Probing of the U.S. alliance periphery is being done by more than just Russia and ISIS. In my last post I described the isolationist bent of President Obama’s administration and of the American electorate, together with the encouragement this has given to an expansionist Russia to probe NATO defenses. Russia, however, is a member of a de facto alliance along with the People’s Republic of China and Iran. All three are cooperating to find how malleable the U.S. assurances of allies’ security are. As related in my last post, Russia is mainly interested in re-aquiring the possessions they lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union: the states of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.
Threats From China
China on the other hand has shown by its actions that it is interested in control over the South China Sea and the East China Sea Region. Having claimed sovereignty over almost all the islands in the South China Sea, particularly the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, China would like to gain a choke-hold on this nexus of international trade. According to Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor and a former member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, more than half the merchant ship tonnage every year passes through the
South China Sea. The oil transported through this choke-point enroute to East Asia is three times what passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times what goes through the Panama Canal. Since Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines all have competing claims, the chances for armed conflict over these islands are very significant.
For both economic and military reasons, a vital U.S. interest is the freedom of the seas through the South China Sea (also see here). If China should ever try to enforce a claim to the Sea as its territorial waters, the U.S. could hardly ignore China’s assertion of control over so much maritime trade.
In order to bolster their military presence in the South China Sea, China has been building artificial islands to act as unsinkable aircraft carriers, as well as additional justifications for their claims of sovereignty over the area. The more they build, the harder they will be to dislodge. From all of
this evidence, it is hard to believe that China is not expecting military resistance from one of the aggrieved parties to its claims on the South China Sea.
Increasingly, China appears to be spoiling for a fight, not only in the South China Sea, but in the East China Sea as well. There the possibilities for conflict are with the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan, as well as with Japan, both of which are important allies of the United States. Over the past several decades there have been
confrontations between China and Japan, sometimes rising to a military face-off level, over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands (called Senkaku by the Japanese and Daiyou by the Chinese). The islands themselves are uninhabited, but a UN geological survey in the area showed a potential for significant hydrocarbon resources around the islands. Territorial sovereignty is claimed by Taiwan, a well as China and Japan. Just as in the South China Sea, China is intent on extending its sovereignty far beyond its normal territorial waters to encompass the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the oil/gas fields around it. To this end they have declared an “East China Sea Air Defense Zone”, insisting any aircraft entering that airspace must obey China’s rules or risk being shot down.
Sheila A. Smith, a Senior Fellow for Japan Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, has written concerning these tensions that:
Until recently, this territorial dispute was little more than a minor irritant in Sino-Japanese relations. However, against the backdrop of China’s growing military power, the island dispute has increased concerns in Tokyo about Beijing’s regional intentions and the adequacy of Japan’s security, while stoking nationalistic politics in both capitals. Political miscalculation in Tokyo or Beijing, or unintended military interactions in and around the disputed islands, could escalate further, leading to an armed clash between Asia’s two largest powers.
Stratfor has an excellent analysis of the military reactions and counter-reactions between China and Japan. Since Japan is a major treaty ally of the United States, any such war-generating misjudgment could quickly involve the U.S.
Finally, Iran is a Shiite Muslim power that aspires to gain control eventually over the entire world in an international Shiite “imamate“. Because their motivations are primarily religious, and their animus is directed toward the entire world that is not Shiite Muslim, their informal alliance with Russia and China must be considered a marriage of convenience. Nevertheless, since all three countries view Western Civilization with the United States in particular as their most pressing opponents, they have found it expedient to cooperate with each other.
Russia has aided Iran with the recent sale of two additional nuclear reactors at Bushehr with an option for six more. In addition, as soon as the framework agreement for the Iran nuclear deal was announced on April 2, 2015, Russia lifted a self-imposed ban on selling sensitive defense systems to Iran. It then immediately sold Iran an advanced S-300 air defense system. The missile in this system has a range
of about 93 miles, and can hit targets as high as 90,000 feet in altitude. The system can engage multiple targets, and satellites associated with the S-300 (and controlled by the Russians) can track targets as far as 150 miles away. Using this system Iran can quite possibly neutralize any air attack from U.S. Navy aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. It would make Iran’s nuclear sites all but invulnerable to any but stealth aircraft, and therefore safe from Israeli attack. Also, Russia has given military support to Iran by providing forces to help keep Iran’s client, Bashar al-Assad, in power in Syria.
