And Now the War Begins

Anti-Taliban resistance is rallying to the Panjshir Valley. Just because the Taliban are in Kabul doesn’t mean the fighting is over.

Kabul has fallen to the Taliban in spectacular fashion, with the group’s fighters streaming across the country seemingly unopposed and walking into the capital city to declare victory. The speed of their advance shocked all but the most cynical analysts. President Biden has stubbornly stuck to his decision to end America’s participation in the Afghan conflict, come hell or high water, as one former national security professional after another has come out in opposition by publicly stating we need to stick it out as long as it takes. Whether they are more interested in helping the Afghans or protecting their own legacy is an open question.

With President Ghani fleeing the country moments before Kabul fell, hordes of civilians fleeing to the airport to try and get on the last flight out of town, and China, Russia, and Pakistan moving in to claim their share of the spoils it seems like Afghanistan’s more than four decades of perpetual war are finally over. In the media we hear that the Taliban have won, all of America’s and her allies’ efforts were in vain, and all that is left to do is point fingers at each other while we watch the Taliban reassert their brutal form of theocratic tyranny on the powerless population.

But having possession of Kabul, and ruling Afghanistan are not the same thing. History has shown this to be true for invaders and would be kings alike in good turn, whether they where Alexander the Great, the British Empire, or the Iron Amir.

The Afghan National Army dissolved in the face of the Taliban’s fervorish advance, but the soldiers remain. The militias didn’t fight, but they remain. Warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum fled to sidestep being caught in the chaos, but they can return as they have done before to lead powerful rebellions. If there is one thing that is more common in Afghanistan’s history than failed occupation by outsiders, its rebellion against control from whoever claims to rule in Kabul. The seeds of one such rebellion are forming now in the Panjshir Valley.

For months now, Ahmad Massoud, son of the famed Northern Alliance Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud who fought the Taliban to a standstill in the 1990’s has been raising his own militia, the Second Resistance, which boasted several thousand fighters before the Taliban advance towards Kabul. He has gone to the Panjshir valley, an anti-Taliban stronghold less than 100 miles north of Kabul that has never been captured to begin a resistance movement. He has been joined by Amrullah Saleh, the former vice president who declared himself caretaker president after Ghani fled the country and has publicly vowed to never bow to the Taliban. Other former government officials, including Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi have begun to join them.

Ahmad Massoud (centre) with Amrulla Saleh (right) in Panjshir Valley from Twitter

The Taliban may have been able to run roughshod over the country and seize Kabul, but new battle lines are already forming in Afghanistan’s constantly changing landscape of alliances and power structures. We’re a long way from seeing the day that the Taliban are overthrown, but it’s also too soon to declare the war over for its most important participants, the Afghan’s themselves. It has been disheartening to watch the dissolution of the military and state that America and her allies have invested so much blood and treasure in over the past twenty years, seemingly without a whisper of a fight. But the Afghans have always fought their own wars, their own ways, and by their own rules. Just because they didn’t fight back our way, doesn’t mean the country is completely lost, or all of our previous efforts were in vain. We’ve decided to let them determine their own destiny, for better or for worse, and it will be decided on their own terms and in their own time.

Showtime at the Olympics

How a Sporting Event Reflects the State of the World

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics is well underway, and this year is certainly unique. Watching the coverage of it shows how this celebration of athleticism, the human drive to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness, and global sportsmanship seems to be about anything but. There’s covid running rampant, making travel incredibly risky. Doping scandals that have become so routine they’ve lost their meaning. Whole countries banned while their athletes still compete and rack up medals. Fans forbidden from attending in person. Tokyo’s own competitors spend much of their post event interviews apologizing if they don’t win gold in their events while nationalists on social media complain about being represented by impure Japanese with multiethnic heritage. 

We’ve got our own media freaking out over one of our greatest Olympians finally having a bad day on the job after already bringing home enough gold in her career to make a Lannister jealous. Wild controversy over allowing a transgender female who doesn’t want to speak to the press show up and fail to get past the first round in weightlifting so she can go home and retire with her own Olympic jogging suite. Would transgender rights or athletic fairness been improved or hurt if she had somehow medaled? Twitter may never decide. And Qatar finally gets a gold medal after paying exorbitant amounts of money to import athletes from around the world, have many change their names to hide their heritage and give them a shot at citizenship in exchange for representing the oil rich state. 

With the image of the Olympics as the pinnacle of athletic competition in doubt and the media spending so much time running down every rabbit hole of controversy it can find, why do we keep doing this?

Despite what detractors say and whatever shortcomings it has as an athletic event, the Olympics play an important role in international relations. It has become  a symbol of the  rules based international order. It promotes international cooperation and forces communication between states that would not otherwise have the ability or inclination to interact. It reinforces ideas of equality of peoples and meritocracy, even as richer states field more athletes in more events to run up medal counts.

It also provides a chance to promulgate ideas about the proper role of the state in society by normalizing the idea that certain functions, even in the international arena, should be kept at arm’s length from the rest of geopolitics, and that states can compete without resorting purely to realpolitik. Controversial decisions by the International Olympic Committee, a multilateral institution nominally separate from any state government, to do things like ban Russia, demonstrate that there is some limit that world organizations can put on state behavior. And although allowing some of their athletes to compete based on a belief they haven’t doped may seem like a cop out (and I’m not saying it isn’t), it can also be messaged as a rebuke of Putin’s authoritative state practices while still respecting the Russian people. How far that message resonates in the Kremlin is up for debate (I’m betting on nowhere), but the message is there. 

