Behaving like Small States versus Staring Back and Standing Firm? Options for Singapore’s Grand Strategy

I don’t normally write about diplomatic issues, but the on-going spat between two of Singapore’s top diplomats has been, at least for me, riveting.

In one corner, there is the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani, who had a commentary published in The Straits Times on 1 July 2017, entitled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country”. In Kishore’s opinion, “Qatar ignored an eternal rule of geopolitics: small states must behave like small states. Why? The answer was given by the famous historian, Thucydides, when writing about the war between Athens and Sparta: ‘Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.'”

Kishore’s argument, in my reading, can be summarised into three points:

  1. Singapore, unlike Qatar, should not “act as a middle power and interfere in affairs beyond its borders.”
  2. Singapore should “invest more in Asean”, especially in the ASEAN Secretariat, whose annual budget is “only US$19 million, or S$26 million” despite servicing a reported 630 million people.
  3. Singapore should “cherish the UN”, which hasn’t necessarily prevented small states from “bullied or invaded and occupied by their larger neighbours”, but the UN Charter nevertheless “has made the world a safer place for small states.”

In the other corner, there is Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, who, in his Facebook post of 2 July 2017, argued against Kishore’s commentary, and characterised it as “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous.” He further argued that Kishore advocates “subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy” and that Singapore will have to “live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks.” Bilahari’s argument is that small states like Singapore “will be friends to all who want to be friends with [them]. But friendship must be based on mutual respect. Of course [small states] recognise asymmetries of size and power … but that does not mean [they] must grovel or accept subordination as a norm of relationships.”

Later, Bilahari also recommended Ambassador Chan Heng Chee’s review of his own book as a more nuanced, careful and “far more balanced” approach to Singapore’s diplomatic strategy

The debate drew responses from Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong. The former characterised Bilahari’s initial rebuttal as “brilliant”. Shanmugam objected to Kishore’s small states behaving as such argument, arguing instead that such recommendations are “contrary to some basic principles” of the first Prime Minister, Mt Lee Kuan Yew. Shanmugam further added, “Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small.”

The latter also took issue with Kishore’s commentary. As The Straits Times reported, Keng Yong sought to draw attention to ” the elephant in the room: what happens when small states’ core interests are impinged upon, and caught within broader big-power dynamics.  Or do small states’ interests not matter, and should be subordinated to that of big states? Putting it another way, must Singapore be so governed by fears of offending bigger states that we allow them to do what they want or shape our actions to placate them even if they affect our national interests?” Keng Yong also took issue with Kishore’s reading of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue: “This was  actually mouthed by emissaries from Athens sent to the small state of Melos. The Athenians did not like Melos staying neutral in Athens’ war with Sparta and demanded tribute and submission from the Melians who maintained they were neutral and that Athens need not subjugate them. The Athenian emissaries responded with the now oft-cited quote and  said that if they accepted Melos’ neutrality, others would think that Athen was weak. Athens then proceeded to conquer Melos, killing its men, selling its women and children into slavery, and colonising Melos with its own people.”

Others also took to commenting on the debate. Kishore’s colleague at the LKYSPP, Dr Yap Kwong Weng, in The Straits Times on 3 July 2017, characterised Bilahari’s reaction as “exaggerated and unnecessary”, that Bilahari misconstrued “what Kishore had to say” and took Kishore’s “arguments out of context”, and that “Bilahari’s assertions are wrong and misleading.” Rather, Kwong Weng understands Kishore’s argument as “small countries like Singapore [needing] to exercise discretion concerning matters that involve great powers.”

Kishore himself has some out swinging. On 3 July 2017, in TodayOnline, Kishore wrote, “senior officials have been imprudent in their public statements. As a result, there have been some serious mishaps in our external relations”.

Interestingly, the Chan Heng Chee review that Bilahari cited has this to say: “I believe our foreign policy must be guided by a set of principles, but we should not highlight it in every speech we make, to say we have a “principled” foreign policy. We can make the point now and again, but it is for others to see our actions and conclude we have a “principled” foreign policy. Our foreign policy should be based on principles, but we should not be ideological about it.”

