Shadow Government

What is the Saudi arms deal really about?

It is widely believed that the massive $60 billion U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia is directed against Iran. After all, Israel did not object to the deal. As one analyst told China's Xinhua News Agency, Jerusalem, of all places, was simply adhering to the ancient principle of: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."

It is indeed possible that the deal -- which includes up to 84 new F-15s, upgrading of Riyadh's current force of 70 F-15s, and up to 1,000 so-called "bunker buster" bombs -- is meant to enhance the Saudi deterrent against Iran. But that presupposes that Iran will still be moving ahead with its nuclear weapons program in 2015, when the first new F-15s will be delivered to the desert kingdom, but will not yet have actually fielded the bomb. Should Iran already have acquired nuclear weapons together with viable systems for delivering them prior to that date, it is difficult to see how the Saudi purchases would effectively deter Tehran from anything other than a conventional attack on the Saudi Kingdom. On the other hand, should Iran have dropped its nuclear program -- whether as a result of either international pressure or an internal upheaval -- the Saudi purchase would appear to be somewhat beside the point.

A look at the remainder of the Saudi deal indicates that Riyadh has other concerns in mind. The Saudis are also acquiring 190 helicopters. These include 70 Apache Longbows, an upgraded version of the U.S. Army's highly successful attack helicopter which carries, among other weapons, a powerful 30 MM gun and anti-tank missiles. Riyadh is also purchasing 36 AH-6i "Little Bird" light helicopters, which are often used by Special Forces. Finally, the Saudis are buying 72 UH-60 Blackhawks, which are ideal for moving troops into and around combat zones.

Acquisition of these helicopters makes the most sense in the context of a need to prevent incursions from Yemen or to support the Sana'a government's operations against rebellious tribes, such as those that have been directed against the Houthis (who are Zaidis, a branch of Shiite Islam) since 2004. Indeed, so do the F-15s, and were the Houthis or other rebels to operate from underground shelters, so would the bunker busters as well. Finally the Saudi naval modernization program is as much geared to preventing piracy in the Red Sea and seaborne attacks on oil facilities in the Eastern Province as on deterring the Iranian Navy or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's naval forces.

Why would Israel not object to the Saudi purchase of attack systems that could in theory be deployed from Tabuk against the Jewish state? In part because the Israelis do not expect such an attack; in part because they will be receiving the more advanced F-35 the same year that the Saudis begin to take ownership of the F-15s; in part because the Israelis own, and are therefore familiar with, not only F-15s, but most of the systems the Saudis are purchasing. Presumably, the Israel Defense Forces have devised defenses against them, whether through electronic warfare or kinetic means. In addition, however, it is in Israel's interest that the conservative Saudi regime prevent radicals such as the Houthis -- who among their other acts have terrorized Yemen's ancient Jewish community to the point that most of it has now emigrated -- from ever gaining power on the Arabian Peninsula.

Moreover, even if the Israelis do not expect the F-15s to be relevant in terms of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, Israel believes that Tehran does not need five years to build the bomb -- they recognize the psychological impact on the Ayatollahs of their tacit support of the Saudi purchase. The Israelis would be delighted if Tehran's paranoid leaders were to conclude from Jerusalem's passivity in the face of the Saudi deal that Israel and Riyadh are in cahoots against them and that Israel has made a secret arrangement to overfly Saudi airspace in an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

There is yet one more reason for Israeli acquiescence to the sale. For more than twenty years -- since Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir quashed American Jewish opposition to the 1988 sale of F-18s to Kuwait -- Israel has been relatively silent in the face of arms sales to the Gulf Arabs. At the time, Shamir concluded that the sale posed no threat to Israel, and his attaché in Washington informed a number of vocal Congressional opponents of the deal that they should reserve their vitriol for other issues. Since then, the Israeli assessment of the impact of such sales on its security has not changed, while its desire to win over the Gulf States has increased over time. Israel wants to establish decent, if not official, relations with the southern Gulf regimes not only to forge a united front against Iran, but also to encourage those states to play a more positive role in the peace process and to increase their financial support of the Palestinian Authority. While Israel has had on-and-off economic relations with several of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Saudi Arabia has not been one of them. Riyadh is the biggest prize and the Israelis are ready to go to great lengths to win it over -- and if that means silence in the face of a massive purchase of American arms, so be it.

Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Image

Shadow Government

What happened to China's 'peaceful rise'?

How can we make sense of a People's Republic of China that is supposed to be, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, "biding its time and hiding its capabilities," but in fact is picking fights with most of its neighbors, including the United States? The Chinese were supposed to be using their deep reservoirs of "soft power" and practicing a highly skilled diplomacy aimed at assuring all that China is rising peacefully. But over the past year, Beijing has been rather more clumsy than the caricature of Chinese cleverness might suggest. China has in effect declared the entire South China Sea -- a body of water that is of critical importance for its abundance of natural resources and for its position as the maritime connection between the Indian and Pacific Oceans -- to be its territorial water.   

Needless to say, this has not gone over well with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. And, just when it appeared that China would return to a lighter touch in the face of strong U.S. resistance to its South China Sea claims, Beijing bullied and coerced Japan into circumventing its legal processes after a Chinese fishing trawler rammed Japanese ships in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chains. In sum, China's exercise of power has been more hard than soft. Beijing seems to be neither "biding its time" nor rising peacefully.

A recent book helps explain how PRC leaders think about the world and what may lead China to engage in the behavior we and our allies find offensive. In The Mind of Empire China's History and Foreign Relations, Christopher Ford makes a persuasive case for hardwired cultural conditioning as an explanation for China's imperious behavior. China possesses, well, the mind of an empire. According to Ford, Chinese history has no precedent for stable coexistence among sovereign equals. Moreover, struggle over primacy within China and later with other states is a fairly continuous characteristic of Chinese history. Here is Ford:

The Chinese tradition has as its primary model of interstate relations a system in which the focus of national policy is in effect a struggle for primacy and legitimate stable order is possible when one power reigns supreme-by direct bureaucratic control of the Sinic geographic core and by at least tributary relationships with all other participants in the world system.  

