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A Rocky Return To Multilateralism

Retracing the most impactful events of the past year has become a December tradition for readers familiar with The Affiliate Network. In a year that started with a violent – and nearly successful – attempt to overturn a US Presidential election, and is ending with a military standoff that could draw NATO into combat against Russia, it would seem to be difficult to find much more to talk about…But 2021 has been special for all the wrong reasons. Two years following the COVID-19 outbreak, political turmoil lingers around the world. Latin America regressed two decades in terms of extreme poverty; and the fight against supply-chain bottlenecks continues to hinder commerce globally. The response from the Biden Administration has been to return to multilateralism. They have explored the possibility of restarting the Iran nuclear deal, reclaiming leadership on climate change and Pacific trade, and have visibly strengthened alliances damaged by the previous administration’s transactional approach. There are signs however, that much of Biden’s multilateral tendencies are superficial, leaving us to wonder whether we are witnessing a rocky return to the status quo ante or if Trump left us with a new, less-cooperative, normal.

Biden kicks off first NATO summit with focus on China, Russia https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/biden-kicks-first-nato-summit-plans-focus-russia-china-n1270645
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks with President Joe Biden during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, Monday, June 14, 2021.

Trade

Poised to become the world’s leading industrial power by 2049, China’s National People’s Congress released long-term objectives shortly following their centenary celebration in July. Central to these objectives is China’s “dual circulation strategy,” that will allow a balance of domestic demand and export markets to spur economic recovery since the outbreak of COVID. In the short term, dual circulation will integrate with the current Belt and Road Initiative. A good example of this integration is the Colombo Port City (CPC) in Sri Lanka. Through real estate development, business development, and technical outbound investment, China plans to launch CPC as a financial services center for South Asia. The strategy behind the project presents a challenge to the influence of the United States in Asia, a challenge that has been growing for decades. 

After four years of self-defeating hostility from the Trump Administration toward trade agreements, the White House is making superficial attempts to regain a place in the Indo-Pacific economic order. While on the surface this seems a repudiation of the previous administration’s trade policy, it is more a reflection of reality in the region. Despite the differences in tone, Biden has done little to advance climate goals or bolster the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP (CPTPP). In addition, the domestic indecision that mired US vaccine assistance earlier this year made it seem as or more cynical than the overt vaccine “diplomacy” practiced by China and Russia. On trade, climate, and the pandemic, the United States is struggling to lead and failing to find a way to make multilateralism work. On security, the situation is more complicated. 

Security

In September, US foreign policy concerns about China took on a distinctly military focus when the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced the AUKUS security deal. In their piece: Collateral Impact: The Calculus of AUKUS, Travis Johnson and Lino Miani analyzed the potentially far-reaching impact of the trilateral agreement. The centerpiece of the deal was the provision of nuclear submarines to Australia which came at the expense of a similar arrangement with France. The French submarine deal had long been the subject of controversy in Canberra because it was estimated to be $70 billion over budget and had failed to deliver any significant capability in the five years since its inception. The subsequent outrage from Paris prompted discord between allies and put pressure on certain provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). An erosion of these accords leaves room for Chinese diplomacy to further divide the United States from its European allies in ways that are not directly connected to AUKUS. 

Any success or failure of AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific will be completely overshadowed by the drama of the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The last year of the Trump presidency featured an apparent drive for a deal with the Taliban at any cost. With little room to maneuver that didn’t just prolong the war, President Biden extended the Trump Administration’s May 1st deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops but did nothing to advance a deal between Kabul and the Taliban. Ultimately the delay simply allowed America’s enemy of two decades to position itself for a takeover as American troops managed a desperate and devastatingly chaotic last stand at the airport. With the Taliban back in charge, America cut ties with Afghanistan and now sits on the sidelines while the Central Asian winter and an unfamiliarity with actual governance has rendered the Taliban unable to provide for millions while they consolidate their power.  

