Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Social Media’s Chinese Boogeyman

China has become a sensation in Western discourse, representing fears of economic displacement, military rivalry, and social upheaval. In many English language social media discussions about China, commentary can quickly escalate to the point that it is alarmist, ignorant, condescending, or racist. China is a vast country, with the largest population in the world, and they have experienced as much social, demographic, and environmental change in just the last generation as the West has in the last 100 years.

Despite what you may read in social media, analysis of China does not easily boil down to 140 characters or less. The “Middle Kingdom” is a vast land of contradictions, and much of what is said about the People’s Republic contain various levels of truth. An example of China’s extreme contrasts: although there is extreme poverty in many rural areas, Beijing just surpassed New York City in number of billionaires. Too often, commentators on social media try to dilute the facts into neat clichés and virtual soundbites rather than accept the complexities of the subject.

In an ever more globalized and interconnected world, words matter. Words and ideas compete  for consideration and propagation on the internet. Opinions are shared, mimicked, and replicated quickly, often reaching unintended audiences, which is why so much commentary about China on social media is alarming. An opinion (educated or not) that is true to some extent in limited context can then be extrapolated and applied to other unrelated situations. The explosion of memes as acceptable political discourse on topics from the U.S. presidential primaries to  the Refugee Crisis is a visible example of the problem of relying on social media for political information.

Where English language opinions are more informed, they are often limited in scope and origin to the expat enclaves of Beijing, Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta, where Westerners can experience China without the polarizing filter of the media. Popular opinion is therefore a reflection of the shallow observations often repeated by our major media organizations, whose footprints in China are, at best, a field office in Beijing or Shanghai, and at worst, simply echo the opinions of the major papers.

The problem is, the Chinese people are listening very closely. Many Chinese leaders and thinkers view America as an example of a successful great power, and they seek to imitate that success while still preserving their socialist system. The U.S. is observed by many with near obsession, curiosity, and often with some degree of apprehension. Clearly unaware of the impact of their statements in social media, the last thing Westerners, and Americans in particular, should be doing is disparaging or dismissing arguably rational Chinese actions in the media.

Imagine two brothers, where the younger brother imitates the behavior of the elder. If the elder brother rejects and mocks him, how will the younger brother then act in the future? If the Chinese political and economic leadership do not feel like Americans respect them, they may change course and find another less palatable model for future development. The Sino-American geopolitical relationship is the most important one in the 21st Century, and the U.S. should not neglect its leadership role in the region through ignorance and careless internal public dialogue.

china-provinces-map-855
Provinces of the People’s Republic of China. Photo Credit : http://www.nationsproject.org

The Loud Voices in the Room

Here are some examples from social media to demonstrate the problems with careless internal dialogue:

Opinion 1: The Chinese cheat (at business).

cheating?
Commentary below a January 1st People’s Daily post about China’s new aircraft carrier. Photo Credit: www.facebook.com

This type of message invokes a value of fairness, and claims that China is not playing fair: in business, military technology, etc… Allegations of cheating aside, consider that China has leapfrogged the industrial revolution right into the information revolution. While some would argue the fairness of China’s approach to modernization, it is nothing new. The idea of appropriating methods and technologies from more advanced nations has occurred over and over again throughout history as many now-developed nations  also stood on the shoulders of the trailblazers who went before.

Sharing of intellectual property in jointly owned enterprises has been a condition of investment in China since Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy of 1980. Western companies have willingly entered into such agreements, making significant profits while American consumers benefited by being able to buy cheaper goods. Furthermore, a large number of Chinese businesses do not cheat and steal, so their reaction to such insults on social media is predictably and understandably defensive. Dismissive and disrespectful behavior on social media has serious potential to have a negative effect on the economic relationship between the U.S and China.

Opinion 2: Chinese products are terrible quality.

There is a lot of evidence to support the fact that some Chinese goods are low quality. There have been instances of fake milk powder tainted with hazardous chemicals, contractors reducing the quality of construction in schools, and “gutter oil” used for cooking, issues that have instigated mass social movements in China in response.

made in china
Additional commentary following the January 1st People’s Daily post deriding the quality of China’s new domestically produced aircraft carrier. Photo credit: www.facebook.com

However, China as a nation is also capable of producing at high quality. The passenger rail system is not without flaws, but it has come an impressively long way. Most notably, the P.R.C. maintains a  manned space program and in September 2013 sent an unmanned rover to the moon, which set the record in October 2015 as the longest operational lunar rover. When Westerners apply this opinion categorically, it becomes insulting and arrogant, asserting that the Chinese cannot do anything of quality, and the reaction is naturally negative with potential repercussions both in diplomacy and in business.

