Chinese media leverages "false dilemma" fallacy against U.S. allies

Posted on Friday, December 11, 2015 by R & B

(Photo Source: Express)
By: Alison Bartel

As the United States and Republic of Korea (ROK; or South Korea) deepened their alliances during President Park’s visit to Washington in late October, both through reaffirmation of strength of the alliance and through continued security cooperation, media sources in the People’s Republic of China (PRC; hereafter, China)were planting doubt about the longevity of the U.S.-ROK relationship. Similarly, during General Secretary Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the United Kingdom (UK), Chinese media portrayed the UK as caught between two allies, one on the rise and one in decline. One article at a time, through Party-run media outlets, the Chinese Communist Party is eliminating middle-ground solutions for complex diplomatic relations for U.S. allies. 

Propagating a zero-sum fallacy, also referred to as a “false dilemma fallacy” is a choice Chinese media warfare tactic. Chinese media, referencing guidelines from the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CCPPD), regularly constructs current international events as scenarios with two choices, rather than a range of policy options. This institutionalized persuasion method is aimed at driving a wedge between the U.S. and its key allies by using zero-sum rhetoric, creating the illusion that allies must choose between the U.S. and China. Domestically and internationally, Chinese state-run media achieves this goal by using “foreign experts,” some of whom are influenced by or have significant interests in the Party, and some of whom are unaware they are being quoted or whose quotes are taken out of context. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese publicity apparatus also overemphasizes points of view that support the Party narrative.

Chinese media coverage of President Park’s visit to the U.S. as well as General Secretary Xi’s visit to the UK offer prominent examples of the “false dilemma” framing tactic and its implications for U.S. policy. 

President Park’s Visit to the U.S.

The ROK and China have seen much progress in relations over the past decade. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, has hosted President Park six times since 2013, and touted Park’s attendance at Beijing’s military parade in September. But the U.S. and South Korea share an alliance, robust economic relationship and democratic and free-market values. According to the White House Joint Fact Sheet released after Park’s visit, the two allies worked to strengthen cooperation in the following areas: defense of the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s development of its own “Kill-Chain” preemptive strike system, South Korea’s potential membership in the TPP and countering China’s aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea. Considering the dynamic nature of both relationships, it is in the ROK’s interests to nurture relationships with both the U.S. and China.

Chinese media paints a different picture. There is a large gulf between the “win-win” rhetoric of Chinese diplomats and China’s media coverage of South Korean foreign affairs. During a press conference on Park’s visit on October 16, President Obama urged Park to “speak out” when China violated international norms. Initial media uproar from Chinese and South Korean sources alike prompted the Park administration to defend the comments, citing Obama’s principled concern with upholding international law. Chinese media sources, however, were quick to parse the perceived faceoff between China and the U.S. over South Korean alliance. Articles with a wider focus attributed Obama’s comments to the U.S.’ growing unease over stronger China- South Korea relations. Carefully selecting quotes from Korean news sources, the articles both validated the negative effect of stronger China-ROK ties on ROK-U.S. relations. Then the articles followed with praise of the historic trend of ever-strengthening China-ROK relations that began prior to President Park’s time in office. Others were more biting, citing South Korea’s security dependence on China as evidence that even under an assumed China-US dichotomy, South Korea would have no choice but to side with China for nuclear negotiations with North Korea

While the stronger ROK-China relationship has “raised eyebrows” in Washington, the alarmist narrative of South Korea’s growing relationship with China at the expense of its relationship with the U.S. was not U.S. media’s primary focus following President Park’s visit. Reporting on the same press conference referred to above, U.S. media  emphasized the possibility of the ROK maintaining strong partnerships with both the U.S. and China. During the same press conference mentioned above, in addition to his comments on the South China Sea issue, President Obama also stated, “There’s no contradiction between the Republic of Korea having good relations with us, being a central part of our alliance and having good relations with China.” Chinese media neglected to report this caveat. It’s clear that though South Korea may be fostering closer relations with China, its current partnership with the U.S. is indispensable, and due to its strategic interests, it is unlikely that Korea will ostracize one ally in favor of the other.

General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Visit to the United Kingdom

Chinese Party-run media used similar tactics to frame Xi’s October 20-23 state visit to the UK. Utilizing another tactic of highlighting favorable perspectives that the Chinese media deems beneficial to China’s international interests, media reports promote the friendly views of its “foreign friends.” A long-standing tool dating from China’s Maoist propaganda roots in Yan’an, the tactic of “borrowing” foreign news sources allows the PRC to raise awareness of its narrative on a credible platform while increasing the efficiency of that narrative’s dissemination (Brady 2015).

For example, an article published during Xi’s visit titled “China is rising, America is declining, England is choosing,” was indicative of the CCP’s promotion of false dilemmas. Even more telling is the source. The named article was a translated version of Martin Jacques’ commentary in the Guardian where he argued that Britain cannot afford to pass up economic cooperation with China. The English version is illustrative of Chinese influence operations in itself, as Martin Jacques is a prominent China proponent and was once editor of Communist Party of Great Britain's journal, Marxism Today. The translated version, of course, makes some changes, editing out Jacques’ human rights concerns and any doubt whatsoever about an existing dichotomy. 

