Tag Archives: Strategic balance

Approaching storm over the horizon.

The Solomon Islands and PRC have signed a bilateral security pact. The news of the pact was leaked a month ago and in the last week the governments of both countries have confirmed the deal. However, few details have been released. What we do know is that Chinese police trainers are already working with the Solomons Island police on tactics like crowd control, firearms use, close protection and other operating procedures that have been provided by the Australian and New Zealand police since the end of the RAMSI peace-keeping mission in 2017. More Chinese cops are to come, likely to replace the last remnants of the OZ and NZ police contingents. What is novel is that the agreement allows the PRC to deploy security forces in order to protect Chinese investments and diaspora communities in the event of public unrest. That is understandable because the PRC is the biggest investor in the Solomon Islands (mostly in forestry) and Chinese expats and their properties and businesses have regularly been on the receiving end of mob violence when social and political tensions explode.

Allowing Chinese security forces to protect Chinese economic interests and ex-pats on foreign soil has brought a new twist to the usual security diplomacy boilerplate, one that could be emulated in other Pacific Island states with large Chinese populations. Given the large amounts of PRC economic assistance to Pacific Island states before and during the Belt and Road initiative, which has often been referred to as “dollar,” then “debt” diplomacy because it involves Chinese financing and/or the gifting of large developmental projects to island states in which imported Chinese labor is used and where it is suspected that PRC money was passed to local officials in order to grease the way for contracts to be let, the possibility of this new type of security agreement is now firmly on the diplomatic table.

Also very worth noting is that the SI-PRC agreement gives the Chinese Navy (PLAN) berthing and logistical support rights during port visits, with the Chinese ugrading the port of Honiara in order to accommodate the deep draft grey hulls that it will be sending that way. This has raised fears in Western security circles that the current deal is a precursor to a forward basing agreement like the one the PRC has with Djibouti, with PLA troops and PLAN vessels permanently stationed on a rotating basis on Solomon Islands soil. Given that the Solomon Islands sit astride important sea lanes connecting Australia (and New Zealand) with the Northwestern Pacific Rim as well as waters further East, this is seen as a move that will upset the strategic balance in the Southwest Pacific to the detriment of the Western-dominant status quo that currently exists.

The fear extends to concerns about the PRC inking similar agreements with Fiji (with whom its already has a port visit agreement), Samoa and Tonga. The PRC has invested heavily in all three countries and maintains signals collection facilities at its embassies in Suva and Nuku’alofa. A forward basing agreement with any of them would allow the PLAN to straddle the sea lanes between the Coral Sea and larger Pacific, effectively creating a maritime chokepoint for commercial and naval shipping.

Needless to say, the reaction in Australia, NZ and the US has been predictably negative and sometimes borderline hysterical. For example, recent reports out of Australia claim that Chinese troops could be on the ground in the Solomons within a month. If true and if some Australian/NZ commentators are correct in their assessments, the only implicit options left to reverse the PRC-Solomons security agreement in the diminishing time window before the PRC establishes a firm foothold in Honiara is either by fomenting a coup or by direct military intervention. Opposition (and pro-Taiwan) Malaitan militias might be recruited for either venture (the Solomons switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in 2019, something that was widely opposed on the island of Malaita). However, PM Sogavare already has PRC police in country and can invoke the new deal to get rapid response PRC units on the ground to quash an uprising or resist foreign military intervention. So the scene is set for a return to the nation-wide violence of two decades ago, but in which contending foreign intervention forces are joined to inter-tribal violence.

