Friday News Roundup — September 24, 2021
Growing Alliances; Air Power in the Indo-Pacific; Russian Elections; Biden at the UN
Happy Friday from Washington, D.C., where there may not be much of a weekend ahead for some as the deadlines loom for keeping the government open, addressing the debt ceiling, avoiding automatic sequestration, and, ultimately, the fate of President Biden’s and Democratic priorities. With bipartisan support, the House passed the yearly National Defense Authorization Act, totalling $768 billion, raising troops’ salaries, and requiring, for the first time, that women register for the draft.
In Arizona, news broke this morning that the long-running Maricopa County audit of the 2020 elections results, costing $5.7 million to the Arizona taxpayers, determined that President Biden won the county, in fact, by a larger margin than originally tabulated. Still, there is little doubt that these results will somehow be spun to cast further doubt on Maricopa County officials and our electoral processes. Despite this, and at former President Trump’s behest, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced such an audit would be undertaken in Texas’s most populous counties.
President Biden and French President Macron spoke by phone this week, following Paris’s coup de piqué following the AUKUS agreement. While the leaders will meet in the coming weeks, hopefully, for this weekend, U.S-Europe tensions can be limited to the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. Next week, officials from Washington and Brussels will meet in Pittsburgh for the first meeting of the transatlantic Trade and Tech Council. Today, the focus is on the shape of U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific with the Quad leaders meeting at the White House.
In the media this week, CSPC Presidential Fellows alumnus Christian Bale wrote in The Washington Post about the challenge of auditing the Defense Department and what it means for Congressional powers and oversight. Senior Fellow James Kitfield, in Yahoo News, dives into the actions of Gen. Milley in the waning days of the Trump administration. Joshua reviewed Peter Bergen’s latest work on the life and legacy of Osama Bin Laden.
In this week’s roundup, Dan looks at the relationships, and relationship difficulties, of the alliance structures among democracies. Ethan looks at air power in the Indo-Pacific, while Joshua breaks down the Russian election results. Our Senior Fellow, Robert Gerber provides his expert analysis of President Biden’s speech to the UN General Assembly. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
A Growing Network of Alliances & Partnerships
As Winston Churchill famously said, “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them.” As both the Trump and Biden administrations have focused on the rise of China and countering Beijing’s influence, the role played by our alliances and partnerships becomes ever more important. In the Trump administration, while many officials sought to foster and strengthen our alliances, the rhetoric from the Oval Office was often less-than-friendly to key allies. The Biden administration, while continuing to be tough on China, has sought to strengthen U.S. alliances, though, as our focus continues to shift to the Indo-Pacific, the challenges in managing ties with our European allies will become even trickier.
First, in both the growing importance of the Quad coalition (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States and the newly announced Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement on military technology and cooperation illustrate how a new multilateral approach is replacing the largely bilateral, hub-and-spoke alliance models that had been the Cold War and post-Cold War architecture.
Today’s Quad leaders summit, with the Prime Ministers of Australia, India, and Japan meeting with President Biden at the White House will build on that foursome’s previous agreements to further integrate technology cooperation in 5G and other strategic technologies; address the concerns about supply chain vulnerability in high-tech components and raw materials; and further avenues for cooperation on climate change, COVID vaccinations, and other humanitarian avenues. While the architecture and rhetoric of and about the Quad have focused more on technology, supply chain, and economic issues, Beijing’s increasingly muscular military posture will likely drive these countries closer together on military cooperation. Given the existing strength of the U.S.-Australia and U.S.-Japan relationships, deepening coordination and cooperation with India will be the bigger development in Beijing’s eyes.
Similarly, the creation of the AUKUS arrangement marks a deepening of cooperation between Washington, Canberra, and London and the further integration of defense industrial cooperation and technology development among already close allies. While most attention has been paid to the submarine deal and the breakdown with the French over the canceled deal, what has received less coverage is how this marks Australia’s choice to emphasize its defense and alliance arrangements in the face of Chinese belligerence and economic pressure.
For years, it was said that countries in the Indo-Pacific did not want to have to choose between their economic relationship with China and their security relationship with the United States. However, when Beijing increasingly wields economic tools as weapons of influence and expands its military reach, the security relationship with the United States becomes ever more important. At the same time, as the U.S. partnerships in the region become increasingly multilateral, Beijing’s fears are realized — no longer can they try to influence or isolate their neighbors one-by-one.