Implications for the United States

The prominence of Chinese media’s “false dilemma” messaging strategy, as well as China’s  specific methods for implementing this tactic calls for increased awareness of media agencies’ funding sources, credibility and background of sources quoted in media coverage. Conventional knowledge expects the Chinese government-backed publications to tow the CCP line, but U.S. audiences often take for granted China’s growing influence in non-CCP publications. Foreign audiences consistently fail to calculate the impact of Chinese propaganda, which exists not only in Chinese state-run publications, but also in rhetoric and ideas that trickle into publications around the world. Though subtle, the false dilemma narrative uses zero-sum language that creates a two-choice illusion, tacitly restricting policymaker options in maintaining alliances in East Asia. Ironically, the same government that accuses the U.S. of having a “deeply-rooted Cold War mentality” is using its media to make strides towards reconstructing such a policy environment.


Brady, A.(2015). China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine. Journal of Democracy 26(4), 51-59. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved December 11, 2015, from Project MUSE database.

The South China Sea is Not Beijing's Next Battlefield

Posted on Monday, September 21, 2015 by Admin

(Image Source: Wikimedia/U.S. Coast Guard )

By: Ian Easton

No one likes to admit they made a mistake, especially in Washington.  But what if America's top strategic thinkers have gotten China's military buildup all wrong?

The definition of military deception is "actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary decision makers...thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the mission." Could Beijing be using the South China Sea to this end?  By creating a constant stream of provocations in an area it cares relatively little about, China has diverted attention from an area it cares a lot about.  This could be leading the Pentagon toward bad planning assumptions and investments.  

The South China Sea Pivot

Since at least 2011 many of America's leading thinkers have become convinced that the South China Sea will dominate military and security affairs in the 21st century.  It is the new battleground, the Fulda Gap with Asian characteristics.  China's South Sea Fleet is the new Soviet 8th Guards Army.  Or so many have come to believe.

The Pentagon and State Department, as a result, have urgently ramped up their efforts to meet the new threat.  Special operations forces, diplomats, and congressional delegations have poured onto the scene, eager to play their roles in this new great game.  White House sanctioned security assistance and top-level visits have followed close behind.

This regional influence campaign has resulted in a breathtaking series of breakthroughs.  Burma has been re-opened for business.  Vietnam, having its arms embargo relaxed, has become a security partner.  U.S. Navy ships, fresh from dockyards in America, have taken up station in Singapore, ready to sally forth in an emergency.  The Marine Corps has established a strong presence in the Philippines and Australia.  Air Force fighters, bombers, and drones now shadow the skies above.  The horizon seems limitless for American geostrategic positioning across Southeast Asia. 

China seems more than willing to validate foreign fears.  Indeed, Beijing has turned up the volume on its strategic messaging system to full blast.  Washington foreign policy elites have been inundated with aggressive Chinese messages about the key importance of the South China Sea.  Just to make sure the point is fully understood, China has provoked a series of incidents with U.S. Navy ships in the area.  China has also preyed on vulnerable fishing boats in waters claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.    

Most shockingly, China has built a number of manmade islands in the disputed waters.  It is now rapidly turning them into military outposts.  Semi-submerged reefs and rock features, once labeled "dangerous grounds" on maritime maps, now appear dangerous for a very different reason.
Each of Beijing's moves appears carefully calibrated to maximize foreign fear and minimize Chinese risk.  Nothing has happened  in this war of nerves that might result in a shooting war.  China knows it would lose such a fight.  But more important, and often missed by observers, the South China Sea is not a top priority. 

China's Main War Plan

China's military buildup is about Taiwan, not the South China Sea.  According to reports from the Pentagon and Office of Naval Intelligence, conquering Taiwan is the core mission that drives the People's Liberation Army (PLA).  Why? Because China's authoritarian leadership is deeply insecure.  Beijing views the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan), which exists as a independent and sovereign state, to be a grave threat to the communist party's vice grip on power.  Taiwan is dangerous because it serves as a beacon of freedom for Chinese speaking people everywhere. 

Taiwan is also a problem for China because it has a close defense and security relationship with the U.S. military.  There are over 3,300 Department of Defense visits to Taiwan a year.  And that number is growing fast.  In addition, a remarkable number of Taiwanese military personnel study and train in America, probably more than any other foreign country.  From Beijing's perspective, China's historic rise as a great power will not be complete until it can wrest Taiwan out of America's sphere of influence.  Only then can China break through the first island chain to become a regional hegemon, dominating Japan and South Korea.   

