Today the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) activated Japan’s first marine unit since World War II. The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) has come into being to help Japan meet the evolving security situation in that part of the world. The troop strength of the brigade will be around 2,1000 troops, NCOs, and officers. It’s equipment will include V-22 Ospreys, and AAV7A1 amphibious landing vehicles. Although a brigade in name, the ARDB more closely resembles a US Marine Expeditionary Unit in size, organization and capabilities.
The main role of the marine unit will be to retake islands from an occupying force. In recent years Japan and China have seen a rise in tensions over Japanese islands at the edge of the East China Sea. As access to the Western Pacific becomes more of a priority for China, Japan is not taking the potential threat likely. Chinese military capabilities continue to increase and Japan is making strides in its own rearming process. The ARDB marks a significant increase in Tokyo’s ability to defend its most exposed territories.
Creation of the marine unit has brought controversy too. Amphibious and expeditionary forces have the capability to project power far beyond a home nation’s borders. Japan’s post-World War II constitution renounces the nation’s right to wage war. Japan’s neighbors could point to the creation of the ARDB as a provocation if they wanted.
In any case, Tokyo’s rearmament is moving at full speed ahead. The Japanese Self Defense Forces are loading for bear….or dragon, as the case may be.
The week is off to an active beginning on a host of fronts around the world. From London to Riyadh and further on to Beijing geopolitical screws are turning, a diplomatic crisis is deepening, and the two year anniversary of a conflict has been marked in an explosive manner.
Russian Diplomats Face Being Expelled Across Europe and North America
Dozens of Russian diplomats will be expelled from European nations and the United States as the fallout from the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil continues to expand. Over twenty nations have sided with Great Britain, including the United States and many of its European allies. More than Russian 100 diplomats are being declared persona non grata and formally deported. The consensus among Great Britain’s allies has been that Russia is responsible for the nerve-agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. Russia denies any involvement in the matter and has called the latest expulsions a ‘provocative gesture.’ Moscow also vowed retaliation.
Speculation Places Kim Jong Un In Beijing
Rumors of a senior North Korean delegation, possibly led by Kim Jong Un, broke today when photos of a special North Korean train arriving in Beijing came to light. The train is one used in the past by North Korean leaders for travel around North Korea and beyond. Photos of the train in Beijing were provided by Japan’s Nippon Television. The train was reportedly met at the train station by an honor guard, and line of VIP automobiles.
If Kim is present in Beijing, the timing is interesting. North Korean and South Korean officials are scheduled to meet next week to prepare for a meeting between the leaders of both nations in the near future. Beyond that is the potential meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Trump that is in the works.
Houthi Ballistic Missiles Strike Saudi Arabia
On the second anniversary of the start of the Yemen war, Houthi rebels launched a volley of Iranian-manufactured ballistic missiles against four Saudi Arabian cities. Missile trails, and spectacular explosions lit the night sky over the Saudi capital. Four missiles were intercepted over Riyadh. No vital targets were struck, according to Saudi officials, though one civilian was killed and a handful injured. Missiles were also launched at the southwestern cities of Khamis Mushait, Najran, and Jazan. No damage or casualties were reported there. If the Houthis were hoping for a propaganda victory from the attack they couldn’t be more wrong. The missile strike has been condemned around the world and serves as a shining example of why the Saudi war effort must be continued.
The notion of a potential trade war breaking out sometime in the near future is creating much speculation. A number of well known economists, including Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are convinced President Trump’s aggressive protectionist tariffs, coupled with China’s retaliatory actions herald the beginning of a US-China trade war that will have drastic effects on the global economy. Other economists, and experts in the field are less convinced a trade war is upon us. They point to the Chinese retaliation measures as proof of this thesis. Beijing’s response has been cautious, and calculated. 128 US products with an import value of $3 billion have been targeted. The sum is a fraction of President Trump’s tariffs on $60 billion in Chinese imports. What the future will bring remains to be seen, but if the market reactions over the last two days are an indication, the anxiety out there may not diminish for some time.