More worrying perhaps has been the unexpected and seemingly unprovoked escalation of tension in eastern Ukraine. A large Russian military buildup so alarmed Washington that President Biden spent the better part of a week in early December in virtual summits with NATO and other allied leaders and ultimately Russian President Vladimir Putin. The solidarity from NATO was effective at deescalating tension, at least temporarily, but must be viewed in light of intra-allied stresses caused by AUKUS and the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Though it is not completely clear that Russia is deterred, Putin’s bold saber-rattling has succeeded in igniting a debate over the legitimacy of NATO expansion in the 1990s. The Kremlin’s seemingly outrageous demands would not have been outrageous in 1997. In 2021 Putin is pressing an advantage that only he can see. Whatever the eventual outcome of the crisis, Ukrainian membership in NATO is dead in the water. 

Alliances and the return of multilateralism represents the hallmark of 2021. Yet, strategy must not be cooperation for cooperation’s sake. NATO was founded in 1949 with the original purpose of ensuring that the core industrial, economic, and military regions of the world did not fall under the sway of a hostile power. The case of AUKUS is cut from the same cloth. Still, expansion should not be a substitute for long-term stability or diplomacy. Where Western sanctions against Russia have shown success, a similar military presence in Ukraine risks the threat of all out war. Ultimately, diplomacy, trade, and security must serve those willing to build and balance the peaceful international order. 


Travis Johnson is an active duty US Marine pursuing a MA degree in intelligence studies and is the associate editor for The Affiliate Network.

Collateral Impact: The Calculus of AUKUS

The Biden Administration’s strategic shift toward evolving threats in the Indo-Pacific signals an attempt to reaffirm the balance of power there in Washington’s favor. In a short trilateral statement issued from the White House on 15 September, President Biden — with Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom — announced an enhanced security partnership they call AUKUS. Despite its brevity, the AUKUS declaration supports a profound broadening of pre-existing defense relationships in the region by means of technological, scientific, and industrial collaboration across fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and cyber warfare. Though AUKUS was not explicitly aimed at the expansion of Chinese power, some clues about the agreement’s implementation cause most analysts — and certainly those in Beijing — to believe that it is. Regardless of how the messaging surrounding AUKUS is intended or received, it clearly has the potential to complicate Chinese designs in the region.

AUKUS sent a ripple that began in the South China Sea but surged heavily onto world capitals in East Asia and Europe. One heavily touted aspect of the pact is an agreement for the US and UK to provision the Royal Australian Navy with nuclear submarines; a capability that could radically curtail China’s economy in the event of a conflict. Though the submarine deal was presented as an economic move with military implications, Beijing dismissed any attempts at nuance as “extremely irresponsible” and stated the pact “seriously undermines regional peace and intensifies the arms race.” Still, considering the enormous expansion of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in recent years, including the development of multiple military outposts in the South China Sea and the expanding reach of the Belt and Road Initiative, some enhancement of regional maritime security seems necessary. 

In initial remarks certifying AUKUS, President Biden made clear distinctions between nuclear-powered subs and those armed with nuclear missile systems. This distinction would allow for the use of weapons-grade uranium, provided Australia initiates and adheres to additional strengthening of safeguards on the production, use, and disposal of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Safeguards provided by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prevent nuclear warheads aboard the Australian submarine fleet and also restrict the use of naval HEU reactors. The move would make Australia the seventh country to field such assets and the very first non-nuclear weapons state to do so but also raises the concern that North Korea or Iran could obtain similar technology. Though it is not clear what specific contributions the US and UK will provide in terms of technology and HEU, this capability enables Australia to undertake a variety of operations far outside its territorial waters, putting pressure on the Chinese “nine-dash line” and complicating planning for Beijing. 