Nations get a lot of attention globally and can get a lot of prestige domestically by hosting the Olympics, despite the bloated costs and creation of massive infrastructure that’s almost useless as soon as the games are done. These same nations can’t host if they’re in armed conflict with their neighbors. Would a desire to host the Olympics or other international sporting event keep a nation from going to war to protect their vital interests? Doubtful. But does help dissuade them from pursuing armed adventurism as a way to gain small advantages over more petty squabbles. This probably isn’t a huge factor behind why we are currently experiencing the lowest levels of interstate conflict in human history, but it doesn’t hurt. 

The Olympics, for all its quirks, provide a rough temperature check on the state of the world, creating a chemistry experiment where athletes, fans, coaches, and administrators mix together and cooperate in order to put on a grand competition that the rest of us get to watch and comment on. It brings focus to controversial issues even as it seeks to have nothing to do with them, such as how should modern ideas about transgender rights be reconciled with traditional notions of fair play in athletics? How much are we nature, how much are we nurture, and how universal is the distinction across cultures?

Or why a female sprinter from Belarus decides to seek political asylum in Poland rather than return to her home country to face potential rape and imprisonment after being denied a chance to compete. Or what does it mean to be a member of a state?  Japan continues to explore its own identity in an increasingly multi-ethnic world, and rich states lure athletes from abroad to compete under their flag with big salaries and other perks. Why did Japan decide it had to host the games during covid, and why did everyone else agree to send their most prized athletes and risk them getting a potentially career ending illness rather than skipping it?

The Olympics, in whatever form it takes and however it evolves, provides a mirror to hold up against the world and catch a glimpse of the state of humanity. Our hopes, our fears, where we rally together, and where we still push apart. It may not be able to move the needle of progress, or even help us define what progress is, but it does inadvertently lay down markers for where we are, which is more than can be said about most political theatre.

Do We Stay or Do We Go?

America’s Role in Kabul After the Withdrawal

The American Flag outside of the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Scott Kelly

America has shut down and handed over Bagram Airfield, its largest base in Afghanistan and the nerve center for its campaign there for the past 20 years. As it effectively ends its active participation in Afghanistan’s ongoing wars, it plans on leaving behind 650 troops in order to maintain the security of its embassy and several hundred more to secure Kabul International airport until a deal with Turkey to provide security can be reached. Although not there to participate in fighting or provide any support to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA) or Afghan National Army, the presence of those troops and the diplomatic mission they protect could still play a decisive role in deciding the eventual outcome of the war between GIROA and the Taliban.

For America these troops represent the minimal force they feel is necessary to ensure the safety of its embassy and diplomatic mission in Kabul. The Taliban have said that such forces would be viewed as an occupying military force in violation of the peace deal, and subject to potential attack as a result. How likely the Taliban are to act on such a threat, given what the American retaliatory response would likely be and that they did not retaliate against troops who stayed past the original May deadline for withdrawal is debatable. However, the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the Al-Qaeda attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012 show how precarious the security of our diplomatic missions can be. There have been over 50 attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates since 1945, and that is a dangerous game of brinksmanship to play in a country like Afghanistan facing the possibility of civil war. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989 America closed its embassy in Kabul over the same concerns.

The presence of such a large American force to secure the embassy in Kabul, and the airport that would be needed to evacuate it is an open acknowledgement that GIROA is unable to secure the locations with its own forces, which under different circumstances could be considered an embarrassing slap in the face to an ally, if the security picture across the country and inside the Kabul itself was not so clearly deteriorating.

The size of the force left behind to guard the embassy, combined with the size of the embassy staff itself is also challenging to evacuate on short notice. This sends a tacit message that America is still committed to the future of GIROA, and has faith that it will survive the coming showdown with the Taliban. It is this show of faith that may ultimately save the government. The American embassy is one of the few that remain open in Kabul, and America is the only country that can realistically commit the resources needed to secure its foreign mission in Afghanistan. Australia packed up theirs and closed shop in May, promising to continue diplomatic relationships with frequent flights and virtual meetings. Belgium has removed its staff, and the French and British along with most who remain are looking to see what America decides to do next. The Taliban have offered repeated assurances that embassies and diplomatic missions will be protected and welcomed in the future Afghanistan they want to build, but it’s an open question if the representatives who make such assurances have enough control over the Taliban fighters on the ground to make good on their promises.

With the security situation deteriorating around the country and the additional threat of the delta COVID variant which is now running rampant in Kabul it can be difficult to see a reason to continue to accept the risk of maintaining an embassy in Kabul. But in politics location matters, and where one chooses to plant their flag carries a lot of weight. The often quoted and rarely read military philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz famously described war as the continuation of politics by other means. The outcome of this next chapter in the Afghan war will be decided by the political will to resist the Taliban rather than by the military prowess of the Afghan National Army. This political will may come down to nothing more than a belief by Afghanistan’s traditional cadre of strongmen that the GIROA retains the backing of the international community, and that defending it will lead to a more prosperous future for themselves. A functioning embassy that is open in Kabul may very well be critical to promulgating the belief that America and her allies will continue to work with and support the GIORA.

