Island Fever: Understanding the Recent Tension in East Asia

Recently, tensions between countries over numerous islands throughout East Asia have been rising. Of particular note are the heated disputes between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands and between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. At its core, as the New York Times notes (see two links above), the timing of these clashes can be traced back primarily to domestic politics, specifically upcoming elections or significant leadership transitions.

Dokdo/Takeshima islands (Source: NY Times).

The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands dispute has its roots back in the post-World War II settlement and the maritime boundary that the U.S. established between Korean and Japanese claims. On one hand, South Korea (and, in fact, North Korea as well) argue that the islands have historically belonged to them and that the omission of any mention of the islands in the Treaty of San Francisco was made in error. Japan, on the other hand, points to the islands that they explicitly lost control over in the treaty–and to the fact that this particular set of islands was not included–as evidence that they should retain control.

The increased tension appears to be an attempt by Lee Myung-bak, the president of South Korea, to solidify his credentials among the nationalists, especially after the nearly solidified South Korean-Japanese security agreement was put on hold. As I have noted on this blog, opposition leaders used that as an opportunity to paint Mr. Lee as “pro-Japanese,” a particularly damning term for a Korean politician, laden with lots of historical baggage. Thus, it only makes sense that Mr. Lee would use this as an opportunity to counter critiques being leveled by other South Korean political leaders.

This is not to say that there isn’t a national security argument to be made here. In fact, Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has framed it in just those terms. But while this may be a possibility, from a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t seem particularly credible given the relative lack of value of the islands militarily. Namely, the islands are too small and difficult to employ as, say, a base or garrison (though, interestingly, Kimie Hara argues that the U.S. viewed the islands as having strategic value, which is why they were kept under Japanese control, in case South Korea fell to the communists). A resources argument seems more credible but still unsatisfactory. The islands provide valuable fishing rights as well as oil and gas reserves, which, in turn, provide each side an incentive to maintain control over the islands. However, the presence of resources cannot explain why we are seeing tensions rising now, since there have been no new discoveries of resources or new pressures for access to those resources.

One of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (Source: NY Times).

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute goes back even further; to perhaps the Meiji era, when Japan established control over Okinawa and its leaders debated over whether further expansion into disputed islands should occur. Following the first Sino-Japanese war, the Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede control over these islands to Japan. However, the Treaty of San Francisco again left the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in an unclear position, with Japan, the PRC and the ROC all laying claim.

Both Japan and China are facing impeding changes to their domestic politics. From this alone, we should expect to find that both Japan and China would be stepping up nationalist rhetoric in order to strengthen their positions domestically. But beyond the incentives to ratchet up tensions to appeal to domestic factions or groups, there is the broader geopolitical landscape to take into consideration: in particular, Japan’s fears about the rise of China. Of course, Japan is not the only state to become concerned about China’s increased power (the Philippines and Vietnam for instance have also been in disputes with China over islands that each side claims control over), and one reading of the tea leaves, as it were, could indicate that the U.S. and other states have started aligning together for the purpose of containing China. But these pressures are particularly acute for Japan. Thanks partly to China’s close geographic proximity and partly to the historical animosity between the two, the Japanese are especially fearful of what China’s rise might entail.

It is this fear that has led some in Japan to push back against China’s growing influence. There are some concerned that such a row might end up culminating in a confrontation and perhaps even a war that would draw the U.S. in as well. While I think this is probably going a bit too far, I do not find it unreasonable to say that the dispute between Japan and China could be a contributing factor to a crisis or war if tensions between the parties continue to rise. But in and of themselves, the islands are not a salient enough issue to lead a drive to war. Therefore, while we should clearly pay attention to these events, understanding the broader context that they are happening in is just as, if not more, important.


The Realist Case for Intervening in Syria

I can only imagine that IR theorists of the realist persuasion pick up a newspaper detailing the scores of dead bodies and mass graves in Syria and let out a collective yawn, before turning to the sports section. The world is a messy place, anarchical even. We cannot intervene in areas where there is no overriding or vital national security interest. Consider the countless bloodbaths in sub-Saharan Africa and in pockets of Asia that do not dominate the headlines. What is special about Syria?