Opinion 3: China is a global threat.

The following comments came from a Facebook page on the People’s Daily discussing the ongoing fielding of the Liaoning, China’s new Ukrainian-made aircraft carrier:

Asians and Aircraft Carriers
Commentary below a December 31st China Daily post about the refurbished aircraft carrier that China recently purchased from Russia, the Liaoning. Photo Credit: www.facebook.com

This is an extreme instance of this opinion, where the commenter uses the anxiety around China’s rise to compare the P.R.C. to the Imperial Japanese, a comparison sure to promote defensiveness and hostility from Chinese readers. The memory of the brutal Japanese occupation is immortalized in film, monuments, and memorials throughout China, just as the communist resistance to the Japanese is celebrated as a legitimacy narrative. Tensions continue to run high between the two countries as was evidenced by the response to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 2014.  Arguable racist undertones aside, the commentary on China’s rise seems to swing to both extremes: Either China is a terrifying dragon, or China is a bumbling panda bear.

Rival or Partner?

If China is really a threat, then it could be a very serious one. When analyzing potential threats, analysis should be broken down into two components: capability of doing harm, and intent to do harm in the pursuit of a specific goal. Despite a large military, China has limited capability to threaten others in its immediate vicinity; the benefits of aggressive action are low and international connectivity makes the costs are still too high to make such policies palatable to the Chinese leadership.

The second component of threat analysis is often lacking in most Western discourse about China. Namely, do they even want to cause us harm? If/when they have the capability, would they want to use it? What would they achieve by doing so? Hostile and anxious comments about China shape and promote the kind of defensive hostility in China that the West does not desire. We should expect fear-mongering about China in the West to be mirrored, leading to further aggressive posturing and the increasing possibility of confrontation, perhaps leading to a fostering of the intent to do harm which does not currently exist. 

China Skyscraper
China is quickly modernizing. Will it integrate further into the world’s political and economic systems? Or will the world’s largest economy and most populous nation be turned away by hostility from the system it so desperately wants to become a part of?  Original Photo, Pudong, Shanghai

An Avoidable Collision

Fear-mongering can be counteracted through education. The more accurate information is spread about China, the more we Westerners will realize the limitations of our knowledge. The Chinese people are awakening to the outside world thanks to the influence of the internet, but they remain rooted in their customs, history, and have their own unique challenges. Other countries need not consent to China’s strategic positions or praise their business practices. Understanding the Chinese in  context, and cooperating or challenging as appropriate is the key. The current hostile and dismissive discourse is one avoidable factor unnecessarily escalating tensions between two civilizations which are leading towards an aggressive rivalry, rather than a rewarding partnership.

Mike KendallMAJ Mike Kendall is a U.S. Army Engineer Officer with combat experience and extensive training in forcible entry and humanitarian relief operations.  He graduated from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou China, and is currently attending the German Armed Forces General Staff College and Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany. He holds a B.S. in International Relations, an M.S. in Engineering Management, and an MPA in Non-Traditional Security Management.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Stealth Wealth: ISIL and the Myth of Oil

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has established itself as an extremely powerful jihadist army in the heart of the Middle East. The group is well armed, commanding a vehicle fleet that includes 2300 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV) and countless others along with enough weaponry and soldiers to manage a “state” of 300,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Italy). ISIL is not just powerful, it is well funded. The group is reportedly so wealthy some members of the United States Government, without any apparent fear of hyperbole, repeatedly describe ISIL as the “best funded terrorist group in history” with oil as its main source of affluence.

The narrative is an attractive one. A wealthy terrorist group is novel and alarming. Fighting it requires new methods, new powers, and indeed new budgets. But it seems infeasible for the so-called Islamic State to accumulate wealth by selling functionally useless crude oil or poorly-refined petroleum products a truckload at a time. Survival alone must be very expensive indeed while under constant armed assault by a US-led coalition of 65 countries, along with Syria, Russia (arguably), Iran, and countless rival groups including the very capable Hezbollah. This gives credence to reports that some Sunni Arab states (allies of the United States) look the other way while their prominent citizens support the group.  Whatever the case, the mainstream media seems unwilling to question the narrative of ISIL’s oil riches.  The numbers however, do not support this idea.