As the Taliban have advanced in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, many of these strongmen such as Abdul Rashid Dostrum and Abbas Ibrahimzada have re-emerged as warlords at the head of their own large, well equipped militias. These militias have shown a remarkable willingness to resist Taliban rule and fight them in the past, and include many of the same commanders that helped the U.S. take Kabul 20 years ago. As the Afghan National Army collapses in many places and faith in security forces falters, the militias may prove to be the force that prevents the Taliban’s return to power. But that will only happen if they choose to fight to preserve some semblance of the current government. Otherwise the country will devolve into a series of smaller fiefdoms, each run by its own strong man, who may or may not decided to unite in time to resist the Taliban or cut their own deal with them.

After 20 years of expending blood and treasure and disrupting millions of lives in a campaign that aimed to uproot extremists and build a functioning, democratic nation, the idea that the most we can hope for is for warlords, with their own long list of alleged human rights abuses, to prop up the government in Kabul by resisting the Taliban in order to keep the tap of foreign aid dollars flowing can be a bitter pill to swallow. But a coalition of strongmen would still provide for a better future for Afghanistan’s people, especially its most oppressed ethnic minorities, than Taliban rule ever could. It would also better fulfill the primary reason America went there, which was to ensure Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups cannot use it as a safe haven, and provide tangible proof that even in the most dire situations, siding with America is ultimately a good bet. America’s longest war is over, but Afghanistan’s continues, and an American flag flying over an embassy in Kabul may ultimately matter more to the outcome than anything else we could provide.

China, Taiwan, and the Conflict That Could Reshape the World

By James Mackin and Scott Kelly

An emboldened China, still flush from successfully suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, perpetrating genocide in Xinjiang, seizing territory in the South China Sea and colonizing parts of neighboring Bhutan is now looking expectantly at “reunification” with Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party has viewed Taiwan as rightfully theirs since they rose to power in 1949. There is an old idea that every nation of people has the right to govern the land that they occupy as a sovereign nation-station, and Taiwan has been long viewed as part of a broader Chinese nation. The long-standing dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty was originally framed by diplomats as a question of whether the government in Beijing or the government in Taipei was the legitimate representation of the Chinese nation. This comfortable ambiguity was maintained until the west decided to fracture the unity of “global communism” during the Cold War by using recognition of the Chinese Communist Party as a hedge against the power of the Soviet Union.

However, a closer look at Taiwan history reveals the presence of an independent nation, existing in defined borders that under the nation-state model has a right to independence as a sovereign nation and under the United Nations (U.N.) charter protection against aggression from other states. Since the founding of the U.N. the world’s most intractable conflicts have been centered around the existence of stateless nations, whether it be the Kurds, Palestinians, Kashmiri, or Uyghurs. Taiwan has avoided such direct conflict by being able to nominally govern themselves within their own boarders which geography, not cartographers and diplomats, have provided. This makes the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty and the potential consequences of its “reunification” with mainland China one with implications for the concept of state sovereignty and the future legitimacy of international law. More importantly, reunification would be the first unignorable sign that the world system America and her allies have prospered from for so long is starting to irreversible change in ways that will have dire consequences for everyone.

The Taiwanese Nation

The history of Taiwan’s struggle for national sovereignty pre-dates the conclusion of World War II and the administration of the island by the Chinese nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan has always seen itself as a nation that was a subject of a greater power throughout history from the Manchu Qing Empire (1683-1895), the Japanese Empire (1895-1945), to Republican China (since 1945). Taiwan’s path towards democracy began with its occupation by Japan following the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Despite suffering repression from the Japanese, the overall economy of the island improved, and the Taiwanese middle class began to grow and develop. In fact, the majority of Taiwanese companies during the early 1940s were small or medium sized enterprises owned and staffed by Taiwanese. Additionally, Taiwanese nationalists were allowed to successfully compete in local elections, and by the end of World War II, three out of four council members in Taiwan’s parliament were Taiwanese.

Following World War II and the beginning of the Chiang Kai-shek administration, the economic and political liberties granted by the Japanese were severely restricted. “The new regime abolished many of the governmental institutions established by the Japanese, enforced Chinese law, forbade languages other than Mandarin, and took over key positions in former state-run enterprises.”[i] Following the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese Civil War, the United States began providing economic assistance to Taiwan in order to protect it from a communist takeover. It was not until 1971 when Taiwan lost its United Nations seat to The Peoples Republic of China (PRC), that the KMT realized that it must fully embrace democracy and liberalize in order for Taiwan to maintain its status as an independent nation. This led to political reforms, the abandonment of representing China’s affairs, and the lifting of martial law.[ii]

Ultimately, these significant changes allowed Taiwan to mature into the successful democracy is today. Taiwan presidents leading up to Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) have championed democracy in order to maintain and gain international legitimacy as a sovereign state, whereas Ma has championed the idea of a shared Chinese identity and the importance of economic cooperation with the mainland. The current President (2016-Present) and Chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (2020-Present), Tsai Ing-wen, has taken a stronger stance than her predecessor for Taiwan sovereignty despite China’s desire for unification with a “One country, Two systems” configuration.

