The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
There’s a dispute, wouldn’t you know it, between China and Russia as to where the exact geographic center of Asia lies. Since Russia’s calculation seems to draw the point further north, one assumes the difference may lie in respective recognition of offshore claims.
But if a rough beast were, in Yeats’s allusive words, slouching somewhere to be born at this hour, the center of Asia might be its destination. (And yes, I’m well aware of what the Biblical allusion is. Could have explained it to you when I was eight years old. Work with me here.)
Slouching? Maybe. Maybe the beast we’re looking for, the one expected for twenty centuries, is still at no more than a brisk walking pace heading toward Bethlehem.
But the one right in front of us seems to be on a high-speed train, gathering momentum toward the ancient precincts of Asia. What its geographic way-points are, Yeats didn’t have handy allusions for.
Whatever’s going on, it’s moving fast. Two seemingly unrelated event-pairs bracketed that, in time and Asian geography, and put it in perspective over the last 10 days.
One was the abrupt cancellation, near the last minute, of a planned 11 March visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the UAE.
It was to be the Israeli PM’s first visit as part of the warming of relations under the Abraham Accords. The visit has been rescheduled several times since late December, on the first three occasions due to coronavirus restrictions. This time, although the cancellation was ultimately attributed to Sara Netanyahu’s sudden illness with appendix problem, a convoluted set of circumstances had Israel and Jordan at outs with each other, with a resulting delay in Amman’s consideration of the overflight request for Netanyahu’s trip.
The circumstances involved Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Although there’s no guarantee U.S. intervention might have saved the visit, with its positive implications for the Abraham Accords, the realistic assessment most veteran watchers of the relevant problems would make is that while the Trump administration would probably have made such an effort, the Biden administration assuredly would not.
The Biden team hasn’t stepped up to bolster the Abraham Accords. It has instead reverted quickly to themes from the Obama tenure that are essentially at odds with the direction and intent of the Accords, a policy vector that will become irreconcilable sooner rather than later. The assessment of Iran’s radical regime as a regional security problem is at the heart of that rift.
Western media and think-tanks are tiptoeing gingerly around this topic. But it is glaringly obvious to the rest of the interested world. Meanwhile, the U.S. media coverage of Netanyahu’s canceled visit stressed a theme from the annals of petty injury, trumpeting that Bibi had been thwarted in exploiting the UAE visit for PR purposes in the upcoming Israeli election. The Obama-redux team under Biden apparently hasn’t forgiven Netanyahu for accepting an invitation from Congress to give an address there before the Israeli election in 2015.
It’s not unfair to assess that the Biden team has a rearward-looking perspective, and hopes to lead Arab-Israeli relations back down a long-unsatisfactory path, in a direction no one else really wants to go. The weakness of that brittle, unadaptable posture for the broader problems of Asia can’t be overstated. China, Russia, Iran, Turkey – they notice. (*UPDATE*: Note, moreover, that Lee Smith has a new piece out at Tablet making the case that Team Biden didn’t just fail to boost the Netanyahu visit, and the UAE-hosted summit it was to be part of, but actively torpedoed it. I agree. The Asian actors notice that too. It makes the U.S. under Biden look faithless and sly.)
The paired event in this one is a geographically connected bracket (as opposed to one in time). On 20 March, a video circulated on Twitter showing what looks like a Patriot PAC-2 SAM battery deploying near Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba in southern Israel. (As context, the U.S. and Israel concluded the regularly held Juniper Falcon air/missile defense exercise on 12 February, so this PAC-2 movement is not that.)
Video via @ignis_fatum of a Israeli Patriot PAC-2 GEM+ air defence battery (3+ launchers visible) deployed near Eilat in southern Israel amid threats of suicide drone and cruise missile attacks from Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen pic.twitter.com/4mwHob6DTn
— ELINT News (@ELINTNews) March 21, 2021
Analysts are discussing whether this is a response to a drone and/or cruise missile threat from the Houthis. If so, as they point out, it would be quite a long-range threat from Houthi-held territory in Yemen. (Some 1,000 statute miles, or 1,600 km, give or take.) Seth Frantzman indicates that some locals say the Patriot launchers have been in place for “months,” and points out that Israel has put Patriot in the same area before as a stopgap while other systems were being swapped out.
That said, slinging missiles from Houthi-held territory isn’t the only way to menace southern Israel with missiles. (Or drones.) The missile problem isn’t the static one it used to be, even five or six years ago.
Besides southern Syria, which is much closer, there’s launching them from the Red Sea or Iraq. Which are also, or can be, much closer than Yemen.