It is open for debate whether or not China’s responses will be strictly economic in nature. Economists seem to believe this will be a tit-for-tat exchange of tariffs between the US and China. Beijing can decide to craft a geopolitical response as well. China’s actions in the North Korea situation have vacillated between helpful and hindering. The Trump administration had long sought Beijing’s assistance in defusing the high tensions in the region. To Washington’s chagrin, China has not exercised its substantial influence with Pyongyang in a beneficial manner. With economic tensions between the US and China rising, Beijing could use it as a justification to do even less with regards to the North Korean situation.
The South China Sea presents another arena where the PRC can project its displeasure with US actions. China has been extending its military reach there, and has expressed increasing annoyance with US attempts to project power in the disputed sea. Today a US Navy destroyer cruised within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, once a fishing atoll, now the site of a Chinese military installation. Now, with the tariffs becoming a heated matter, Beijing can respond more aggressively to US warship patrols, possibly leading to a diplomatic compromise or a concession of sorts down the line.
Saving face is important to China. If the tariff tug-of-war continues, and even escalates, the South China Sea, and North Korean issue provide two areas where Beijing can challenge Washington with a measured approach without plunging the world into a major trade war.
A confidential United Nations report suggests North Korea is exporting commodities in direct violation of the international sanctions that have been levied against the Pyongyang regime. The report, submitted by a panel of experts to the UN Security Council, accused North Korea of exporting, or attempting to export oil and other commodities that are prohibited in resolutions, from January to September, 2017. A host of multinational oil companies are also under investigation for their roles in supplying petroleum products to the North, although no specific company names were revealed.
According to the UN report, North Korea has netted $200 million from the shipment of banned commodities. False paperwork, evasive techniques, and circuitous routes were employed to cover up the North’s involvement, but it was not enough. Evidence of military cooperation between North Korea and Syria to develop the later’s chemical weapons capabilities was also discovered.
It’s unlikely that the UN will penalize Pyongyang with additional heavy sanctions with less than a week to go before the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The North has made overtures to South Korea in recent weeks, and will be sending a team of athletes to the games in Pyeongchang. The UN is not about to rock the boat when North Korea has been making the effort (albeit a self-serving one) to behave itself. If the Security Council even whispers about sanctions between now and the beginning of the games it will be a PR jackpot for the North Koreans.
Consequently, do not expect North Korea to face penalties for the sanction violations. There remained a bit of hope in the UN that sanctions imposed by the Security Council might pave the way towards a turn around by Kim Jong Un. That is not going to be the case. With the sanctions so easy to circumvent, no incentive exists for the North Korean government to behave, let alone even care if the sanctions remain in place or not. And it is not as if the UN Security Council is in any position to enforce the sanctions when two of its members are not so clandestinely enabling Pyongyang to skirt a number of the sanctions now in place.
Planning and preparation is underway for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s visit Da Nang in March. News of the potential visit broke when Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in Vietnam for talks with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. It’s almost certain now that the United States Navy will be returning to Vietnam in a very big way. Carl Vinson’s port call will mark the first time a US aircraft carrier has sailed in Vietnamese waters since Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of US citizens from Saigon in April, 1975.
Word of the port call comes at a time when tensions in the South China Sea region appear ready to flare up. China has claimed that earlier this month a US Navy destroyer violated its territorial waters when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal. There is speculation that Beijing is preparing to make a move in the region. On 30 December, 2017 Chinese state television broadcast video of Chinese military facilities on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. The broadcast highlighted the scale of China’s military buildup in the region. China may intend to use the transit as the reason for increasing its military presence in and around South China Sea.
Carl Vinson’s visit is symbolic of the growing defense relationship between the United States and Vietnam. Vietnam has been quite vocal with its opposition to Chinese moves in the area, joining India, Australia, Japan, and other regional powers that harbor misgivings about China’s long-term intentions. Those nations have followed the US lead and strengthened their defense relationships with Vietnam over the past five years. India has provided advanced training for Vietnamese fighter pilots, and its budding submarine force. Australia has provided equipment and advisors to a lesser degree.
The purpose that is fueling the relationship’s growth is clear. Vietnam represents the first line of defense against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The more capable its military becomes, the greater the possibility that it can slow down a potential Chinese military venture until US, Australian, and Japanese warships and aircraft arrive in force.