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

After the Donbas Offensive: the Oldie-but-Goodie Putin Playbook of Bogus, Russia-Dependent, Breakaway Statelets

Ukraine ChernihivPutin can’t conquer Ukraine, but taking Donbas, creating another ‘frozen conflict,’ and ending the war before it all gets so much worse for Russia is a pretty good option.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com.

There was some chatter that Putin would try to end the war by V-E Day (May 9). That would be smart. The war is a disaster for Putin. His military has been revealed as much weaker than expected. China will never see Russia as a equal now. The sanctions are going to reduce Russia’s economy by 10% this year. Oligarchs are losing their assets, and the Russian people will sour on this if it turns into a long grind like Afghanistan in the 80s.

So why not go back Putin’s long-established playbook of ginning up frozen conflicts? Putin got quite good at stirring up local conflicts on Russia’s periphery, getting Russia invited in as peacekeepers, getting local stooges to depend autonomy, and then having the whole mess freeze in place so that Russia could project power into an area and inhibit consolidation of western-leaning states on his border.

It seemed like that was originally the plan with recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, but then Putin – probably drinking his own kool-aid about Ukraine being a ‘fake country’ – decided to show what a tough guy he was with an invasion he clearly didn’t really prepare for. Now, if the Donbas offensive doesn’t generate a real breakthrough, Putin is stuck either with a war of attrition or establishing a ‘frozen conflict’ in Donbas in order to get out of the war before the costs in material, sanctions, and prestige get any worse. That’s the best way out for him now.

Here is that essay from 1945:

Putin’s Likely Ukraine Goal Now is Breakaway and Pseudo-Republics in Eastern Ukraine – The Battle of Kyiv is over, and Russia has suffered a surprising and significant defeat. A middle power has inflicted a stinging loss on an ostensible great power. Russia’s status as a world power is obviously in question now. Despite its size and weight, it cannot reduce a significantly smaller neighbor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must now – if only to impress his Chinese backers and justify the war to his own people – win some kind of battlefield victory elsewhere in Ukraine.

It increasingly looks like the Russian effort will be a tank surge in the Donbas. Rumor suggests that Putin is looking to end the war quickly, ideally by May 9, which is VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the day the Nazis finally surrender to the Soviet Union.

This would be a wise choice. Putin pretty clearly cannot take over all of Ukraine at this point. And the sanctions will soon bite deeply into the Russian economy. This war is breaking Russian power and pushing its economy into a major contraction. Putin himself will become persona non grata, unable to travel or access his overseas assets.

Read the rest here.

The Ukraine War is Teaching N Korea that Nukes Can Keep the Americans Out of Your Conflicts

  North Korea ICBMRussia’s success at blocking NATO intervention in the Ukraine war via its nuclear weapons is a huge learning moment for North Korea. This is a re-post of an essay I wrote at 1945.com after the recent missile test.

Usually we say that NK wants nukes on missiles for:

1) Deterrence and Defense: to keep the Americans from ever striking NK, as they threatened in 1994 and 2017

2) Level the Military Playing Field: NK is too poor and technological backward to compete conventionally with SK or the US anymore. So nukes are a great equalizer.

This is true, but as we are all seeing in Ukraine, nukes are also a great way to keep the Americans at bay, to keep them from intervening in your conflict with an American ally. If Russia weren’t nuked up, it’s safe to say that NATO would be more heavily involved. And pundits have been very honest about admitting that we can’t do more, such as a no-fly zone, because we fear escalation with nuclear-armed Russia. I have argued this too.

So if you are NK, nuclear ICBMs, which give you direct deterrence with the US, are a possible way to prevent the Americans from helping SK in a conflict, just as Russian nukes are keeping us out of the Ukraine war. This is to drive wedge between the US and SK. At some point, we are going to have to reckon with this threat, and missile defense is not an answer, because it does not work well enough.