There’s even launching them from sea in the northern Persian Gulf (as suggested by previous Saudi reporting), although it would increasingly take some fancy flying to evade detection en route Israel in such an attempt.
However you slice this one, though, the hand behind whatever is motivating Israel would ultimately be Iran’s. That’s where the capability for relevant armament would come from, independent of who’s delegated to pull the trigger.
Israel seems to be reacting. The move by Israel is visible, interestingly similar to the submarine that went through the Suez Canal back in December 2020. (It’s not clear if the Patriot deployment to Eilat was contemporaneous, but that would fit with known trends.) The operational geography of the regional threat picture is on the move.
The U.S., in contrast to our signal-sending in December, is interestingly silent, even as Saudi Arabia keeps briefing the drone and missile activity. Yet this not a “not our problem” concern.
If cruise missiles are going to be flying around the Red Sea, for example, that’s a maritime chokepoint hazard that affects global trade of all kinds, and regional stability in ways that ripple out quickly to the edges of our strategic bastion, on the Atlantic and Pacific rims. Looking like we don’t see that is a good way to get our interests steamrolled.
Russia, China, Iran – they all notice what we don’t see: the too little recognition of new developments, the lack of reaction to them, especially at the level of framing and stating our national interests.
The other side of the bracket is the talks with China in Alaska on Thursday. It’s not just that the U.S. was tin-eared and China was downright rude. It’s not just that it was in front of the cameras. It’s not just that it was a regrettable rhetorical moment, combative and unnecessary. (It’s not even that there was purple hair. It’s 2021; sometimes there’s purple hair.)
— Political Congress (@insatiblepol) March 19, 2021
The U.S. and China leveled sharp rebukes of each others’ policies in the first high-level, in-person talks of the Biden administration, with deeply strained relations of the two global rivals on rare public display in Alaska https://t.co/cl3SoVXQmE pic.twitter.com/JAJxufB674
— Reuters (@Reuters) March 19, 2021
It’s that China knows exactly what China was doing, with the bellicose, high-handed words, and the world can pretty much see that. The U.S., by contrast, didn’t really know what it was doing by pulling a big rhetorical gun we have no intention of using, and the world can pretty much see that too. (“The United States is back!” burbled Secretary Anthony Blinken, as if addressing the Sunday morning news panels and not the foreign minister of China. Foreign Minister Yang is thinking, “What am I, a Deplorable? Sell that somewhere else.”)
Worst of all, it’s that even sober-minded analysts seem to think China was daunted by U.S. pushback at this meeting, and that the calculated, confrontational Chinese disdain was an expression of frustration at the continued implacability of U.S. policy.
But the Chinese can read the New York Times like anyone else. They know Team Biden is the same squad that bribed Iran with pallets of cash five years ago to implement the JCPOA. They know the Biden administration has been energetically distancing itself in deed, if not word, from the Trump administration’s previous policies in the Middle East. They know Kim Jong-Un won’t take calls from President Biden; indeed, they’d know that far better than we do, because they are assuredly behind Kim’s refusal.
They know there’s been barbed wire on extra-tall fencing around a paranoid Capitol Hill for weeks, and a Chief Executive in the White House who keeps calling his vice president the president and can’t manage his own press conference.
They know the U.S., whatever our shadowy leadership could do in a pinch, is not in a position right now to marshal national will to oppose decisive Chinese moves, especially moves in China’s back yard.
One way they know that is that China has already reversed one of Obama’s signature achievements by, let’s say, benefiting from the coup in Myanmar. It happened in a flash. I don’t think the Burmese military brass needed goading from China to mount the coup, but they did need a green light from Beijing. They needed to know they had backing. Clearly they have it.
The coup there is going to China’s advantage, Biden obviously won’t do anything, and now that people are fleeing Yangon in numbers, it’s pretty much a fait accompli for the foreseeable future.
As a fascinating coda, the assets of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation in Myanmar have been seized since the coup, and associated staffers arrested. This aspect of the event makes it clear this is pointedly a reversal of Obama’s handiwork in Myanmar. It also has the whiff of a counterblow against the “color revolution” pattern. In itself that’s not an indictment of the return of Aung San Suu Kyi and the international-consensus blessing of Myanmar that ensued. But it is a very informative consideration, as a factor in China’s view of the matter.
Myanmar is a geographic pile being driven in China’s foundation of stability for future moves. Being able to thrust across into the Indian Ocean, athwart the Strait of Malacca and flanking India, is, as the MasterCard commercial says, priceless.
