Post #85: We Apologize

The following article originally appeared in Global Asia, vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 112-117, under the title “’We Apologize': Two Words to Embrace to Right Injustices.”

Apologies are never easy—not between individuals, not between governments or corporations and citizens, and certainly not between nations with a history of conflict. Handshakes, such as between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972, and between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, are a good start symbolically, but they are not the same as a heartfelt apology for past violence. Expressions of remorse come closer, but still do not express what a forthright apology entails: a direct acknowledgment of wrongdoing and determination that it will not be repeated.

Leaders of states rarely apologize. They don’t want to appear weak, they don’t want to injure national pride, and they don’t want to run afoul of their political supporters or competitors. If the states they lead happen to be major powers, the chances are even slimmer that their leaders will ever have to account for decisions that ordinarily would warrant an apology—such as for ordering secret missions to assassinate foreign leaders, suppressing ethnic and religious autonomy within their borders, jailing and torturing people without trial, orchestrating coups to topple other governments, or seizing another country’s territory. To the contrary, triumphant great powers mete out “justice” for others’ crimes, as they did at the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials and now before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Great powers do not apologize even when – like the US in Vietnam – they lose wars in which they carried out great destruction. They define war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, but they don’t suffer for committing those crimes. Thus, while Americans, Russians, Chinese and Europeans sit in judgment at the ICC, you will not find their political leaders in the dock to answer for drone attacks, carpet bombing, chemical warfare and other criminal acts.

Violent non-state organizations are the least likely to apologize, since they are not beholden to a public and often have no centralized command. Guerrilla bands, terrorist organizations and anti-government militias are responsible for terrible deeds, such as the beheading of “infidels,” the abduction and trafficking of children and use of them in war, raping and pillaging in villages, and trading diamonds for weapons. Leaders of such groups may occasionally be caught and punished, but they are no more likely to apologize than the police and army that pursued them without regard for civilians caught in the middle of the fighting.

The elusive sorry

Two very different current situations tell us a good deal about the politics of apologizing: in Japan, where ultranationalists are back in business, discounting the aggressions of World War II and the sexual enslavement of women; and in the US, where the CIA’s torture of Islamist prisoners in Afghanistan with approval at the highest level has now been fully documented (

Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt is a marvelous comparative study of the different ways Germans and Japanese, in positions high and low, have reacted to the aggressions of their governments in the World War II period. While the Germans have for the most part faced the past forthrightly, the Japanese have shown embarrassment, obfuscation and self-righteousness. The prime minister of Japan is highly unlikely to emulate Willy Brandt, who went down on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto to apologize. Nor is the leader of Japan’s parliament likely to give his countrymen a history lesson in how the country became a “criminal state,” as Philipp Jenninger, president of Germany’s Bundestag, did in 1988 — for which he was widely criticized. Japan is on the other end of the stick, as senior officials find ways to deflect the apology issue, such as with assertions of moral equivalence: the atomic bombing was another Holocaust, or Japan’s imperialist adventures simply followed the example of Western colonizers, thus excusing or at least mitigating the crimes of the emperor and his military chiefs.

To be sure, Japanese officials have at times attempted to apologize for past transgressions. In the so-called Kono Statement of 1993, a cabinet official admitted that the military had resorted to sexual slavery, and in 1995 socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama acknowledged Japan’s aggression in World War II.  Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, in a joint statement with South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan caused. And again, on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said: “For the enormous damage and suffering caused during this colonial rule, I would like to express once again our deep remorse and heartfelt apology.” (

But Japan’s ultranationalists and various government officials have consistently objected to the statements, and may yet disavow them. Now, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, excuses for the past have given way to outright attempts to bury it. Ominously, Abe’s resistance to apologizing has unleashed right-wing assaults on intellectuals and the liberal press, where regret over Japanese imperialism’s rampages and support of Article 9 of Japan’s “peace constitution” remain strong. As Professor Chung-in Moon of Yonsei University and editor-in-chief of Global Asia observes, some moderate Japanese academics have knuckled under, dodging the matter of Japan’s direct responsibility for atrocities by comparing Japan’s behavior to that of Britain, France and other colonial powers that never apologized. (“Apology Still a Distant Dream,”