According to authoritative Chinese writings, the PLA focuses surprisingly little on the East Asian seascape.  The Science of Military Strategy is the most detailed and credible document available on Chinese military thought.  It takes pains to underscore the prime importance of land, not water.  China's "main strategic direction" (a euphemism for supreme national objective) is the invasion and occupation of Taiwan's entire territory.  Second order campaigns involve conflicts along China's 14 land borders.  Here the PLA is talking mostly about war with India.  Neither island disputes nor sea lanes are a critical priority.   

The Science of Military Strategy makes clear that PLA ground forces would play the leading role in a Taiwan campaign.  The ground forces, as a result, enjoy pride of place in the Chinese military.  That's one reason why infantry, tank, and amphibious units led the way at China's recent national day parade. The PLA Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery (China's strategic rocket troops) follow the ground forces in protocol order.  Their envisioned roles are to support the Army's needs. 

Each Chinese fighting service and branch considers the invasion of Taiwan their principal mission.  The Science of Military Strategy reveals the operation would involve information attacks (electronic and cyber warfare), missile bombardments, air strikes, sea blockades, and surprise amphibious landings.  The ground force is expected to face the brunt of the bloody battle, fighting from the coast into Taiwan's dense urban centers and mountains.  Assuming victory, the Army is also responsible for pacifying a post-war Taiwan, turning it into a Orwellian police state.     

The PLA Navy's mission is to support the invasion of Taiwan.  It would be responsible for executing naval blockade operations; providing air defense and transport ships for the invasion armada; shelling the coast; clearing mines and beach obstacles; and deterring, delaying, or disrupting American aircraft carrier groups.  These are all highly difficult tasks.  Most of these missions are probably outside China's grasp and will be for some time to come.     

It is little wonder then that the PLA Navy and Air Force view the safeguarding of China's island sovereignty as third order missions.  The PLA ground force, the team's star player, does not consider it a mission at all.  Nor does the Second Artillery.  Those who think the South China Sea is driving Beijing's military spending spree are missing the point.                       

Implications for America  

There are political, military, and legal implications of China's strategy for the United States.  By stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, China keeps American policymakers looking at the wrong problem set.  Beijing's motives, of course, are unknowable.  But the effects of its actions are plain to see.  More and more Americans are being drawn toward a place where China has an advantage and can exact leverage.  It is easy to negotiate, or not negotiate, when the outcome matters greatly to the other side and little to your side.  China might care less about the South China Sea than the United States and her allies do.  

Annexing Taiwan is vastly more important for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership.  It is China's weakest and most vulnerable point.  Beijing hides this by spreading misinformation about Taiwan.  One example includes the notion that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are moving more closely together economically, so political unification is inevitable.  In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.  The CCP's policies toward Taiwan are failing miserably.  Recent polling data reveals that unification never been more unpopular in Taiwan than it is today. 

Another common misperception is that the balance of military power has shifted decisively in the Taiwan Strait.  If that were true, as China's propaganda machine would have us believe, the PLA could invade Taiwan anytime it wanted.  However, recent studies on Taiwan's air and naval defense capabilities reveal that the ROC military is a whole lot tougher than it generally gets credit for.  China knows there is a long road ahead before it can credibly threaten Taiwan with invasion.  And Uncle Sam can tip the scales at any time.

Washington, it seems, has been influenced by China's misinformation campaign.  War games, exercises, and studies now focus on the South China Sea at the expense of Taiwan.  As a result, there is a large and growing asymmetry of knowledge and information regarding Taiwan scenarios.  The PLA has legions of Taiwan experts.  The Pentagon has a dwindling handful.

The U.S. government has self-imposed restrictions that make the problem even worse.  Navy ships are prohibited from docking in Taiwan's harbors, even in the event of severe weather.  More absurd still, admirals and general are not allowed to visit Taiwan and meet the men whom they would be expected to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with in a war.  In a crisis, the President of the United States is going to be on the phone with commanders in Hawaii who, while otherwise superb, have no firsthand knowledge of the battlefield.                   

Much of the hardware needed for fighting China in the defense of Taiwan has been put on the backburner as well.  Despite the obvious threat, front-line American war fighting assets in the Western Pacific, from satellites to command posts to aircraft hangars, remain unhardened.  U.S. forces are woefully behind the PLA in long-range anti-ship missiles.  The littoral combat ship is being deployed to Asia first, not frigates and destroyers capable of high intensity combat.  Clearly some planning assumptions have been made which favor the South China Sea over a Taiwan scenario.

The Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8) mandates that, "It is the policy of the United States to maintain the resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social and economic system, of the people of Taiwan."  The Pacific Command, by law, must be able to certify an ability to defend Taiwan in the most stressful situations imaginable.  That is why operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GC are so important.  Yet studies show that not enough human software and military hardware are being programmed to keep pace with this increasingly difficult mission.        

China's actions are moving minds toward the South China Sea and away from its true strategic objective.  This may be purposeful.  If true, that would be disquieting and unwelcome news. But even if it is not, America's policies and military thinking still risk being compromised by the tyranny of the inbox. Without a better understanding of what really animates China's military buildup, the U.S. security position could weaken, and the prospects for a peaceful and stable East Asia could grow ever more remote.  It is time for the U.S. government to rebalance to the Taiwan Strait.        

Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. This article was originally published in The National Interest on September 19, 2015.  

Chinese Media Warfare Targets the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Posted on Friday, July 31, 2015 by Admin

(Image source:
By Sabrina Tsai

On May 29, 2015, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai warned that U.S. alliances in Asia are being perceived as "anti-China." Positing that some in China do not see territorial disputes in the region as sufficient reason for military alliances, he warned that it is detrimental to U.S. interests that Chinese citizens perceive the U.S. as against them. A rhetorical warning such as this one from Chinese officials point to the bigger questions of how China views U.S. alliances in the region and, more importantly, what China is doing to influence these alliances through political operations.

Chinese Political Warfare

Aside from Chinese intransigence on recognizing its adversarial activities as hostile in the regional security environment -- such as land reclamation in the South China Sea and the arms buildup across the Taiwan Strait -- it consistently engages in psychological warfare to shape the way world events are viewed both at home and abroad. A favorite target of the Chinese state-run media is the U.S.-Japan alliance. In 2015, the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, China has ramped up its media and information campaigns to undermine the health and progress made between Japan and its partners since 1945. The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) concerted efforts to commemorate the end of the "world anti-fascist war" intentionally emphasize Japan's wartime legacy instead of regional advancements. In a world of power politics, soft power and hard power maneuvers are conjoined to create a desired political outcome. In the case of China, this is not amiss. 

While psychological-political components are inherent in every diplomatic, economic, and military instrument of national power,[1] China employs a peacetime information campaign that  target individuals' unconscious framework for viewing the world, including its own citizens. Referred to by some as the "Three Warfares," which includes media warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare, Chinese political warfare encompasses a large umbrella of networked state actors who drive the creation and transmission of information to targeted audiences.  Media warfare is an extended tradition of the CCP and a powerful political tool designed to sway the audience toward a state-sanctioned national narrative. Ranked 176 out of 180 by a French-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, China's press freedom is among the worst in the world and is highly controlled by the state for political ends.

Targeting the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Certain thematic trends can be found in the Chinese media in framing events related to the U.S.-Japan alliance. Chinese reporting follows specific themes in order to influence and manage the perceptions of domestic audiences. They utilize the following thematic perception management tactics:

Highlighting regional expert commentators whose views are favorable to the CCP. In critiquing the U.S.-Japan alliance, Chinese media often uses opinions of experts or reporters from Japan and the region whose views align with their own. For example, Chinese reports have highlighted Australian expert Hugh White's criticisms on Japan's efforts to reform security policies, further stating that if Japan was to go to war with China, it would not have a decisive victory since it is uncertain whether the U.S. would actually follow through on its defense commitments to Japan during wartime.

Utilizing opposing voices in Japan's democratic society to its own political advantage. Japan's democratic society is backed by mature political institutions and civil society. With the freedom of expression, Japan's populace with opposing views have the latitude and platform they need in order to make their political opinions heard. Chinese media often capitalizes on views found within the pluralist society that favor its political positions. In analyzing Prime Minister Abe's motives for his policies, Chinese media highlights Japan's domestic opposition to legitimize its allegations of PM Abe's intentions as devious at its core.

Controlling how international events related to Chinese interests are covered. Chinese media regularly covers international events that relate to its national interests in a way that presents its side as just to the domestic Chinese audience. For example, a statement of concern released by G-7 summit conveners regarding heightened tensions in the South China Sea was covered by the Chinese media as a "Japanese effort" to "defame" China through a multilateral forum. Tactics like this one is commonly used to shape perceptions within China as a part of its overall psychological warfare. In order to win future wars, CCP leaders know that it would have to mobilize the populace, and peacetime information dissemination helps to ready the mentality of the nation against a specific, common enemy.

Commanding personal attacks on individual American and Japanese leaders. In addition to a relentless overhaul of reports criticizing PM Abe through attacks on his character, the CCP has also mobilized ad-hominem attacks against U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) Combatant Commander Admiral Harry Harris for his Japanese heritage. Chinese reporting of U.S. military statements and surveillance of China's land reclamation activities in the South China Sea have pinpointed Admiral Harris' Japanese ethnicity as the driving impetus for "hawkish" policies against Chinese escalations. USPACOM cooperation with Japanese forces have been covered in a way that implies that Admiral Harris has a personal vendetta against the Chinese military simply because of his heritage. Such racist ad-hominem attacks on key U.S. leaders reveal the CCP's political interests in managing domestic perceptions through psychological warfare.

While these four perception management tactics are not comprehensive, they cover basic trends utilized by state-controlled Chinese media outlets as a part of its psychological-political warfare against the U.S.-Japan alliance among its domestic audience. These tactics, some more blatantly inappropriate than others (e.g., racism), are unlikely to abate in the near future. The U.S. would be wise to monitor Chinese political warfare tactics more closely in order to strengthen its understanding and preparedness against unwanted political operations aimed at weakening its alliance partnerships.

