Weekly Depth Charge: March 11, 2017

I’m trying out a new posting format, where I offer a roundup of links, with a bit of commentary, from the past week (or longer in this case since it’s the first installment).


PutinI still sometimes have Americans on the Right tell me that Eastern Europeans are not that worried about Russia (and Trump). Eastern Europeans tell me they are. Here’s a sampling …

Eastern Europe: Between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

Estonians join paramilitary forces to face Russia fears

Saeima speaker considers restoring compulsory military service in Latvia

Scandinavians are concerned too… Norway, Sweden, Finland.

North Korea

This is cool and informative: Jeffrey Lewis gives an easy-to-follow primer on using open source material to monitor North Korean missile launches.


This NY Times piece from last month does a good job of capturing the background behind the tensions in Cameroon’s Anglophone area. Among other things, this is an example of a modern conflict in Africa stemming from a weak sense of national identity, due in part to colonial-era borders. When a boundary is created on top of an existing cultural/demographic pattern and without taking it into account, it is called a superimposed boundary. This is almost every international border in Africa.


Getting water at UN House, Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Oxfam East Africa.


South Sudan’s beyond-emergency-stage food crisis is entirely manmade. In fact many of Africa’s food crises are in zones of conflict.

China is building a naval base just across the bay from the American base in Djibouti:

Democratization efforts in Zimbabwe are interesting and worth following. What is the US position on democracy and accountability efforts in Zimbabwe? As far as I can tell, we don’t have one.

The Global Crapstorm, Generally

The world as a whole is facing the largest humanitarian crisis (or, collections of crises) since World War II.

People fleeing war more likely to find shelter in poorer countries, says UN refugee agency. Most of the 3.2 million people driven forcibly from their homes in early 2016 found shelter in low- and middle-income countries, according to a new UN study. Is this a function of national compassion, or lower capacity to enforce borders, or just that refugees may be more likely to flee to neighboring countries which might be in similar economic circumstances? No doubt it will be spun as the first option, but the others are worth some consideration.

Information Security

The House, including its Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees, has a serious problem with shady IT staffers. There’s some weird stuff going on. The investigation includes this article, and the six more at the end.

News and Disinformation

Technology hasn’t just enabled citizen journalists and those pushing for greater accountability from their governments. It has also made them more vulnerable to well-resourced disinformation campaigns by their governments.

Here is an interesting look at hyperpartisan news sites (known to many simply as “news sites”). I hope this phenomenon gets more coverage. A key quote: “Some of the same people operate both liberal and conservative sites as a way to ‘run up their metrics or advertising revenue’.”

Can Fake News be Stopped?


Toomas Hendrick Ilves. Photo: janwikifoto.


It’s hard to overstate the importance of this observation by one of my favorite recent world leaders, former Estonian president Toomas Hendrick Ilves:

The domestic political goal within Russia is to demonstrate that elections in the West are fraudulent. The government wants to show its public that open societies are flawed, too, so there is no point in becoming a democratic state.

Ilves spoke at a conference on cyber-espionage, propaganda, and Russia, at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Peace, Democracy, Governance, Accountability

Accountability measures are crucial to peace processes.

Transparency makes regimes more resistant to military coups.

One tool to end conflicts: follow the money being made off of them—and stop it.

The U.S. supports South Sudan’s national dialogue. This touches on a pandemic I see in the world today: leaders using democratic institutions or negotiations or peace talks to pay lip service to Western values while having no intention of making any real change. I hope to write more about this in the future. For now, it suffices to note that both South Sudan and Burundi currently suffer from intractable conflicts, and the de facto leaders of both regimes are sponsoring peace talks. This is akin to putting Putin in charge of talks between Russia and Ukraine, or making a rapist the judge of his own trial. Certainly in the case of South Sudan, both sides have committed unspeakable crimes, but the point is that a party to a conflict should never be the one to mediate the conflict. US support for this national dialogue is a sign of intense naiveté on the part of the new administration, which will have grave consequences for justice, and extend the mortal danger to many people.

Trump speaks with Kenyan president about terrorism. What is the US position toward efforts toward freedom and human rights around the world? Based on current diplomatic activity, everyone can go do whatever they want.

How Africa’s political regimes legitimate themselves through the fight against terrorism.

Which form of government is more stable, democracy or autocracy? These days in the US it’s easy to think democracy, but internal pressures (oppression from the government, resistance from the people) are stronger, if less public, in less free countries. A series of maps of Africa shows strong correlations (not causation, mind you) between autocratic countries and … conflict, refugee generation, and food insecurity. It’s not necessarily surprising, but it does suggest that efforts to promote accountable governance worldwide may have more long-term benefits than may appear at first glance.


