Monday, July 21, 2008

Wanna buy a Warship Cheap?

Sometimes a weapons system can be too sophisticated for its own good, as the tiny Asian sultanate of Brunei discovered when it commissioned a major British defense contractor to build it three state-of-the-art naval corvettes.

Sandwiched in between two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, Brunei may be small but it is still rich. It is a kind of Southeast Asian Kuwait, with about 380,000 people living in a country the size of Delaware, ruled by one of the wealthiest families on Earth and sitting on top of some of the largest petroleum and natural gas reserves in the region.

With assets like these, situated among other nations that are buying modern armaments and close to one of the major theaters in the Global War on Terrorism, it is hardly surprising that the family that has ruled Brunei for centuries was looking for some protection.

In 1995 the sultanate contracted with the British defense indsutry BAE Systems to build three advanced naval corvettes (technically Offshore Patrol Boats) for a total of $750 million pounds (about $1.4 billion). They are equipped with Exocet anti-ship missiles, and Sea Wolf anti-air craft missiles, torpedo tubes and rapid firing guns, among other armaments.

Brunei has only about 70 miles of coastline to protect, but it also is among the six Asian nations that claim all or part of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. These comprise some 51 small islands and reefs, and 44 of them are claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam the Philippines – and Brunei.

The sultanate figured that the three corvettes would allow it to project Bruneian naval power over the Louisa Reef near its coastline not to mention, of course, the nine off-shore oil fields it owns in the South China Sea, which contribute a good part of the approximately 200,000 barrels of oil that Brunei exports each day.

There is no question that these warships would allow the sultanate to project power in the region. There was no question that the oil-rich country and its immensely wealthy royal family (whose fortune is projected at about $22 billion) could afford to buy them. But did Brunei have the human resources necessary to man them.

These warships are among the most sophisticated small naval vessels in the world as just a partial list of its weapon systems would indicate:

Nautis II command and control system.

MBDA Exocet anti-aircraft missiles

Two sets of triple torpedo tubes

Thales hull-mounted medium-frequency sonar

Oto Nelara Super Rapid Gun
And more. The high level of computer-aided automation also allows it to operate with a crew of only about 70 officers and ratings.

The problem is that the Royal Brunei Navy has only about 700 personnel, operating three coastal patrol boats and a small fleet of mostly riverine patrol boats. Manning the three corvettes would have severely taxed not only the navy but the population as a whole.

Brunei has historically preferred not to import many foreign workers, unlike many of the small sultanates in the Persian Gulf, even though it does pay for a battalion of Gurkha soldiers seconded from the British Army as its main land force.

But while Brunei’s military expenditures have always been modest, it has always gone first class. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the country’s absolute ruler, is a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, and he can fly military helicopters. But in this case the sultanate bit off a little more than it could chew.

Realizing that its appetite had probably exceeded its capabilities, Brunei tried to back out of the deal, rejecting the ships as not meeting specifications. That was a pretty tough sell considering the armaments and weapon systems were so advanced. An arbitration panel ruled in favor of BAE Systems and required that the Brunei government pay up.

So now the ships belong to the Royal Brunei Navy, but are still docked at Borrow-in-Furness, Cumbrai, in northwest Britain. The country has no qualified sailors to man them and does not intend to commission them. The German luxury yacht builder Lurssen Werft Co. has been hired to try to broker a sale, and the Brunei government has cut about $50 million pounds from the asking price for each vessel.

So far there have been no takers. The ships are customized for service in tropical waters and lack such things as heating that might limit their appeal to the navies of countries in cooler climates without expensive modifications.

They would seem to be ideally suited to neighboring countries, such as Malaysia or Singapore which have been trying to modernize their naval power in the strategic waters of Southeast Asia, which are plagued with pirates and vulnerable to terrorists. But some countries such as Malaysia want to nurture their own defense industries and prefer home-made vessels.

So they are currently being shopped around as economical enhancements to the navies of countries as diverseas Egypt, Ecuador and Uruguay, but would any of these countries have the sophisticated trained personnel necessary to man them?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Finding Bush's Legacy in Asia

George W. Bush is making his last swings through Asia as president. He attended the G-8 Summit meeting in Japan earlier this month, and in August he plans to go to Beijing to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games. Unless he attends the annual APEC meeting in November, that’s probably about it for him.

I doubt that President Bush would win any popularity polls in Asia or be as admired as some of his predecessors, including his father who once served as ambassador to China. But, if pressed, many in the region would probably give the president good marks for his overall stewardship of America’s Asian policy.

Who would have thought that the president, who as a candidate in 2000 famously could not name the president of Pakistan, will probably find the most enduring legacies of his eight years as president in Asia?

Probably his most important accomplishment must be the country’s rapprochement with India, symbolized by the agreement on sharing nuclear power technology that was negotiated and announced in 2006. Under it, New Delhi agreed to place the commercial side of its nuclear program under international safeguards, even thought it never ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. In return, Washington agreed to lift the bans on exports of nuclear technology that have been in place since India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974.

In making the deal, the Bush administration displayed the audacity and strategic good sense in overturning conventional wisdom that former president Richard Nixon showed when he opened relations with China in his famous visit to Beijing in 1972.

Bush never put his personal stamp on this change of policy in the way that the China opening has become emblematic of Nixon. Maybe he was wise, since the nuclear negotiations are not yet a done deal. It was hung up for months due to implacable opposition by the leftist parties that support Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.