[1] Fred Ikle, "The Modern Context," in Political Warfare and Psychological Operations, ed. by Frank Barnett and Carnes Lord. (National Defense University Press, 1989), pg. 20, at

Iran and North Korea: Partners in Proliferation?

Posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2015 by Admin

(Image Credit Yalibnan)
By: Ryan Henseler

On July 14, 2015 the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), collectively known as the P5+1, finalized negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to the agreement, Iran will be required to disable many centrifuges critical to the uranium enrichment process necessary for weaponization, redesign the Arak nuclear reactor such that it is incapable of generating bomb-grade plutonium, and drastically decrease its stockpile of non-weapons grade uranium. In return, crippling UN trade sanctions will be lifted, which would immediately boost Iran’s economy, including the return of over $100 billion per year in oil exports currently lost due to sanctions. The deal purports to make it nearly impossible for Iran to construct a nuclear weapon within its borders and, “is not built on trust – but on verification.” In addition, UN embargoes on arms and ballistic missile sales to Iran will be extended for another five and eight years respectively.

Despite these recent signs of goodwill, Iran has long maintained cooperative ties with another rogue state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea. In 2002, both states were labeled as part of the infamous “axis of evil” by then-President George W. Bush. Both nations share a deep mistrust of the West, and this connection serves as the bedrock of the alliance between the two otherwise ideologically divergent countries. In 2012, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared, “The Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea have common enemies, because the arrogant powers do not accept independent states,” essentially restating the ancient Arabic proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This relationship should be of concern for the United States and its allies moving forward. North Korea has flouted the UN arms embargo in the past, and is unlikely to be deterred by the signing of an accord between the P5+1 and Iran. The DPRK has also been accused of abetting Iran’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons through the illegal trade of uranium and other materials that could be used for weaponization. Though the verification methods spelled out in the agreement should sufficiently account for any illegal activities within Iran’s borders, a pressing question for the future is whether Iran will be able to relocate its nuclear ambitions and continue research and development within North Korea itself.

Cooperation and Suspicion

Iran and the DPRK’s pseudo-alliance began during the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Military cooperation through arms sales began shortly thereafter during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and continued throughout the 1990 Persian Gulf War. During this time, North Korea sold Iran various conventional weapons systems, including artillery, machine guns, and surface-to-air missiles, among others. In 2006 the UN released Security Council Resolution 1737, which began the arms embargo against Iran. However, the embargo did not break the partnership, merely moving it underground.

During the same time period, the DPRK was procuring nuclear weapons. North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 based on 2002 findings that they were violating the agreement through a uranium enrichment program. In 1994, the US and North Korea inked the General Framework Agreement stating that the DPRK would halt and eventually disband its nuclear weapons program in exchange for US monetary aid in constructing civil nuclear reactors. Various opponents of the Iran deal in Congress have pointed out the current deal’s similarity with the 1994 General Framework Agreement and have voiced fear that Iran will find ways to bypass inspections in much the same way that North Korea did following the 1994 agreement, particularly because “anytime, anywhere” nuclear inspections are not guaranteed in the deal. Instead, they have been replaced by inspections “when necessary and where necessary” which allow Iran a 25 day buffer period before the inspections actually take place.

The Iran-North Korea alliance deepened in 2012 with the completion of a deal which pledged cooperation in several fields, particularly scientific research, information technology (IT), engineering and operation of joint laboratories. Naturally, this deal raised concerns about the possibility of an increase in missile and weapons technology trade between the countries. For years, North Korea has been accused of illegally selling Iran both conventional weapons and nuclear materials, possibly even weapons-grade uranium. In addition to being a political ally, the DPRK is Iran’s main supplier of ballistic missile technology and Pyongyang is reliant on the revenue created by these sales.

In 2002, it was suspected that Iran was involved in a cover up involving the spilling of a secret shipment of uranium from North Korea to Iran on a Tehran airport tarmac. While the cover-up was eventually investigated by US intelligence officials with help from those of its allies, there are few present-day signs that Iran’s cooperation with the DPRK has faltered.  Iran’s main opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) recently released information that showed extensive nuclear cooperation between the current Iranian government and the DPRK through visits from nuclear experts on both sides as recently as April 2015. Perhaps even more alarming, it was reported that Iranian officials were present at North Korea’s latest nuclear test in 2013.

Surprisingly, Iran has managed to not allow its extensive cooperation with the DPRK to influence its relatively strong commercial relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK), despite the enduring tension between the political systems on the Korean Peninsula. Economic ties, particularly in crude oil trade, between the ROK and Iran remain strong, but their relationship is largely limited to commercial dealings due to major ideological differences and their choice in key allies (the DPRK for Iran and the United States for South Korea). Most South Koreans view Iran negatively, and high-level political cooperation between the two is largely non-existent. However, their relationship, even if it is based solely on mutually beneficial trade, shows that democratic nations that strongly disapprove of Iran’s nuclear ambitions are willing to maintain good relations if they feel it is in their economic best interests.