International Justice

There is a raging debate in Africa about the International Criminal Court. Many of its most vocal critics have argued that it targets Africans unduly and is thus revealed as nothing more than a racist tool of neo-colonialism and imperialism. Aside from the fact that this argument is extremely overused and applied to every dispute imaginable, as our own Paul Nantulya points out in this case it is false, since 7 out of the 8 open cases were requested by Africans, and African populations are mostly in favor of the court (though not overwhelmingly). When it has been effective at all, it has filled a justice gap that many countries haven’t filled nationally yet, and this national/international complementarity was a key reason the idea of the court was first advanced—by Africans.

The Best Men

Trump’s skills at picking solid advisers is wildly inconsistent. Mattis is one of his best. This is about one of his worst.

This might spark an interesting discussion on foreign investment, corruption, and autocracy. If you want more on the topic, check out the head of Global Financial Integrity talking about illegal financial flows. If you want a lot more on this topic, check out the Africa Center’s special report on what it calls “predatory investment”, and how autocrats use it to get around things like sanctions and accountability. The report is also a great case study of how China uses such investment, and investment companies, as tools of statecraft.

On Chinese Strategy: “Counter intervention” in substance but not in name is still “Counter intervention” —Paul Nantulya

Two well-established scholars of Chinese military strategy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) M Taylor Fravel and Christopher Twomey of the Naval Postgraduate School, wrote a very well researched article earlier this year, whose findings are still being debated among China watchers in the United States as well as in military circles and policy offices dealing with U.S./Asia Pacific policy. Based on an in-depth review of Chinese doctrinal writings and official commentaries they discredit the widely held notion in the US strategic community that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) force sizing, posture and modernization are framed around the concept of “counter intervention.”

This term is used heavily in U.S. official documents. The Department of Defense (DOD) issues an annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments. The 2012 report said: “China has continued to invest in cyberattack capabilities, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft, submarines and other capabilities, which appear designed to enable anti-access or area-denial missions, or what Chinese military strategists refer to as “counter intervention operations”- the ability of the PLA to force a foreign power to operate as far away as possible from the Chinese mainland and to keep that power outside key maritime areas of influence in the event of a conflict.The 2013, 2014 and 2015 reports use the term “anti-access or area-denial, or A2/AD” a military concept which connotes more or less the same meaning as “counter intervention.”


The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG), and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) define  “anti-access” (A2) as action intended to slow deployment of friendly forces into a theater or cause forces to operate from distances from the location of conflict than they would otherwise prefer. Area denial (AD) is defined as “action intended to impede friendly operations within areas where an adversary cannot or will not prevent access.” A2 affects movement to a theater while AD affects maneuver within a theater. China in U.S. defense thinking is vigorously pursuing an A2/AD strategy.

The U.S. operational thinking in response to A2/AD is anchored in the 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) and the 2014 Joint Concept for Entry Operations (JCEO). The Pentagon’s  Air Sea Battle (ASB) (renamed in January 2015 as the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, or JAM-GC) is nested in JOAC and JCEO. With this broad guidance the U.S. military will be required by the national command authority to achieve two interrelated missions:1) assured access the unhindered national use of the global commons and select sovereign territory, waters, airspace and cyberspace, achieved by projecting all the elements of national power, and 2) operational access: the ability to project military force into an operational area with sufficient freedom of action to accomplish the mission. Applied to China the strategic goal supported by these missions is restoring assured access by degrading and defeating “counter intervention” capabilities.

031130-N-3653A-001- Atlantic Ocean (Nov. 30, 2003) -- USS George Washington (CVN 73) Carrier Strike Group breaks formation in the Atlantic. Washington is conducting Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) in the Atlantic Ocean in preparation for their upcoming deployment. U.S. Navy photo by PhotographerÕs Mate 2nd Class Summer M. Anderson. (RELEASED)

The problem pointed out by Fravel and Twomey is that the American belief that China’s military strategy is shaped around “counterintervention” is not grounded in empirical evidence. They do an excellent job in my opinion; their findings  serve as a sobering reminder about the care that must be taken in choosing appropriate vocabulary to describe the intentions of foreign powers. They seem to conclude, however, that based on these findings the substance of China’s strategic thinking has been mischaracterized.  This is where I disagree with them. My counter argument is that just because the PLA does not frame its strategy in terms of “counter intervention” does not mean that it is not pursuing it in practice.

 Let me start by pointing out that the two experts are right to argue that Chinese doctrinal writings coin several terms that might connote a perception of containment and the need for “counterintervention”. Some of them include: “restricting” (xiànzhì, 限制), “blocking” (fēngsuǒ 封锁) and “consuming” (xiaohao, 消耗杨).

The two experts quote important Chinese doctrinal textbooks including the “Science of Military Strategy” and the “Science of Campaigns,” and identify some core PLA  missions designed to respond to situations of containment. These include “blocking” (zuzhi, 阻滞), “counterattacking” (fanji, 反击), “containing” (ezhi, 遏制) and “resisting foreign military intervention” (diyu waidi junshi ganyu, 抵御 外敌军事干预). Beyond such terms, however, an overarching concept of “counter intervention” is nonexistent.