The Chinese Communist Party’s view

The Chinese Communist Party desires unification with Taiwan, and it will take necessary steps to ensure that Taiwan is not recognized as having de jure independence.  This desire originates from the Chinese Civil War following World War II and continues today as a key topic of debate surrounding cross-Strait relations between the two governments.  During the 1992 Consensus, or lack thereof, China and Taiwan decided “that there is only one China and that Taipei and Beijing agree to disagree on which government is its legitimate representative…”

China views unification as inevitable and encourages it through trade interdependence. The establishment of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June of 2010 is fostering this trade interdependence by reducing the tariffs and commercial barriers between Taiwan and the mainland. China hopes that the trade agreement will lead to what Ma’s first vice-president, Vincent Siew Wan-chang, called a “one-China market”. In fact Taiwan faces a dilemma in which “it will either be drawn deeper into China’s orbit or be marginalized in international affairs as well as regional economic integration.”[iii]

China appears patient in addressing the issue of unification, but tensions could escalate quickly if Taiwan begins to assert itself as being de jure independent. This claim is supported by a statement issued in 2004 by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC that declared the “prevention of Taiwan’s de jure independence was the top priority of Beijing’s Taiwan policy.” As long as the status quo is maintained and the two nations are allowed to grow more interdependent through the ECFA, China will likely allow the situation to take its course.  This is indicated by the President of the PRC, Xi Jinping’s speech at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March 2015, “during which he emphasized that maintaining the 1992 Consensus as a foundation for cross-Strait relations was indispensable for peace and stability…while unification was a long term goal that could be achieved only after substantial development took place across the Taiwan Strait.” It can be safely assumed that Xi’s opinion in the matter will be the party line due to his extensive experience in handling cross-Strait affairs as the provincial secretary of Fujuan, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, “where the local governments have established substantial connections with Taiwan.” 

Instead of forcing unification, Xi is taking a long-term approach that progresses gradually from the status quo in cross-Strait relations.  In 2014, Xi told a Taiwanese delegation that peaceful reunification is only possible through a “One Country, Two Systems” configuration, and that “No secessionist act will be tolerated”.[iv]

Through “One Country, Two Systems,” China seeks to unify Taiwan under Chinese authority while allowing it to maintain its own economic and administrative system similar to Hong Kong and Macau. The current leadership of Taiwan is resisting this policy partly due to how Hong Kong is being forced to submit to Chinese authoritarianism.  The terms of “One Country, Two Systems” seem generous, but Taiwan leadership see the price as too high. Its purpose is transitional in nature, and when the transition is complete (as seen with Hong Kong), there are no controls in place preventing abuse.[v] Xi is also attempting to remove the United States from the discussion in order to make unification a domestic issue without international interference.  He hopes to prevent the US from directly interfering in cross-Strait relations or using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in future agreements.[vi]

In order to maintain its sovereignty and prevent a confrontation with China, “Taiwan chooses to be de facto free by remaining de jure unfree.”[vii]It has accomplished this precarious balance through the leveraging of bi-lateral alliances and free trade agreements (FTA).  In the past, Taiwan was able to leverage its trade agreements and alliances with the United States, Singapore, and other regional partners in order to off-set closures in cross-Strait trade with China and to maintain its independence against China’s will. Today, the re-opening of cross-Strait trade with China is proving to be a double-edged sword for Taiwan. Taiwan is now benefiting from this relationship via the ECFA, but this agreement is slowly eroding the importance of Taiwan’s traditional agreements and alliances.[viii] Overall, China is militarily unable to force Taiwan to capitulate towards unification without overextending itself.  Instead, China is attempting to slowly pull Taiwan’s economy into an interdependence with the mainland.  If successful, this will eventually result in a de facto unification between China and Taiwan.

Power is more than ships and tanks

The conflict between China and Taiwan demonstrates how diplomacy and economics are critical instruments of national power and can be deftly employed to offset military disadvantages. Taiwan is not strong enough on its own to resist Chinese occupation, but it has effectively leveraged its bi-lateral alliances and FTAs in order to remain de jure free and independent.  Taiwan has not needed to be able to fully defend itself militarily from a Chinese invasion to ensure its independence till now. Instead, it has to maintain enough military power to impose significant costs on China for such an invasion, while leaving the possibility open that a more opportune time for China to force reunification would present itself in the future. Although effective, it leaves them in a perpetually precarious situation, and makes stronger pushes towards independence too risky for any Taiwanese government to aggressively push for.

Taiwan’s traditional bi-lateral alliance with the United States has ensured its independence and provided some stability to the tense arrangement it has had with China since World War II; but nonetheless, it is being gradually pulled into the orbit of China through the opening of cross-Strait relations. Weak states, when confronted with the problem of protecting their sovereignty in the face of a more powerful, aggressive neighbor will typically either align themselves with the powerful neighbor (often referred to as “bandwagoning”) or seek to balance against them through alliances with similarly threatened states. However, Taiwan appears to be pursuing a combination of both simultaneously where they are “economically and politically engaging China, binding or tying down China in institutions, buying insurance in the form of a US presence.”[ix] As China’s influence grows along with its economic and military might it can be expected that Taiwan will begin to cooperate with China in an attempt to maintain a degree of independence in the short to midterm, despite its strong alliance with the US and potential long term failure.