AUKUS proposes the development of similar nuclear-powered submarines for the purposes of the Australian naval fleet. https://www.navy.mil/Resources/Photo-Gallery/igphoto/2002371154/
(March 15, 2018) The Royal Navy hunter killer submarine HMS Trenchant (S 91) surfaces in the Beaufort Sea during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 2nd Class Micheal H. Lee/Released)

Collateral Effect

Though differences exist between the Trump Administration policy and Biden’s current focus on pragmatism, it is evident that countering the developing threat of China remains at the top of the bipartisan list of priorities. The same is true in the UK where critics of Boris Johnson initially hesitated to label him as a China hawk. However, by capitalizing on the 2007 decision to buy two aircraft carriers, their impact within the Pacific theater is a powerful reminder of “Global Britain.” In this respect, the US has effectively hardened the UK’s line on China. In Australia, the heavy-handed influence of Chinese interference is felt more strongly through cyber-attacks and state agents acting under the cover of Chinese journalists. While foreign policy must weigh necessary contingencies against the country’s developing trade, economic, and investment relations with its autocratic neighbor, stepping into commitments with AUKUS presents much more than a defensive posture. 

This expanding network remains most relevant in the 14-year-old Quad alliance consisting of Japan, Australia, India, and the US. As tensions continue to rise on all sides of China’s borders, the importance of the Quad is increasing tremendously. Taiwan regularly witnesses incursions of dozens upon dozens of military fly-overs, as do Japan’s nearby Senkaku Islands. Similarly, Indian and Chinese troops have repeatedly clashed in high-altitude tension in the Himalayas. Although critics are quick to write off these events as disparities common to the Indo-Pacific region, AUKUS offers more significant value given its intended depth. In addition to hardened physical boundaries, major strategies backed by the Quad and AUKUS have risen in importance over the past months as a counterforce to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Build Back Better World, or B3W, announced in June at the G-7 summit in Cornwall, U.K., aims to counter Chinese influence through massive investment in infrastructure development of developing countries by 2035. The expansion is led by the principles of the Blue Dot Network (BDN) which sets standards for transparency and environmental impact in infrastructure projects in low and medium-income countries across the world. Among G-7 member states, there is talk of AUKUS broadening to align its activities with that of Japan, although such cohesion remains to be seen. Ultimately, this network will solidify spheres of influence to an extent not witnessed in decades.

Pending Reprisal

The most profound outrage regarding the AUKUS alliance erupted not in the Indo-Pacific, but in France. French President, Emmanuel Macron, was not notified of the pact before it was announced. France’s unsurprising response expressed betrayal by two NATO allies and aggrievement at the economic losses to its lucrative submarine deal with Australia. Though the French arguments seem justified, there was notable dissatisfaction with the submarine deal which was estimated to be nearly $70 billion over budget. Though observers debate the righteousness of French outrage, the opportunity it presents for China to drive a wedge between NATO allies is certainly more important. Faced with what European leaders are calling a “stab in the back,” Beijing’s recourse to diplomatic vindication is not unexpected. Indeed, Chinese diplomats contend that France’s vision of “strategic autonomy” is code for avoiding over-reliance on America. If China can effectively present AUKUS as an erosion of the NPT, it could provide further leverage in their efforts to divide the United States from its European allies far beyond Paris and in ways that are not directly connected to AUKUS. 

President Biden’s apparent willingness to risk relations with France over AUKUS suggests a rearrangement of US security priorities back toward something that resembles the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia.” The extent to which this may justify the Elysee’s push for “strategic autonomy” will shape how well Washington can maintain a balance of power against China. For some, this balance is increasingly urgent. Michéle Flournoy conveys this sentiment more precisely in a Foreign Affairs essay in 2020: “It will take a concerted effort to rebuild the credibility of US deterrence in order to reduce the risk of a war neither side seeks.”


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLCTravis Johnson is an active duty US Marine pursuing a MA degree in intelligence studies and is the associate editor for The Affiliate Network

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

With the Drawdown of US Forces in Germany, Is South Korea Next?

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


With the drawdown of U.S. forces in Germany underway, a reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea is now more likely than ever, given evolving U.S. defense priorities and longstanding trends on the Korean Peninsula. Rumors of an imminent U.S. force drawdown in Korea have been circulating since at least 2019, and President Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to reduce large overseas basing. South Korea, however, is a particularly contentious case, as any changes to the size and structure of U.S. forces must take into consideration both the local mission of deterring against North Korea, as well as the broader U.S. strategic mission of refocusing on great power competition, particularly with China. And that will require reassessing South Korea’s own national defense capabilities, the benefits and risks of having a large forward force based on the Asian mainland, and the impact of any shift in forces on the overall perception of U.S. commitment and reliability with other allies and partners in the region.