That said, China is in practice fielding serious air, sea and undersea capabilities in what it calls its “near seas” (Fùjìn hǎiyù, (附近海域) and “distant seas” (yuǎn yáng, 远海). The “near seas” according to Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strategy cover waters in the following domains: 1)The maritime areas stretching from the Kurile islands through the islands of Japan, Ryukyu, Taiwan, Philippines to Borneo; 2) The Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea; and; 3) the waters adjacent to the outer rims of the three Seas and those of the north Pacific.

These areas are commonly referred to in U.S. parlance, and in Chinese writings aimed at western audiences as the “first island chain.” The “distant seas” cover cover a system of archipelagos from the East Asian continental mainland coast composed of the Bonin, Marianas and Caroline Islands through Japan’s Honshu Island to New Guinea, and the maritime space beyond this area. They are more commonly defined by U.S. analysts as the “second island chain” and cover a vast area stretching from the northwest Pacific to the east Indian Ocean.

The goal of denying potential adversaries access and maneuver in the “near seas” and developing capabilities to control the “distant seas” has guided Chinese naval strategy since Deng Xiaoping’s era. Then Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, Liu Huaqing, speaking at a 1983 meeting of the Party Committee of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) said “Our Navy will be a strategic service—capable of conducting independent operations within and the beyond the “first island chain” and eventually in the “three seas” (三海).

Liu was the PLAN commander from 1982 to 1988 and is credited with spearheading China’s naval modernization. He outlined a three step process by which China would have a navy with global reach by 2040. Under Jiang Zemin the PLAN adopted the concept “far seas operations” (远海作战) which requires PLAN to develop capabilities to conduct “offensive” and “defensive” operations within and beyond the “second island chain.” The goal is framed in the term “Regional defensive and offensive-type navy” (区域防御进攻型海军) which must be achieved by 2020. The PLA also talks about establishing “sea control” (制海权), for purposes of conducting “sea crossing” (渡海), with respect to Taiwan, and “naval blockade and counter blockade actions.”


China on August 2, 2013 announced that five warships had sailed through the “first island chain”  for the first time in the history of its navy. The vocabulary used by the authoritative editorial that appeared in Peoples Daily, an official media outlet of the Communist Party is instructive: “The Chinese navy has fulfilled its long held dream of breaking through the “first island chain blockade” (emphasis added). Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS) added: “The Chinese navy has demonstrated the capability to “cut” the “first island chain” into several pieces. “Now the chain is fragmented.” Such vocabulary reflects the psychological importance to the PLA of breaking out of the “near seas” a domain of vital strategic importance to China but which is also a source of many strategic vulnerabilities.

Underlying these vulnerabilities is the deeply ingrained historical fear among the Chinese of naval blockades (during the Opium Wars from 1839 – 1860 China succumbed to numerous British blockades and in the 1833 Battle of Fuzhou, French forces destroyed an entire fleet of the Chinese navy). China’s perceived vulnerabilities also have some basis in the current security environment: the nation’s economic hubs (the center of gravity of China’s rapid economic growth and a crucial pillar of the legitimacy calculus of the Communist Party) are concentrated along its coast; 80 percent of its energy imports pass through the Straits of Malacca; and its most serious territorial disputes lie in the maritime domain.


And then there is the all-important issue of Taiwan. China has long signaled its willingness to employ overwhelming force to prevent the dejure independence of that Island. Taiwan is seen by Chinese policymakers as the single-most important unresolved issue from the so-called “Century of Humiliation,” (bǎinián guóchǐ, 百年國恥, a period between 1839 and 1949 when China lost control over large portions of its territory at the hands of foreigners). Memories from this period inform the dominant narratives underlying the founding of the Peoples Republic of China and play a central role in the conduct of Chinese foreign policy. Within these perspectives the reunification of Taiwan with the Mainland is core objective, a survival interest which touches on concepts of dignity, independence and honor as understood by the Chinese. From a strategic standpoint China focuses on two aspects: 1) preserving overwhelming and decisive military superiority over Taiwan while at the same time displaying tactical flexibility and 2)deterring the U.S. from intervening on Taipei’s side in the event of a military contingency.


The combination of maritime-based economic, security, and sovereignty interests bring us back to the logic of the “near seas,” “distant seas” strategy. The PLAN has adopted “near seas active defense” (jinhai jiji fangyu, 近 海积极防御) in the “first island chain” and “far seas operations,” (yuanhai zuozhan, 远海作战) in the second island chain and beyond.