Unbalancing the Books

Estimating ISIL’s oil revenue is complex and based largely on assumptions and derived intelligence but is useful for making the point that the group will have great difficulty profiting from the sale of stolen petroleum.

A generous estimate put ISIL’s February 2015 production capacity at 50,000 barrels per day (bpd). With a market price of $10 a barrel according to one Iraqi official, ISIL could theoretically make $15 million a month. But there is more to the story. ISIL does not control a single pipeline from origin to destination meaning they require 181 standard tanker trucks just to move all that oil, a very inefficient and expensive transportation method. Standard trucks of this type would require roughly four barrels of diesel just to make the 800-mile round trip from Kirkuk to Raqqah. That is 724 barrels per day ($217,000 per month) just to deliver to potential customers.

But ISIL needs fuel as well. A large percentage of ISIL’s estimated production would be consumed by 2300 HMMWVs, hundreds of armored vehicles, likely tens of thousands of civilian cars and trucks, heavy machinery for construction and survivability, generators, and heaters. With only about 70% of refined petroleum products useful for those purposes, ISIL’s for-sale inventory is down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 bpd. Subtract another 10% for likely corruption, loss, fuel contamination due to mishandling, and inefficiencies from distributed and improvised refining, that is 27,000 bpd before accounting for a single action by any of ISIL’s many enemies.

The Myth of ISIL's Oil
“Crude Stills:” A field refinery used by ISIL to process crude oil into useable forms such as diesel and kerosene.

All the same, 27,000 bpd is worth $8.1 million per month; not a paltry sum, but a far cry from the $50 million bonanza the United States estimates ISIL earns monthly from oil sales. It is also only one half of the equation. Though ISIL’s monthly expenditure is beyond the scope of this article, we must remember that its army of tens of thousands of soldiers is a very expensive commodity to operate. Those soldiers must be recruited, fed, paid, housed, equipped, armed, and trained. The wounded require expensive medicines to heal or keep healthy and their families must be compensated upon their deaths. If we compare these priorities with appropriation titles in the budget of the United States Army, we find that similar expenses account for 91.8% of the total US Army budget. Assuming ISIL has similar combat priorities, it is clear $8.1 million will not go very far.

Groupthink, Bureaucracy, and Confusion

If strained production capacity, distributed and inefficient refining, expensive distribution infrastructure, extremely high operating costs, and a questionable customer base are not enough to break ISIL’s bank, enemy action certainly will.  Unfortunately, there is a political rUntitledeason we keep hearing tales of the group’s fabulous riches. Since the Obama Administration began perpetuating the myth of ISIL’s oil wealth in August 2014, bureaucrats and generals have used the idea as a foundation for action. As early as September 2014, the Department of the Treasury sought authorities to target ISIL’s bank accounts and those of its financial backers while the State Department lobbied to block donations to ISIL from  citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Meanwhile, the Pentagon went after the group’s oil infrastructure, most notably in an effort to retake the Bayji refinery complex. Though this seems a refreshingly comprehensive approach to a complex problem, these agencies carried it out in the context of bureaucratic competition, particularly when diplomacy constrained military options or when bombing annoyed regional allies and complicated negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal. Yet amid the bureaucratic maneuvering, none were willing to question the attractive but invalid assertion that ISIL was making a lot of money…Until Vladimir Putin agreed with them.

Following the downing of a Russian fighter aircraft by the Turkish Air Force, Russia produced photo evidence accusing Turkey of being the primary consumer of ISIL’s stolen oil.  The Russian photos even implicated the family of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the trade. Despite their ambiguity, the allegations are troublesome for the mantra underpinning the policies of the United States, NATO, Turkey, and a number of other outwardly anti-ISIL stakeholders. The response from the United States came from special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, Amos Hochstein, who said that ISIL’s oil sales to Turkey are of “no significance from a volume [or revenue] perspective” and that most consumers are in ISIL-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq. Bizarrely, other US officials even questioned ISIL’s production capacity, pointing out that the group refines its stolen oil in “ad hoc desert pits equipped with crude stills”. Suddenly Washington was further complicating an already confusing policy by qualifying its previously bold statements about ISIL’s oil wealth.