Obama is a realist of the Kissingerian mold. He favors mending relations with the great powers – the Russias and Chinas of the world — at the expense of smaller fry like Georgia or Tibet. He concerns himself with power, interests, and capabilities, not values or intentions, despite what his preachings in Oslo and Cairo might have suggested. His hands-off approach to uprisings across the Arab world are by now etched in history. Libya was an outlier, a function of a perfect storm – a madman in power, several humanitarian interventionists with the president’s ear (namely Susan Rice and Samantha Power), and timed far enough ahead of an election year. Those same stars are not aligned this time around.

Back to realism for a moment: the notion that realists are above carrying out humanitarian interventions is not exactly historically accurate. A case in point is the elder Bush’s administration, which counted card-carrying realists like Colin Powell and James Baker as members. Consider northern Iraq. Shortly after the February 27, 1991 ceasefire of the Gulf War, Bush urged the Iraqi people, including the Kurds, to “take matters into their own hands.” The result was a bloodbath and refugee crisis. There was little appetite for intervening in what was deemed to be an Iraqi civil war. Americans were more interested, according to the historian Robert Diprizio, in excising Vietnam’s ghost and inaugurating a “new world order” (the end of the Cold War would usher in a series of similarly empty phrases among foreign policy experts, culminating in the current administration’s call for “smart defense” and “smart power”).

Some columnists such as the hawkish William Safire harped on Bush to do more to help the Iraqis, but he generally faced little pressure to intervene. Helped along by first-hand testimony from Secretary Baker from the Turkish-Iraqi border, Bush launched Operation Provide Comfort, which altered Iraq’s balance of power by providing emergency aid to refugees and a no-fly zone in the north. In short, America’s intervention in northern Iraq was motivated almost solely by humanitarian concerns, not by any larger strategic objective to overthrow the Iraqi regime or stabilize American oil supplies. This was a mission carried out almost entirely by realists in the White House. Shocking.

Flash-forward one year and Bush faced yet again another humanitarian catastrophe on his watch – this time in the Horn of Africa, a part of the map most Americans could not find. There was no shortage of internal fighting and banditry. The threat of starvation hung over the region. But there was no clamoring for U.S. intervention, no threat of terrorism (yet) emerging from the region, no vital security interest present. Somalia was just one more trouble-spot among many fragile states. On the eve of the National Republican Convention no less, Bush launched Operation Restore Hope, a mission to secure areas of southern Somalia in order to deliver food aid. The mission, Bush said, was limited and “humanitarian.” The mission would later be aborted after the Black Hawk Down incident. But its original intention was not flawed, only its execution (and mission creep).

This administration has announced plans to intervene in Syria solely if chemical weapons are used, which essentially raises the bar to an impossible threshold (no rational actor, not even Assad, would use these weapons since they virtually guarantee outside intervention and his removal from power). This leaves the conflict in a holding pattern, as far as outside intervention is concerned: the U.S. will not do anything, provided the violence stays contained and chemical weapons are not used. Assad knows this, so he has no incentive to deviate from what he has been doing for the past 18 months, which amounts to serious war crimes.

In a realist world, states are presumably free to do whatever they like within their sacrosanct borders, even if it includes mass war crimes. But even realists have a kinder, gentler side, as our previous interventions in northern Iraq and Somalia have demonstrated. If Obama can save lives in Syria, he should. Even a cold-blooded realist would agree.

New Contributors and Submissions

For the past couple of weeks, things have slowed down at The Smoke-Filled Room as we have been busy planning ahead (and busy preparing for various comprehensive exams). The past two months have gone by quickly and we’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response and pleased with the discussion about politics and political science that we have tried to stir up.

