Friday, February 21, 2014

Angola or Amity Island?

On January 18, a tanker called the Kerala, Greek-owned but Liberian-flagged, was a few miles off the port of Luanda, Angola when radio contact with its owners was broken. This is not entirely unsusal, but:
[M]aritime experts think the Kerala's disappearance marks a dangerous new escalation of the oil-driven piracy that has increasingly tormented mariners across the infamous Bight of Benin.

Maritime hijackings off of Somalia and the rest of Africa's eastern coast are in sharp decline. But pirate attacks in West Africa have crept upward, turning the waters around the Gulf of Guinea into one of the centers of global piracy. About one out of every five reported pirate attacks last year took place in the Gulf of Guinea, the International Maritime Bureau reported, but it estimates that only about one-third of West African attacks are actually reported.

The piracy on the western coast of African bears little similarity to piracy off the east coast, however. In short, it's even more aggressive. And oil companies operating in the area, West African countries dependent on energy revenues for their fiscal well-being, and regions that rely on sub-Saharan crude such as Europe and China worry that this new breed of pirates may turn the region into a no-go zone for shippers and operators.
The pattern being established is bad, and the case of the Kerala seemed like just one more:
On January 18th, a Greek shipping firm lost radio contact with one of its vessels, a Liberian-flagged, 75,000-ton oil tanker named Kerala, when it was just a few miles off the port of Luanda, Angola. [...]

The Kerala's sudden disappearance came just after maritime security firms began warning of a suspicious, 200-ton tugboat prowling the waters off the Angolan coast. The Kerala's owner, Dynacom Tankers Management Ltd., began to suspect it was again a victim of piracy. A Dynacom ship was the last ship successfully taken by Somali pirates; the ship and crew were released after 10 months of captivity in March 2013.

But never before had the criminal gangs that trawl the Gulf of Guinea struck so far south, raising questions about just what had happened to the Kerala. Angolan navy officials said last week they were searching for the vessel, and warned about the threat of piracy to Angola's energy-dependent economy.

Finally, on Sunday, Jan. 26, Dynacom re-established contact with its vessel: It had indeed been hijacked, the company said. One crewmember was hurt, and "a large amount of cargo had been stolen" from the vessel, Dynacom added. International investigators were set to examine the ship, which headed for port in Ghana, to gather forensic evidence to try to use against the suspected pirates.
So that's the end of the story? Not so fast:
"If substantiated, this latest incident demonstrates a significant extension of the reach of criminal groups and represents a threat to shipping in areas that were thought to be safe," [Dryad Maritime intelligence director Ian] Millen told the press on January 22. It should have been a relief, then, when the Angolan navy announced on Sunday that the tanker had been found and that it had not been hijacked by pirates. Except, on its face, the navy's story makes very little sense: According to Reuters, the crew "turned off communications" on January 18 "to fake an attack, seeking to calm energy sector fears that the vessel had been hijacked by pirates." So ... they faked a pirate attack in order to assuage fears about pirate attacks?

"It was all faked, there have been no acts of piracy in Angolan waters," an Angolan navy spokesman said. "What happened on January 18, when we lost contact with the ship, was that the crew disabled the communications on purpose. There was no hijacking." The spokesman, Augusto Alfredo, told reporters that the Kerala had been in Luanda when it was approached by a tugboat, and that the Kerala's crew then turned off all communications and followed the tugboat to Nigeria. “Our concern that it was an act of piracy proved unfounded. It’s no more than a simulation by the crew of the tanker and the tug’s agent,” Alfredo said.