Role of China?

A final interesting piece of this puzzle is the possible contribution to or at least tacit approval of the Iran-North Korea partnership by the PRC. The PRC has long been Iran’s most powerful friend, though the relationship seems more transactional than anything. China is the largest purchaser of Iranian oil and is Iran’s largest trading partner in both imports and exports, making a robust relationship with Beijing of particular importance to Tehran. Many experts see the PRC as the biggest winner of the Iran deal, as the lifting of economic sanctions will allow Chinese businesses such as banks and oil companies more access to Tehran, and avoiding a potential war between the US and Iran is crucial to Chinese trade interests.

In 2005, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), a coalition of democratic resistance organizations based in Tehran, accused the PRC of directly selling beryllium and components for centrifuge construction to Iran, and argued that these were unlikely to be used for civilian purposes. In 2011, Malaysian police confiscated a shipment from China to Iran that they suspected contained parts that could be used to construct nuclear warheads, one of multiple shipments between the countries that have been confiscated in recent years.

Although Chinese entities have been implicit in selling materials to Iran, the degree of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government involvement is unknown. China’s ports and airspace have been used in the passage of shipments from North Korea to Iran on multiple occasions. Suspicions of Chinese intentions still exist largely due to China’s cooperation with Pakistan’s illicit nuclear program in the 1980s and more current hot button issues such as the PRC’s recent advances in the South China Sea (SCS). It is questionable whether the PRC, as a member of the P5+1 and a contributor to the Iran agreement is intentionally allowing Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. In any case, China should be more proactive in preventing North Korean transactions involving dangerous materials from passing through its borders. Of course, the US should not count on China to solve this problem alone, and must closely monitor the state of relations between the DPRK and Iran and vigilantly look for illicit transactions between the two sides going forward.

China's Fifth Generation Air Power Development

Posted on Wednesday, July 15, 2015 by Admin

Image Credit (Key Publishing)

By: Ryan Henseler

Throughout its history, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has lagged behind the aerial programs of other world powers such as the United States. Now, the PRC has set its sights on producing indigenously designed “fifth generation” fighter jets comparable to the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Many US officials and pilots suspect that the Chinese have been using hacked US technology to aid their indigenous development programs. The PRC is also leveraging additive manufacturing technology (better known as 3D-printing) in order to increase speed and efficiency in manufacturing aircrafts and compete with the US. The J-20 Black Eagle could be fully operational by 2018, and a second model, the J-31 Gyrfalcon, by 2020. If true, China’s new generation of fighters could have a substantial impact on its ability to either defend what it considers to be sovereign airspace, or to mount an aerial offensive in a wartime scenario, particularly against Taiwan (ROC).  

Recent Advances in the PLAAF

Between 1990 and 1992 the PRC purchased 24 Su-27 Flankers from Russia and slightly modified the design to become the J-11 Flanker B+.  In response, the US sold 150 F-16 Fighting Falcons to Taiwan. The acquisition of fourth generation Su-27s allowed China’s Air Force to enter modernity, and they have become progressively more capable ever since. In 2010, half of the PLAAF fleet still consisted of jets modeled after 1950s and 1960s Soviet MiG-19 Farmers and MiG-21 Fishbeds, but China’s ability to project air power has increased significantly within the past 5 years. Recently, the PRC and Russia completed a deal to transfer 24 Russian Su-35 Super Flankers, a potent “generation 4++” fighter, to the Chinese, in addition to China’s scheduled integration of fifth generation technology.

Currently the PLAAF relies on the J-11 as its primary fighter. However, this model is largely unproven. This aircraft is perhaps most recognized as the fighter variant involved in an August 2014 incident in which a single J-11 intercepted a USN P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft 135 miles east of Hainan Island. Twice the J-11 came within 50 yards of the US aircraft. The aggressive maneuvering by the Chinese pilot was an example of the PLAAF making it clear that US surveillance is not appreciated within the airspace over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Fifth Generation Capabilities

Since 2008 the PRC has worked to design and manufacture fifth generation concepts, both for its own use and to sell on a global scale. Two companies in China have worked on designs: the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (J-20) and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (J-31). Both are subsidiaries of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). It is likely that the J-20 and J-31 will complement one another when integrated into the PLAAF’s arsenal. The J-20 is closer to becoming operational, with an inaugural test flight in 2011; it is expected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) by 2018. Because both jets are still in prototype stage, their exact capabilities are not certain. However, it is speculated that the J-20 will provide a long-range strike system capable of reaching anywhere in the Western Pacific region, and incorporate a stealth design; the first of its kind in the PRC. In a conflict, the J-20 would likely be deployed in air-to-air combat with the mission of limiting the enemy’s radar coverage and strike range. The J-31 could be a potent complement to the J-20, similar to the planned US partnership of the F-22 and F-35.  While the J-20 is expected to possess superior dogfighting abilities, the J-31 will be “the perfect fighter for the PLA to carry out anti-access area-denial (A2AD) strategies in the Western Pacific”. The J-20 is slightly faster, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 compared to Mach 2 for the J-31. Both sport a combat radius of approximately 2000km (1242 miles).