Moving forward, we want to continue this discussion and offer what we have always offered: a unique blend of the theory and practice of politics in a way that we think graduate students in political science are well suited to offer. However, we also want to move gradually toward a bigger, more ambitious goal: we want to expand the number of political science graduate student voices heard. Now that we have placed our proverbial foot in the door of the blogosphere, we feel comfortable in moving forward more actively toward achieving this goal.

Although the Smoke-Filled Room will, to some extent, always remain tied to Yale because of the institutional affiliation of the founding contributors (and we are proud that it is), we want the blog to become an open space for PhD students in political science to provide their analysis and thoughts on politics.

To this end, we are making two changes that will, we hope, significantly impact our blog in a positive way. First, we have added several new regular contributors, increasing our total to 12 contributors from 4 different universities. Second, we want to encourage guest contribution by opening up a more transparent channel for submissions. We will have more details on how to submit a post in the “Submissions” page under our banner (coming later this week). Suffice it to say, we look forward to receiving more guest contributions.

Our top priority at The Smoke-Filled Room has always been to foster intelligent yet inclusive discourse about topics relevant to interested parties everywhere. We hope that with these changes, we are doing just that.


William G. Nomikos
Niloufer A. Siddiqui

News from 2011: You’re All Dead Now

This post comes courtesy of my always-brilliant colleague Louis Wasser’s unassailable devotion to the discipline. The following image comes from Louis’s Yale library copy of Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies, published by Yale University Press in 1968. This, of course, was also the year of Richard Nixon’s ascendency to the White House.

Huntington and WatergateUnderlined in the text is one of Huntington’s claims about political culture in a country like the United States:

…the top national leadership and the national cabinet are comparatively free from corruption…the top leaders of the society remain true to the state norms of the political culture and accept political power and moral virtue as substitutes for economic gain (p. 68).

In response, an astute and self-aware Yale student, presumably mockingly, writes “Watergate forever.” What follows is a back-and-forth between Yale students about the impact of Watergate specifically and the Nixon Presidency more broadly.

The debate is headlined by the comment “News from 2011: You’re All Dead Now.” The irony is that neither the commentators nor their arguments are likely “dead” in any sense of the word. For instance, one student writes that “we had no choice–McGovern would have driven the country straight to hell. we had to vote for Nixon to prevent socialism…” Such logic is alive and well among many segments of the America electorate even today. Indeed, if we had any news to report to the past from 2012, it would be this reality–elections, even 40 years after Watergate, remain fertile ground for paranoid political half-truths.

For more of his not-so-optimistic thoughts about elections, follow William on Twitter.

“Facts” about Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

When studying contemporary security issues, it is often very difficult to determine what is a fact. A single source, particularly a press account, can lead researchers astray. For example, early Thursday morning, nine men attacked Pakistan’s Minhas air base, part of a bigger aeronautical complex at Kamra. A spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility. The base is northwest of Islamabad, perhaps 25 miles away if you trust the New York Times, 37 miles if you believe the Washington Post, or 54 miles if you ask Google Maps. The specific distance from the capital is not particularly important, except for the fact that an attack on a military base near the capital might seem more worrisome than one further away. In this case, it is equally true to say that Kamra lies about halfway between Islamabad and Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The press has highlighted the attack in large part because “some of the country’s nuclear weapons are thought to be stored” at Kamra, The use of the passive voice—“are thought”—is a good move here. Who are these thinkers? I have always found open-source attempts to figure out where Pakistan’s nuclear assets are stored to be a bit of a fool’s errand. Reporting on this tends to be incredibly circular, and if you trace citations (when they exist) you almost always end up at or Wikipedia. A few years back I did a quick look at the evidence as to whether Kamra held nuclear weapons and found the evidence unconvincing. It is likely true that the Mirage-5 aircraft, which reportedly operate from Kamra, are nuclear capable (paywall), so it is certainly possible that weapons or their components are nearby. It’s also possible that they are not.