When the Kerala was found, it was in Nigeria—and missing its cargo. Dynacom is disputing the claims of Angola's navy, insisting that the vessel was hijacked and its cargo stolen. This afternoon the AFP confirmed earlier reports that one crew member suffered an injury in connection with the tanker's mysterious activity. "All crew members are alive and accounted for, but one is wounded and all have clearly been affected by their ordeal," said Dynacom. The AFP also quoted a company source who said that the Angolan navy was trying to evade responsibility for the incident by denying that it was an act of piracy. "Angola is trying to cover up how a loaded vessel was taken in an area under its protection," said the source, and "there will now have to be an investigation by US authorities and Interpol."
So, rather than admit that a pirate attack took place, Angola is claiming the Kerala's crew faked a pirate attack in order to assuage fears about pirate attacks. It sounds like the mayor of Amity Island insisting there is no shark problem as body parts wash ashore.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

It's 1937 all over again

I was by no means the first person to compare the current dispute between Japan and China to 1937, but it's still nice to see others echoing the theme. China analyst Gordon G. Chang picks up on it as well, and also starts with the Marco Polo Bridge incident:
In first days of July 1937, Chinese and Japanese soldiers skirmished in Wanping, a few miles southwest of what is now the Chinese capital. China’s Chiang Kai-shek then knew his army was no match for Japan’s, and he had many opportunities to avoid battle with a vastly superior foe. Yet he ultimately chose war.

So why did Chiang decide to fight? And how did a minor—and probably accidental—clash turn into years of disastrous conflict? Now, analysts think today’s Asia feels like 1914 Europe, and last month in Davos Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likened today’s situation involving his country and China to that of England and Germany a hundred years ago. The better comparison, however, is 1937. The parallels between then and now, unfortunately, are striking.

The “China Incident,” as the Japanese then called the war, began on the banks of the Yongding River in Wanping during the night of July 7, 1937. Imperial troops, shooting blanks in an evening exercise, found themselves under fire, presumably from elements of the Chinese 29th Army. After the minor exchange near Lugouqiao, commonly known as the Marco Polo Bridge, Japanese officers were alarmed when one of their soldiers failed to turn up for a roll call. They then demanded that Chinese guards let them search nearby Wanping, where the Japanese had no general permission to enter.

A refusal triggered days of skirmishes. Once the fighting started, it did not matter that the stray Japanese private, who is thought to have wandered off to urinate, eventually turned up unhurt. Soon, Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was at war. The Japanese in short order would take the Marco Polo Bridge, cut off Beijing from the rest of the country, and seize that city. They would then drive Chiang’s forces from the metropolis of Shanghai, the capital of Nanjing, and most of the rest of eastern China.
Chang highlights China's latest transgressions:
Why is 1937 relevant to us? Today, China, no longer the victim, is aggressive, continually pressing its weaker neighbors to its south and east. For decades, the People’s Republic has been seizing specks in the South China Sea from Vietnam and the Philippines.

Most recently, Chinese vessels took Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in the middle of 2012. Washington, not wanting to antagonize Beijing and hoping to avoid a confrontation, did nothing to stop Beijing gobbling up the shoal despite America’s mutual defense treaty with Manila. The Chinese were not satisfied with their seizure, however. Now they are pressuring Second Thomas Shoal and other Philippine territory, also in the South China Sea. Beijing claims about 80 percent of that critical body of international water as an internal Chinese lake.

And as soon as the Chinese took Scarborough, they began to increase pressure on the Senkakus in the East China Sea, regularly sending their ships into territorial waters surrounding the islands and sometimes flying planes into airspace there. The barren outcroppings are claimed and in fact administered by Japan, but Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyus, wants them.

Why should the Japanese care about rocks in the East China Sea? The reason is that the Chinese are acting like classic aggressors. They were not satisfied with Scarborough, so they pressured the Senkakus. Chinese analysts, egged on by state media, are now arguing that Beijing should claim Japan’s Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain.
Then he goes into specific comparisons, some of which mirror my own:
First, the Japanese military then, like the Chinese one today, was emboldened by success and was ultra-nationalist. The views now expressed by China’s senior officers are deeply troubling. For instance, General Liu Yazhou, the political commissar at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, recently urged armed conflict to seize territory. “Those borders where our army has won victories are more peaceful and stable, but those where we were too timid have more disputes,” he said in a recent magazine interview. “An army that fails to achieve victory is nothing.”