Here is my essay from 1945:

North Korea just tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile. It appears that this is Pyongyang’s longest-range missile yet. The goal, obviously, is to strike the United States if necessary. North Korea has sought, and now likely achieved, the ability to directly threaten the US mainland with substantial nuclear force.

ICBMs normally are designed to deliver a nuclear payload. North Korea first detonated a nuclear weapon in 2006. It is widely assumed that it now has several dozen nuclear warheads. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un has also hinted that he wishes to develop MIRVs (multiple, independently-targetable re-entry vehicles). This would permit each ICBM to carry multiple warheads. So even if only one North Korean ICBM were to survive American missile defense, it could then still devastate multiple American cities.

Read the rest here.

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.

Mearsheimer, NATO Expansion, and the Ukraine War – M Predicts Russia’s Desire to Dominate Ukraine, but also NATO Expanding to Fill a Vacuum

UkraineEveryone seems to have a take on Mearsheimer and Ukraine, so here’s mine: Mearsheimer’s offensive realism predicts Russian’s desire to dominate its borderlands, but ALSO a NATO effort thwart that via expansion. So its awkward that he blames NATO, because playing international politics toughly is what his offensive realist theory would predict NATO to do.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote a few days ago at 1945.com. I should say to start that I find damning Mearsheimer as some kind of Russian operative or stooge is wrong. He’s been predicting this for years, and he’s an academic with a reputation for integrity. He’s a far cry from embarrassing, pro-Putin hacks like Tulsi Gabbard or Glenn Greenwald.

Still, I think Mearsheimer gets Ukraine wrong, because he only looks at it from Russia’s perspective. His theoretical priors – offensive realism – do predict that Russia will try to control its borderlands. But offensive realism ALSO predicts that

1. those borderlands will try to escape Russian domination (which Ukraine is doing now and Eastern Europe did by joining NATO)

2. Russian competitors will try to help those borderlands escape (which NATO did by accepting Eastern European states)

3. Germany/EU/NATO, for which Eastern Europe is also a borderland, will also try to dominate it (which has indeed been the case historically – Germany and Russia have contested to dominate EE)

4. states with a window of opportunity for gain against an opponent (Russia’s post-Cold War weakness) will take it (which NATO and Eastern Europe did by consolidating expansion when Russian was weak)

In other words, Mearsheimer’s own theory does not predict Russian domination of Eastern Europe as a stable equilibrium but instead predicts a dynamic contest between Russia, the states it seeks to dominate (Ukraine included), and Germany/EU/NATO for whom Eastern Europe is also a borderland.

Here’s that essay on 1945.com:

The debate over the causes of the Ukraine War is intense. In the West, there has been much contention over whether the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked the invasion. The most famous proponent of that claim has been John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor of international relations. Mearsheimer’s core argument is made here and here, and he has recently re-stated it here and here. Others have made this argument as well (here, here, here). The Russian government has even deployed Mearsheimer’s talks to defend its war.

Please read the rest here.

Should We Support a Ukrainian Insurgency if Russia Wins the War?

UkraineThis is a re-post of a column I wrote a few days ago for 1945.com. I think almost everybody’s working assumption is that, yes, we should support an insurgency – assuming the Ukrainians lose the battlefield conflict which still seems likely

The reasons seem pretty obvious: Russia is clearly the aggressor. The Ukrainians are putting up a tough fight. It’s hard not to sympathize with their plight and want to help them as much as possible. A non-fly zone would be super risky, so support for their war effort, including after a battlefield defeat is a good choice.

All that is persuasive to me too, but I would add a few points:

1. The Ukrainians need to make the choice to launch an insurgency themselves. It will be brutal and likely long. We should not egg them on. They need to decide on their own.

2. The Ukrainians can’t use across-the-border safe-havens in NATO territory. A common tactic in insurgencies is to slip into a neighboring country to re-group and avoid the counter-insurgent. The VC/NVA did this in Vietnam, as did the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. But in Ukraine, we can’t have Russian forces chasing Ukrainian rebels on NATO territory. The escalation threat is too great.