Abe, a neo-nationalist, wants the Japanese to take pride in their history, upgrade the military’s role in national security and change Article 9 to allow the military to engage in collective-security actions abroad. Abe established himself as a history denier in his initial term as prime minister, saying for example that there was no proof that the Imperial Army forced “comfort women” into prostitution or trafficked in them. (see Mindy Kotler’s excellent article at He still holds to that position today. So, while Abe has finally shaken the hand of China’s leader and vowed to “learn from” the past, he has avoided numerous opportunities to face up to Japan’s past and fully support previous Japanese statements of regret. (see the interview of Abe in the Financial Times, March 27, 2015, p. 7)

US avoidance

For the US, torture is only the latest issue that cries out for an apology. After all, US military forces have been deployed abroad hundreds of times in the name of international peace and stability, and these missions have resulted in very high civilian casualties, not to mention US losses. Torture is merely one element of illegal US power, and the Senate committee deserves applause for bringing its use in Afghanistan to light. Former US officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney are not about to apologize for supporting torture, however. In fact, he said he would “do it over again” if he had to. ( That view applies to instruments of mass violence used now or in the past by the US, such as drones, chemical weapons, and of course, atom bombs. None of these actions has ever led to an official apology, even when — as in the case of former defense secretary Robert McNamara, in his book Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy — someone in authority steps forward to acknowledge that US decision making was deeply flawed. But more than a policy mistake occurred. US war making exacted a terrible price on peoples, cultures and ecosystems in Southeast Asia – a price that keeps rising due to unexploded ordnance and chemical weapons like Agent Orange (George Black, “The Lethal Legacy of the Vietnam War,” The Nation, March 16, 2015, pp. 13-28). Don’t the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia deserve an apology as much as, say, South Koreans and Chinese deserve one from Japan?

It can be done

There are precedents for official apologies, or at least statements that tend in that direction. Here are some offered roughly over the last 25 years:

  • In a statement of regret, the British government acknowledged its role in bringing on “The Great Hunger” in Ireland between 1845 and 1850 — by ignoring the potato blight that caused massive crop failure, the deaths of between 1 and 1.5 million people, a mass emigration of Irish Catholics and the eventual north-south division of Ireland. (Sarah Lyall, “Past as Prologue: Blair Faults Britain in Irish Potato Blight,” New York Times, June 3, 1997)
  • In 1988, US President Ronald Reagan formally apologized to Japanese-Americans who had been confined after Pearl Harbor under the presumption of disloyalty. About 120,000 people were interned by order of President Franklin Roosevelt. (Katherine Bishop, “Day of Apology and ‘Sigh of Relief,’” New York Times, August 11, 1988)
  • In 2002, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il apologized to Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Koizumi for his country’s abduction of 12 people from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, saying that his “special forces were carried away by a reckless quest for glory. It was regretful and I want to frankly apologize. I have taken steps to ensure that it will never happen again.” Kim said that the four abductees who were still alive were free to return home. In return, Koizumi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s 35 years of colonial rule over Korea (
  • In 2008, the Australian government, “to remove a great stain from the nation’s soul,” apologized to its Aboriginal people. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “we say sorry” for the degrading actions of the government over many years, in particular the removal of many thousands of aboriginal children from their families as part of a policy of forced assimilation. (Tim Johnston, “Australia Says ‘Sorry’ to Aborigines for Mistreatment,” New York Times, February 13, 2008) Similarly, in 1988 the Canadian government formally apologized to indigenous peoples for various racist and paternalistic policies, and compensated them for the indignities they suffered (
  • In 1998, US President Bill Clinton went to Rwanda to apologize for the failure of the US and the international community to act to save lives in the genocide, as he called it for the first time. He promised every effort to prevent another one. ( The following year, Clinton said the US was “wrong” to support the right-wing Guatemalan government’s attacks on Mayan villagers and leftist guerrillas in the 1960s — support that also involved CIA training of the Guatemalan military in operations that amounted to genocide and widespread human rights violations. ( Still later, US officials apologized to around 700 Guatemalans who, in the 1940s, were deliberately infected with syphilis by American public health doctors in an effort to test the efficacy of penicillin. The same doctor who later performed such experiments on black men at Tuskegee was involved in the Guatemala case. Guatemala’s president at the time of the revelation called the action a crime against humanity. (Donald G. McNeil, Jr., “U.S. Apologizes for Syphilis Tests in Guatemala, “New York Times, October 1, 2010).[1]