That coup didn’t happen at random on the calendar. As with everything else going on, it ran full tilt in the wake of Biden’s inauguration.
And its relevance to China’s options off her southeast coast is obvious on a map. That brings us to the paired event in this bracket. Along with the diplomatic beaning of the Biden team in Alaska, a very significant statement was floated by Japan in the last week. Tokyo says it has been studying the feasibility of using forces to support the U.S. in an armed defense of Taiwan.
China-Japan relations heading downhill. We now have Japanese govt sources are telling the press that they are seriously planning on how to support the US in a defense of Taiwan against China. This should make Chinese diplomats’ heads explode. https://t.co/ds7R1WeE4A pic.twitter.com/daucpz1IZV
— Julian Ku 古舉倫 (@julianku) March 21, 2021
The government of Yoshihide Suga would not make that statement casually or without due consideration. That we have reached a point at which such words get little immediate attention is a measure of how far along we are on the general acceleration curve.
I see this as an attempt at deterrence by Japan. It was coordinated with the U.S., according to the Asia Nikkei report. It’s not a belligerent communication but a warning.
That said, it acknowledges tacitly, but in the open, that a Chinese move against Taiwan is envisioned and actively prepared for — not as a distant possibility but as a proximate probability.
Just a couple of other things going on that are of equal significance. One is this past week’s session of talks on Afghanistan in Moscow. The chief and most important aspect of those talks is the almost complete absence of the U.S. from leadership or rhetorical prominence. We were there, but you wouldn’t know it from the international news coverage.
AfPak heads off toward the horizon
The photographed leadership moments were China’s and Russia’s, and the prominence of the Taliban, making with the gripping and grinning alongside the Afghan government (the current Ghani government; former president Karzai was there as well), was noteworthy.
(Click through for thread.)
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai shaking hands with Taliban leader Anas Haqqani. In Moscow, Russia.
What a time to be alive… pic.twitter.com/fGHM8tyFSj
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) March 18, 2021
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) March 18, 2021
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) March 18, 2021
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) March 19, 2021
This U.S.-marginal event came hard on the heels of a peculiar and historically evocative outreach involving British officials and representatives of Pakistan and the Taliban. (See information on the British High Commission in Pakistan here, and General Sir Nicholas Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), here. As indicated, the meeting occurred in Bahrain about two weeks ago, shortly before the multi-party talks.)
Pakistani military confirmed the meeting in Bahrain:
Pakistani officials including ISI Chief & Afghanistan's NSA Mohib, Afghan intelligence (NDS) chief Saraj and Afghan Army (ANA) chief Gen Yasin Zia and UK's Gen. Nicholas Carter met in Bahrain. https://t.co/qLa0YSYCvA
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) March 11, 2021
The point in that regard is less what they discussed or diplomatically stipulated to than it is that the UK connections were invoked. This was clearly done in preparation for the Afghanistan talks, and here too, a noteworthy aspect is the lack of visible U.S. investment, or even involvement.
Now, for the next follow-on round, the plan is for Turkey to host the talks. Numerous comments could be made about this (including the point that, if the U.S., as reported, put Turkey up to this, it puts one forcibly in mind of the famous Obama posture of leading from behind in Libya – especially viewed alongside the Japanese rhetorical lead on the Taiwan warning).
But this picture is the primary illustration of where we should focus.
Additionally, Turkey has been outspoken in its alliance with Turkey against the US in a recent spat between Putin and Biden. https://t.co/rnvDHye4Nr
— Adam Milstein (@AdamMilstein) March 20, 2021
In this context, Turkey as a U.S. delegate is not going to empower the U.S. in AfPak dialogue.
The whole episode, taken in profile, suggests that Afghanistan (and indeed Afghanistan as it affects and involves Pakistan, or “AfPak”) is being settled without the U.S. Again, that doesn’t mean we’re not there. It does mean we’re not in the driver’s seat.
There are a couple of priority things to say about that. The topmost priority is probably not the one you might think. What this tells me is that whatever purpose the U.S. had for staying in Afghanistan so doggedly for nearly 20 years, Team Biden (or the cabal behind it; TWNM*) no longer has. I would not look for that purpose among the officially stated reasons for being there.
We seem, under the surface of tepid interest, to be suddenly relinquishing the reins, basically overnight. U.S. media have said little about the talks. The administration is still making noises about it being “difficult,” including from some unspecified logistic perspective, to withdraw our troops on schedule by 1 May – which makes no sense, if we’ve been planning on it for a year and were supposed to have the major drawdown completed in December.