The agreement is also a test of NZ and OZ commitments to the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination. Left-leaning pundits see the deal as benign and Western concerns as patronizing, racist and evidence of a post-colonial mentality. Right-leaning mouthpieces see it as the first PRC toe- hold on its way to regional strategic domination (hence the need for pre-emptive action). Both the New Zealand and Australian governments have expressed concerns about the pact but stopped short of threatening coercive diplomacy to get Sogavare to reverse course and rescind the deal. Australia has sent its Minister for Pacific affairs to Honiara to express its concern and the US has sent a fairly high (Assistant Secretary) level delegation to reaffirm its commitment to regional peace and stability. NZ has refrained from sending a crisis diplomatic delegation to Honiara, perhaps because the Prime Minister is on an Asian junket in which the positives of newly signed made and cultural exchanges are being touted and negative developments are being downplayed. But having been involved with such contingency-planning matters in my past, intelligence and military agencies are well into gaming any number of short to medium term scenarios including those involving force, and their contingency planning scenarios may not be driven by respect for norms and principles involving Solomon Islands sovereignty, self-determination and foreign policy independence.

Conspicuous by their absence have been the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). The former is the regional diplomatic grouping founded in 1971 and Headquartered in Suva, Fiji. It is comparable to the Organization of American States (OAS), Organization of African Unity (OAU) or Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). It has several security clauses in its charter, including that 2000 Biketawa Declaration that sets the framework for regional crisis management and conflict resolution and which was invoked to authorise the Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from 2003-2017.

The latter was formally incorporated in 1988 (Fiji was admitted in 1996) as a Melanesian anti-colonial solidarity organization and trade and cultural facilitator involving PNG, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Kanak National Liberation Front (FLINKS) in New Caledonia. It subsequently admitted observer missions from Indonesia (now Associate Member), Timor Leste and the United Liberation Movement of West Papua.

Currently headquartered in Port Villa, Vanuatu, under Fiji’s leadership in the late 2000s it attempted to re-position itself as a regional security intervention body for Melanesia, (prompted by the unrest in the Solomons and Papua New Guinea in the early 2000s). That initiative never prospered and the MSG remains as more of a symbolic grouping than one with serious diplomatic weight in spite of the signing of an MSG regional trade agreement in 1996 (revised in 2005) and Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama’s attempts to make it a vehicle for loftier ambitions.

Neither agency has weighed in at any significant length on the agreement or the response from the traditional Western patrons. That may have something to do with the PRC’s dollar diplomacy shifting regional perspectives on diplomacy and security, or perhaps has to do with long-standing unhappiness with the approaches of “traditional” Western patrons when it comes to broader issues of development and trade (since the PC-SI security deal also includes clauses about “humanitarian” and developmental assistance). The MSG silence is significant because it has the potential to serve as a regional peace-keeping force deployed mainly to deal with ethnic and tribal unrest in member states as well as inter-state conflict, thereby precluding the need for non-Melanesian powers to get involved in domestic or regional security matters. Either way, the absence of the Solomon Island’s closets neighbours in a glaring omission from diplomatic discussions about how to respond to the agreement.

That is a good reason for the PIF and MSG to be engaged in resolving the inevitable disputes that will arise amid the fallout from the PRC-SI security agreement. It could involve setting boundaries for foreign military operations (such as limiting foreign military presences to anti-poaching, anti-smuggling or anti-piracy missions) or limits to foreign military basing and fleet numbers. It could involve negotiating MSG control over domestic public order measures and operations in the event of internal unrest, including those involving the PRC and Western traditional patrons. The main point is that regional organizations take the lead in administering regional security affairs covering the nature and limits of bilateral relations between member states and extra-regional powers (including traditional patrons as well as newer aspirants).

Whatever happens, it might be best to wait until the agreement details are released (and it remains to be seen if they will be) and save the sabre rattling for then should the worst (Western) fears are realized. That sabre rattling scenario includes a refusal to release the full details of the pact or dishonesty in presenting its clauses (especially given PRC track record of misrepresentations regarding its ambitions in the South China Sea and the nature of the island-building projects on reefs claimed by other littoral states bordering it). Of course, if the agreement details are withheld or misrepresented or the PRC makes a pre-emptive move of forces anticipating the OZ/NZ coercive response, then all bets are off as to how things will resolve. The window of diplomatic opportunity to strike an equitable resolution to the issue is therefore short and the possibility of negative consequences in the event that it is not loom large over the Pacific community and beyond.