Note, however, certain common elements in these apologies and regrets. They were long overdue, but were finally issued only after years of domestic political wrangling. Opposition to apologizing usually centered on the feeble argument that only the government that caused the harm could legitimately apologize. Except for the interned Japanese-Americans and the Japanese abductions, none of the apologies was offered with compensation to the victims and their survivors. (In the latter case, it was the Japanese government that paid, disguised as economic aid.) Lastly, in no instance was the harm caused declared a crime as a warning to then-present or future officials.

These cases in any event are the exception to the rule. The list of unspoken apologies for terrible, illegal, heinous acts that resulted in thousands, sometimes millions of deaths, mostly of civilians, is long indeed — state interventions and invasions, civil wars and coups, repression of ethnic, religious, and other groups, violence directed at women and children, and government and corporate acts that cause destruction of the planet’s environment. It might be objected that satisfying all the just claims for an apology would be impractical. But the goal is a solemn statement that “we are sorry,” not retribution or compensation. And while no amount of apologizing can ever wipe away crimes against humanity, most people understand the difference between forgiving and forgetting. Such crimes should never be forgotten, but we can preserve our humanness by forgiving precisely in order to ensure that the victims are not forgotten.

Why it matters

Does apologizing matter as a step toward peace? Britain’s apology to Ireland may have helped in the settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the demobilization of the IRA. (In 2002, the IRA also offered “sincere apologies and condolences” to civilians it killed during the 30-year war in Northern Ireland. Might the history of US-Iran relations, from the hostage crisis to the nuclear confrontation, been very different if Washington had apologized for US training and support of the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, and other costly interventions in Iran’s political life? Wouldn’t Turkey’s stature rise if it finally, on this the 100th anniversary of the genocide against Armenians, expresses remorse for its near-universally accepted responsibility? If Japan tomorrow were formally, unequivocally and irrevocably to apologize for aggressions, atrocities and illegal territorial claims, wouldn’t its international image and relations with its neighbors measurably improve? More importantly, Japan’s sense of self might be different; apologizing would begin a process of healing, even though it might also exacerbate divisions between generations and political factions.

Ian Buruma may be right that while Japan’s victims want apologies, a fundamental political transformation in Japan is the necessary first step. But counting on such a long-term prospect only defers the day of reckoning that a few choice sentiments could greatly shorten, to the country’s immediate benefit. But to hasten that day, those who would like Japan to apologize might consider setting an example. What right do Americans or anyone else have to demand that Japan finally and fully apologize for its World War II-era crimes when the US and other governments will not for theirs? Why not a heartfelt US apology to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why not a Chinese apology to the families of those killed at Tiananmen or in Tibet, or a Korean apology to the victims of the Gwangju Uprising? Why not a US apology for torture — it’s an international and domestic crime, after all — and prosecution of those political and intelligence officials and contracted psychoanalysts who devised and approved it?

Perhaps the Germans once again have come up with a teaching moment. As recounted by Elizabeth Kolbert (“The Last Trial,” The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 2015) a German artist named Gunter Demrig has created Stolpersteine (stepping stones), which he embeds in public sidewalks to memorialize individual victims of the Holocaust. The stones are placed in neighborhoods where the victims were last known to have lived. There are now over 50,000 such stones in several German cities as well as throughout Europe. Governments that erect memorials to soldiers and wars can surely support these and other ways to honor the innocent victims of state terror and promise, like Willy Brandt and Bill Clinton, “never again.”