Second, the media in the 1930s publicized the idea that Japan was being surrounded by hostile powers that wished to prevent its rise. That’s exactly what the Communist Party says today about China.

Third, then, like now, civilians controlled Asia’s biggest army only loosely. Although many believe that new Chinese ruler Xi Jinping is firmly in command, he appears to be allowing the military to engage in provocative behavior to obtain its support. In the complex bargaining process inside Beijing, Xi may be letting flag officers, head of the most powerful faction in the Party, tell him what policies he will adopt. If the PLA is now Xi Jinping’s faction—as many now believe—it is unlikely that he is in a position to tell the top brass what to do.

Yet whether Xi is an aggressor in his own right—a logical conclusion of the majority view that he is in control of the military—or is being led by the nose by flag officers, China is lashing out, taking on many nations at once. That is the same thing Japan did beginning in the 1930s.
Read the whole thing.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Another Sino-Japanese War in the offing?

For some time now I have been trying to call attention to the increasingly dangerous situation in the East China Sea, where Japan and China are snapping and growling at each other over a tiny set of islands.

The disputed islands, called Senkaku by the Japanese, Diaoyu by Communist China, and Tiaoyutai by Nationalist China (Taiwan). Source: Wikipedia.
These islands, called Senkaku by the Japanese, Daioyu by the Chinese Communists, and Tiaoyutai by the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan, appear to have little or no strategic value. There has been speculation that the islands may sit atop significant mineral resources, but that has not been substantiated. Yet the islands have sparked naval incursions, fighter scrambles, and increasingly belligerent language, especially from China.

What is going on?

In an article titled "Someone Just Said Something About The Japan-China Conflict That Scared The Crap Out Of Everyone" Henry Blodget of Business Insider gives a chilling explanation in the form of a comment made at a reception at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:
One of the guests, an influential Chinese professional, talked about the simmering conflict between China and Japan over a group of tiny islands in the Pacific.
China and Japan, you may recall, each claim ownership of these islands, which are little more than a handful of uninhabited rocks between Japan and Taiwan. Recently, the Japan-China tension around the islands has increased, and has led many analysts, including Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, to worry aloud about the potential for a military conflict.
The Chinese professional at dinner last night did not seem so much worried about a military conflict as convinced that one was inevitable. And not because of any strategic value of the islands themselves (they're basically worthless), but because China and Japan increasingly hate each other.
The Chinese professional mentioned the islands in the context of the recent visit by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine where Japanese killed in Japan's many military conflicts over the centuries are memorialized — including the Japanese leaders responsible for the attacks and atrocities Japan perpetrated in World War 2. A modern-day Japanese leader visiting the Yasukuni Shrine is highly controversial, because it is viewed by Japan's former (and current) enemies as an act of honoring war criminals.
That's certainly the way the Chinese professional at the dinner viewed it.
He used the words "honoring war criminals," to describe Abe's visit to the shrine. And, with contained but obvious anger, he declared this decision "crazy."
He then explained that the general sense in China is that China and Japan have never really settled their World War 2 conflict. Japan and America settled their conflict, he explained, and as a result, the fighting stopped. But China and Japan have never really put the war behind them.
The Chinese professional acknowledged that if China asserted control over the disputed islands by attacking Japan, America would have to stand with Japan. And he acknowledged that China did not want to provoke America.
But then he said that many in China believe that China can accomplish its goals — smacking down Japan, demonstrating its military superiority in the region, and establishing full control over the symbolic islands — with a surgical invasion.
In other words, by sending troops onto the islands and planting the flag.
The Chinese professional suggested that this limited strike could be effected without provoking a broader conflict. The strike would have great symbolic value, demonstrating to China, Japan, and the rest of the world who was boss. But it would not be so egregious a move that it would force America and Japan to respond militarily and thus lead to a major war.
Well, when the Chinese professional finished speaking, there was stunned silence around the table.
The technical term for this Chinese professional is "idiot." And he was called out on it:
The assembled CEOs, investors, executives, and journalists stared quietly at the Chinese professional. Then one of them, a businessman, reached for the microphone.
"Do you realize that this is absolutely crazy?" the businessman asked.
"Do you realize that this is how wars start?"
"Do you realize that those islands are worthless pieces of rock... and you're seriously suggesting that they're worth provoking a global military conflict over?"
The Chinese professional said that, yes, he realized that. But then, with conviction that further startled everyone, he said that the islands' value was symbolic and that their symbolism was extremely important.
Challenged again, the Chinese professional distanced himself from his earlier remarks, saying that he might be "sensationalizing" the issue and that he, personally, was not in favor of a war with Japan. But he still seemed certain that one was deserved.
Interesting word choice, "deserved." Not sure if it was Blodget's or the Chinese professional's. Even less sure what it means.