The Question of U.S. Forces in South Korea

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sought to reduce its large-scale overseas basing, both to reduce financial and political costs and create a more flexible and responsive force structure better adapted to the changing threat dynamic. Cost-sharing agreements are often contentious, and the current stalemate between the United States and South Korea has dragged on with no end in sight. U.S. basing is also often a source of protest inside South Korea, over land use, accidents or illegal behavior by U.S. personnel, and the perception of continued occupation. Reducing the U.S. footprint and shifting more to naval, air and rotational units could ease these tensions.

Under the current National Defense Strategy (NDS), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is now reviewing the overall posture of U.S. forces abroad, with the mandate toward a more flexible forward posture. Since the early 2000s, U.S. forces in Korea have moved out of the major facility at Yongsan in Seoul. The United States has also pulled most of its forces south of the Han River. During the Iraq War, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush cut total troop numbers in Korea by nearly 12,000 as well, in part because forces based in Korea cannot be readily used for contingencies elsewhere.

Amid reports that the Pentagon had already recommended force restructuring in Korea, Esper said on July 21 that he had given no order to withdraw forces, but then emphasized that he was reviewing all geographic combatant commands in line with the current NDS, with a desire for more rotational forces and greater strategic flexibility.

In that context, a longstanding suggestion for reshaping the U.S. military posture in South Korea is a further shift toward more naval and air assets, and reduced U.S. ground forces — potentially moving more ground forces to a rotational basis, rather than extended deployments. Doing so would maintain a deterrent presence in Korea and retain the benefit of training with South Korean forces, while still reducing constraints due to limits on the deployment of Korean-based forces to conflicts elsewhere. Rotational forces also have a smaller footprint in overseas basing, as they do not include family or family support functions that extended deployments entail.


The U.S. will not abandon South Korea given its value in deterring both North Korea and China. Washington will, however, continue to reshape its overseas force posture.


The restructuring of U.S. forces, however, is complicated by U.S. operational control (OPCON) over South Korean forces in the event of war. South Korea has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War in the early 1950s, with the South Korean military only regaining formal OPCON of its own forces in peacetime in 1994. Over the decades, the transfer of wartime OPCON to South Korea has been delayed numerous times due to its military’s perceived unreadiness and occasional flare-ups of tensions with North Korea. For South Korea, particularly under liberal governments like that of current President Moon Jae In, OPCON transfer is a critical step to fully realizing its independence and national pride. Korea was under Japanese control from 1910 to 1945, and has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War. And while its alliance with the United States remains important for Seoul, the nature of the two countries’ military relationship is still at times seen as paternalistic

The Case for Restructuring

There are several arguments in support of such a restructuring. For one, U.S. forces in South Korea are largely a Cold War left-over and are limited in use for operations outside the country. South Korea, Germany and Japan continue to represent the largest hosting of U.S. forces abroad, and the largest expenditures for basing. Prior to the announced drawdown, Germany hosted more than 35,000 U.S. forces, South Korea more than 26,000 and Japan more than 55,000, according to the latest tally by the Heritage Foundation’s Defense Manpower Data Center. The Pentagon has traditionally avoided using U.S. forces stationed in South Korea for operations elsewhere, both due to the North Korean threat and to South Korean political concerns.

The balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula also currently favors South Korea, reducing the necessity of a large ready U.S. presence. That balance was an important consideration in U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision to reduce forces in South Korea in 1971, desiring for Seoul to carry more of the burden for its own national defense. A revision of U.S. intelligence estimates of North Korean strength also played a role in reversing President Jimmy Carter’s decision to further reduce forces in South Korea less than a decade later.