Mass violence is a blight on civilization itself, and one of the civilized things we can work for is to urge governments to express profound remorse for what, in our names, they have done, and in doing so begin the painful process of learning from their mistakes. Contrition for having inflicted great pain and suffering on another people is the human thing to do, and potentially the pathway to policy change. Who knows? A multitude of apologies might help disseminate a new value of nonviolence and global responsibility. I can think of no country that can claim the moral high ground and evade this solemn responsibility.


[1] The US government has a history of condoning secret experiments on prisoners and soldiers without their full knowledge of the danger or consent to accepting it. For many years, starting in the 1940s, radioactive materials were injected in a wide range of people, including university employees, Inuit villagers and mentally challenged school children to test their reactions. A government-appointed committee uncovered this practice ( Recall too the CIA’s MK-ULTRA experiments in the 1970s, which tested the behavioral effects of hallucinogenic drugs on unknowing people as part of a bio-weapons research program. Eighty universities, hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies received CIA support for these experiments.

Post #84: The Engagement Critics

One of the predictable outcomes of any US effort to reset relations with an adversary is that allies start whining about their vulnerability and demanding some sort of compensation for it. Thus, no sooner was the nuclear deal with Iran concluded than the Israelis, Saudis, and other Middle East partners criticize it as representing abandonment and emboldening Iran to become a stronger meddler in neighbors’ affairs. All sorts of dire predictions about horrendous consequences are already on record, clearly intended to influence the Obama administration to give these folks something for their pain—like money, arms (both of which they get in abundance), and especially new commitments.

When such demands are made, moreover, US allies know full well that they can count on support from hawks in Congress and think tanks who have been issuing warnings for many months about the nuclear deal. These are people who feast on threats. Now they are in full throttle, talking as though engaging Iran amounts to something just short of treason.  The Middle East will come tumbling down: Iran’s Shiia allies will make trouble in the Occupied Territories, Yemen, and elsewhere; Syria will go down the drain; new turmoil will mark Iraq and Afghanistan.  And of course in the end, the predictions insist, Iran will develop nuclear weapons, compelling an Israeli response.

The burden will be on Obama to resist these pressures.  He knew from the outset of negotiations with Iran that reaching an agreement that had the ayatollah’s blessing was only half the battle, that the other half was at home and with Iran’s enemies in the Middle East.  One well-informed analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington argues that the Saudis and their friends will be especially insistent that the US “demonstrate its readiness to push back against Iran’s expansionism around the region. And the primary arena in which the Arab states wish to see that from the United States is in Syria.” But as this analyst goes on to say, Syria “is the one [place] where the current US president is least likely to undertake any more assertive action to counter Iran . . . ” ( Let’s hope she’s right.

Critics of engaging Iran, and even supporters such as the analyst just quoted, make the common and dangerous error of putting their entire focus on Iran’s capacity for troublemaking. This, despite all the evidence that Israel and Saudi Arabia, among other US partners, are also guilty of troublemaking—and that Israel has never been pushed to open to inspection, much less reduce, its nuclear arsenal.  Nor have the Sunni Arab partners, all autocracies, been pressed by the US to reform their political systems so as to be able to accommodate the many sources of inequity, which the Arab Spring evidently did not accomplish.  Haven’t they ever heard of burden sharing?  Failing to confront these realities leaves the US precisely where it is now: having to prove its “resolve” and its “leadership” by deepening its already steep, multi-front military involvement in the Middle East.

As I wrote in the previous blog piece (#83), the administration should use the nuclear agreement as the opening wedge in a broader policy shift that seeks normalization of relations with Iran.  Let Netanyahu and the Saudi princes rant; the US aim should be peace, security, and social justice for the peoples of the region, not satisfaction of other states’ destructive ambitions.