Economic maneuvering and diplomacy are also key to China’s approach to ensuring eventual reunification. Due to the potentially high cost in manpower, treasure, and international reputation, military force is not China’s preferred method because it wants to take Taiwan intact. China’s strategy is in line with the teaching of Sun Tzu that states, “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.”[x] By gaining control of Taiwan gradually over time through an interdependence created by cross-Strait trade, China will be able to incorporate Taiwan into its sphere of influence without destroying its infrastructure or fighting a costly war.  This will also allow China to focus its energies elsewhere towards securing the first island chain and developing its Belt and Road initiative.  As long as the status quo is maintained, China is content with waiting for Taiwan to capitulate.

Ultimately, China seeks to realize a peaceful rise in which it gradually gains power and influence without the damaging effects of war. China has undergone a profound identity change at the international level, in which it is quickly becoming a full member of international society along with active participation in representative international institutions.[xi] This has directly contributed to the development of its long-term view of gradually securing international dominance, departing from the weaknesses and fallacies of communism, and returning to the days of its imperial glory.

And there goes the neighborhood; the legitimization of the “right of conquest”

If the international community fails to defend the territorial integrity of Taiwan it will have allowed the concept of claiming land “by right of conquest” to become normalized among great powers again in a way that cannot be as easily ignored as previous violations of the post World War II ban on seizing territory by force. Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine have come with the veneer of protecting members of the Russian nation during a time when the Ukrainian state was having difficulty providing good governance. Their actions and the after effects could be eventually accepted as the inevitable consequence of poorly drawn maps leading to a geographic misalignment between states and nations, as soon as it becomes diplomatically necessary or sufficiently expedient to do so. The current global regime could absorb this blow. This has both allowed Russia to get away with seizing territory not recognized as theirs, while limiting their ability to apply the same approach elsewhere.

Taiwan does not provide the same easy out. Despite Chinese insistence to the contrary, Taiwan is home to its own unique nation of people, who by every norm of international relations have a right to sovereignty in their own territory within clearly defined borders. China has brutally cracked down on its citizens in Hong Kong and is perpetrating a genocide against the Uighurs, another nation of people within their state. The United Nations was founded to help prevent genocide and protect the sovereignty of nations against aggression. Gradually forced reunification would be an embarrassing example of U.N. impotence, while a more aggressive military takeover, if allowed to succeed, would cause a level of diplomatic gymnastics to occur to save face among the nations of the world that boggles the imagination. It would be quite entertaining in form, if incredibly tragic in substance.

Is the writing on the wall?

This century will likely be defined by the outcome of the conflict between China and the current international regime headed by the U.S. Although we see persistent maneuvering by both sides through economic sanctions and the stationing of military forces throughout the Indo-pacific region, each side has so far avoided committing themselves to a course of action that would lead to a showdown neither could back away from. Eventually though, America will need to decide if it must defend the current international regime at all costs, or accept and prepare for a level of restructuring that will greatly diminish its power and standing. It is impossible to know for certain which course of action will prove to be most beneficial, feasible or prudent, but how the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty is resolved will be the first undeniable signal of which direction it is headed.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or its subsidiary units.

Major James Mackin is a communications officer in the United States Marine Corps with 12 years of service. He is currently deployed to the INDOPACOM area of operations with the III Marine Expeditionary Force. In his limited spare time, James studies international relations as a graduate student with American University.

Captain Scott Kelly is a special forces officer in 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, NC. He has previously served as an infantry officer at Fort Drum, NY and has nine years of military service. He is currently a graduate student at American University studying U.S. foreign policy.


[i] Christian Schafferer, “Taiwan’s Defensive Democratization,” Asian Affairs: An American Review 47 (2020)

[ii] i

[iii] Lowell Dittmer. Taiwan and China Fitful Embrace (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017)

[iv] iii

[v] Byron S. J. Weng, “‘One Country, Two Systems’ From a Taiwan Perspective,” Elsevier Science Limited (2019)

[vi]iii

[vii] Michael I. Magcamit and Alexander C. Tan, “Crouching Tiger, Lurking Dragon: Understanding Taiwan’s Sovereignty and Trade Linkages in the Twenty-First Century,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 15, (2015)

[viii] vii

[ix] Alastair Iain Johnston, “What (If Anything) Does East Asia Tell Us About International Relations Theory?” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012)

[x] Sun Tzu. The Art of War (Translated by L. Giles. New York: Open Road, 2014)

[xi] Qin Yaqing, “Development of International Relations Theory in China,” International Studies 46, no. 1&2 (2009)


China, the Philippines, and the Islands that are Tipping the World

By James Mackin and Scott Kelly

China now controls the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, giving it the ability to exert leverage over a quarter of the world’s shipping. This has come to the attention of the United States and the global community as a major issue and point of contention, but the roots of this crisis regionally run far deeper. Anyone concerned with the supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID outbreak should be worried about what may be coming next as China continues to muscle its way to the position of power it feels entitled to. Although the potential economic and diplomatic impacts of China’s new position are troubling, it has far greater implications for the stability of the international regime that has enabled the modern era of unprecedented prosperity, and improvement in the day to day lives of the world’s most impoverished citizens. This is either a wakeup call, or a death toll for the global community that has upheld the security and stability of the free world since 1945. 