In other words, it is time for some hard-nosed geopolitical realist cards to be placed on the diplomatic table involving interlocutors big and small, regional and extra-regional, without post-colonial patronizing, anti-imperialist “whataboutism” or yellow fever-style fear-mongering. Because a new strategic balance is clearly in the making, and the only question remaining is whether it will be drafted by lead or on paper.

Playing Checkers on a Chessboard.

So John Kerry says that Russia’s military intervention in Crimea demonstrates that it is acting “in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on (a) completely trumped-up pretext.” He goes on to say that “It’s an incredible act of aggression,” and threatens Russia with expulsion from the G8 and a raft of sanctions.

My oh my. I realize that an essential element of politics and diplomacy is to be able to lie with a straight face and turn hypocrisy into an art form, but this really is up there on the chutzpah scale. Has someone pointed out to Mr. Kerry that this incredible act of aggression has resulted in zero deaths, unlike, say, some other military interventions over the last ten years? In any event, such rubbish is about all that the US has left when it comes to effectively replying to the Russian gambit.

Before I delve into why Putin is playing a larger game while the US reacts and responds simplistically, let me ask a couple of questions. Does military intervention by an autocracy feel any different from military intervention by a democracy on the part of those being occupied? And if the locals welcome the intervention even if their government does not (and in Crimea both the regional government and locals overwhelmingly welcome the Russian intervention), does that legitimate the use of force against a sovereign state?

Putin’s move reiterates his resolve to protect Russian interests and ethnic Russians along its borders. Already proven in Georgia, this latest move secures Russia’s strategic interests by defending its warm water naval bases in Crimea as well as the local Russian population. If extended to Eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians are a majority, it could well provide a significant, albeit riskier bargaining chip for the Russian leader. His time window is relatively short, but if played right the strategic gains for Russia could be significant.

For example, withdrawal of Russian troops from the Crimea and/or Eastern Ukraine could be traded off for more than the continuation of a pro-Russian status quo in Kiev. The Russians can tie such a withdrawal to better terms for the Assad regime in Syria (where Russian strategic interests are also at stake), and even more- favorable-to-Russia terms for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program (which the Russians have an interest in given the larger interest in maintaining Iran as a buffer against Western influence in the Middle East). The Russians also have numerous points of contention with the West (particularly the US) in its near abroad, particularly in Central Asia amongst the various “Stans.”  Any of these can be used as bargaining chips in the negotiations to secure a Russian withdrawal from the Ukraine.

The ball is the Russian court, They have presented the West with a fait accompli in the guise of boots on the ground. They are going nowhere soon and will not be dislodged by force.

Why? because after nearly two decades of continuous war the US is exhausted of fighting. GOP and Fox News chickenhawks notwithstanding, the US public has no stomach for another fight and the US military is suffering from a slow burning crisis of morale than has been seen in gross ethical lapses from command to barracks across all of the armed services, to say nothing of the 20-30 military suicides per month and the epidemic of PTSD amongst young veterans. The US may still have a technological edge when it comes to weapons systems and a more experienced combat force, but its strategic interests in Ukraine are less than those of Russia and its emotive stake in a Ukrainian conflict is closer to zero when compared with that of Russian troops defending their ethnic kin living in Ukraine.

Then there is the small matter of escalation should the US and its allies get involved, which given the relative stakes and nuclear arsenals sitting at the top of each side’s weapons pile, is as good a deterrent as any.

If the US will not respond with force, then no one else will. NATO troops will go on alert, but even an increased supply of weaponry or foreign military advisors to the Kiev government will risk Russian retaliation beyond what the Europeans will find acceptable. If the Ukrainians go to war, no one will come to their defense other than to provide covert logistics and intelligence. But that will not be enough to overcome the Russian military advantage, although it might raise the costs of it remaining in Ukraine for a long period of time. So counter-force is not a real option.