Still, despite these closer ties with Indo-Pacific partners, our partnerships with Europe clearly need closer attention following the tumultuous and tragic events of the fall of Kabul and the blowup over AUKUS. This requires not only continuing the working dialogues like the upcoming transatlantic trade and tech council meeting, but also working to help the Europeans build their strategic capacity, bridge NATO-EU divides on shared defense, and further dialogue about how U.S. and European interests align in the transatlantic as well as Indo-Pacific theaters.
There are also some matters of our own politics that we must get in order. First, our political inability to move ahead with any further trade agreements is a disadvantage as China tries to enter bodies like the current form of the Transpacific Partnership and exert its influence in other bodies. Beyond specific avenues of trade and economic cooperation, our own political dysfunction raises questions about American reliability.
As these alliance structures and cooperative agreements come together, we see the frameworks being laid for what a future summit of democracies could entail. While each nation has varying levels of concern about their military security, supply chains, or economic interdependence, the cooperative frameworks to confront the challenge of authoritarians are being built.
The Air Challenge in the East
Strategic competition is undoubtedly the most dynamic and challenging construct facing world leaders, chiefly owing to the multiplicity of domains of influence that adversaries and disrupting actors can manipulate in leveraging vulnerabilities.
The frontrunner in those domains could be the air power competition arena, and in the Pacific, air interference has been an ongoing theme for many decades, before most of us in the policy community were thinking in these great and liminal power struggles. The biggest headlines on this front typically originate from the northern zone in the Pacific, the Alaska component of the Pacific Air Forces. My first duty station as a brand new airman fresh out of the pipeline was at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, located in Anchorage, AK. Every day I’d see the vaunted F-22’s, partnered with constant flights of the E-3 Sentry AWACS lifting from the airfield en route to the wide swath of Pacific waters. Unbeknownst to many Americans, but a point of pride for the local residents, is that regular — daily — incursions by Russian and occasionally North Korean and Chinese aircraft took place, hence the sudden earth-rattling roar of the F-22’s lifting off to intercept, while the regular AWACs rotations monitored the skies in tandem with the wide-ranging ground radar stations scattered across the northern Aleutian Islands.
More recently, and a main topic of discussion this week during the Air Force Associations annual conference, is the interference by adversary and competitor aircraft in neutral airspace — highlighted by “unprofessional flying” by Chinese and Russian Air Forces while American, Japanese, and other partner nations patrol the utterly colossal domain of the Pacific airspace. General Kenneth Wilsbach, Commander of Pacific Air Force (CC-PACAF), went on during the AFA event about the recurring and increasingly confrontational incidents: “probably just pilot buffoonery while executing an intercept. But I’ll tell you that there are incidents every day. Either China or Russia — or both of them — intercept one of our platforms that are out flying missions every day, and multiple times in a day is not uncommon”.
Russia and China have a history of aggressive and unprofessional flying shenanigans when it comes to the United States conducting standard air sorties. Recall that many years ago, an international incident arose out of a People’s Liberation Army Air Forces fighter jet colliding with a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft. The incident occured 80 miles off of Hainan Island, well outside the 12-mile international sovereignty zone that typically segregates dissimilar national air and maritime units. Rules of the air dictate that the smaller, more maneuverable aircraft must yield to the larger, lumbering aircraft with whom it shares the zone, and though a great deal of blame was tossed at the United States, the issue was clearly the fault of the PLA pilot, who ended up crashing while the U.S. plane and crew were detained for an extended period until diplomacy won out. Russia, not to be outdone in the realm of foolhardy showboating, was filmed earlier this year conducting a dangerously low fly-by of the USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea.
While the routine air patrols are part of sustaining a deterrent presence in the Pacific for the United States, the issue of competitor interference over neutral waters signals that, on brand, the air forces of our main competitors are growing increasingly emboldened to assert their influence in an increasingly contested domain. The open-use zones of air and sea are expanding on already provocative behavior nearer our allies’ sovereign shores. From its Defense White Paper released earlier this year (the one with the absolutely savage cover art), Japanese Defense Ministry experts have highlighted that the challenge of Chinese overflights of Japanese territory “have become a grave matter of concern to the region including Japan and the international community”:
As shown above, the graphic includes incursions from both air and sea by the PLA, with much of the activity congested around the Taiwan zone. The continued aggression that Beijing wantonly exhibits in interfering with standard patrols poses a clear threat to Japanese sovereignty, even if Taiwan is the main target of Chinese activity.