(Be sure to read Thomas Friedman’s July 15 interview with President Obama. The interview contains some excellent reflections on the strategic importance of the Iran deal, on learning from the Iran case, and on engagement in general. See

Post #83: Saving the Iran Nuclear Deal

A US-Iran agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions appears to be slowly nearing completion.  President Obama wants to add to his legacy of engaging adversaries with an agreement that would at least significantly delay Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.  The Ayatollah Khomeini wants to end all US sanctions immediately in return for foregoing the nuclear option.  The fine print on issues such as centrifuges, international inspections, and sanctions relief is all-important. Both leaders want a final agreement that will look like a victory, since both must deal with powerful domestic resistance—people who are deeply mistrustful of the other side and, in some cases, have personal stakes in seeing that a deal never sees the light of day.

In the US, Obama faces criticism of his Iran policy not only from the usual conservative quarters but also from an ad hoc group of nineteen former officials and outside experts. Meeting under the auspices of the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the group wrote an open letter to the president on June 24 ( that argued for tougher terms of a nuclear agreement with Iran—more intrusive inspections of and data gathering from Iran’s military and civilian facilities, stronger controls on Iran’s enrichment capacity, and sanctions that should remain in place until Iran’s compliance is assured. And if Iran does not comply? “Precisely because Iran will be left as a nuclear threshold state (and has clearly preserved the option of becoming a nuclear weapon state), the United States must go on record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force, to prevent this.”

(A pause to identify these nineteen people, all men: seven belong to the Washington Institute itself, and five served under George W. Bush.  Among the familiar names are David Petraeus, former general and CIA director; former Senator Joe Lieberman; former Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley; and Harvard professor Graham Allison. I could not identify a single person who is a recognized advocate of US-Iran engagement.)

The authors of this “bipartisan” letter purport to be opposed to hardliners who want no nuclear deal whatever.  This is misleading: in fact, the writers subscribe to the bad-faith model of international politics. They assume Iran will not accept the terms they specify or, if they do, will cheat.  So their advice is really no different from the hardliners’, just packaged differently, and the result of following it will, I believe, be the same: a deal breaker and renewed US-Iran confrontation with the prospect of war.

I say this for two reasons. First, the intrusive inspections and withholding of any immediate sanctions relief for Iran are conditions that the ayatollah has publicly and firmly rejected.  Second, the letter writers urge additional steps (which most major news sources failed to mention) to check Iran’s activities in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria in coordination with Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.  These steps will surely weaken Iran’s incentive to comply with the nuclear agreement, accelerate still deeper US military involvement throughout the Middle East, embolden the Israeli right wing’s policies in the Occupied Territories, and support Turkey’s efforts to contain the Kurds, one of the few effective forces fighting ISIS.

Two questions are uppermost: Are we better off with a nuclear deal that has shortcomings or no deal at all?  And, should worst-case thinking apply to presuming that Iran will cheat while the agreement is in force and will pursue nuclear weapons once it lapses?

As to the first question, the history of arms control strongly suggests that perfection is out of reach.  Agreements to reduce or eliminate arms, whether nuclear or conventional, are not the same as legal contracts enforceable in court.  The devil is in the details, and the wiggle room is invariably substantial. That said, the opportunity for both the US and Iran to significantly delay, if not end, Iran’s nuclear-weapon potential in exchange for an end to American (and perhaps later, UN) sanctions, immediately or in stages, is far more attractive than a confrontation that might lead to war.  Right-wing hawks provide the best reason for reaching an imperfect deal: They are ready to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, with Israel’s help, and bring on a Middle East catastrophe.  This must not happen.