My own view? I don’t think Kishore’s commentary actually made the assertions that Bilahari alleged it did. I don’t agree with much of what Kishore has said over his long and distinguished career, but I have some sympathy for Kishore on this. I also tend to agree with Kishore’s assessment that small states should not stick their necks out, at least not without prior provocation. Bilahari is right on one thing: where small states have their core interests being challenged, they need to stand up to their larger neighbours and adversaries, in whatever way they can. They should not be cowed into submission by sheer disparity of size or power. But don’t stick your neck out. Don’t do stupid stuff!

A plea to my readers

Dear reader, if you chanced upon this blog, or if you follow it, I would really appreciate your thoughts on what I write.

In particular, I am interested in how readers reacted to the two preceding posts (19 May and 24 May) , both on the same issue. The 19 May post was my first draft, before it was submitted to Channel News Asia, whose editors worked on the draft and produced the text posted on 24 May.

Which do you think was the better draft?

More on North Korea, its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, and what can be done to stop them

Further to the preceding post, the text below is what Channel News Asia published (link provided here)

Should we be worried about North Korea? Not for now.

In recent months, North Korea appears to be playing a game of chicken with the US. Apart from undertaking two missile tests to build up a long-range missile capability, it has also sped up its nuclear programme development.

These moves have not gone unnoticed or unanswered. Earlier last month, US President Donald Trump announced that the US Navy would deploy an “armada” led by aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the waters around the Korean peninsula in response. It has also sparked off a flurry of shuttle diplomacy from China.

Of course, it turned out that the USS Carl Vinson had departed from Singapore and was actually headed towards the Indian Ocean to take part in exercises with the Royal Australian Navy. Eventually, the aircraft carrier deployed to the waters off the Korean peninsula, as Trump had initially claimed.

Keen observers are watching developments off the Korean peninsula with great interest, as people around the world worry about whether conflict is imminent. Some wonder, why are such military moves making things worse when they are supposed to deter North Korea? More importantly, should we be worried about North Korea’s weapons development and nuclear programme?

US’ MOVES TO DEPLOY USS CARL VINSON HAS BEEN A FAILURE IN DETERRENCE

In itself, the deployment of the carrier battle group to the waters off the Korean peninsula, even if this happened right after Trump’s initial announcement, is nothing remarkable or unprecedented. Countries in the past have deployed military assets in response to provocative moves by another country, and especially those by a putative adversary.

Obviously, there is a range of reasons why countries deploy military assets. The military is after all a tool of foreign policy. We can be forgiven for forgetting that “war is a form of politics by other means”, as the memories of war fade from Asia.

Most of us have an idea of the totality of war, as images of complete destruction and the levelling of cities from World War II dominate our judgment of what conflict entails. But how many of us actually remember that the last outbreak of armed hostilities in Southeast Asia wasn’t actually that long ago – which includes a civil war in Indonesia that led to the breakaway of East Timor in the late 1990s or a border fight between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear just five years ago?

In the case of the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson, ostensibly the intent was not to start a full-scale invasion but to shape North Korea’s behaviour: To compel North Korea to cease its missile tests and deter it from conducting a nuclear test that Pyongyang was widely rumoured to be contemplating.

After all, surely as a shrewd businessman, Trump understands that the definition of power is the ability of one party to change the behaviour of another. The logic goes: North Korea has done some very bad things in undertaking a missile test when Trump first met with Xi. So if the US deploys an armada, it will show North Korea that the US means business and they will back off.

Except it is clear that the Carl Vinson failed to do precisely the first – North Korea tested an apparently new ballistic missile capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead on May 15. But in a way, the US’ move was able to demonstrate the US’ resolve to respond to provocation from North Korea and signal the US’ displeasure to an unfriendly move at a critical time when Xi and Trump were meeting for the first time to some extent.

That this move was limited in shaping North Korea’s behaviour however, is worrying.

HOW FAR CAN NORTH KOREA’S MISSILES REACH?

The problem is that North Korea’s endgame is not entirely clear; nor is it clear how its ballistic missile and nuclear ambitions fit with and contribute to the attainment of this putative endgame – which is regime preservation and deterrence against an attack from the US or South Korea.

What North Korea has to its advantage is the mystery that shrouds its military capabilities, which affords Kim Jong Un political space because no one can calculate the damage he can wreck upon them if he so wishes. There is much that remains unknown about North Korea and its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities. Technical intelligence gathered from North Korea’s ballistic missile tests provide the only data – largely unverified and hence the variances – on their capabilities.