Needless to say, this sort of opacity and secrecy about where your nuclear weapons are located is a good thing if there is a risk that a bunch of guys with beards and guns will be attacking your air bases. The New York Times tells me that U.S.-origin (and likely nuclear capable) F-16s operate out of Kamra. The ever-reliable Wikipedia suggests that the F-16s do not operate out of Kamra, but instead operate from Sarghoda and Jacobabad. The F-16s could be at Kamra for repairs or modifications, but their presence would have no implications for the presence or absence of nuclear weapons there. Kamra apparently houses the new Chinese-origin JF-17 fighters, but it seems possible the JF-17s at Kamra are just there for testing and evaluation prior to going out to other squadrons and, in any event, I have seen no reporting as to whether the JF-17 is nuclear capable.

This is not the first time Kamra, its ostensible nuclear mission, and danger have been in the news. On December 10, 2007, a suicide bomber attacked a school bus carrying children of Pakistan Air Force personnel outside of the air force base. This 2007 event was summarized by researcher Shaun Gregory as “an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra.” An attack on a bus near the air base becomes an attack on the air base. Nifty elision. On October 23, 2009, a suicide bomber did blow himself up at a checkpoint at Kamra, killing at least six people and wounding at least nine.

With all that said, Pakistan is not a safe place, attacks on Pakistani air bases are worrisome, and policymakers and the public should be attentive to nuclear dangers in Pakistan. But even if those general conclusions are true, lots of information you are reading about Pakistan is likely wrong. The hard part is there is no easy way to figure out what is incorrect and what is accurate. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder may have the keen eyes necessary to pick out at least fifteen sites across Pakistan with nuclear warheads or other nuclear materials, but perhaps they are overconfident in their ability to play the shell game associated with finding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

For what it is worth, my guess is that Taliban militants attacked Kamra not because of the possibility of finding nuclear weapons, but rather because exchanging the life of a poor Talib for a chance at destroying a fighter plane is a very effective use of a suicide bomber. Even more attractive for the militants, Pakistan may house its airborne early warning planes, Saab Erieyes, at Kamra, which would be very expensive for Pakistan to replace, something the TTP learned when it damaged P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft in an attack at a naval base in Karachi in May 2011.

But those are just my guesses. And all of those that write on evolving security situations in countries with opaque national security complexes ought to be much more explicit about the fact that guesswork is sometimes involved in determining which “facts” are really facts. If you have any doubts about how deeply difficult and flawed this fact-determining process can be, try to pin down the sources in some large political science database sometime. Those 1s and 0s start looking pretty blurry after a while.

The Quest to Rule Egypt, Plus Sinai

It’s been an eventful month so far in Egypt, to put it mildly. On the heels of rising instability and fatal violence in North Sinai pitting militants against both the Egyptian and Israeli states, on Sunday President Mohamed Morsy announced significant changes to both the leadership of the armed forces and the structure of the political system.

Clashes in the north of Sinai are nothing new, but the attack on August 5 — an operation that resulted in the deaths of 16 Egyptian border guards, as well as the theft of vehicles then used to penetrate Israel — was shocking in both its magnitude and audacity. (See The Arabist for Issandr El Amrani’s exceedingly useful summary of the initial attack in Sinai, posted August 6.) The area has since seen additional violence, including Egyptian airstrikes that` reportedly killed 20, and further armed clashes initiated by both militants and Egyptian armed forces.

As the situation in North Sinai has continued to boil over, the jockeying over power at the national level doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat. President Morsy (who captured the presidency as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, although since his election victory he has formally left the organization and its political party) recently moved to assert his authority in a two-pronged maneuver, as laid out in an August 12 article in The New York Times:

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement on Sunday of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and other senior generals, moving more aggressively than ever before to reclaim political power that the military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.

Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he took office on June 30, that had gutted the authority of his office. On Sunday, he replaced it with his own declaration, one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and, potentially, a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt’s still unfinished new constitution.

This came after a different shakeup earlier this month in direct response to the attacks in Sinai. As for what this all means, there isn’t exactly consensus. The August 12 NYT story following the more recent personnel changes noted:

For his new defense minister, Mr. Morsi chose the head of military intelligence, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was seen as close to Field Marshal Tantawi… Gen. Mohamed al-Assar, a member of the military council, was named an assistant defense minister. He told Reuters that Mr. Morsi’s decision was “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.”