REGIONAL ROOTS

The current tension between China and the Philippines can be traced to the territorial disputes associated with the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Both countries claim ownership of this key cluster of islands, which contains rich deposits of valuable natural resources. Additionally, their strategic location allows them to be leveraged to control the three trillion dollars of trade that traverses the South China Sea annually. The natural resources provided by these islands make them universally valuable to any nation that controls them, but their strategic value makes them even more desirable to an aspiring hegemon such as China. If China is able to dominate the South China Sea through control of the Spratly Islands, it will dominate the critical trade routes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.

 Over 12% of the world’s catch of fish, estimated to be worth $21.8 billion, is harvested in the South China Sea. Additionally, there are 7.7 billion known barrels of oil proven to exist in the South China Sea, with the potential of up to 213 billion barrels. These vast reservoirs of oil are what brought these islands to the attention of regional powers in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to oil, it is estimated that the South China Sea contains 266 trillion cubic feet worth of natural gas reserves, which is equal to the natural gas reserves of Qatar. The Spratly Islands alone are estimated to contain 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Modern interest in these islands began when Russian seismologists discovered vast oil reserves off the east coast of Vietnam in 1978. In 1956, Thomas Cloma, a Filipino entrepreneur, claimed to discover the Spratlys. In 1978 the islands were then incorporated into the Palawan province of the Philippines. Tensions escalated with China when the Philippines expanded their Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) to include the Spratlys during that same year. This led to a series of events around competition over the Spratlys to include the stationing of troops by both sides, the placing of sovereignty markers, a brief naval clash in 1995 when China seized Mischief Reef, the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off in which Chinese Naval vessels repelled Filipino Coast Guard from the area, and the continued building of Chinese military bases within Filipino territory despite the 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in favor of the Philippines territorial claims.

China not only recognizes the strategic and economic value of the Spratly islands, but it also has the military and economic strength to control them. From a practical standpoint, China seeks to become a regional hegemon through the leveraging of key terrain within the South China Sea. In the mid-1980s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) published its “Near Seas Active Defense” doctrine which called for the establishment of layered defenses in the first island-chain in order to deter adversaries from threatening China from the sea.

From Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006

In the 1990’s, China developed an arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at key US airbases and ports within the Western Pacific. These missiles were also designed to sink enemy surface vessels (to include aircraft carriers) hundreds of miles off China’s coast. Recently, China has developed extensive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, and it has expanded its navy to include a fleet of Russian-made submarines, two aircraft carriers, light frigates, and the carrier-based J-15 jet. Since 2013, China has been building artificial islands in the South China sea, particularly in the Spratly and Paracel islands. The construction of these artificial islands in the Spratlys, and the subsequent denial of Filipino commercial activity in this area, infringes on the Philippines EEZ and its territorial waters. The Chinese government has claimed that these islands are economic in nature, but they are practically utilized for supporting military efforts in the enforcement of Chinese national and economic policies.  

To legitimize their control over the Spratlys, China claims that the Spratly islands historically belong to China.  It is estimated that the Spratly islands have been fished by Chinese fisherman since the Jin Dynasty (266-420 A.D.). Additionally, the Spratlys appear in historical Chinese texts as being a part of sovereign Chinese territory.  In reference to the 2014 South China Sea UNCLOS arbitration, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released an official position paper on why it will not accept or participate in the arbitration.  In this paper, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated China’s position of not participating in the case by claiming that the tribunal does not have jurisdiction over the subject matter.

PHILIPPINES’ RESPONSE

Confronted by the aggression of its militarily powerful neighbor, the Philippines turned towards leveraging international law and multilateralism in order to defend its territories.  In January of 2013, and as a direct response to the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off, the Philippine government filed a statement of claim against China in the Arbitral Tribunal of UNCLOS. In 2016, the PCA ruling was in favor of 14 of the 15 Philippine’s submissions against China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea; more importantly, it declared that China’s territorial claims in the Spratlys violate international law. The PCA also found that China is guilty of destroying the maritime environment by building artificial islands, guilty of illegally preventing Filipinos from fishing and conducting oil exploration, and that its historical claims over the islands were nullified when it signed the UNCLOS in 1982.

Despite the significance of this ruling, it has been largely ignored by China.  Even the current President of the Philippines, who has adopted a policy of appeasement towards China, referred to the arbitration as a “piece of trash paper.” Before the following ASEAN summit in Laos, he also stated that the ruling “is purely a bilateral issue between the Philippines and China, and not a matter for ASEAN,” echoing both Cambodia and China’s position on the matter. In 2017, the President of the Philippines emphasized to the press that the Philippines cannot stop China from building artificial islands in Scarborough Shoal, and that to go to war with China would mean the loss of all of the Philippines’ military and police.

China also continues to court Filipino government officials with lucrative trade agreements and development projects.  Despite these factors, the UNCLOS PCA ruling gives small maritime nations in the region an opportunity to form a coalition against China’s expansion.  The success of this coalition will hinge on whether or not the parties involved are strong enough to effectively confront China.