On the second question, the letter writers argue that the agreement as currently composed does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons once the 10-15 year period lapses.  Omitted from this otherwise correct statement is the salience of what happens in US-Iran relations during those 10-15 years.  If relations move toward normalization in that time—economic ties are restored, cooperation on common regional issues such as ISIS is achieved, quiet diplomacy leads to the two countries’ embassies reopening—Iran would have no incentive to go nuclear and every incentive for deeper engagement.  Of course if relations do not improve because of cheating or continued friction on one or another Middle East issue, we will be back to square one and a tense situation similar to that between the US and North Korea. That’s the challenge, and the proper context for evaluation.

Why presume the worst, as critics of the nuclear agreement constantly do?  The nuclear agreement should be thought of as an opening wedge to improved relations, not a warning to Iran to “comply or die.” Why not consider the agreement the foundation of trust building?  Why not create a positive road map for normalizing US-Iran relations?  US diplomacy should operate on a good-faith model, at least until there is reason to conclude otherwise.

For further reading: Post #73, The Iran Framework

Post #82—Man on the Run, and South Africa’s Failure to Detain Him

Margaret Thatcher once advised those delegates to the United Nations who criticize the organization for being weak to look in the mirror for the explanation.  International law is much the same: If you want to know why governments so often fail to respect it, all you have to do is step back for a moment and consider that governments are responsible for lawfulness; international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have no policing power to enforce the law.  Those courts must rely on the governments that created them and on the moral force that international legal authority represents.

Last week in South Africa, international law experienced a serious setback when its government refused to arrest Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the president of Sudan since October 1993 and a wanted man.  The ICC issued arrest warrants for al-Bashir in 2009 and 2010 for crimes against humanity (five counts), war crimes (two counts), and genocide (three counts), all committed in the conflict in Sudan’s Dofar region.  Bashir was attending a meeting in South Africa of heads of state of the African Union, believing he had immunity from seizure just as he had when he attended other events outside Sudan in recent years.  But the South African government, a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, was obliged to arrest him and turn him over to the ICC for trial.[1]

South Africa’s high court ruled on June 15 that the government was bound by the constitution to detain al-Bashir.  But by the time it ruled, according to various reports, the South African government had allowed him to board a private plane and return home.  Photos showed him receiving a hero’s welcome—staged, no doubt, but still a happy escape for a tyrant.  This act of the South African government could never have happened under Nelson Mandela, but it has happened now, and deserves international condemnation.

As so often happens in international affairs, law is subject to political priorities.  There is no question that al-Bashir should have been arrested in accordance with the ICC warrant and brought to The Hague to face trial.  But other African states have rejected the ICC’s jurisdiction, arguing that only African leaders have been indicted.  That is factually correct: nine African leaders have been indicted by the ICC, but other criminals outside Africa, such as Assad in Syria, have not been.  (The ICC has begun a preliminary inquiry into war crimes committed by Israel in the Gaza war last year.  But both Israel and Hamas have rejected the inquiry and refused to allow investigators entry into Israel or Gaza. See

Surely the question of bias deserves investigation, and just as surely the ideal situation would be strengthened rule of law in Africa such that leaders who commit or condone mass violence are brought to justice in their own countries.  But those possibilities cannot excuse well documented, large-scale violations of international law anywhere, whether by a sitting or former heads of government (

The US is once again in the position of lacking credibility to speak out on a matter of international law because it has not signed or ratified the relevant document.  (Signers number 123 countries; Sudan is not among them either, but since al-Bashir is a UN-designated war criminal, Sudan’s outlier status doesn’t matter.)  Thanks to the George W. Bush administration, the US did not sign the Rome Statute for fear that US officials or soldiers might be indicted for war crimes or crimes against humanity.  A poor excuse indeed; and it now leaves Washington without a voice on a matter of great importance to huge numbers of innocent victims of officially-approved violence.

In closing, I’m led to wonder: Suppose this were 1939, and an international criminal court existed.  Suppose further that the court issued an arrest warrant for Adolf Hitler, for crimes against humanity and genocide.  If Hitler had ventured outside Germany, would any government have detained him and sent him to The Hague for trial?  You think so?  I’m not so sure.