But the lack of U.S. interest in the settlement is palpable. This leads to the other priority comment, which would be in the form of the question why we need to still have troops there, if U.S. interests aren’t the principal interests being served by their presence.
The American people are entitled to ask what’s going on, but the analytical point about this is that it’s happening fast, without any sort of strategic messaging explanation, and it obviously had to be planned before Biden took office. Just getting the British officials into the mix had to take serious time.
One additional point. If it’s not clear what purpose it serves the Asian powers to seek an AfPak settlement without meaningful U.S. investment – after all, they’ve been content to wait nearly 20 years for that – the answer is pretty simple. A less-invested U.S. won’t continue to have Afghanistan, and the access through Pakistan, as a perch in the heart of Asia from which to act independently. A smaller U.S. investment means relying more on the provisions made by others, and that means less independence and less of a veto for Washington.
Indeed, if we keep troops there to guarantee someone else’s security settlement, which is where I am concerned this may be going, someone else has us by the short hairs. Under no circumstances would I let “someone else” be anyone in the AfPak settlement mix: Taliban, Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, or players to be named later. This point needs a heavy-duty wirebrushing in any review of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) we’re working under.
The other development that has my attention is the recent exodus of foreigners from North Korea. In addition to some Russian officials who left in February, NGOs from various nations and UN observers departed in the last ten days.
South, West … and Northeast
There’s a hand-wave about North Korean COVID lockdowns over this, but that doesn’t pass the smell test. The ones leaving are the hard core who don’t leave for lockdowns. And yet they’re leaving too. Comments from their organizations indicate they’re leaving reluctantly.
Exclusive: As of today, no more UN or NGO staff are left in North Koreahttps://t.co/qyRuhGppBi
— Chad O'Carroll (@chadocl) March 18, 2021
There are still foreign diplomatic delegations in Pyongyang. If it weren’t obvious that events are moving fast, we might comfort ourselves that this probably has some inconsequential meaning.
But events are moving fast. That’s the overriding character of this moment: everything is moving fast.
Sudden, prudential departures of a stream of foreigners, especially those without diplomatic protected status, are usually a good sign of some kind of impending security action.
China is undoubtedly involved. It’s early to speculate (much) about what this might be, but if we perceive a pile being driven in Myanmar, and another being maneuvered into place in AfPak – and consider those in light of China’s longer-running battle of encroaching positions on India’s border – a certain geographic message comes into view. It looks like China, along her Asian “interior” perimeter, is trying to shift to a broader, multilegged stance of depth-fortified stability from which to project power.
Without being overly coy about possibilities: China with forces in North Korea would “stabilize” the Korean Peninsula for China’s purposes a lot better than a North Korea steered by China would alone. Regarding blowback against stealth developments in this regard: at no time since 1953 has the U.S looked as leaderless and unlikely to react as we do today.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) obvious power-projection targets from this fortified Asian posture would be Hong Kong and Taiwan. But any rival in the South China Sea would be at risk as well. If Beijing moves, Xi Jinping will want to mop things up to the extent possible.
If we’re not already fortifying Taiwan, it’s too late. Quemoy (Kinmen) and Matsu were more than 60 years ago; U.S. forces are outgunned in China’s back yard today, and in any case, there is no U.S. national will to involve ourselves in a hot-lead fight. Nor will Joe Biden muster any. I don’t doubt the will of Taiwan or Japan, but I do doubt “Biden’s.”
Deterrence is the option here, but proclaiming “The United States is back!” just doesn’t get it done. China’s moving and we are not. Unfortunately, we can’t even see that we’re not moving. We’re misinterpreting Chinese arrogance as frustration. What China did on Thursday was probe the Biden team for its responses, and I’m afraid the responses came up as inadequate.
China’s Communist Party has a lot of plans for unconventional warfare against America. But it’s not clear the CCP will need to put them into execution for whatever the next move is. The combination of factors already discombobulating America from within is enough of an EMP blast to hold us paralyzed. That starts with who got into the Oval Office via the 2020 election – and what “his” obscure intentions are.
The driver of time, and expiration dates on evanescing conditions, look to be the decisive go/no-go factors for Beijing here. It’s not all bad news; if conditions can be altered a little bit in the coming weeks, that may be enough.
Even if they can’t, major geopolitical disruptions always present opportunities. A CCP China that gets too big and multilegged, and then falls, would be a tremendous opportunity for many. Not every rough beast with a telos is a Kairos fanfare. We have yet to measure the miles to Bethlehem from here.
* TIME’s word, not mine.