THUCYDIDES WAS RIGHT, IT’S ALL ABOUT POWER 

 Due to the lack of a recognized authority in interstate relations, there is a high degree of uncertainty concerning the potential actions of neighboring powers.  There is no reliable higher authority for states to call on for assistance when attack is imminent from a foreign aggressor.  Because of this ever-present threat, states will seek relative power over their neighbors in order to ensure their survival.  This power can be generated through military strength, alliances, and economic interdependence. This pursuit of relative power can quickly result in the outbreak of war, but states also have a tendency to balance against aggressive powers in order to maintain peace and security.  Balancing against China by smaller neighboring states and the prevention of war will require significant U.S. involvement to be successful. 

The conflict between the Philippines and China over the Spratly islands is “realpolitik” at work.  Both states have a national interest in the Spratly islands due to the natural resources they provide.  China has an additional national interest in their strategic value as a powerful tool in expanding Chinese control in the South China Sea.  Each country has put forth historical claims of legitimacy over these islands, but these claims are only secondary to each state’s drive to pursue its interests and security.  The Philippines claims that it discovered these islands in 1956, but many nations have harvested fish there for thousands of years.  The Chinese claim that the islands were historically administered by China since the Jin Dynasty, but they forfeited these claims when they signed UNCLOS.  Additionally, China supposedly cut ties with its imperialistic past during its communist revolution.  Despite claims of legitimacy, the adage of Thucydides rings true in that, “holding in view the real sentiments of us both; for you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is in question only between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Despite the Philippines’ agreements with the United States, the United Nations, and ASEAN, China has aggressively seized control of the Spratlys in order to satisfy its national interests.  

WHEN THE WEAK FACE THE STRONG, WHAT’S THE LEAST BAD OPTION?

Due to their position of military inferiority compared to China, the Philippines has appealed to international law in defending its territorial waters in the Spratlys by turning to International Organizations (IO) for a resolution in the conflict.  Following the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012, the government of the Philippines filed a statement of claim against China in the Arbitral Tribunal of UNCLOS.  The Philippines won this legal engagement, but the results may turn out to be insignificant due to several factors at play.  Due to its military and economic might, China can choose to retain control over Spratlys if it values their possession over its reputation with IOs such as the United Nations and ASEAN.  

IOs are excellent platforms for collaboration and negotiation between nations, but when the stakes are high, great powers can choose to disregard the rules and regulations set forth by them.  By carefully weighing out the consequences of non-compliance versus maintaining a good reputation, a great power may choose to simply pursue its own interests if it has the strength to do so.  Despite this inherent risk, “cooperation takes place in a world that is competitive to its core – one where states have powerful incentives to take advantage of other states.” The Philippines has an opportunity to place China’s international reputation on the line with the results of the arbitration.  If it does so, China might cooperate in order to ensure that it does not throw away future opportunities tied to a positive relationship with the United Nations and other IOs.  Unfortunately, the current Presidential administration of the Philippines is attempting to downplay the results of the arbitration, which could result in a lost opportunity, and the Philippines needs the backing of powerful allies such as the U.S. to give their efforts credibility. 

It can be anticipated that Filipino leadership who desire to not be bullied by China will begin to reassess the value of relying on IOs to protect its sovereignty. They have discovered that not all great powers are alike, and the same playbook they used to assert greater independence from the U.S. won’t work with China. The Philippines resorted to relying heavily on cooperation with IOs in order to maintain its sovereignty once it ordered the United States to remove its military presence from Filipino territories in 1992.  Shortly afterwards, China began making aggressive advances on Filipino maritime territory. These advances were not prevented or deterred by IOs or negotiations.  Professor Buszynski from Australian National University stresses that “Philippines Institutionalism’s inability to meet the interests of all parties is an incentive for aggrieved members to resort to realist strategies, in which case alliances or the balance of power may be invoked.” Institutionalism is an excellent strategy for increasing a nation’s prosperity and ensuring long-term development on a global scale, but it cannot stand on its own.  Involvement in IOs must be supported by credible military capabilities and alliances.

WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE THE REST OF US?

The Spratly Islands have become a focal point between a confrontational China attempting to assert itself in the world and the international community. Smaller nations like the Philippines who live in its shadow have relied on the credibility of global institutions and agreements to assert their sovereignty, though the future effectiveness of this strategy is in doubt. Policy wonks around the world have been discussing the potential outcomes of rising conflict between China and the U.S. as America finally walks away from its longest war and begins pursuing the “pivot to Asia” the Obama administration attempted to start. A critical issue raised by the conflict is now that America is paying attention to China’s actions at home and abroad and can clearly see how it is violating international law, what will America do about it? The answer will have far reaching implications for the future legitimacy of global institutions and efficacy of international law, especially if the U.S. abandons the institutions and laws it championed after WWII, or proves unable to support them. China’s actions in the region towards the Philippines demonstrate that all good intentions aside power, whether military, diplomatic, or economic, is still the dominant force in geopolitics. 

The views presented are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components

Major James Mackin is a communications officer in the United States Marine Corps with 12 years of service. He is currently deployed to the INDOPACOM area of operations with the III Marine Expeditionary Force. In his limited spare time, James studies international relations as a graduate student with American University.

