US pivot to Asia must come with reassurances

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh/Released

US Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman addresses the crew of the USS Freedom

By William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Under sunny skies, the USS Freedom – the US Navy’s newest littoral combat ship (LCS) – cut a sleek silhouette as it approached Changi Naval Base last week. The warship’s arrival marked the start of an eight-month deployment to southeast Asia. Under a Singapore-United States agreement, up to four of these ships will be put on rotational deployments through Singapore.

Speaking to reporters on the deck of the USS Freedom last Thursday, US Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman said the arrival of the ship marked a ‘new chapter’ for the US Navy in the Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, the deployment of the LCS – together with the move of 60% of the US Navy’s assets to the Pacific and the deployment of 2,500 US Marines in Australia – forms part of America’s much-heralded ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia.

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Uncertain chemical-weapons claims in Syria

The Syrian city of Aleppo. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/watchsmart

The Syrian city of Aleppo

Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.

Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.

What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.

If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.

Read the full article at The Diplomat


Are we living through a second Nixon era?

Kevin Rudd at the Manama Dialogue

‘Historical analogies are often perilous and they are always inexact,’ IISS Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs Dr Dana Allin admitted, when posing a question to Australian MP and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (above) during the Fifth Plenary Session at the recent Manama Dialogue. Nevertheless, Allin continued, ‘I have long been intrigued by some parallels between the challenges facing the Obama administration and those that faced the Nixon administration 40 years ago.’ He ticked off a list: a war-weary American public; an economic crisis; a political crisis (although ‘largely selfinflicted by the Nixon administration and I do not think you can say the same thing about the Obama administration’); a major Middle East crisis; and the view that figuring out a relationship with China was vital.

How could America make a difference, he wondered. Was more energetic diplomacy going to be enough?

Rudd responded that he also saw ‘extraordinary parallels with the Nixon period’, partly because he was a keen China watcher. He said he had spoken to President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ‘a lot’ about dealing with the major challenges that American administration faced.

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US still ultimate ‘offshore balancer’ in the Gulf

General James Mattis, Commander of US Central Command at the Manama Dialogue 2012

General James Mattis, Commander of US Central Command, at the Manama Dialogue 2012

In this latest post by one of the ‘Young Strategists’ attending the Manama Dialogue, Jean-Loup Samaan,  a researcher for the NATO Defense College, looks at US engagement in the Gulf through the prism of a Cold War concept.

Although Syria was undoubtedly the biggest issue on the agenda of the 2012 Manama Dialogue, another one was in the air: the seeming erosion of US leadership in international affairs in general and in the Gulf in particular.

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Debating regional missile defence

A StanA Standard Missile - 3 (SM-3) is launched from the USS Hopper (DDG 70) (Photo: US Missile Defense Agency)dard Missile - 3 (SM-3) is launched from the USS Hopper (DDG 70) (Photo: US MIssile Defense Agency)

A Standard Missile – 3 (SM-3) is launched from the USS Hopper (DDG 70) (Photo: US Missile Defense Agency)

By James Hackett, Editor of the Military Balance

Much press attention at this year’s Manama Dialogue will focus inevitably on the conflict in Syria and other consequences of the Arab Spring. But a set of other core issues also remain, including the threat perceptions of regional states, and Iran’s place in these calculations. Regional states, and international partners such as the US, remain concerned by Iran’s continuing drive to improve its ballistic missile capabilities, amidst  international preoccupation with Tehran’s nuclear programme. Given these uncertainties,  the development of regional military capabilities will likely figure high in delegates’ conversations Read the rest of this entry »


Halting a chemical weapons nightmare in Syria

Bab Amro, Homs (Photo: Freedom House)

‘The first step is to accept that nothing is clear in Syria’ says IISS Research Associate Dina Esfandiary in a new piece for the  The Diplomat on the possibility that the regime might be preparing chemical weapons for use against rebel forces.  

‘Given the latest developments in Syria, fear that Assad will resort to these weapons is not unreasonable. Pressure must be mounting for Syria’s ruler, as the rebels advance and his army proves increasingly unable to push them back. Logic dictates that if Assad truly fears for his survival, then the use of his most potent weapon may not be so far-fetched.’

However, she cautions: ‘We should measure our alarm. A reckless assumption that Assad will use chemical weapons could get us in all sorts of trouble – remember what happened in Iraq?’

There are only two ways the world can respond right now she concludes: preparation in case of the worst and ‘establishing unequivocal clear red lines’ to deter any use of chemical weapons.

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US move to ‘friend’ Indian Ocean nations

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Indian Ocean.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Indian Ocean. Photo Credit: US Navy/Colby K. Neal

The IISS’s Suvi Dogra has a piece in the Financial Express today looking at the United States’ wish for closer engagement with countries around the Indian Ocean. She reports that Washington has asked to become more closely involved with the 19-member Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC). The move seems to be part of the US’ renewed engagement with Asia and the Indian Ocean, but it also underlines the IOC-ARC’s growing relevance in the region, where it could play a key role not only in trade and economic cooperation, but in security matters.

The IOR-ARC, launched in 1997 as an international organisation focusing on regional trade cooperation and development, began its 12th Council of Ministers meeting today in Gurgaon, India, where it will consider the US request, among other issues such as trade in the food processing industry and piracy in the Indian Ocean.

