Robert E Kelly

Political Science, International Relations, East Asia, US Politics…and, yes, the BBC Dad

Robert E Kelly

Does South Korea Need a Aircraft Carrier? Creeping Chinese Control of the South China Sea’s Oil Sea Lane is the Best Argument for It

South Korea's new CVX Aircraft Carrier project: An overview - Naval NewsThere has a been a pretty vibrant debate in South Korea over building an indigenous aircraft carrier. That debate has been especially resonant where I live – Busan – because it would probably be built here.

This post is a re-up of an op-ed I wrote for the Japan Times this week. I also wrote on this once before for a ROK navy-adjacent think-tank.

IMO, the best argument for a ROK carrier is China’s creeping, long-term effort to dominate the South China Sea. Oil from the Persian Gulf traverses the SCS on its way to East Asia’s democracies – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan. Chinese control of the SCS oil sea lane would allow the PLAN to embargo carbon imports for whatever bogus reason Beijing could think of.

We can be sure that Chinese bullying in the region will use this tool as soon as China consolidates control of the SCS and puts up enough bases to launch blockades. Indeed, I have long thought that this is the primary reason China wants to control the SCS so badly. It’s not clear that there are a lot of natural resources in the seabed there or that they can be cost-effectively extracted. And all the little islands and sandbars in the SCS aren’t valuable in themselves.

But this would require SK to start seriously thinking about 1) power projection southward, 2) contesting Chinese sea control inside the first island chain, and 3) cooperating with Japan which is also threatened by this and which has a larger navy. That would all be great but is a big ask for a country not used to thinking about foreign policy much beyond the peninsula. And that is my big concern: that the previous Moon administration really wanted to build this because Japan is building an aircraft carrier, and wants to park it next to Dokdo. That is the wrong reason to build one.

Here is the original, pre-edited version of my essay from the Japan Times:

South Korean has considered, in the last year, constructing a light aircraft carrier. This has provoked controversy. The decision to build it or not has swung back and forth. The South Korean navy very much wants it and has made a public push for it. The South Korean legislature, the National Assembly, ultimately decided to fund it last year. But the government of new President Yoon Seok Yeol is apparently re-considering.

South Korea the Land Power

Most countries in the world lean into either land or sea power, as dictated by their geography. Unsurprisingly, island states develop ‘blue water’ (i.e., ocean-going) navies. Japanese modernization, for example, lead to maritime power in the last century and half. Britain too had a large navy at its peak.

South Korea would appear to fit into this box. It is an island of sorts. It has just one land border, but that is tightly sealed. So strategically, South Korea is nearly an island.

But necessity has made South Korean a land power nonetheless. Its border with North Korea is the most militarized place on the planet. The North Korean army numbers over one million active-duty soldiers, with millions more in reserve. North Korea’s air and naval power are small in comparison. A second Korean war, like the first one, would mostly be fought on the ground. Continue reading

The Lesson of the Ukraine War for China against Taiwan is No Longer a ‘Fait Accompli Land-Grab before the World can Respond.’ Now it’s ‘Bombard Them into Submission First’

UkraineThe lesson of the Ukraine war for China in a Taiwan scenario seemed, at first, to be: go for a quick, fait accompli land-grab before the democracies can respond. Instead, the lesson now is: bombard Taiwan into submission first before trying a huge risky landing.

This is re-post of an article I wrote for 1945.com earlier this month. There’s been lots of writing about what lessons China might draw from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because of the parallels. As I write,

Both are treated as dissident territories by a large, belligerent, autocratic neighbor. Both look to the US and other democracies for help but lack formal alliances with them. Further, the position of the democratic world toward them both is ‘strategic ambiguity.’ Neither can be sure the democracies will help them.

Had the Russian war gone well – specifically, had it been the intended quick fait accompli which won before the West could get its act together – this war might have served as a genuine model: grab Taiwan before the US and Japan can come to rescue and then present the new status quo as the end of hostilities and force the US to be the one who looks like it is escalating.

Instead, Russia is losing, and the lessons turned out to be far different:

1. Mobilized, nationalistic populations will fight tenaciously

2. Autocratic militaries suffer from corruption and morale problems

3. Western sanctions will be far more punishing than expected

The asymmetries between China and Taiwan are even greater than between Russia and Ukraine, so China might be able to win by sheer weight. But that’s what Russia expected too, and the geography is much worse for China. A Taiwan invasion would have to cross 100 miles of water. That is a huge logistical hurdle, on par with D-Day 1944.