The issue of air supremacy extends far beyond the Alaskan and Japanese coasts, but all regions are closely woven into this increasingly complex tapestry of air power and force projection. From the AFA conference, Gen. Wilsbach looked further south to the Indian sub-continent as a source of interest and concern for Pacific Air Forces; India has made the news lately for its declared acquisition of the highly advanced S-400 Surface-to-Air defense system, widely regarded as the most capable and advanced in the world. That SA architecture, of course, is built and sold by Russia, and the acquisition of the S-400s led to Turkeys ouster from the F-35 program. While India’s position on securing a hyper-competent air defense system is understandable, seeing threats to its north (China) and west (Pakistan) as a key driver for seeking air defense supremacy, this places the United States in a difficult spot for building upon a tenuous relationship with New Delhi going forward. Despite the billions India is soon to shell out to Russia, it has also signed a recent agreement with the U.S. Air Force to develop and field Unmanned Aerial Vehicle fleets for the purpose of meeting operational requirements related to regional and international security gaps…i.e. the threat of incursion by rival air powers across its sovereign borders and maritime interests.
The reality is that there are only so many aircraft available in the U.S. and allied inventory, and the ranges those must cover are exponential compared to adversaries patrolling their own end zone in the Pacific. In order to offset the limitations of range, coverage and survivability, the USAF is exploring all avenues to reset the capabilities gap, including exciting new programs like the Golden Horde fleet of autonomous aircraft and smart weapons with increased standoff and loiter, on brand for Air Force Chief of Staffs General Brown’s ambition to “accelerate change or lose”. There are also efforts to develop 6th-gen aircraft through digital engineering and as always, I make my obligatory reference to the progress of All-domain operations and JADC2.
But the security dynamic across the Pacific continues to grow unwieldy, which is a direct indicator of how easy this is for our competitors to destabilize the environment where our interests lie. Where this policy wonk sees both the flagging line, and best chance for the United States and partners to swing the balance of power brokerage, is to double down with India, and look for opportunities to engage other southeast Asian States in terms to building up air power. The goal here is not to create a red line that Beijing or Moscow clearly won’t hesitate to cross, much as they dont care now. Rather, a path forward to increase the depth and deterrence of a capability and cooperation posture that doesn’t provoke further incursions by these adversaries, while making continued incidents (unprofessional flying, specifically) too great of a risk. The Quad already sets a four-corners look at the Pacific region, but pulling more states out of China’s sphere of influence through improved air technology cooperation is an opportunity that policy makers cannot afford to ignore.
United Russia Wins Another Supermajority in Parliament
Joshua C. Huminski
The results of Russia’s recent parliamentary elections surprised no one, as United Russia — President Vladimir Putin’s party — won a super majority for the third time, effectively handing Putin and his part carte blanche authority within the Duma. United Russia has won all five duma elections since 2003, although it won only 314 seats in this weekend’s election, down from 334 in 2016. In the run-up to the election, United Russia’s popularity was declining on the back of economic stagnation, the ongoing Covid crisis, and political repression. Overall turnout was technically up to 52%, but apathy about the election and the direction of the country is notable. The Communists took second place with 22% of the vote, up from 13% in the last election cycle.
Partial results after the polls closed on Sunday night suggested considerable gains for opposition parties and non-United Russia candidates, but by the time the official results were out those gains disappeared. This, unsurprisingly prompted accusations, not without merit, of voter fraud and ballot stuffing. Videos of ballots being stuffed into boxes emerged on the internet, which, were it not a blatant violation of democracy and citizens’ rights, it would be comical — in one video circulating online, a poll worker experienced a sudden massive weight loss as they approached the ballot box.
Gennadi Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party, claimed that there had been a “huge amount” of electoral violations and warned that “I can’t rule out that all this will lead to mass protests.” The mayor of Moscow denied applications for protests in the city on account of the Covid pandemic. There is a bit of political theatre here as the Communist Party, which nominally opposes United Russia, largely votes with the party once seated in the legislature.
The multi-day nature of the election and online voting, measures put into place in response to covid, aided the manipulation of the ballots as on-site observation and monitoring was considerably more difficult. A coalition of losing candidates is calling for the abolition of the electronic voting in protest of the results. Statisticians are claiming that half of United Russia’s votes were probably fake, a claim which, if true, would make this election the most fraudulent in Russia’s parliamentary elections. It should be said, however, that voter fraud and ballot box stuffing is not necessarily indicative of a massive grand plan from the office of the president, but is as much likely a function of party members and political operatives seeking to meet what they interpret as the leadership’s desire.