US officials believe that the J-31 will immediately match or exceed the capabilities of US fourth generation fighters such as the F-15 Strike Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet, and could possibly even compete with the F-22 or F-35. But this would largely depend on several factors including the quality of Chinese pilots, the quantity of fighters produced, and the reliability of radar and other equipment on board. In late 2014, AVIC President Lin Zhouming made an even bolder prediction, saying, When [the J-31] takes to the sky, it could definitely take down the F-35. It's a certainty.” Even if neither of the Chinese fighter jets is entirely up to par with US fifth-gens, they still could drastically change the dynamic of both a conflict with the US or a scenario such as an invasion of Taiwan.


If the PRC decided to launch an attack across the Taiwan Strait, a contingency that it practices every year, air superiority would be essential for three reasons: the relatively small amount of airspace available over Taiwan; the ROC Air Force’s (ROCAF) ability to saturate its airspace with its own fighters, and the ROC's extensive surface-to-air missile defense system. If the PLAAF is unable to prevent or significantly limit attacks against its naval vessels when crossing the Strait, the mission would almost certainly fail. Ultimately, the PRC’s accumulation of cutting-edge fighter technology could provide the critical air advantage over the ROCAF to carry out a successful invasion, and should be cause for concern at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war for the US. 

US South China Sea Policy: The Case for UNCLOS

Posted on Friday, June 26, 2015 by Admin

Image Credit (GMA Network)
By:Ryan Henseler

Since 2012, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has embarked on a vast land reclamation project and artificial island building program throughout much of the South China Sea (SCS). The most extensive reclamation has included increasing the size of islands within disputed chains such as the Spratly Islands off the western coast of the Philippines, as well as the buildup of “artificial islands” on top of previously uninhabitable rocks and reefs. The PRC has pursued a strategy of fait accompli in the region, literally creating facts on the ground as part of a larger strategy to assert claims within its 9-dash line.  Thus far, Beijing has been committed to completing its expansion and island building without inciting or being forced into armed conflict. But as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Navy (PLAN) continue to build on 7 disputed islands, rocks and reefs throughout the SCS, the looming question of how the US can or should respond has become a focal point of US-PRC relations. Up to now, the US has pursued a policy whereby it has refused to “take sides” in the territorial disputes but has instead suggested that all sides seek a diplomatic resolution based on the principles of the law of the sea.  More recently the US has asserted that PRC activity in the SCS is in clear violation of its obligations pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the legitimacy of this argument is undercut because the US itself is not a ratifying party to UNCLOS. Therefore, in addition to many other compelling factors for the ratification of UNCLOS, recent events have made ratification more crucial in order to bolster US legal standing vis-à-vis Chinese actions.

The US must take a strong stand in the region for a variety of reasons, including protecting the $5.3 trillion in world trade that passes through the SCS each year and responding to pleas from allies to help protect their own sovereign interests. Perhaps most importantly, the US cannot allow Chinese aggression in this critical geostrategic area to advance unchecked. Much of the reason that the US has not yet felt a real pressure to ratify UNCLOS is that opponents of the treaty claim it is unnecessary. They argue that the US has been served well by a Reagan administration policy decision that the provisions of UNCLOS dealing with FON are reflective of customary international law and thus the US has no reason to be bound by other more onerous provisions.  However, since the essence of the US argument is that PRC expansion is in violation of UNCLOS, the time may be ripe to reassess the advantages that might inure to the US should it ratify the treaty.  Specifically, would UNCLOS ratification actually bolster the legitimacy of the US position vis-à-vis the PRC? If China’s advance continues, and China is allowed to dictate the terms of navigation in the SCS it would be well on its way to achieving its goal of supplanting US hegemony in the region.

Illegality of Chinese Claims

Chinese efforts to build extensive artificial islands have changed facts on the ground that do not conform to the standards of international maritime law prescribed in UNCLOS, which the PRC ratified in 2006. The PRC’s 9-dash line asserts that over 80% of the SCS is sovereign Chinese territory based on “historical and legal” grounds. Under this overarching claim, the PRC has deemed it “justified, legitimate, and reasonable” to build within the line. Because several countries, including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei claim ownership of various SCS islands, the US has requested that all claimants cease land reclamations in order to mitigate the escalation of tensions in the region. The PRC has repeatedly flouted this request and stated that the US has no right to intervene in Asian affairs, and no jurisdiction to get involved with territorial disputes by invoking UNCLOS. While it is true that UNCLOS contains no provisions for the settlement of sovereignty disputes and lacks enforcement mechanisms, it is equipped to rule on the legitimacy of maritime claims asserted off of these islands. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter defended the US right to be involved in the dispute as a, “Pacific nation, a trading nation, and a member of the international community.”