So if you’re China, the strategic take-away is to pound Taiwan for weeks before invading. That would activate massive global resistance of course, but that is better than marching in and losing as Russia is doing.

Here is that 1945 essay:

The Lesson of Ukraine for China: Grabbing Taiwan would be Harder than it Thinks – There has been much discussion that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an encouragement for China to consider its own land-grab – of Taiwan. Taiwan and Ukraine are indeed in similar geopolitical positions. Both are treated as dissident territories by a large, belligerent, autocratic neighbor. Both look to the US and other democracies for help but lack formal alliances with them.

Further, the position of the democratic world toward them both is ‘strategic ambiguity.’ Neither can be sure the democracies will help them. The logic is that this vagueness will discourage direct intervention by China and Russia. Simultaneously though, the democracies have sought to develop robust state capacity and military capability in Ukraine and Taiwan, to improve their ability to defend themselves and, ideally, deter Russia and/or Chinese attack.

Read the rest here.

China’s Support for Putin in Ukraine, and Resistance to Sanctions, is Not Just about Taiwan

ChinaThis is a local re-post of a column I wrote recently for 1945.com. If you want to see just how absurd Chinese support for Putin is becoming, here is China’s own version of QAnon.

My basic argument is that Beijing is supporting Russia for reasons beyond just the precedent for its own move on Taiwan someday and desire for Russian support for that. That’s part of it obviously. But I think there at least three deeper reasons, which I initially suggested here on Twitter:

First, ideological. China is an autocracy. It wants other autocracies to survive in order to mask or normalize its own autocracy. It does not want to stand alone, as a authoritarian outlier in a world of democracies with a global norm of democracy. So it will not enforce sanctions on N Korea, nor on Russia. It won’t help its own ideological self-isolation.

Second, strategic. China has an obvious interest in Russia and North Korea playing spoiler to the world’s democracies. If the democracies are busy with North Korean shenanigans and Putin’s risk-taking, they’re not focusing on the East and South China Seas. So why not keep these countries afloat for the distraction value?

Third, economic. Sanctions-running is lucrative. It’s a nice way to get ultra-cheap contracts for NK fishing rights or Russian natural resource exports.

Also, Putin getting himself bloodied against the West is also no bad thing for China, given long standing Chinese-Russian tensions in Asia.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

Ukrainian resistance in the war against Russia has surprised everyone. There is now a growing chance Ukraine may stalemate the Russian army. And even should Ukraine be defeated – which is still likely given the sheer amount of force Russian President Vladimir Putin can bring to bear if he chooses – a Ukrainian insurgency seems increasingly likely. Western support of that insurgency also seems increasingly likely.

In short, Putin will not win the quick war he appears to have expected. Russia will be badly isolated and increasingly dependent on China as an escape hatch from the pressure of sanctions.

Read the rest here.

If the EU Steps Up (which it won’t), then Ukraine Need Not Undermine the US Pivot to Asia

ChinaThis is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com a few days ago. My argument is an expansion of what I complained about a few days ago: Europe, not the US, should be leading on Ukraine.

Yes, the US can do it, but that Europe can’t take care of security issues of medium-range right on its own doorstep is just embarrassing. It raises the obvious opportunity cost that deeper US involvement in Europe undercuts the pivot.

I am little skeptical of this overrating this fear, as I say in the essay, because the US spends so much on national security – the Defense Department budget, plus all the other defense spending we don’t run through DoD in order to make its budget look smaller than it actually is. That aggregate number is around 1 trillion USD, which should be enough to confront both Russia and China (especially given Russian weakness), except for open war with both simultaneously.

So we shouldn’t get carried away that Ukraine will stop the American re-balance against China. Biden is pretty clearly avoiding a major commitment to Ukraine to prevent this outcome.

But still, it is long overdue for the Europeans to get organized on common defense, especially when they complain about the US ignoring their opinions on issues like Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s what happens when you don’t spend on defense and implicitly expect the Americans to do the heavy lifting.