The Cost of the Myth

Maintaining the myth of ISIL oil wealth was always an operational liability, incorrectly informing policy and improperly shaping decisions on the use of national power. It is now clear the tortured logic required to maintain the fiction is an international political liability as well and it is time for the United States and its allies to face facts and abandon the groupthink. ISIL is not enjoying a massive windfall from the sale of oil and instead is waging a successful war with more intractable sources of funding including possible covert sponsorship from some of America’s less scrupulous Sunni allies. Until Washington is willing to face the reality of ISIL’s oil wealth, those “allies” will enjoy political cover to support the Islamic State and Mr. Putin will continue to use America’s own rhetoric against it.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

Bad News: Cyber Norms Probably Won’t Constrain Cyber Conflict

The U.S. government has put the promotion of its cyber norms at the forefront of its cyber diplomacy with the hopes that it will constrain pervasive cyberattacks. Past experience with norm promotion efforts provide insight on whether the United States is likely to be successful. Unfortunately, the future is bleak.

As a general rule, states develop norms to promote their interests and a norm will only spread if other states perceive it to be in their interest to abide by it. Historical examples of this are plentiful. In the late 19th century, Russia pursued constraining norms against the possession and use of chemical and biological weapons as well as strategic bombing at the First Hague Conference. Russia had failed to master these new weapons and wanted to constrain potential adversaries. Britain, on the other hand, opposed a norm restricting strategic bombing because it saw bombing as a tool to offset the relatively small size of its ground forces. As a result, the conference agreed to prohibit the “discharge of projectiles and explosives from balloons or by other new analogous methods” for a temporary period of five years while prohibiting chemical and biological weapons indefinitely. These bans lasted until the powers of the day determined it was not in their self-interest to maintain them. Britain and Germany both used chemical weapons in World War I and strategic bombing was used throughout World War II by all parties.

1200px-Vickers_machine_gun_crew_with_gas_masks
British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets near Ovillers, France during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. (Courtesy John Warwick Brooke).

The requirement that states perceive a norm to be in their self-interest means that norms containing offensive cyber activity are unlikely to work. Unlike other forms of weaponry, cyber weapons are stealthy, making it difficult for planners to determine whether cyber weapons will be useful in the future. Furthermore, some states rely more on cyberspace than others, making states that are less dependent on the Internet less vulnerable to an attack. These relatively immune states will struggle to determine if constraining norms are in their interest as many states did with strategic bombing and will want to keep their options open.

Chinese, Russian, and U.S. cyber activities appear to indicate that these states believe they have more to gain from embracing cyberattack capabilities than constraining norms:

  • China has been unconstrained in its cyber espionage, as demonstrated by the recent OPM breach, but it is also preparing to use cyber weapons to cause economic harm, damage critical infrastructure, and influence armed conflict. The U.S. Department of Defense has pointed out that China is “looking at ways to use cyber for offensive operations” and Beijing appears to be developing and fielding advanced capabilities in cyberspace with strategic objectives in mind.
  • Russia’s early cyberattacks on Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine indicate that it is largely unconstrained by restrictive cyber norms. Although Russia has diplomatically advocated for a ban on cyber weapons and an International Code of Conduct for Information Security, its efforts are analogous to the Soviet Union’s early advocacy for a prohibition on nuclear weapons while simultaneously pursuing such weapons or its support for a ban on biological weapons while simultaneously developing them in secret. Russian military doctrine proclaims that any future war will involve the “early implementation of measures of information warfare to achieve political objectives.”
  • The United States is significantly expanding its cyberattack capabilities at U.S. Cyber Command and engages in offensive cyber operations. However, unlike Russian attacks, the United States appears to avoid targeting nonmilitary assets yet this restraint is likely negated by its perceived general “militarization” of cyberspace by adversaries such as China. The United States has articulated few limits on cyberattacks. For example, the International Strategy for Cyberspace states that the United States reserves “the right to use all necessary means” consistent with the application of international law to defend itself and its allies and partners.

There are other reasons beyond self-interest that make containing cyber norms less likely to emerge. For example, unlike when the United States was briefly the only nuclear power after World War II and was able to establish a precedent of restraint in post-World War conflicts, it is too late to have a state establish a precedent through restraint or establish a prohibition on cyberattacks.

While policymakers are fixated on the development of constraining rules of the road for cyberspace, history shows that U.S. efforts to promote norms to constrain offensive cyber activities are unlikely to succeed.


About the Author: Dr. Brian M. Mazanec is an adjunct professor at George Mason University. His book, The Evolution of Cyber War: International Norms for Emerging-Technology Weapons, was recently published by Potomac Books.

Note: This article is cross-posted at the Council on Foreign Relations Net Politics blog.

Featured Image Source: Bill Smith