Under UNCLOS, coastal nations are allotted a 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial sea (TTS) along with a 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Foreign ships, both military and civilian, are allowed innocent passage through the territorial sea while ships and aircraft are free to operate in the waters and airspace outside the TTS to include conducting naval exercises and gathering intelligence. The PRC has frequently attempted to make US Naval operations difficult in parts of the SCS that it considers a part of its EEZ. Another part of the overall issue regarding the territorial dispute in the SCS revolves around which nation enjoys certain rights within their claimed EEZ’s.  Whoever “owns” an island also has rights to the natural resources within the EEZ surrounding that island such as fish, oil, minerals, and natural gas. Under UNCLOS, disputed maritime claims need to be multilaterally agreed upon by the countries in question, as opposed to the PRC invoking sovereignty based on the ever-ambiguous 9-dash line.

Furthermore, it will be interesting to see what rights the PRC attempts to assert over the artificial islands it has built; UNCLOS specifies that artificial islands or rocks incapable of sustaining human life are not entitled to either territorial waters or an EEZ. At Shangri-La, Secretary of Defense Carter made it clear that, “turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.” China has not explicitly claimed territorial waters or EEZs around the artificial islands, but is very likely to regard them as such because it considers everything within the 9-dash line its sovereign territory.

The UNCLOS Solution

China’s claims to the South China Sea fall outside the scope of international law. The question then, is what the US can do to deter an aggressor that is comfortable with stepping over legal boundaries and making claims that most of the international community deems illegitimate. Though solving the problem and managing excessive Chinese claims in the SCS will undoubtedly be a many-step process, the next move that the US should make in this political chess match is ratifying UNCLOS. Although the US already adheres to the navigational provisions of UNCLOS as a matter of policy, actually ratifying the document provides a sturdy legal leg to stand on when denouncing Chinese sovereignty claims. Ratifying the convention assures others that the US is willing to play by the same rules that it is trying to enforce, while not doing so at best weakens its legal argument and at worst strips its legitimacy in making policy towards the South China Sea entirely. Because the United States has taken a rules-based approach in framing the issue, it is essential that it be bound to the same legal framework as every other country involved.

Ratifying UNCLOS would also give the US legal standing to protest Chinese assertions such as a "military alert zone.” This term was used by the PLAN on August 20, 2015 when a US P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane flew a routine mission over contested islands in the SCS, and was asked to leave. The US pilot responded that he was flying through international airspace in accordance with international law. Like territorial waters, a state’s airspace extends 12 nm past its borders. However, unlike territorial waters, foreign planes are not allowed to enter another country’s airspace without permission. The US is careful not to fly within 12nm of any of the disputed islands within the SCS, not necessarily because it is acceding that it is Chinese sovereign airspace, but because it is somebody’s airspace. The question remains; what exactly is a military alert zone? The term does not appear and is not defined under international law. If the US were a ratifying party to UNCLOS it would strengthen its argument that the Chinese use of ambiguous terms such as “military alert zone” to impede freedom of navigation does not comply with international law.

The move also would be highly appreciated by US allies in the Asia-Pacific, as ratifying UNCLOS would be a concrete show of commitment to the region and would solidify the US role as a legitimate international leader with a vested interest in easing tensions. Ratifying the treaty provides the US Navy legal basis to peacefully travel through Chinese territorial seas—a right that it already asserts, but would be strengthened by becoming an official party to UNCLOS.  Finally, ratifying UNCLOS could provide a way for the US to impose cost and penalties on the PRC when they break international law through litigation in the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

The Debate

Why has the US refused to sign a treaty that is in US national interests? The answer lies in the original drafting of the document during the Reagan administration. After the plan was drafted, President Reagan refused to sign based on various objections, particularly that it could subordinate the US government to agencies such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) created under the purview of UNCLOS. This objection was cleared up in 1994 when a revised version of UNCLOS provided the US and other countries with the power to veto ISA decisions. Many Republican Senators today who oppose UNCLOS still cling to the argument that Reagan disapproved of the treaty, and trumpet the false notion that US sovereignty would be compromised.

Throughout the years UNCLOS has been supported by an impressive collection of officials, including the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations; every Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; military legal experts; The Chamber of Commerce; “Big Oil”; “Big Labor”; environmental activists; and the National Association of Manufacturers. In addition to providing the necessary and relevant leverage in the SCS for US forces, UNCLOS would help to ensure that the US gains exclusive access to the resources of its own North American continental shelf beyond the 200nm EEZ that is already asserted, which could potentially boost the commercial viability of oil companies and create jobs. In addition, ratifying the treaty would ensure the US a place at the table with other the Arctic countries when discussing the distribution of the resources made available by the melting of the polar ice cap. Furthermore, the treaty sets environmental guidelines in the world’s oceans. It is clear that becoming a ratifying party to UNCLOS would be sound strategy for the US in both economic and security terms.  The current administration should prioritize the ratification of this treaty, especially now when it is needed the most.

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