But last week the left bloc withdrew its support, and Singh told Bush at the G-8 meeting that he expects to maintain power through alliances with other parties apparently more amenable to the deal. It has also to be finally approved by Congress, which in the past has shown strong bipartisan support.

Bush’s early overtures in Asia were uncertain to say the least. His first meeting with an Asian leader (or any other foreign leader) former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was a disaster of miscues and misunderstandings. Following the September 11, 2001 attack on America Bush also irritated Asian leaders by his single minded focus on terrorism at various regional meetings such as the APEC summit.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, too, has been criticized for skipping meetings of the ASEAN foreign ministers. Over time, however, President Bush and his representatives have learned to synchronize their own priorities better with those of their Asian allies and friends in subsequent meetings.

For that matter, Southeast Asia has been one of the unsung success stories in the “Global War on Terrorism”. Most of the success comes from the efforts of the Asian nations themselves, but Washington has judiciously supported these efforts in the major terrorism theaters of Indonesia and the Philippines.

The few millions that Washington has given Jakarta to help underwrite its elite anti-terrorism unit called Detachment 88, which has successfully arrested or killed several high-level al-Qaeda allies, is certainly the best value for the dollar in the war. Indonesia’s success is suppressing Jemaah Islamiyah was recognized last month when Washington the lifted the official travel advisory that has warned Americans against traveling to Indonesia.

The Bush administration’s handling of relations with the two biggest Asian powers, China and Japan, might best be summed up as doing no harm. It is one arena here the Bush administration has basically continued and built on long-standing initiatives of previous administrations headed by both parties..

The collision of a U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering plane and a Chinese MiG was defused neatly without damaging overall relations. Early on Bush promised to “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan. But as Taipei dragged its feet for years over appropriating the money to buy more U.S. armaments to defend itself, the administration soured on former president Chen Sui-bian and his pro-independence party.

Part of this, too, was a reluctance to do anything that might create a crisis in the Taiwan Strait at a time when US attention, and power, was almost totally focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan. It is often forgotten how much China has benefitted from this diversion of attention.

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, China was moving into the neoconservative gun sights.
A head of steam was building around the proposition that China’s growing prosperity and increasing expenditures on modern armaments was becoming a threat to the United States. The irony is that China really does possess weapons of mass destruction and has the capability to use them against the continental United States.

But these days few American pundits or opinion makers pay much attention to China except as an economic story or as a business rival. When neocons do turn their attention, however briefly, away from their obsessions with Iraq and Iran it is to sputter some complaints about Bush’s turnaround on North Korea.

That leads of course, to the one Asian arena that was, during the first Bush administration at least, defined mainly in ideological terms, where the incoming administration was determined to reverse the policy of its predecessor. The landmark achievement of the former Clinton administration was the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The neocons surrounding President Bush were determined to undo the accord, and in 2002 used North Korea’s suspected dabbling in uranium enrichment to end oil shipments, which, in turn, prompted Pyongyang to kick out international inspectors and restart the plutonium factory at Yongbyong.

For years the six party talks were mainly an excuse to do nothing, waiting for that blessed day when the regime of Kim Jong-il would collapse under its own weight. Meanwhile, Kim, far from collapsing ,was slowing accumulating enough plutonium to build at least a half a dozen atomic bombs, one of which he exploded – or tried to explode - in October 2006.

Progress came only when Bush switched course and permitted his representative at the six-party talks to talk directly with his North Korean counterpart within the context of the multi-lateral negotiations. The upshot was the dismantling of plutonium facilities at Yongbyon and the turning over of data on the nuclear program.

Bush responded by dropping North Korea from the list of terror-sponsoring nations, an action that has irritated Japan, which has its own beef with Pyongyang over abduction of Japanese nationals over the years, but which was a necessary quid-pro-quo for the larger objective of defusing North Korea’s nuclear program.

Beyond the nuclear issue, relations with South Korea were strained during most of the Bush years because the politics of the two countries were out of sync. South Korea had elected two left-of-center presidents, while the U.S. had turned more conservative. The irony is that as the Korean electorate turned conservative in choosing Lee Myung-bak who campaigned in part on improving the alliance, the American electorate seems poised to choose a left-of-center president..

A member of the US National Security Council accompanying President Bush to Japan in early July, went to far as to say that the eight years of the Bush administration were a “golden era” in US-Japan relations. That may be an exaggeration, but in fact relations have been good, building upon initiative of previous administrations rather than trying to turn them around.

The relations were especially fruitful during the long (for Japan) administration of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. He made Japan a willing partner in America’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, stretching Japan’s pacifistic constitution to the limit to the delight of Americans and Japanese conservatives who have been pushing Japan to cooperate more closely with the U.S. on defense.

The US and Japan also concluded an important agreement in 2006 to lessen the American military footprint on Okinawa, by among other things, moving 8,000 marines and their dependents to Guam. There are doubts however, that the necessary infrastructure to support these troops, not to mention other aspects of the military buildup on Guam, by the 2010 deadline.

The government of Yasuo Fukuda is less slavishly cooperative with the U.S. is more focused on improving relations with China. He has also been hamstrung in but the opposition party’s control of the upper house of the Diet. That led to a temporary suspension of the Japanese’ Maritime Defense Force’s refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.