Authoritative estimates suggest that the recently tested Hwasong-7 short-range ballistic missile has a range of 800 to 1,000 km; whereas the inter-continental range Taepodong-2 missile tested in 2012 has a range of 4,000 to 15,000 km. The KN-14 inter-continental range missile currently under development is estimated to have a potential range between 8,000 and 10,000 km.

While this may seem to some as if North Korea has working missiles that can reach Australia, India and even New York, these ranges are ascribed to these missiles based on extrapolations from the technical intelligence gleaned from ballistic missile tests, and should therefore be treated with at least some scepticism.

Moreover, the tests that North Korea conducted were not actual intercontinental ballistic missile tests, which involve testing whether the missile can carry their weapons into the atmosphere, manage re-entry and detonate upon reaching a specific target.

Furthermore there are three glaring intelligence gaps concerning North Korea’s ballistic missiles which impedes our ability to assess if they can credibly launch a successful strike. One gap is the throw-weight, which relates to the size of the warhead that these missiles possess, which determines how much destruction each can cause. North Korea’s May 15 missile test may be able to carry a nuclear warhead. However, that further presupposes that North Korea has been able to weaponise its nuclear programme, to transform crude nuclear devices into warheads small enough to be deployed by missiles. There are no signs of this as yet.

The second gap is the accuracy of these missile guidance systems, typically measured in CEP, or circular error probable. As an example, the US Navy deploys the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile that has an estimated range of 12,000 km, carries up to 12 warheads, and can land each warhead within 90 metres of its intended target. But there is simply no data on the accuracy of North Korea’s missiles.

A third gap is whether North Korea has access to high-grade material for the missile body which is needed to ensure that the missiles do not burn up when exiting and re-entering the atmosphere. Such material has been a key object in most UN sanctions.

Apart from missile technology, there is little known about North Korea’s conventional military capabilities except that its military is about 5 million strong and North Korea pours most of its government budget into defence which amounts to about US$6 billion (S$8.4 billion) accordingly to some estimates.

There have been suggestions of a North Korea link in the recent global cyberattacks. This is plausible because developing offensive cyber capabilities may give North Korea an asymmetrical advantage with the potential for disruption and intelligence gathering. For North Korea, the overwhelmingly antiquated nature of its conventional military capabilities means that such asymmetric capabilities are pretty much all it has as strategic levers.

LIMITS TO ANY MIILTARY STRATEGY IN CHANGING NORTH KOREA’S BEHAVIOUR

Any effective military strategy necessarily requires an accurate understanding of the adversary’s intentions. By failing to understand the adversary – in this case, North Korea’s endgame – any strategy will fail to leverage the basic motivations of the adversary.

The effectiveness of a military strategy is predicated on three factors: capability, credibility and communication. The Carl Vinson battle group clearly possesses significant military capability. However, the credibility of the US’ threat, despite evidence of President Trump’s muscular foreign policy evident in the Apr 4 strikes against Syrian military targets, was debatable at best, for any military action against North Korea can only be conducted with at least the tacit approval of Beijing. But why Beijing would agree to weakening an ally at its doorstep that provides useful buffer and poses a distraction to countries like the US is unclear.

Finally, the fiasco surrounding the deployment of USS Carl Vinson demonstrated a failure to communicate clearly to the targeted state of North Korea that the US was going to do something that would hurt North Korea’s interests.

NORTH KOREA’S STRATEGY IS TO PRESENT ITSELF AS IRRATIONAL

There is a seldom-discussed fourth factor: The susceptibility of the target state to being compelled or deterred. There are at least two schools of thought on understanding North Korean foreign policy behaviour.

At one end, encapsulated by US Senator John McCain, who famously described Kim Jong-un as a “crazy fat kid”, North Korea is regarded as an irrational actor. The country has a historical habit of assassinating political detractors and enemies of the state including past attempts to assassinate South Korean presidents and even Kim’s brother Kim Jong Nam. North Korea has also undertaken dubious military attacks that do not appear to have any benefit apart from testing how South Korea would respond. Recent incidents include the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean marines that same year.

At the other end, North Korea may not be as irrational as the first school thinks it is. Proponents of this school argue that Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il deliberately cultivated a reputation for irrational behaviour as a way by which to maximise North Korea’s limited leverage in international politics.

