Here is a Korean news blurb about the anti-pirate raid, and here is some quick analysis. As you might imagine, the Korean media has trumpeted this, and the Korean President Myung-Bak Lee, who ordered the assault, took a lot of deserved credit. At the risk of sounding like a shill, I must say I continue to be very impressed by Lee’s presidency. He is a good example of the kind of conservative I want to vote for but simply cannot find in the US anymore (where its all Christianity and tea party paranoia). Lee is tough, professional, fiscally balanced, not terribly ideological, business-focused, comfortable with science, tolerant of Korea’s growing diversity, but still on the right side of most of the big foreign policy issues like China, NK, Afghanistan, etc. Yes, he is prone to autocratic outbursts, but no more so than W’s constitution-bending. In any case, he is vast improvement over the accommodationist SK left which seems to think the US is a greater threat to SK than NK or China (no, that is not a joke). So hear, hear, President Lee, for giving the pirates the shellacking they deserve.
Here are a few more thoughts on the raid.
1. In a way, the raid helps justify the on-going, much maligned, dismal, I-want-it-to-go-away-as-much-as-you-do war on terror. No, the pirates are not terrorists, nor are they islamists as far as we can tell. But they do demonstrate the fundamental international political problem behind the GWoT – state failure. To be more specific, failed/failing states create wild west zones on the planet (Somalia, central Africa, parts of central and southeast Asia and Caribbean basin) that open room for all sorts of nasties to set up shop. All sorts of asymmetric threats are enabled by the absence of law in state-less spaces, and they morph in unexpected ways that pull in players one wouldn’t expect (the US goes to Afghanistan, and SK goes to the Gulf of Aden). If the Middle East were governed better, it is unlikely 9/11 would have happened. Indeed, many of the problems we associate with the GWoT – piracy, trafficking, mass human rights violations, drug cartels, generalized social chaos (like in Children of Men) – are broadly attributable to the lack of robust, functioning, reasonably legitimate states in central Eurasia and Africa. This is really what Iraq and Afghanistan are all about – trying to fashion somewhat modern states that can locally control/contain/enervate violent, frequently atavistic, non-state actors like al Qaeda or the Lord’s Resistance Army. And state-less spaces create threats we don’t really anticipate or think about much. IR theory and security studies is mostly about states. Irregular forces like militias, terrorists, pirates don’t have the cachet that worrying about the Chinese navy does. But clearly we do need some general global strategy for cleaning up what Thomas Barnett calls the ‘Gap.’
2. I was quite impressed by the SK military’s prowess, and this may be the biggest unanticipated story. Usually the security discussion of East Asia revolves around the big guys – China, Japan, India. When Korea gets mentioned, the usual line is NK-as-psycho, with SK as a hapless victim. SK is somewhat responsible for this. The SK electorate is quite pacifist (certainly compared to the US), and SK’s extreme exposure to NK means they can’t respond the way Israel does when it is provoked. But far from peninsular restrictions, the SK military was able to show its stuff and they did a super job. I don’t think people realize just how large, professionalized, and modern the SK military actually is (600k conscripts and a $30 billion annual budget). Given the sort of budgetary pressures Europe’s decaying great powers are facing, and the likely post-Yeonpyeong defense build-up in SK, SK is now almost certainly in the top 10 of the world’s most efficacious militaries, as bizarre as that may seem, and it is giving Japan a run for its money. Japan is bigger of course and has a great deal of latent military power, but its defense budget has been just 1% of GDP/year for decades, its debt burden is crushing, and it hasn’t fought on any combat missions at all since WWII. Yet here is tiny Korea projecting coherent, efficacious force all the way into the Gulf of Aden. Not bad…
3. The larger story must be the growing depth and reach of Asian economies. Indian Ocean sea-lines of communication (SLOC) are pretty important for Asia’s economies, and the piracy fight tells us two things.
a. Asia’s economies are now so big and prosperous that pirates can make a living off of them. Can you imagine anyone preying on Indian Ocean shipping as a profession 40 years ago? Indian Ocean SLOCs, connecting East Asia with the Middle East and Europe, now clearly rival those focused on the US in the Atlantic and Pacific – yet another mark of the gravity shift from West and East.
b. East Asia’s economies are now rich and confident enough to project power pretty far from their shores. Of course the US Navy is dominant, but East Asia has the money now to buy bigger and better ships, while US military cuts are almost a certainty, and the US navy is an obvious budget-cutting target as the costs of the GWoT have fallen mostly on the Army and Marines. So here is yet another example of that more equal world in which the US will move in the future. If East Asian economic interests and the military force to protect them now extend all the way to Africa, that pretty clearly pushes the US back in the Indian Ocean and raises the obvious question of when the US will move back in the Pacific too.
Actually, I see this as a win-win for both the ROK and the US. The US can save its resources where it might need it, and avoid some embarrassing video coverage from human rights activists or when the pirates score some asymmetrical hit. And, the South Koreans get some good press and target practice that Seoul can use against the North Koreans, who usually get all the credit for their bellicose and hysterical rhetoric.
As far as inept Middle East states, are the intelligence services and militaries, as in Egypt or Jordan, all that competent at providing for their populations as they are at maintaining power? It seems the US continues to back losers.
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