Unsurprisingly, the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union made the usual noises protesting the elections with the UK Foreign Office saying it was a “step back” for democracy in Russia. These demarches are almost perfunctory at this stage and may as well be copied and pasted from previous elections in Russia.
What is perhaps most interesting about this election was not the results, which were never really in doubt, but the fact that tech giants Apple and Google removed an app from poisoned and imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, that was meant to coordinate protest voting in the parliamentary election. Navalny was an advocate of “smart voting” whereby voters cast their ballots in favor of the candidate most likely to defeat a United Russia representative. The Kremlin threatened to prosecute Google and Apple’s employees in advance of the election, leading to the app’s removal. Google also took the step of removing Navalny’s YouTube channel and Google Docs documents which were intended on coordinating voting activity.
That Moscow was increasing pressure on Apple and Google is in line with efforts made in advance of the election to limit the opposition’s freedom of movement and activity. The Kremlin worked to suppress opposition candidates and media, designating some as foreign agents (even those without true “foreign” connections) imposing harsh administrative obligations and penalties, and changed laws forcing many opposition figures into exile.
These measures are certainly not a sign of strength, but of concern by the government about opposition movements and reflective of what is increasingly becoming a sclerotic and aging administration. Putin has relatively little to offer the people of Russia, ensconced as he is in his protective anti-Covid bubble. There is no post-Putin or vision for what a post-Putin world looks like, and it is certainly not something Putin himself wants to entertain, though that will come to pass. As much as Navalny has been a darling on of the West and a vocal opponent of Putin, opposition to the regime is much more of, in the words of Mark Galeotti, a “coalition of the fed-up” less than a formally defined and coordinated opposition movement coalescing around one individual.
Elections in Russia are, like the Communists’ protests, an act of political theatre. The Kremlin provided the military and law enforcement officers with a one-time payment before the election in hopes of buying their votes, provided pensioners and other social groups a similar smaller payment, used dirty tricks such as multiple candidates with the same name, and everything else to ensure that they had a sufficient victory — not too large, but not too small to risk the veneer of political participation cracking. There is genuine support for Putin and United Russia in the country, of course.
For as much as the West looks at Russia as an authoritarian regime, and it is more a personal autocracy than anything else, elections do matter for that very theatre aspect. Moscow does care about the people and needs the elections as a means of validation. Outright and total repression is not a palatable option, but neither is a free and fair regime with the attendant chaos. What emerges is this hybrid system where the elections provide a means, within reason, where the people can express their pleasure or displeasure, but not actually engage substantively or protest. United Russia and the Kremlin’s political strategists need to ensure they win, but not so overwhelmingly so that the façade falls apart. The best Putin and United Russia can hope for is a mollified population that expects and demands little, but is bought into the system enough to sustain its veneer of legitimacy.
Biden’s First UNGA Address — Did He Accomplish What He Set Out to Do?
Robert W. Gerber
In his first speech to the UN General Assembly (UNGA), President Biden tried to accomplish three main things. First, to affirm to a world audience that he’s replaced the “America First” foreign policy of the Trump Administration with something grounded in international cooperation. Second, to attempt to put some positive context around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its tragic aftermath. Third, to reiterate the commitment of the United States to promoting free societies in a world where the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is exporting its brand of authoritarianism.
Some context on UNGA: on a good day, it is a forum where countries can pursue consensus toward non-binding commitments in areas like poverty alleviation and sustainable development. On a bad day, UNGA is a talk shop dominated by the “G-77” bloc of countries, prone to West-bashing, and resistant to internal reforms — e.g., UNGA still maintains a Special Political and Decolonization Committee. Despite UNGA’s shortcomings, heads of State addresses to the UNGA are September tradition, and an opportunity to deliver a message to friends and foes alike. How well did Biden do in seizing this opportunity?
On the first point,international cooperation, Biden promised significant increases in U.S. funds to fight COVID. Axios said this move “could create a dose of momentum heading into the Glasgow summit that UN Secretary-General António Guterres this week warned is at high risk of failing.” And it fills an important need: experts say developing countries need 2 billion more doses to vaccinate 40% of their population by the end of this year, and 4 billion more doses to vaccinate 60% of their population by mid-2022. President Biden also said he would double U.S. assistance to help developing nations mitigate climate change to over $11 billion annually by 2024.