If policy makers hold to the North Korea as irrational school of thought, this then provides very little incentive to attempt to understand North Korea and decipher its endgame. A crazy North Korea means the international community has little, if any indeed, leverage through which to compel the former to cease its missile tests and deter it from conducting another nuclear test in the not-too-distant future.

However, even an accurate understanding of North Korea will not necessarily result in strategic success; simply because the probability of Kim Jong-un truly behaving irrationally cannot be eliminated. The element of chance means that any strategy – however well thought through – holds within it the prospect of failure.

Finally, the deployment of military assets to the vicinity, whether for deterrence or compellance purposes, introduces an element of risk of miscalculation leading to a serious crisis, which if not properly managed, can result in armed conflicts that both sides might want to avoid.

North Korea is unlikely to significantly change its behaviour any time soon; neither will the US likely back off or down.

So we can expect further provocation from North Korea and the inevitable reactions from the US and other countries. But we shouldn’t expect these reactions to produce measures that work unless these involve China or South Korea – the countries that hold bargaining chips that North Korea may be interested in.

Signalling Displeasure: Deterring North Korea from Further Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Tests

On 12 April 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that announced that a US Navy “armada” centred around the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, was being deployed to the waters around the Korean peninsula in response to missile tests being conducted by North Korea. Of course, it turns out that the USS Carl Vinson had departed from Singapore and was actually headed towards the Indian Ocean to take part in exercises with the Royal Australian Navy. Eventually, of course, the aircraft carrier deployed, as President Trump had initially claimed.

Birds Do It, Bees Do It: Signalling displeasure through the deployment of military assets

In itself, the deployment of the carrier battle group is nothing remarkable or unprecedented. A country will deploy military assets to signal its displeasure with the actions of another country, possibly the former’s putative adversary.

In the three Taiwan Straits crises – 1954-1955, 1958, and 1995-1996 – the US Navy 7th Fleet played a central role in managing the flare-up in tensions between the PRC and Taiwan. Even small states like Singapore: witness the mobilisation of SAF National Servicemen on 9 August 1991 in response to Operation Pukul Habis, part of the Malindo Darsasa joint exercise between Indonesian and Malaysian military units.

The examples cited above indicate that the intent of such deployments will vary from situation to situation. Singapore’s mobilisation of SAF National Service units was to signal its unhappiness with the joint Malaysian-Indonesian military exercise. The past deployments of US naval assets in the three Taiwan Straits crises were a combination of crisis management and deterrence, signally to both the PRC and Taiwan that on-going tensions and crises needed to be managed, not escalated, for the interest of regional stability.

North Korea and Regional Security and Stability

The Carl Vinson battle group was deployed to the Korean peninsula likely for a combination of compellance and deterrence reasons: to compel North Korea to cease its missile tests, and deter it from conducting a nuclear test that Pyongyang was widely rumoured to be contemplating. Except it is clear that the Carl Vinson failed to do precisely the first – North Korea tested an apparently new ballistic missile capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead on 15 May 2017.

The problem is that North Korea’s endgame is not entirely clear; nor is it clear how its ballistic missile and nuclear ambitions fit with and contribute to the attainment of this putative endgame. Indeed there is much that remains unknown about North Korea and its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.

Technical intelligence gathered from North Korea’s ballistic missile tests provide the only data – largely unverified and hence the variances – on their capabilities. Authoritative estimates suggest that the Hwasong-7 short-range ballistic missile has a range of 800-1000 km; whereas the inter-continental range Taepodong-2 missile has a range of 4000-15000 km. The KN-14 inter-continental range missile currently under development is estimated to have a potential range between 8000 and 10000 km.

However, there are two glaring intelligence gaps concerning North Korea’s ballistic missiles. One gap is the throw-weights – the size of warhead – that these missiles possess. North Korea’s 15 May 2017 missile test may be able to carry a nuclear warhead. However, that further presupposes that North Korea has been able to weaponise its nuclear programme, that is, transform crude nuclear devices into warheads small enough to be deployed by missiles.