According to Ford, China has an enduring sense of global order. Beijing assumes that the "natural order" of the political world is hierarchical and the idea of truly separate and independent states is illegitimate.

But wait, some might argue, what about China's embrace -- if not sanctification -- of the Western construct of international relations: Non-interference in the affairs of other sovereign states? If China's natural place is atop a Sino-centric hierarchy, and other sovereign states are lesser entities that should pay deference to China, then why use the histrionic defense of Westphalian norms which codifies equal status among states?

According to Ford, as well as China scholars Jacqueline Newmyer and Michael Pillsbury, the answer may lie in Chinese strategists' cultural conditioning: Many Chinese strategic elites analogize this period in international politics to the Warring States Period. According to Newmyer, the Warring States Period was "a militarized age when roughly seven small kingdoms vied for ascendancy over the territory now considered China's Han core, before the state of Qin emerged victorious, unified China, and launched the dynastic era that lasted into the twentieth century."  

During this period of Chinese history, roughly coequal sovereigns competed for primacy until, as Ford says, "a just and moral unitary Confucian state" dominated for two millennia and established the correct pattern of hierarchical relations with China's neighbors.

This period of Chinese history is not simply a matter of academic interest. According to Newmyer, Deng Xiaoping sparked a renaissance in the study of this period among China's strategic elites. According to Pillsbury, the People's Liberation Army studies this period to learn how to approach the contemporary period of international politics.

Thus, it could be that the current sanctification of Westphalian norms in China's foreign policy is merely a useful instrument in what Chinese strategists view as the competitive struggle for political hegemony ongoing today. Sovereign equality is accepted as a reality, at least for now, until China can establish a political order more in line with the Sino-centric hierarchy it naturally prefers. The concept of "non-interference" and respect for sovereignty is a useful way for Beijing to defend the territory China already controls and that which China claims.  

In a competitive international setting, China would be highly attentive to the slightest adjustment in the distribution of power among states. The proximate cause of China's expansive South China Sea claims may have been a judgment that the current hegemon -- the United States -- was reeling from the financial crisis and distracted by two wars. The weakness of the strongest state in the system presented an opportunity for China to make its claim on the South China Sea more public and coerce the lesser "tributary" states along its periphery to accept Beijing's diktat.   

The strong counter-reaction by Secretaries Clinton and Gates took the Chinese by surprise and left Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stunned and furious. But precisely in his moment of fury, Foreign Minister Yang had much to reveal about how the Chinese elite think. In Yang's view, Secretary Clinton was "attacking China."  And as Yang said, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact." This reaction makes a great deal of sense when seen through the prism of China's world view as explained by Ford, Newymer and Pillsbury. First, Beijing sees itself as in an intensive competition for primacy that parallels the Warring States Period. U.S. attempts to stand up for its interests and allies are not taken at face value, they are "attacks" on China. Second, the natural order of things is that the "small countries" must accept China's superior position. In Beijing's view, accepting your natural place in the hierarchy is not just a matter of power politics in the classical realist sense, it is right, proper, and the only way to establish a stable order.

When the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue heated up again, China was no less brazen. It cancelled diplomatic meetings with the Japanese, cut off the export of rare earth materials upon which Japan depends, and demanded an apology after Japan gave in to Chinese demands. If one analyzes China's behavior in accordance with its strategic traditions, once again Beijing's behavior makes sense. First, in China's view, the island chain is part of China -- China cannot be whole or strong again unless it retains absolute control over all of once dynastic China. Second, Japan -- a country that for centuries was supposed to be, and indeed was, a lesser state -- grew stronger than China in the late 19th century. It also visited upon China humiliating defeats in war that led to abuses of Chinese citizens and the loss of dynastic territory. China will never be satisfied that the natural order has been restored until Japan accepts China's superiority and apologizes for its past. And a policy of apology and redemption along the lines of modern Germany will not suffice: Japan must come to China as a supplicant, a child who wronged his parents. 

Ford's analysis of China's "mind of empire" explains quite a bit about China's behavior. But of course no one book can cover China's foreign relations in all its complexities. While strategic culture matters, there are other motivations for China's policy such as resource needs, an absence of any legitimating idea of governance, and the push and pull of power politics within the international system.  

But policymakers must also take seriously the Chinese cognitive prism. American policy toward China must seem very odd within the halls of Zhongnanhai. Since President Nixon, Washington has invited China into the "family nations" -- the current formulation is an invitation to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system.  But this system is ill-defined. The irony is that just when the Chinese found some use for Western international law, the West was abandoning the sanctity of the Treaty of Westphalia (see Kosovo, Darfur, Iraq).

An even deeper problem is that from a Chinese perspective, the only international system that makes any sense is the one China is working to restore: A Sino-centric one in which (once China finishes its project of growing strong and unifying China again by reclaiming all "lost" territories) it can establish a just, moral and unitary Chinese order. Within that order, non-Chinese people will have to pay the proper respect and deference to the Middle Kingdom.

The problem for Beijing is that no one outside of China has much use for that kind of international system. The West (the democracies of the world) is quite satisfied with the current liberal order. The key American foreign policy task of the 21st century, then, is to better explicate, legitimate, and defend that order at a time when it is under tremendous pressure from China. A strong defense of the Western system will help avoid the tensions we have seen over the past year. Chinese leaders must see that power is not shifting, that the U.S. means to protect the world order it created, and that attempting to change it would lead China once again to ruin.