Captain Scott Kelly is a special forces officer in 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, NC. He has previously served as an infantry officer at Fort Drum, NY and has nine years of military service. He is currently a graduate student at American University studying U.S. foreign policy.

References

Liam Reeves, “The South China Sea Disputes: Territorial and Maritime Differences Between the Philippines and China,” Journal of Global Faultlines 6, no. 1 (2019)

Monika Chansoria, “Arbitration as a Means to Settle Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Case Study and History of China and The Philippines,” Policy Brief, The Japan Institute of International Affairs, May 2020

Renato Cruz De Castro, “The 12 July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) Award: The Philippines’ Lawfare verses China’s Realpolitik in the South China Sea Dispute,” International Journal of China Studies 8, no. 3 (2017)

Monika Chansoria, “Arbitration as a Means to Settle Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Case Study and History of China and The Philippines,” Policy Brief, The Japan Institute of International Affairs, May 2020

“Realism” Britannica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/foreign-service.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War (Translated by R. Grew. New York: Random House, 1982), 351

John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security 19, no. 3 (1994-1995)

Lezek Buszynski, “Realism, Institutionalism, and Philippine Security,” Asian Survey 42, no. 3 (2002)

But I Thought We Were Friends? What Changing U.S. – China Relations Will Mean for the World

China has changed tact and begun to declare that it is the equal of the United States in the world order. Not in terms of economic size or military might, though it plans on getting there by 2049, but in terms of what constitutes a “legitimate” form of government, domestically and abroad. China believes its authoritarian form of government and centrally managed economy is an equal contender to the liberal democracies and free market capitalism embraced by the west. The Biden administration has responded by doubling down on tough rhetoric and maintaining strong punitive economic policies towards China. All of this was on open display during the U.S. – China talks in Anchorage last month. Taken together, this signals a fundamental change in the U.S. – China relationship, and how the global system will function in the future. 

Anyone who assumed that the election of Joe Biden would change the tenor of U.S – China relations and that Trump’s aggressive stance was just a one-off occurrence has missed a more fundamental change going on behind the scenes. States are reasserting their sovereignty and showing a willingness to reverse trends towards globalization in pursuit of their own interests. Advocates for focusing on relative gains in power between states are now the flavor of the day, pushing aside the long cohort of neoliberal advocates who championed the absolute gains of global development. 

In colleges and think tanks around the world the effects of “globalization” have been championed and bemoaned. Exactly when the world began moving towards becoming one giant interconnected community is debated. However, it is generally agreed that what Francis Fukuyama described as the “end of history”, began in earnest after WWII. This included the idea that liberal democracies and free markets had become the only legitimate way for states to be governed. After the conflict, as a result of the rapid convergence in major global trends in information, transportation, industrialization, and a new appreciation for the potential scale of future conflict between states, the rules of how states were supposed to act and cooperate with each other were codified into global institutions such as the United Nations (U.N.), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

The credibility of these institutions was backed by the will of the free world and the world’s greatest military, whose only credible rival fell with the wall in 1989. The rise of free trade, American “cultural imperialism”, the multinational corporations that made it all happen, big tech, and NGOs with bigger aid budgets than governments, seemed to make the very idea of “nation states” obsolete, as if the world structure ensconced in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 would go the way of feudalism. As if the series of treaties signed after WWII that brought the U.N., IMF, and World Bank into existence signaled a similar seismic shift in the system that would eventually remove states as the primary actors on the world stage. 

The pending fall out of China’s rise, and America’s entrenched response, is reminding us that states still matter, and although they may be willing to outsource many traditional roles to external, international, or non-governmental organizations their sovereignty is still absolute, and they will use force to protect it. There has been a lot of grumbling from multinational corporations such as Apple, whose entire supply chain is wrapped up in China, to HML, who has been trying to find a way to distance itself from the atrocities being committed on Uighur Muslims forced to pick the cotton that goes into their clothes while not alienating their Chinese market. What they are coming to realize is that they cannot do both, they will need to pick a side because the U.S. and Chinese governments will each force them too, and we are going to start seeing the threads that hold the globalized world together get snipped and spliced to route around state boundaries that the champions of neoliberalism long derided as antiquated roadblocks on the path to global development and prosperity. 

After a long hiatus we are seeing that nation states still matter, that the liberal hegemony that allowed the process of globalization to run rampant may be more anomaly and less prophecy of what is to come, and there is still disagreement about what development means and how to get there. We are now playing a new great power fueled geopolitical game. Unlike the last one with the Soviet Union however, in this new game the rules are not agreed on, no one knows how to keep score, and we are a long way from having any idea what “winning” looks like. Perhaps this is what it means to be “living in interesting times”. 

About Us

“Politics stops at the water’s edge” – Senator Arthur Vandenberg

Access to news and insightful commentary on U.S. foreign policy and international relations has diminished in recent years, with news outlets reducing their presence overseas and cutting back the staff available to cover these topics. What is presented is usually from the perspective of how it might be used in domestic politics to favor one party or another. Although these issues affect all Americans in significant ways, the way and context in which policy is formed and implemented is hidden behind layers of bureaucracy and professional “expertise” that makes it difficult to access and impossible to understand.

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