The second gap is the accuracy – typically measured in CEP, or circular error probable – of these missile guidance systems. As an example, the US Navy deploys the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile that has an estimated range of 12000 km, carries up to 12 warheads, and can land each warhead within 90 meters of its intended target. There is simply no data on the accuracy of North Korea’s missiles.

Limits to Strategic Effectiveness

Any strategy NECESSARILY requires an accurate understanding of the adversary. By failing to understand the adversary – in this case, North Korea’s endgame – any strategy will fail to leverage on the basic motivations of the adversary.

North Korea’s 15 May missile test plausibly demonstrates a failure of the United State’s apparent compellance strategy. Any deterrence or compellance strategy is predicated on three factors: capability, credibility and communication. The Carl Vinson battle group clearly possesses significant military capability. However, the credibility of the United States threat, despite evidence of President Trump’s muscular style from the 4 April 2017 strikes against Syrian military targets, was debatable at best; any military action against North Korea can only be conducted with at least the tacit approval of Beijing. Finally, the fiasco surrounding President Trump’s announcement demonstrated a failure to communicate clearly to the target state, in this case North Korea.

There is a seldom-discussed fourth factor: the susceptibility of the target state to being compelled or deterred. There are at least two schools of thought on understanding North Korean foreign policy behaviour.

At one end, encapsulated by United States Senator John McCain, who famously described Kim Jong-un as a “crazy fat kid”, North Korea is regarded as an irrational actor. Behavioural patterns that manifest this irrationality include: attempts on 21 January 1968 and 15 August 1974 to assassinate the then-President of South Korea, Park Chung Hee; the 18 August 1970 axe murder of two United States military officers in Panmunjom; the 23 March sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan; and, 23 November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean marines.

At the other end, North Korea may not be as irrational as the first school thinks it is. However, some proponents of this school argue, Kim Jong-Il and his successor Kim Jong-un deliberately cultivated a reputation for irrational behaviour as a way by which to maximise North Korea’s limited leverage in international politics.

If policy makers hold to the North Korea as irrational school of thought, this then provides very little incentive to attempt to understand North Korea, and to attempt to decipher its endgame. A crazy North Korea means the international community has little – if any, indeed – leverage through which to compel the former to cease its missile tests, or deterred to conduct a nuclear test in the not-too-distant future.

However, even an accurate understanding of North Korea will not necessarily result in strategic success; simply because the probability of Kim Jong-un truly behaving irrationally cannot be eliminated. The element of chance means that any strategy – however well thought through – holds within it the prospect of failure.

Finally, the deployment of military assets to the vicinity, whether for deterrence or compellance purposes, introduces an element of risk of miscalculation leading to a serious crisis, which if not properly managed, can result in armed conflicts that both sides might want to avoid.

North Korea is unlikely to significantly change its behaviour any time soon; neither will the United States likely back off or down. Expect further provocations from North Korea, and expect the inevitable reactions from the United States and other countries. Just don’t expect these measures to work.

Does the SAF need mavericks?

My colleague and friend wrote this. There is little I can disagree with; indeed, it is a case for preaching to the converted, at least to me. To be fair, how can you disagree with the assertion that “the SAF is facing non-linear threats ranging from terrorism to cyber and information warfare, coupled with increasing internal demographic and resource constraints [and that the] resulting hybrid security environment makes traditional defence planning strategies less effective.”

Michael goes on to argue, “Amid conditions of strategic uncertainty, the 4G SAF will therefore need to focus on institutional agility – developing a set of capabilities to anticipate changing conditions in advance of need, while maintaining core operational readiness.” His next sentence is, for me, the money shot: “To do so, the SAF must build the next generation of competent and committed leaders of character who improve and thrive in ambiguity and chaos. This means investing in professional military education that shapes strategic culture embracing innovation in complex environments.”

If anything, I would argue that Michael dos not go far enough. The establishment of an Army Deployment Force for Homeland Security Operations (the so-called ADF) is, at least to me, indicative of the future of the SAF and problematic at the same time.

The SAF’s mantra is that it is an effective force, that it has been and continues to be able to deter a wide variety of threats to Singapore’s security (both existential and otherwise). National Servicemen have been central to this deterrence capability and strategic effectiveness.

If this is the case, then how do we understand the establishment of the ADF? Why should this ADF be an all-professional force?

