invasion stiffened Ukrainian resolve, ethnic Russians in Ukraine did not overwhelmingly welcome his troops and instead of dividing, NATO reunified and even has begin to expand with the upcoming addition of Finland and Sweden now that the original threat of the Russian Bear (and the spectre of the USSR) is back as the unifying agent.
Meanwhile the PRC has increased its threats against Taiwan, completely militarised significant parts of the South China Sea, encroached on the territorial waters and some island possessions of neighbouring littoral states, engaged in stealthy territorial expansion in places like Bhutan, clashed with Indian forces in disputed Himalayan territory and cast a blind eye on the provocative antics of its client state, North Korea. It has used soft power and direct influence campaigns, including wide use of bribery, to accrue influence in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific. It arms Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua in spite of their less than splendid regime characteristics. It violates international treaties and conventions such as the Law of the Sea, the sovereignty of airspace over other nation’s territories and various fishery protection compacts. It uses its state-backed companies for espionage purposes, engages in industrial espionage and intellectual property theft on grand scale and acts like an environmental vandal in its quest for raw material imports from other parts of the world (admittedly, it is not alone in this). It does not behave, in other words as a responsible, law-abiding international citizen. And it is now armed to the teeth, including a modernised missile fleet that is clearly designed to be used against US forces in the Western Pacific and beyond, including the US mainland if nuclear war becomes a possibility.
All of this sabre rattling and actual war-mongering by the PRC, Russia and allies like Iran and North Korea were reason enough for Western strategists to reconsider the Big War thesis. But it is the actual fighting in Ukraine that has jolted analysts to re-valuing full spectrum warfare from the seabed to outer space.
Since 2016 the US Defense Department has begin to shift its strategic gaze towards fighting Big Wars. In its 2022 National Defense Strategy and related documents, this orientation is explicit, mentioning north the PRC and Russia as main threats.For its part, the PRC has responded in kind and warns that US “interventionism” will pay a heavy price should it interfere with China’s rightful claims on its near abroad (which on Chinese maps extend well into the Pacific). The DPRK is accelerating its ballistic missile tests and openly talking about resuming nuclear warhead testing. India is going full bore with aircraft carrier and submarine fleet expansion. Germany is re-arming as its supplies Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated battle systems while the UK and Australia are raising their defense spending above 2 percent of GDP (the much vaunted but until recently ignored NATO standard). France has withdrawn from its SOLIC operations in North and Central Africa in order to prepare for larger conflicts involving its core interests. Japan has revised its long-standing pacifist constitution and has begun to add offensive weapons into its inventory as well as more closely integrating with the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network.
The arms race is on and the question now is whether a security dilemma is being created that will lead to a devastating miscalculation causing a major war (security dilemmas are a situation where one State, seeing that a rival State is arming itself seemingly out of proportion to its threat environment, begins to arm itself in response, thereby prompting the rival State to increase its military expenditures even more, leading to a spiralling escalation of armament purchases and deployments that at some point can lead to a misreading of a situation and an armed clash that in turn escalates into war).
The race to the Big War is also being fuelled by middle powers like those of the Middle East (Israel included) and even Southeast Asia, where States threatened by Chinese expansionism are doubling down on military modernisation programs. A number of new security agreements such as the Quad and AUKUS have been signed into force, exacerbating PRC concerns that its being ring-fenced by hostile Western adversaries and their Asian allies. As another saying goes, “perception is everything.”
None of this means that large States will abandon SOLIC anytime soon. Special forces will be used against armed irregular groups throughout the world as the occasion requires. But in terms of military strategic doctrines, all of the major powers are now preparing for the next Big War. That is precisely why alliances are being renewed or created, because allied firepower is a force multiplier that can prove decisive in the battle theater.
One thing needs to be understood about Big Wars. The objective is that they be short and to the point. That is, overwhelming force is applied in the most efficient way in order to break the enemy’s physical capabilities and will to fight in the shortest amount of time. Then a political outcome is imposed. What military leaders do not want is what is happening to the Russians in Ukraine: bogged down by a much smaller force fighting on home soil with the support of other large States that see the conflict as a proxy for the real thing. The idea is get the fight over with as soon as possible, which means bringing life back to the notion of “overwhelming force,” but this time against a peer competitor.
The trickle down effects of this strategic shift are being felt in Australasia. Singapore has agreed to hosting forward basing facilities for a US littoral combat ship and its shore-based complement as well as regular port calls by US Navy capital ships such as aircraft carriers. The Philippines have renewed a bilateral defense pact with the US after years of estrangement. Australia has aligned its strategic policy with that of the US and with the signing of the AUKUS agreement on nuclear-powered submarines and adjacent military technologies has become a full fledged US military ally across the leading edges of military force (Australia will now become only the second nation that the US shares nuclear submarine technologies with, after the UK). Even New Zealand is making the shift, with recent Defense White Papers and other command announcements all framing the upcoming strategic environment as one involving great power competition (in which the PRC is seen as the regional disruptor) with the potential for conflict in the South and Western Pacific (with a little concern about the adverse impact of climate change of Pacific communities thrown in). In other words, the times they are a’changin’ in New Zealand’s strategic landscape. For NZ, comfort of being in a benign strategic environment no longer applies.
It remains to be seen how long New Zealand’s foreign policy elite fully comprehend what their military commanders are telling them about what is on the strategic horizon. They may well still cling to the idea that they can trade preferentially with the PRC, stay out of Russian inspired conflicts and yet receive full security guarantees from its Anglophone partners. But if they indeed think that way, they are in for an unpleasant surprise because one way or another NZ will be pulled into the next Big War whether it likes it or not.
The last episode of season 3 of “A View from Afar” aired yesterday. It discusses the concept of hostage diplomacy and how it applies to the recent US-Russia prisoner exchange as well as the collective punishment involved in the Russian’s holding of Ukrainian cities hostage, and a few other things. In short: it is all about creating negotiating space and opening backdoor channels via the use of coercive diplomacy as leverage.
After a small hiatus due to Covid hitting my household, Selwyn Manning and I resumed our weekly ” A View from Afar” podcast series with an analysis of the 2022 US midterm results and a look at what Trump’s decision to run for president again means for the GOP. You can find the podcast here.
In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.
This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.