As for the idea that the CIA somehow orchestrated the Ukrainian uprisings as part of some master plan (a theory put forth by at least one Left commentator), well let’s just say that the recriminations with the Beltway about a lack of warning, to say nothing of this outcome, would suggest not. In fact, the contrary is true: given the ethnic tensions within and Russian historical ties to and strategic interest in the Ukraine, the failures of intelligence and diplomatic reporting when it comes to assessing possible outcomes have been major (if for no other reason than this is the stuff of basic comparative foreign policy research). That means that Western intelligence services also will have limited to no effective say in the eventual resolution of the crisis–they will just report on developments as they occur.

The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 (signed by the US, UK, Russia and the Ukraine), which pledged non-interference in and respect for Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for it giving up nuclear weapons on its soil, is a dead letter. It is not a Treaty and has no enforcement mechanisms other than what each country or countries choose to impose on each other. The Russians claim that the right to self-defense supersedes the memorandum, and that the presence of military bases and citizens in Crimea give Moscow the right to militarily intervene in their defense against Ukrainian aggression, even if done preemptively. In fact, if the Russians wanted to be really cynical they could invoke the “responsibility to protect (R2P)” doctrine that was used by NATO in Libya to justify its intervention against the Gaddafi regime (and R2P does not need UN sanction to be invoked).

Kerry flaps his jaws about expelling Russia from the G8 and imposing sanctions on Russian businesses. The EU makes lapdog noises about “serious consequences.” Does anyone think that Putin is cowed by those remarks? In fact, if anything the day of reckoning is upon Europe, not Russia. For instance, Germany is seriously dependent on Russian energy imports and has re-calibrated its foreign policy in recent years towards Russia. What is it going to do  now, abandon all of that in order to make a point about the Ukraine?

Diplomatically, Russia has the upper hand has the upper hand here and it involves (but is not limited to) its relations with Europe and the US.

As for the issue of economic sanctions threatened by Mr. Kerry.

Russian capital has flowed out of the mother country and is now invested–seriously invested–all over the world, to include places like the UK, Singapore, Dubai and the US. Are these states seriously going to consider freezing the assets of those who have made such investments? Will there be a united response when it comes to sanctions or will it be fragmented, porous and ineffectual?

Russia is not Cuba, South Africa, Iraq under Hussein or even Iran and North Korea today. Imposing sanctions on it is a far more difficult proposition, both in terms of getting states and private entities to adhere to any sanctions regime as well as with regards to Russian retaliatory capabilities.

Russian energy supplies are a lifeblood for many countries as well as Russia itself. States that choose to genuinely hurt Russia economically do so at their peril.

The UN will condemn the intervention and resolutions will be introduced in the Security Council to that effect. Russia will veto them. Nothing concrete will be done. If it were to get kicked out the G8–which is a long shot–then Russia can turn to the G20 for diplomatic support. Among its members are nations not entirely enthused about the US, UK and other colonial powers, so it is easy to suppose that its response will be lukewarm to any proposed sanctions or collective punishment.

Bilaterally, it will be hard for all but the most powerful nations to do anything meaningful to Russia. Perhaps countries will issue statements of regret and disappointment, perhaps even suspend talks on items of mutual interest, perhaps even recall or expel an ambassador. But symbolism aside, does anyone think this is going to sway Putin one way or the other?

Putin has a domestic constituency to consider. He may rule from behind a rigged electoral facade but he does represent a specific, and fairly broad constellation of Russian interests. These interests converge when it comes to defending Russia’s borders and near abroad, as well as Russians living outside the motherland. These constituents matter far more to Putin than the likes of David Cameron or John Kerry.

For all these (and several more) reasons, the Russians have the dominant hand in this situation. They will use it to extract concessions on matters of concern to them in exchange for an eventual, likely phased and partial withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Their strategic interests will be reaffirmed and recognized by their adversaries.

Barring a miscalculation or over-reach on Putin’s part that would bog his troops down in a protracted war (which would inevitably be irregular, unconventional and asymmetrical given the forces involved), Russia stands to gain most from what basically amounted to a window of opportunity created by the Ukrainian uprising.

Policy-makers in Western capitals should have thought about this before rather than after Putin made his move.