China has aided Iran by being a reliable trade partner, as well as by helping modernize Iran’s military through the transfer of military technology. China has sold Iran small arms, tactical ballistic missiles, and anti-ship missiles. In addition, the Pentagon has reported that China, Iran, and North Korea are aggressively developing nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in cooperation.
What Iran brings to the partnership appears primarily to be a thorn in the side of the U.S. and the West in general by limiting their influence in the Mideast. Long having aspired to be the hegemon of the Middle East, the Iranians have their tentacles entwined with Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah among the Lebanese and the Palestinians, and the Arabian peninsula, particularly in Yemen.
In addition, Iran continues to develop a nuclear capability, even though it has entered into a “treaty” (actually a presidential executive order on the U.S. side, since Obama did not dare to send it to the Senate for ratification) to desist from such developments. Iran has a long history of developing a nuclear capability for making enriched nuclear fuel that makes sense only if they wanted nuclear weapons. A good history of Iran’s duplicity with the West over the issues of nuclear enrichment and weapons can be found here. An actual admission on this deception from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was captured on film. In it he brags that by drawing out negotiations with the West, he was able to provide the time necessary to complete the nuclear reactor at Bushehr and the Arak heavy water plant, and to increase the number of centrifuges purifying uranium at Natanz from 150 to 1700. More recently, disturbing tests of their Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) Emad were conducted. IRBMs make sense only with nuclear warheads. They are
entirely too expensive to be used otherwise. While Obama and company may believe their agreement with Iran hampers their nuclear capability development, events say otherwise. Suspicions that this is so were inflamed when it was discovered that at Iran’s military nuclear sites, the IAEA inspectors were allowing Iran to collect the samples to be tested for recent nuclear enrichment!
U.S. Neglect of Its Alliances
So there you have it! While Russia, China, and Iran probe our allies for weaknesses and opportunities to expand their respective empires, the Obama administration has given our allies little reason to believe we will stand by them. Consider some of the signals Obama has sent that tell them he cares little about their survival.
- Obama’s precipitous attempts to disengage from jihadist foes by rapidly leaving Iraq and attempting to do the same in Afghanistan,
- His attempts to remain friendly with the authoritarian leaders of hostile nations. Prime examples are the failed “Russian reset” and the false nuclear arms treaty with Iran.
- The ignoring of “red lines” Obama has set down for hostile nations. When faced with the possible use of chemical weapons in 2012 by the Bashar al-Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, Obama warned Assad that their use against his own people would constitute a “red line” that would invite U.S. military intervention. Nevertheless, the Assad regime repeatedly crossed this red line with no retaliation by the U.S. Now, with the military help of Russia and Iran, Assad appears to be surviving Syria’s civil war and the assault of ISIS.
- Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran paving the way for Iranian nuclear weapons. An unclassified U.S. Defense Department report, Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report on Military Power of Iran, January 2015, notes that Iran is developing ICBMs that can only make sense if they are tipped with nuclear warheads.
- Obama’s weakness is creating an existential threat for both Western and Eastern Europe by enticing Putin’s Russia to imperial expansion.
- Obama’s “lead from behind” foreign policy style,
- Obama’s weakening of America’s armed forces.
What can our allies do if they perceive the United States abandoning them? This is a particularly acute problem for our NATO allies, since the costs of their social-welfare programs has caused them to allow their military strength to atrophy. Believing for many years the strategic threat of Russia had been removed, Europeans would think it only made sense to transfer expenditures from their armed forces to their social-welfare programs. If they are now abandoned to the tender mercies of Russia, they might have no choice other than to submit. Would not a Russian empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Siberia be an even greater threat to the United States?
The Decay of U.S. Military and Naval Power
While the military threats of jihadists, Russia, China, and Iran have been on the rise, our own military and naval power has been decaying. Assurances to our allies that we had their backs will ring hollow if we lack the capability to deliver on our promises. I will discuss the decay of our armed forces in my next post.