In fact, the an ideal world would be an integrated European Union defense identity which acted as a second liberal superpower, confronting Russia and Islamic radicalism in its region, while the US confronted China. What a huge advancement of liberal and democratic values that would be! But that’s decades away if ever…

Anyway, here is that 1945 essay:

As the Ukraine crisis heats up, its impact on the US effort to re-balance to Asia, specifically against China, has arisen. The consensus is that, for the most part, a renewed US focus on European security will pull US resources and policy-maker attention away from Asia and back toward Europe. In a similar manner, the US has hitherto struggled to focus on East Asia, as China took off in the last two decades, because of the war on terror. Yet China is of far greater import to the US in the coming decades than either Eastern Europe or the greater Middle East. On that, there is near consensus in the foreign policy community now.

The rest is available here.

70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)

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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Trump’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with China: Huntington’s Model doesn’t even work in East Asia

Image result for clash of civilizations map

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a week ago.

Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.

The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So

There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…

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There is Actually a Strategic Logic behind the China Trade War; Trump just doesn’t Understand or Care

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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. Basically, I have been amazed in the media discussion of the Sino-US trade war at how little effort there’s been to explain why it might be a good idea – namely, if you accept that China is a serious medium- and long-term threat to the United States.

Now you don’t have to agree that China will, in fact, become  that threat. Scholars like Dave Kang don’t think so. If not, then the trade war is just a foolish distortion of the comparative advantage benefits both sides reap from trade. It is then strictly an economics question, where Trump is indulging foolish protectionist instincts which woefully misunderstand that a US trade deficit is not a a problem to worry about.

But if you do think China is a looming competitor, if not a serious threat, then the logic of scaling back China trade is pretty obvious – the political benefits of slowing China’s rise outweigh the economic benefits of its cheap imports and T-bill purchases.

This line of argument would actually be pretty persuasive to a lot of people. I think there is a growing consensus in the natsec community that China is a real threat. Hence Trump could find new allies for his controversial trade war policies. But he never makes this pitch – I presume because he is too obtuse to actually understand this argument. Just in his Wisconsin speech again yesterday, he instead made the same ridiculous argument that the US trade deficit with China is China ‘ripping us off.’ Whatever…

The full essay follows the jump.

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Trump, Naturally, is Making this the Weirdest North Korea Crisis Ever

Image result for Trump north korea

This is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute this month. In short, Trump is not only making this rolling semi-crisis more dangerous, but weirder too. US presidents don’t talk like vengeful Old Testament prophets, ratings-seeking reality TV stars, or children taunting their siblings, but I guess they do now. *sigh*

I spoke at the New Yorker Festival of Ideas last week on North Korea. I said then that if Trump would simply get off Twitter, there would be a noticeable step down in the tension our here. By extension, I mean he should stop ad-libbing scary, off-the-cuff remarks like the ‘calm before the storm.’ I did the best I could to explain these sorts of remarks here, but honestly, I wonder if he really even grasps the scale of his office. Today’s preposterous comment on the US nuclear stockpile suggests he doesn’t.

My full essay on how Trump is changing this NK crisis from the usual pattern is below the jump.

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THAAD is Not about Missile Defense anymore; It’s about a Chinese Veto over South Korean Foreign Policy

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This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote at The National Interest a few weeks ago. The graphic here comes straight from the Lockheed Martin webpage on THAAD. There’s so much contradictory information floating around about THAAD, maybe it’s best just go to the website and look for yourself. No, I’m not shilling for LM; I have no relationship. I just thought it would be convenient. And yes, I support the THAAD deployment here.

Anyway, this essay is actually about the politics, specifically that China WAY overplayed its hand against the THAAD deployment in South Korea. Now THAAD isn’t about THAAD anymore. The Chinese have ballooned it into such a huge issue, that it’s now about SK sovereignty and freedom to make national security choices without a Chinese veto. If you want to read why I am wrong, here’s my friend Dave Kang to tell you that I am getting carried away.

I still stand by my prediction though: neither Ahn nor Moon will withdraw THAAD even if they’d want to otherwise, because now it would look like knuckling under to China. Maybe the Justice Party candidate would withdraw it, but she is polling at 3%.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Obama did about as well in E Asia as could be Expected: One Last Defense of Strategic Patience

I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.

Yes, he didn’t prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon and missile, but no one knows how to do that barring kinetic action which is off the table because of South Korea’s ridiculous decision to place its capital, and allow it to flourish, just 30 miles from the border. And no he didn’t slow China’s rise, but no president could do that without kinetic action either. And that’s even crazier than bombing North Korea.

There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.

The full essay follows the jump.

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