These twin pledges depend largely on Congressional funding during a time when Democrats are having trouble moving their spending priorities through Congress. Nevertheless, the pledges signal U.S. leadership on two significant global challenges. While Biden’s political opponents will see these pledges as expensive giveaways, the United States has historically benefited from investments in global health. COVID is ravaging developing economies and exacerbating problems like the migration crisis. For its part, U.S. climate change funding boosts prospects for American green tech industries, helps the United States meet the Paris Climate Accord goals, and puts China in a catch-up position. Therefore, there is a strong argument to be made that it serves the U.S. national economic and security interests to support these two priorities and U.S. actions can leverage other countries’ contributions.
Regarding the second goal of the UNGA speech — an epilogue on the Afghanistan project — Biden tried to make the case that U.S. withdrawal signaled the end of an era of war with a resulting peace dividend. But the speech was a missed opportunity to hold Afghanistan’s neighbors (and certain Afghans) responsible for the significant role they played in the Return of the Taliban — and to signal some degree of accountability within the Biden Administration for colossal errors committed in planning and implementing the U.S. withdrawal — something our NATO allies would appreciate hearing. Former U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley criticized Biden for failing to call on the General Assembly to block future recognition of the Taliban. Defense hawks will be alarmed by Biden’s proclamation that in the future, the United States would refrain from using military action as a first option. It’s not clear what the goal of this statement was nor its intended audience. Does it make sense to take options off the table in a world where terrorists and rogue states still pose significant threats to the homeland?
In terms of supporting free societies, President Biden laid down a strong marker: “The future will belong to those who embrace human dignity, not trample it. The future will belong to those who unleash the potential of their people, not those who stifle it. The future will belong to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron hand. The authoritarians of the world may seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong.” Senator Tom Cotton complained that Biden didn’t mention China by name (although Xinjiang was mentioned in the speech). But Biden did call for quality infrastructure (a reference to China’s exploitative Belt and Road initiative); he spoke of the need to defend small countries against powerful bullies; he underscored the importance of digital rules that expand freedom rather than extinguishing it; and the right to freedom of navigation. President Biden also mentioned elevating the Quad Partnership and the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region. All of these comments are directed toward challenging the PRC’s malign influence. Further, he challenged all UNGA members to follow the UN’s own human rights charter.
One notable statement in the speech was that the United States would work with any nation that “pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges” despite “intense disagreements.” It is not clear what this means in practice. Perhaps this is a door to find common ground with Beijing in order to forestall military confrontation. Maybe it is a call for the PRC to come clean on the origins of COVID-19. It is likely that some of Biden’s political foes will seize upon the statement as evidence of appeasement toward authoritarians like the PRC, Iran, or Cuba — while they ignore the Trump Administration’s courting of North Korea and Putin’s Russia. Critics might also contend that this statement, when combined with the emphasis on making more use of multilateral institutions and “relentless diplomacy” to solve problems, has a too-similar ring to the PRC’s mantra of promoting “mutual respect and understanding” among nations. However, the pledge to work with nations we disagree with was counterbalanced by a call to work more closely “with our allies and partners, in cooperation with those who believe as we do.” NATO allies and EU member states, who had high expectations of the Biden Administration at the start of the year, will be closely watching the actions that follow these proclamations.
Robert W. Gerber is a former diplomat and U.S. delegate to UN bodies in Geneva and New York.
News You May Have Missed
Mob boss Jitender Maan Gogi was gunned down in a New Delhi courtroom on Friday as he stood trial. The gunmen were disguised as lawyers and opened fire from the gallery behind the defendant. Police returned fire, killing the gunmen, but questions have been raised about the court security and police corruption. Gogi was infamous for his rapid rise through the criminal underworld and was facing charges of murder and racketeering.
Paul Rusesabagina was made famous by the movie “Hotel Rwanda”, which told of his heroism during the 1994 genocide. However, as the government of Paul Kagame has increasingly cracked down on dissent in Rwanda, Rusesabagina became an increasingly vocal critic from abroad, while the regime accused him of ties to terrorist groups. Under controversial circumstances that his family describes as an abduction—and Rwanda officials describe as Rusesabagina boarding the wrong fight—he was returned to Rwanda to face trial. Found guilty, he was sentenced this week to 25 years in prison.
The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.