North Korean capabilities no longer require the U.S. force posture currently configured in South Korea as well. While North Korea has significantly improved its missile and rocket capabilities, the effective counter is not necessarily more forces open the ground, but rather improved missile defense capabilities and the development of South Korean counter-strike capabilities. South Korea has been constrained in the latter for decades by the United States for fear of triggering a war with North Korea that would lock Washington into conflict. But Washington recently agreed to allow Seoul to develop solid-fuel rockets and has expanded its acceptable payload size. South Korea has also recently identified ground and air-launch missiles as a key component of its force development, along with local missile defense. Given the developments in the South Korean military and the situation in North Korea, it is unlikely that Pyongyang would see a reduction of U.S forces in South Korea as an invitation to roll tanks south.

The Case Against Restructuring

But there are also valid arguments against a U.S. withdrawal from South Korea, including:

Preserving a key, amphibious entry point to Asia in the case of a U.S.-China conflict. South Korea’s most concrete value to the U.S. defense posture is perhaps its role as an amphibious bridge between the maritime world and the Asian continent. Strategic competition between the United States and China plays out where the maritime power of the United States meets the continental power of China. Korea has long been the bridge between maritime Japan and continental China, for culture as well as warfare — serving as the launching point for the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century, the Japanese attempted invasion of China in the 16th century, and the Japanese imperial invasion of Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century. The United States is strengthening military ties with other amphibious points around the Chinese periphery, including Vietnam and India. And while South Korea may be vulnerable due to its lack of strategic depth, its proximity to the Chinese north fleet and Beijing also makes it a key strategic point.


It’s unlikely North Korea would see a reduction of U.S forces as an invitation to roll tanks south.


Maintaining the longstanding U.S.-South Korea relationship. In both South Korea and the United States, support of a continued robust U.S. force presence is often based on the two countries’ 70-year military partnership. U.S. forces fought in Korea, Korean forces fought alongside the United States in Vietnam, and the two continue to train together.

Reassuring other allies of the United States’ commitment to the region. A robust presence of U.S. forces in South Korea also serves as a consistent reminder to North Korea, and perhaps China, of a U.S. commitment to protect its democratic allies in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea clearly took this to heart, and its military development has shifted from a focus on overwhelming the South Korean ground forces to a missile, rocket and cyber-heavy emphasis that targets the U.S. forces and interests. Countering these capabilities requires a nearby U.S. presence, just as countering Russian threats or Iran’s missile and nuclear developments require U.S. military operations across Europe and the Middle East, respectively.

A reduction of forces could signal that, despite its Pacific Defense Initiative, the United States is more concerned with keeping competition and conflict bottled up in Asian waters far from U.S. shores, rather than strengthening and defending its allies and partners. Despite hosting more U.S. troops, Japan is particularly sensitive to any changes to the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea, which helps buffer it from Asian conflict. Japan has been very vocal each time a major revision to U.S. forces in South Korea has been contemplated, as a complete withdrawal would leave Japan the frontline. And while Tokyo has gone far to reinterpret its pacifist constitution, there is still strong political and social sentiment against Japan’s role as a regional belligerent.

Current Dynamics Facilitate Restructuring

The United States is not going to simply abandon South Korea, but will instead continue to reshape its overseas force posture — reducing singular large basing in favor of more flexible and dispersed permeant and rotational presence, while allowing for the concentration of forces as needed, rather than as dictated by existing large basing. With the U.S. presidential election less than three months away, there is pressure on Trump to take action on issues it wants to see accomplished before a potential change of government, and reducing U.S. forces abroad has been a key issue from the start of his administration.

With South Korea currently under a liberal government, and seeking to heal rifts with North Korea while strengthening its own national defense capabilities and industry, a tailored reduction of U.S. forces may not meet significant resistance from Seoul, though it would certainly play into the deadlock over cost-sharing. While always a contentious issue, there may now well be an alignment of factors that make this the time for the United States to start once again downsizing its military presence in South Korea.


Rodger Baker is the Senior VP of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor. He leads Stratfor’s strategic thinking on global issues and future trends.