The US’ request to become a ‘dialogue partner’ is likely to be approved, even though Iran is part of the association and is expected to oppose it. News reports suggest that India welcomes the move, while the US will find strong endorsements for its request from African member states, as well as from other Indian Ocean states such as Australia, Singapore and Indonesia. The IOR-ARC already has five dialogue partners – China, Japan, Egypt, France and the UK – who sit in on open discussions but are not part of the body’s decision-making.

Read the full article.


Romney wins debate by ignoring much larger one

Mitt Romney

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

The collective punditry has rendered a near-unanimous verdict on the presidential debate in Denver last night: Mitt Romney won it. Romney was sharp, engaged and composed – maybe a tad over-aggressive at times but clearly comfortable in his own skin. President Obama looked – to many of us, anyway – like he would have much preferred to be somewhere else.

This was no real surprise, except perhaps in the magnitude of Romney’s advantage. Despite many other flaws as a candidate, Romney had proved himself a strong debater against his Republican primary opponents. Set debates have never been Obama’s strength; he tends to behave like a professor in a seminar, rather than a debater prepared for battle.

How much it matters is another question. The narrative of September had been harsh for the Romney campaign. The Republican had a flat nominating convention; Obama’s was judged a resounding success (notwithstanding the president’s own rather flat acceptance speech). In the weeks that followed, Romney stumbled through a knee-jerk attack on the White House in the very hours that US diplomats were under attack and dying in the Middle East. Then surfaced the secretly recorded video of Romney telling wealthy supporters that

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what … who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Attacking almost half of Americans was unlikely to win him new supporters, and polling evidence shows that it didn’t. Moreover, though the margins have remained close, Romney had not pulled ahead in polling averages since the beginning of the year, a highly unusual problem for a challenger. In key swing states like Ohio, meanwhile, Obama has built what look like insurmountable leads.

Romney’s supporters will be heartened by last night’s performance, which may well resuscitate his campaign. Historical evidence speaks against turning a debate win into an electoral win, however. To take one of many examples: former vice president Walter Mondale was widely viewed as the winner against an apparently distracted Ronald Reagan in their first 1984 debate; Reagan went on to take 49 out of 50 states. (It is true that 73-year-old Reagan in a second debate delivered a decisive blow with the joke: ‘I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ But this only reinforced the truth that substantial mastery of issues in a formal debate is rather beside the point).

Romney’s apparent victory carried a certain irony insofar as he probably won this debate by abandoning a very substantial philosophical and policy debate that the 2012 presidential campaign has – against many expectations – actually provided. It concerns genuine and deep-seated disagreements about the relationship of state and society in the United States. Republicans have latched on to an Obama speech of some months ago in which he argued – echoing Harvard law professor and now Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren – that individuals’ economic success rests on a broader community effort. Businesses are possible because of the infrastructure, the education, the regulation and the social safety net that only government can provide. Such an argument only restated the consensus philosophy that emerged from FDR’s New Deal response to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Obama in this particular speech had slightly garbled the message – so he could be represented, tendentiously and out of context, as denying all credit to businessmen and -women for their own success. But leaving this misrepresentation aside, there remains a real philosophical divide. Conservatives seem genuinely offended by the (in historical terms rather mild) communitarian instincts of the president and his party. Romney’s ’47%’ riff was an extreme expression of this underlying belief that real freedom is a matter of economic freedom and economic success, and that both are threatened by Obama’s commitment to the welfare state and progressive taxation.

One reason that Romney won last night’s staged debate is that he left this underlying debate aside. It was the ‘Return of Massachusetts Mitt,’ as Jonathan Chait put it: a return of the former Governor’s at-least-temperamental moderation for which Obama and his team were arguably unprepared. Romney is still unlikely to win on 6 November, but if he does win it will be by successfully burying that larger debate – a debate that he was losing.


Negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Trade ministers from APEC-member economies attend a June 2012 summit in Kazan, Russia.

Trade ministers from APEC-member economies attend a June 2012 summit in Kazan, Russia.

The latest IISS Strategic Comment examines the negotiations behind a new free-trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific, which could become ‘the most far-reaching economic agreement since the World Trade Organization was established’. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it is known, could eventually unite at least 11 economies in two of the world’s most dynamic regions, East Asia and the Americas.

Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam together constitute nearly 30% of the world’s gross domestic product, and Japan – the world’s third-largest economy – may join in the future.

But opinions on the TPP are divided, as the article explains: ‘On the one hand, it could serve to strengthen strategic relationships among regional states, and to reassure Asian countries about Washington’s commitment to the region. However, it could also be interpreted as the economic complement to the US military’s ‘rebalancing’ to Asia and as an attempt to contain China.’

Read the full article


Foreign policy in the US election – a back seat?

The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida

The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida

The 2012 US presidential election will be won or lost on the economy, so it was no surprise that at the Republican National Convention (RNC), jobs and healthcare dominated – but foreign policy did make an appearance, with Mitt Romney devoting three minutes of a 39-minute speech to the issue. Neither his platform nor his speech suggest specific alternatives to President Barack Obama if he were to take office, but he has been distinguishing himself Obama in other ways in his election campaign: defence cuts and the role of the military in future foreign policy and, relatedly, the role of US leadership. Read the rest of this entry »


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