These operational doctrines  and the strategic requirement to keep outside forces from deploying closer to the “near seas” have driven China’s military modernization effort over the past two decades. China has invested in several classes of conventional and nuclear powered submarines armed with ballistic and cruise missiles of different types and ranges, large numbers of highly accurate antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a range of ground, air, and naval platforms, and several fighter aircraft with different speeds and endurance. Beijing has also invested heavily in Anti Satellite (ASAT) technologies as well as cyberwarfare capabilities. In 2010 the Dong Feng 21 D, (“east-wind”) Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) entered service with the PLA Second Artillery (China’s strategic rocket forces). The assumption by many U.S. commentators is that this weapon is designed to threaten U.S. carrier battle groups.


The pace and direction of China’s military modernization is also informed by lessons from past military campaigns. This aspect of the Chinese professional military education system was made apparent to western military students in an important work, “Chinese Views on the Future of Warfare” (1998) a collaboration between the U.S. and Chinese National Defense Universities which brought authoritative writings by senior Chinese military professionals to the United States for the first time. Several authors, including Chen Zhou (then a Colonel, but now a Major General and the author of the 2015 Chinese Defense White Paper), General Li Jijun,former Vice President of the Academy of Military Science and Major General Zheng Shenxia, former President of the Air Force Command College, discuss some lessons the PLA incorporated into its military modernization from studying U.S. military campaigns in the First Gulf War.

In 2007 Colonel Wang Xiangsui explained in a documentary that the PLA learned important lessons from the 1996 military stand-off with the U.S. in the Taiwan Straits (the worst military incident between the two powers since the Korean war). The Chinese navy in that instance was unable to prevent the U.S. from deploying two aircraft carriers into the straits. The Chinese concluded that U.S. force projection in the Western Pacific was dependent on aircraft carriers and carrier strike groups and satellites (for advanced and networked command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance-C4 ISR).Accordingly China gave top priority to developing capabilities and operational solutions to threaten U.S. carrier strike groups and satellites as a strategy of deterrence rather than strive for parity.

The idea of holding enemy assets at risk comes from two enduring Maoist doctrines: the “dialectics of defeating the superior with the inferior,” and “people’s war under conditions of informatization.” It also draws on the traditional Chinese concept of defeating an opponent by striking his weak points as opposed to massing forces against him (appears in several classical works including Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Sun Bin’s Military Methods and Wei Laozi’s Seven Military Classics.)


In the final analysis China is captive to the notion of keeping foreign adversaries out of maritime domains considered vital to national security. Deterring or confronting offshore powers and preserving Chinese control over these domains is central to this calculus of threat. Du Wenlong in a 2013 interview explained: “China will achieve air and sea control over the South China Sea by using aircraft with air-to-sea functions, backed by submarines and surface vessels like advanced destroyers and frigates.” The concept of forcing territorial contestants and foreign powers to operate farther away from key domains is also captured in the 2015 Defense White Paper which states: “As the world economic and strategic center of gravity is shifting ever more rapidly to the Asia/Pacific region, the U.S. carries on its “rebalancing” strategy and enhances its military presence and its military alliances in this region.” It adds: “Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.”


Presumably the Chinese will not simply sit idly by in the face of these perceived threats.  “China will not be contained” explains Professor Jin Canrong, a foreign policy scholar at Renmin University and an influential voice in Chinese policy circles. Senior Colonel Gaoyue Fan, while on a fellowship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was more blunt: ” To prevent U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs, the PLA has to develop anti – access and area – denial capabilities.” He added: “Similarly if the U.S. military develops Air Sea Battle to deal with the PLA, the PLA will be forced to develop anti-Air Sea Battle doctrine and capabilities.”

In 2014 at a regional security dialogue attended by Asian heads of state as well the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, General Wang Guanzhong, the Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff, halfway through a prepared speech warned: “China only takes countermeasures against others’ provocation.” Referring to the speeches of the Japanese premier and Secretary Hagel he said: “China has never initiated provocations of any kind…assertiveness has come from the joint actions of the U.S. and Japan.”

China’s security strategy is colored by these dominant narratives and by hard security threats as understood by the Chinese. The key areas of concern for military planners are China’s sea lines of communication, its string of disputed maritime areas in the South and East China Seas and the Philippine Sea; and the vitally important Taiwan Straits. These strategic issues lead the PLA to the logic of denying operational maneuver to outside powers. Such logic might not be framed as  “counter intervention” in name but  it is definitely “counter intervention” in substance and is aimed primarily at the U.S. and Japan which China views as its most serious and capable challengers in the Western Pacific theater of operations.

Paul Nantulya specializes in U.S.national security policy and military operations in Africa and the Asia/Pacific.

Forthcoming: “China’s Strategic Response to the Air Sea Battle (ASB) Concept: A Traditional Chinese Strategic Culture Assessment and Implications for U.S. Force Sizing and Posture in the Western Pacific theater of operations.”