3. What if the Russian COIN is extremely vicious and the Ukrainians can’t win? There is a humanitarian argument for surrender if a) you can’t win, and b) the other side is massacring your people in response. I don’t know just how harsh the Russians will be as counter-insurgents, but their tactics in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria, and now in Ukraine suggest a future COIN in Ukraine would be harsh.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

Ukrainian resistance is inspiring. Almost overnight, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has become a global celebrity. Stories of Ukrainian grandmothers standing up to the Russians are all over social media (however exaggerated). Ukraine’s chances of winning the war – or more accurately, fighting the Russians to a standstill – are improving with every day it is not defeated. Time is on Ukraine’s side, particularly given Russia’s growing logistical problems.

Can Ukraine Hang On Another Month?

If Ukraine can hang on for another month, Russia is in serious trouble. By then, the NATO operation to send weapons, ammunition, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine will be running at full speed. Also at that point, the sanctions on Russia will be sinking deep into the crevices of its economy. Most industries and firms will have spare parts and reserves for a few weeks. So for the rest of March, Russians might still be able to have their foreign car repaired, or find a replacement battery for their foreign cell phone. By April that will be unlikely, and small failures throughout Russia’s economy will be cascading into a major crisis.

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.

Would Unified Korea Keep the North’s Nuclear Weapons? Perhaps to Pursue a Neutralist Foreign Policy

Image result for north korea nuclear weaponsThis is a local re-print of an essay I published at The National Interest a few weeks ago.

The basic idea is that a unified Korea, even one unified under Southern leadership, has much stronger incentives to keep the North’s nukes than most people seem to think.

Generally, everyone seems to think that a UROK (united Republic of Korea) will give up its weapons to the American or, maybe, the Chinese. Or maybe destroy them. But keeping them would be a great way to keep a UROK out of the looming great power contention in northeast Asia between the US, China, Japan, and Russia.

If you are tiny Korea – the shrimp among whales – you want to stay out of the way when these big boys fight. That will be tough given Korea’s geography right in the middle, but nukes would be a really great way nonetheless to insist.

Also, nukes are a great way to defend sovereignty generally against all interlopers, even if there is no regional hot war. Even after France became friends with Germany after WWII, it still built nukes to make sure Germany never invaded it again. A UROK would almost certainly think the same way about its neighbors given their history kicking Korea around and manipulating it.

I am not sure. A UROK still allied to the US would come under a lot of pressure to denuclearize. But the probability of retention is way higher than most people think.

The full essay is after the break.

Continue reading

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

download

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.

Continue reading

Trump is Moving the Overton Window on Striking North Korea to the Right

Image result for overton window

This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute last month. Basically Trump is shifting the entire debate on responding to North Korea to the right.

Broadly, I would say there a two camps – hawks and doves – within the Korea analyst community. And each of those has a nested sub-division – moderates and ultras. The dove ultras are basically pro-Pyongyang. There aren’t too many of these folks left, no matter how mccarthyite the South Korean right gets. Then come the moderate doves who want engagement and the Sunshine Policy. On the right, the moderate hawks (I put myself here) are skeptical of engagement but accept trying, focusing more on sanctions and China. And the hawk ultras want to bomb the North.

Trump’s big impact on North Korea debate is to legitimize the hawk ultras and push the entire conversation their way, in the process writing the doves out of the conversation entirely debate. I have half-in-jest referred to this as the ‘Kelly Rule’ on Twitter. The American debate is increasingly a contest between bombers ultras, like John Bolton yesterday in the WSJ, vs panicked moderate doves and hawks forming a united front to prevent a war.

In social science language, Trump is pulling the Overton window toward strikes, making them more likely generally, even if they don’t happen this year. Trump is normalizing or legitimizing discussions of (the hugely risky) use of force against North Korea.

The full essay follows the jump…

Continue reading