Simply, because National Servicemen take too long to be mobilised, and the nature of the terrorist threat (especially if terrorists decide to launch a Bataclan-style attack against Singapore. Current jul-time National Servicemen are not, as it is now called, operationally-ready (which, and a separate issue, means that if they are mobilised in event of a existential threat, they will be nothing more than cannon-fodder – and this is what the narrative of operationally-ready National Servicemen amounts to!).

I am also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that military personnel should be deployed for counter-terrorist operations. This is something I feel is rather more the ambit of law enforcement agencies. Of course, in Singapore, the Home Team gets the piss-end of national resources dedicated for national security; most of these resources go to the Ministry of Defence.

Rather, I would argue that if terrorists are going to be the principal threat to Singapore, then the rational policy is to provide greater resources to the Home Team, to give them the capacities to prosecute a counter-terrorist operation. And leave the SAF to what it is supposed to do – defend Singapore against external and existential threats!

Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right: Strategic Options for South Korea

In the age of Kim Jong-Un, Xi Jin Ping and Donald Trump, what are the strategic options that South Korea potentially has to navigate its national security interests into the future?

The Political and Economic Geography of the Korean Peninsula

The political geography of the Korean peninsula has always been complicated. Historically, the peninsula was the route of invasion for rival empires in Northeast Asia, and often regarded as a dagger pointing at the heart of China and Japan; this gave both China and Japan, historical rivals, an abiding interest in being able to at least influence developments on the peninsula, if not outright control it. Since the end of World War 2, the peninsula has been of geopolitical interest to China, Japan, Russia and the US. The “satisficing” solution has been to ensure that no one power is able to dominate the entire peninsula.

The geopolitics of the Korean peninsula has been further complicated with an overlay of ideological conflict since the start of the Cold War, and has persisted into the 21st Century. Ideology ought to dictate that China and North Korea are close. Indeed, while North Korea has been slapped with a number of sanctions since the emergence of its nuclear programme followed by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, China has been the principal source of economic and technological aid for Pyongyang.

The introduction of the nuclear question, in the form of North Korea’s nuclear programme, has added a further layer of complication to the geopolitical equation. How North Korea was able to develop a nuclear programme is a question that has never been answered. Both China and Russia had condemned North Korea in the wake of the latter’s 2013 nuclear test.

Finally, the economic geography of Northeast Asia makes a vibrant relationship with South Korea of great importance to China. South Korea’s largest trading partners are China and the US. In 2015, South Korea exported a total of USD137 billion to China and USD70 billion to the US, while importing USD90 billion and USD44 billion respectively. South Korea’s economy far outstrips that of North Korea. North Korea’s GDP is estimated at USD40 billion; whereas South Korea’s GDP stands at USD1.4 trillion.

Implications on Sino-Korean Diplomatic Relations

China’s relationship with both Korean states has evolved ever since Beijing and Seoul established formal diplomatic relations in August 1992. China’s relationship with North Korea has sometimes been portrayed as being “closer than lips are to teeth.”

However, China has started to act in a more muscular fashion against North Korea: its willingness to support a UN Security Council motion to condemn North Korea for its recent destabilising behaviour; and the possibility that China may freeze oil exports to North Korea if the latter conducts more missile or nuclear tests. The old relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, sometimes analogised as being “closer than lips to teeth”, may no longer apply. Shen Zihua, a prominent Chinese historian, went so far as to say, “North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend.”

Nevertheless, the picture is still rather more complicated. China and South Korea are in a mutually beneficial economic relationship; whereas North Korea is dependent on China. At ehe same time, it may still be in China’s interest to tolerate North Korea’s behaviour, since the nightmare scenario for Beijing is surely one where the Korean peninsula is reunited under a pro-US Seoul government. China’s angry reactions to the recent decision to allow THAAD systems to be deployed in South Korea give evidence to this.

South Korea’s Strategic Options

Given the complicated geography of the Korean peninsula, what are the strategic options available to South Korea?

The reality for South Korea is that, as a middle power, it cannot afford to alienate either China or the US, or even Japan for that matter. Militarily, South Korea still depends on the US; South Korea is at best a second-tier arms producer, and its indigenous defence industry has been characterised by Richard Bitzinger as “technonationalism”, fulfilling nationalist ambitions rather than supplying military equipment that is genuinely good. The decision to station US THAAD systems in South Korea is further indication of Seoul’s dependence on the US for its national security.