[1] Article 59 of the Rome Statute states in part: “A State Party which has received a request for provisional arrest or for arrest and surrender shall immediately take steps to arrest the person in question in accordance with its laws and the provisions of Part 9. . . . A person arrested shall be brought promptly before the competent judicial authority in the custodial State which shall determine, in accordance with the law of that State, [that proper procedures were used]. . . . It shall not be open to the competent authority of the custodial State to consider whether the warrant of arrest was properly issued . . . . Once ordered to be surrendered by the custodial State, the person shall be delivered to the Court as soon as possible”


Post #80: The Looming US-China Crisis in the South China Sea

The long-running, multi-party dispute over control of islets in the South China Sea (SCS) is worsening both in rhetoric and provocative activity.  (For background, see my posts #23 and 41.)  Meeting in late May at the Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security, US and Chinese defense officials sparred over responsibility for the increased tension, though they stopped short of issuing threats.  In fact, all sides to the dispute say they want to avoid violence, prefer a diplomatic resolution, and support freedom of navigation.  Both the US and China insist that the dispute notwithstanding, their relationship overall is positive and enduring.  But China, claiming indisputable sovereignty over the SCS, is backing its claim in ways that alarm the US and several Asian governments: construction of an air strip on the Spratly Islands, a land reclamation project that has artificially expanded its claimed territory, and most recently emplacement of two mobile artillery vehicles.

The Pentagon has responded by publicly discussing US options such as flyovers and navigation in Chinese-claimed air and sea space.  A US navy surveillance aircraft has already challenged China’s sovereignty claim by overflying Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, prompting a Chinese order (which the aircraft ignored) to leave the area.  In the meantime, US military assistance to other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has enabled their coast guards to at least keep an eye on Chinese activities.

The US-China debate over the SCS would be a tempest in a teapot were it not for two other sources of contention.  One is the gas and oil potential underneath the South China Sea, long subject to intense competition.  The other is the friction arising from the different US and Chinese strategic postures in East Asia.  The US deploys enormous air, naval, and nuclear power across the region. Rising China, one Chinese scholar writes, “is no longer susceptible to U.S. coercion or bullying. Under President Xi Jinping, the more confrontational stance Washington takes, the more assertive Beijing will become in response” (Feng Zhang, “Provoking Beijing in the South China Sea Will Only Backfire on Washington,”

The US “rebalancing” of forces in Asia since 2009, with emphasis on deploying additional naval power to the Pacific; its backing of Japan in Japan’s territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that aims to undercut China’s commercial as well as political success in Asia—these are among the US moves in Asia that have prompted Chinese pushback both economically and militarily.  China’s gradual buildup in the SCS should be seen as part of that pushback.  Its latest official strategy statement, issued (surely not coincidentally) on May 26, explicitly links “maritime military struggle” and “active defense” to the “provocative” actions and “meddling” of foreign parties in that area ( The strategy statement conceives of a greatly increased role for the Chinese navy in “offshore waters defense.”

Although China’s declared position would seem to make the sovereignty issue nonnegotiable, that doesn’t rule out conflict management.  Ownership can be separated from, and thereby detached from, political and economic issues. All sides might agree, for instance, not to object to others’ sovereignty claims and to freeze the situation on the ground, disallowing further construction and land reclamation, entry of vessels and weapons, and introduction of civil or military personnel.

Crafting a binding code of conduct is an option that seems to have support from China and the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  They agreed on the current version of the code, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in November 2002. It commits the parties to resolving disputes by peaceful means, without using threats or force and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  The parties also “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.” Unfortunately, what constitutes self-restraint and how actions would be handled constructively remain to be determined.  Instead, the concerned Southeast Asian nations rely on multilateral trust-building efforts to ease tensions, while the Chinese prefer bilateral talks and, it seems clear, unilateral actions to strengthen their claim.