While the retirements marked at least a symbolic end to the military’s dominant role in Egyptian politics, Mr. Morsi’s abolishment of the constitutional declaration posed a more fundamental challenge to the military. It also raised the possibility of a new confrontation with one of Egypt’s highest courts.

After offering a caveat regarding the preliminary nature of his impressions, El Amrani presented his initial perspective on the moves in a Sunday post. In the piece, he breaks down Morsy’s decisions into two categories, dealing first with the military personnel changes:

The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity…

Continue reading

Paul Ryan Doesn’t Want to Cut Medicare (Yet)

In the often-maligned new Aaron Sorkin TV show, The Newsroom, news anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, takes it upon himself to deliver objective news with Murrow-like commentary as a public service to his viewing audience. While it remains unclear what effect this show has had on real-life news anchors, Wolf Blitzer ostensibly heeded McAvoy’s call earlier this week. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz appeared on Blitzer’s usually liberal-friendly The Situation Room to attack Paul Ryan’s budget plan, the Path to Prosperity, and more specifically, its consequences for Medicare. Wolf Blitzer questions her on some of the details of the plan and her critique and Wasserman Schultz fails to provide satisfactory answers:

While conservative blogs are already hailing Blitzer for his “take-down” or “destruction” of Wasserman Schultz, such language is missing the positively McAvoyian (Sorkian?) aspect of Blitzer’s interview. He deserves credit not for “destroying” a guest on his show but, rather, for increasing public awareness about a subject of critical importance to our democracy. In this coming election, Americans are effectively choosing between two radically different approaches to government. Although the final budget proposals will probably look slightly different than what we have already seen from either side, we do have an idea of the rough outlines of the debate. This is especially true in the case of specific policy areas (health care) or sub-areas (Medicare).

With that in mind, it is worth examining in greater detail the specific debate between Blitzer and Wasserman Schultz (I consider it beyond the scope of this post to consider the full health care debate). First and foremost, as Blitzer mentions and Wasserman Schultz presses, the Ryan plan (PDF/bullet-points) aims to combat the rising costs of Medicare by essentially replacing Medicare with a voucher program that allows citizens to purchase a “Medicare certified plan” on a private market place. Though vague on specifics, this voucher would begin at $11,000, adjust to inflation and rising Medicare costs, and be skewed toward those with lower incomes. However, as Blitzer emphasizes repeatedly, the plan does not affect anyone 55 or over. In other words, seniors remain unaffected by the policy.

The unfortunate truth about the current state of Medicare is that its costs are spiraling out of control. Reform is needed. Ryan’s plan provides one way; the Affordable Care Act, in effect, provides another. These are differences in ideological preference for reform, not in substantive efficacy of policy proposals. Democrats are not giving Ryan and the voting public enough credit by deriding his ideas for Medicare reform as overly radical. Matt Miller put it well in a Sunday op-ed in the Washington Post:

Ryan deserves credit [on Medicare]. Ryan leaves Medicare on its current outsized trajectory for the next decade, as spending soars from $560 billion to $950 billion. Because of our uniquely inefficient health-care sector, which leaves us spending twice per capita what other wealthy nations spend, the voucher he calls for thereafter would suffice to buy seniors terrific care everywhere but here. Even if his approach is imperfect, Ryan is right to challenge our Medical Industrial Complex to change.

To be perfectly clear, I don’t mean this post as an endorsement of the Ryan plan or even this small part of the plan. Indeed, there are many parts of the plan that I would question both ideologically as well as substantively. I am merely suggesting that we should debate Paul Ryan’s plan on the actual merits of its ideas, not on vague conceptions of what the plan does or does not do. My endorsement is of Wolf Blitzer and his contribution to the marketplace of ideas–keeping it honest and making sure we pay attention to the ideas our policymakers present.

For more of his thoughts on the Presidential race, follow William on Twitter.