Furthermore, South Korea cannot afford to alienate China either, for both economic as well as strategic reasons. China is universally acknowledged as absolutely central to the resolution of the North Korea problem, the recent rhetoric from Washington notwithstanding.

Note: a fuller version – edited by The Conversation’s editorial team, is attached here.

Tomahawks and MOABs – What did these achieve in Syria and Afghanistan?

On 7 April 2017, the United States fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Sharyat Air Base in central Syria, from which Syrian airplanes had allegedly conducted a chemical attack against the city of Khan Sheikhoun three days prior. Less than a week later, on 13 April, the United States dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, more commonly known as Mother Of All Bombs) on caves in Afghanistan allegedly housing ISIS operators.

What did these strikes accomplish? A few fays after the Tomahawk strikes, Sharyat Air Base was back in business; which means the 59 Tomahawks – at under US$2 million a piece – failed to destroy the air base. So, well over US$100 million did nothing to stop the target from continuing to operate. Whereas the MOAB – while there is no official cost of the weapon, it is safe to assume a number somewhere in the tens of millions of US dollars – strike in Afghanistan killed a reported 36 ISIS operators. Something intuitively does not seem right about these numbers.

Except, of course, this is not how effectiveness of military operations is calculated.

Rather, when we evaluate the effectiveness of a military operation, presumably we start with strategy. The godfather of Western strategic thought, Carl Gottlieb von Clausewitz, defined as the “use of engagements for the purposes of the war;” a contemporary strategist, Colin Gray, analogised strategy as a “bridge”: connecting resources and power and military force on one side; with policy and purpose on the other. So we ask, what is the desired result that a military operation is supposed to fulfil? In the 1990s, an entire body of literature emerged on a hypothesis that there was a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA for short), and one of the key aspects of this literature addressed the supposedly revolutionary concept of Effects-Based Operations (EBO for short). Except Clausewitz had already taught us that “engagements” ought to help fulfil the purposes (the “effects”) of the war; so EBP was fundamentally nothing new. Nevertheless it was a potentially useful device to help military planners and policy makers to ask the right questions about any proposed military operation.

With strategy as our analytical tool, it is then possible to ask, what did the Tomahawk and MOAB strikes achieve? To be able to answer that question, however, there has to be a POLITICAL reason to have ordered the strikes in the first place; that each action had an intended OUTCOME. For any military action to have the desired outcome, that military action has to target some part of the enemy that presumably the latter values so much as to be prepared to grant the attacker its desired outcomes. Presumably the act of attacking Sharyat Air Base will create the intended outcome; similarly for the MOAB attack in Afghanistan.

However, there is any likelihood that the US military planners and policy-makers have got their frames of analysis wrong. Ken Booth warned us of a potential anger – ethnocentrism in strategy, and the possibility that strategists erroneously mirror-image their adversary. In other words, just because you value some things doesn’t necessarily mean your enemy will have the same value systems. The Tomahawk and MOAB attacks presumably contained distinct messages for Syria and ISIS; just don’t expect Syria and ISIS to NECESSARILY get the message, especially if Washington got its fundamental assumptions about Syria and ISIS wrong!

In other words, to use the language of EBO, what was the desired effect of these strikes, and did these strikes achieve them? Or, to use the language of Clausewitz, do these strikes contribute towards the eventual winning of the war?

The first question is difficult enough to ascertain. If we know what the intended effect is, we can then begin to make some limited assessments about the effectiveness of the strike. Intuitively, I suspect most of us will feel that the strikes were pointless. Just about US$ 100 million was spent attacking an air base in Syria that was able to resume functioning not long after the attacks. A MOAB costing probably millions of US dollars killed a reported 36 ISIS operators. Both figures intuitively tell us that the strikes were meant to appease rather than achieve.

However, if the effect is to lead – however eventually – towards the attainment of the political-strategic objective – in other words, the language of Clausewitz – this is something that we will never be able to tell, until after the historians have done their thing. If we launch an attack thinking that it can have a decisive impact on the course of a war, then we are inviting failure in the most dramatic of fashions: think of Operation Market Garden, for instance. On the other hand, historians will judge specific operations as constituting the decisive turn in an on-going war. Its not up to us; its up to historians to judge our operations.