More formal legal avenues might also be utilized despite China’s objections, including the Philippines case before UNCLOS and recourse to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  The US  does not stand on firm ground, however, when it comes to international legal remedies.  The UNCLOS, as a treaty, has been awaiting Senate approval since 1994!  (Professor Jerome A. Cohen, a leading expert on international law, urges US ratification at  And the US has a long record of ignoring adverse ICJ decisions and, since 1986, has rejected the court’s compulsory jurisdiction. The US could be a more effective actor here if it were more law-abiding—certainly more effective than by deploying forces to test China’s intentions.

All the parties, and especially Washington and Beijing, surely see the down side to continued tension, notably the retreat of US-China relations to Cold War-style tests of resolve. “Conflict is bad for business,” the new head of US Pacific forces is quoted as saying.  It’s bad for many other things too, but countries have gone to war over far lesser stakes when clashing notions of self-righteousness and national security prevail over common sense.

(A longer version of this post, with a map, can be found at

Post #79: The Pentagon Slush Fund

Back in 1959, President Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Khrushchev took a break from their summit and walked in the woods around Camp David.  Khrushchev, in his memoirs, relates a conversation in which the president complains of how hard it is to resist the military’s demands for more money.  Military leaders, said Eisenhower, invariably insist the US will fall behind the Soviet Union unless he gives them the money for this or that weapon system.  “They keep grabbing for more, and I keep giving it to them.”  He asked Khrushchev if that was also the case in the USSR.  “It’s just the same,” said Khrushchev, who went on to describe virtually the same script.  “Yes,” said the president, “that’s what I thought.”

Congress members are very much a part of the military-industrial complex, which is why someone (Tom Hayden?) long ago suggested that the more accurate term is MAGIC: the military-academic-governmental-industrial complex.  Most people elected to Congress, and certainly any among them who serve on the armed services committee of either house, think two things when it comes to national security: the more weapons produced, the more secure we are; and the more money allocated to “national defense,” the better.  These folks never met a weapons system they didn’t like.  And when, in relatively lean times, they have to decide between social well-being and the Pentagon’s wish list, well, they don’t have to think twice.

These days Congress members, mainly on the Republican side, are busy finding clever ways to hide stuffing the Pentagon’s stocking with strategically senseless, duplicative, exceedingly expensive weapons and related items.  Remember sequestration in 2013?  It was supposed to cap military and other spending in order to help bring the overall budget back to balance.  Clearly, in the minds of the military-firsters, this effort was never meant to apply to the Pentagon, as evidenced by the much larger budget hit that social welfare programs took compared with the military, and by the little publicized Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is not subject to sequestration ( Yes, military spending has gone down over the last three years (see the chart below); but at over $600 billion (not counting veterans’ benefits and interest on the national debt from past wars), it’s around 54 percent of all US government discretionary spending and still close to 40 percent of global military spending.

All the whining in Congress and the Pentagon about how the US defense posture is undermined by sequestration and compels a leaner military is just so much theatrics—not just because the US military is bloated both in money and weapons, and continues to fight and prepare for wars on several fronts, but also because in Washington (including in the White House) the tricks are well known for giving the military everything it wants and then some.  The fundamental problem isn’t budgetary, it’s US globalism.

Reporting on the “Pentagon slush fund,” the New York Times notes ( that the next military budget, as voted in the House of Representatives, will have a dozen more nuclear submarines at $8 billion apiece, a $348 billion modernization program for nuclear weapons over the coming decade, billions more for missile defense and faulty jet fighters, and funding to maintain the Guantanamo prison-base in Cuba that the president had long ago promised to close down.  US military leaders have not asked for all this money, and probably would prefer that more be allocated for conventional warfare and humanitarian missions such as in Nepal.  But it’s hard to rein in the military big spenders in Congress, especially when they couch their check-writing in patriotism.

It’s funny: the Pentagon is forever complaining that China has no reason to keep increasing its military spending.  It needs to look in the mirror.


US Military Spending Under Obama (in $US billion)

Source: SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute)

2009             2010             2011            2012            2013          2014

$668.5 $698.1     $711.3      $684.7    $639.7 $609.9




Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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