But his thinking is idiotic, to put it mildly. Let's assume that China does pull off this "surgical invasion," that they land troops on the islands, plant their flag, and then leave.

What happens after that?

I'll tell you what happens: Japan lands their own troops on the islands, removes the Chinese flag, and plants their own.

And we're back at Square One -- except the precedent of use of military force to assert sovereignty over the islands will have been set. And you will have the stupidly named People's Liberation Army Navy (though some reports have said the Chinese have finally realized the stupidity of the name and changed it to the "People's Liberation Navy") and the awkwardly named Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ("Imperial Japanese Navy" or Nihon Teikoku Kaigun, regardless of the bad history, is actually far cooler) will be hanging around the islands.

And when was the last time Chinese and Japanese forces hung around each other peacefully? May I suggest 1937?

Which brings me to an interview Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times had with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Rachman tweeted that Abe told him "China and Japan now are in a 'similar situation' to UK and Germany before 1914."

That's not actually true. A far better analogy would be US and Japan before 1937, but obviously Abe can't say that, as it would be admitting the Japanese were the bad guys in World War II.

But a 1937 analogy very much is true. In 1937 Imperial Japanese Army troops of the Kwantung Army stationed in Japanese-occupied Manchuria were across the Marco Polo Bridge from Nationalist Chinese troops on the other side. As usual, Imperial Japan was doing some katana-rattling in the form of maneuvers. On the night of July 7, 1937, during these nighttime maneuvers, someone opened fire. To this day no one is sure who -- arrogant Japanese, panicked Chinese nationalists, or devious Chinese communists hoping to provoke their two foes into fighting each other. Whatever the party, it was the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a war that exposed the sheer barbarism and brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army soldier in such incidents as the Rape of Nanking. It was during this time that Japanese navy bombers attacked and sank the US gunboat Panay in the Yangtze upriver from Nanking. The attack was unintentional inasmuch as the navy pilots and their commanding officers did not know they were attacking an American target -- they had apparently been deceived by the army into making the attack. Only a quick apology and some dollar-and-yen diplomacy averted a US-Japan war in 1937.

Now, like 1937, we have an aggressive fascist power in the Chinese Communists (who are communist in name only these days). We have an arrogant leadership, this time in the Chinese Communists, with a sense of entitlement and a basket full of grievances, both real and imagined. We have in the Chinese a country that has taken to bullying its neighbors. Remember that these islands are by no means the only ones China is trying to gain by intimidation. The Spratlys come to mind.

And, now, we have an admission that the Chinese, like the Japanese before World War II, are not basing their actions on a rational assessment of self-interest but on emotion and ego. This idea of a "surgical invasion" that supposedly would not provoke a response is a classic self-delusion.

And wars based on national emotion and national ego are often the most intractable, the most devastating of wars. See World War II in Europe and the Second Punic War for examples.

Hang on. This is going to be a bumpy ride.