November 07, 2017

Facebook accounts banned by Pakistan

Bringing Transparency and Accountability to Online Political Ads

The internet makes it easy for political ad buyers to obfuscate their donors and handlers. Despite the challenges, there are significant steps that Congress and social media platforms can take to improve transparency.

Blog Post by Karen Kornbluh

October 30, 2017

A 3D-printed Twitter logo displayed in front of Russian flag. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

More on: Digital Policy Politics and GovernmentRussia Civil Society

Karen Kornbluh

Senior Fellow for Digital Policy

Since the September revelations that fake accounts linked to Russia bought $150,000 of political ads on Facebook during the 2016 campaign, discoveries of Russian activity on social media have emerged almost daily. The Russian purchases escaped notice amidst over $1.4 billion spent on political ads, much of it to promote paid advocacy posing as independent news or posts by outraged individuals. Disinformation was so prevalent during the campaign that, as Alexis Madrigal points out in The Atlantic,even the Pope talked about fake news.

The internet was supposed to make political ads more, not less, transparent. In fact, the Supreme Court majority invoked the internet in its Citizens United decisionremoving limits on corporate and union spending on political advertising, writing:

With the advent of the internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters … citizens can see whether elected officials are “in the pocket” of so-called moneyed interests.

The Court’s vision of an internet able to inoculate democratic debate against the influx of money was always unrealistic. It was rendered impossible even on TV by the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) allowing big donors to set up “ghost corporations”—entities that take advantage of a corporate structure permitting donors to remain anonymous.

But in a cruel irony, the internet itself became a means for undermining existing disclosure laws. Rules developed over decades required that all political ads disclose who paid for the ad and that TV stations make information on sponsors publicly available. But the FEC allowed big donors to evade these rules if they advertise on the internet. Candidates and sponsors also started using “dark ads” targeting subsets of voters with anonymous, negative, and false claims—some carrying contradictory messages to different voters—to further evade accountability.

And, the unique features of the internet allowed political content to be disguised so that it often isn’t recognizable as paid advocacy at all. TV and radio stations are required to disclose who pays for content. These rules date back to the payola scandals when music producers paid off disc jockeys to play their artists. But online, front groups could create personas such as @TEN_GOP, a Twitter account pretending to represent Tennessee Republicans that was in fact controlled by Russian operatives. Those seeking to influence political discussion purchase robotic accounts, or “bots,” that join ads in promoting content so that it appears to enjoy organic human support. Sites that pretend to be independent news organizations—but with none of the practices of traditional independent media—run inflammatory advocacy stories geared to provoke likes and shares to rise on the lists of trending stories. A recent Oxford Internet Institute study found that during the 2016 U.S. election, “Twitter users got more misinformation, polarizing and conspiratorial content than professionally produced news.” Twitter disputes these results.

The ease with which Russia exploited these weaknesses leaves no doubt that, at a minimum, more disclosure is needed. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, and John McCain introduced a billtranslating TV political advertising rules to the digital realm by requiring tech platforms to include disclaimers in ads identifying their buyer and to prevent foreign nationals from purchasing political ads. Furthermore, the bill would require online platforms to make copies of the ads available to the public as well as disclose their price and target audience. Facebook and Twitter each responded with commitments to voluntarily make changes along these lines. Although these commitments in theory could be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general, Senator Warner argues that legislation is needed to ensure other companies follow suit.

To make these steps more effective, current law requiring that political advertisers disclose the names of their donors should be updated and enforced. Online platforms and the FEC should require additional, standardized identifying information on expenditures along the lines of what legal scholars Jennifer Heerwig and Katherine Shaw have proposed to enable regulators and watchdogs to aggregate, sort, and search disclosure data. And the various transparency measures should address issue ads—not just ads about candidates—as Twitter has suggested.

Revelations of Russian attempts to sow division, even after the election, highlight the power of fake accounts, pages, and news to drive seemingly organic debate in ways that can harm our national security. Facebook has committed to using machine learning to take down fake accounts and pages. Other platforms will need to expose and take down fake accounts. Facebook also says it will provide more context for news sites and reduce monetization opportunities for fake news. The vice president of fact-checker Snopes, Vinny Green, has suggested that internet companies might explore how better to ensure that sites posing as credible outlets actually follow the editorial standards and principles traditionally employed by reputable journalists and organizations.

Disclosure measures of these kinds are critical but more inquiry and research is necessary. Thorny issues for discussion include the effect of dark issue ads on democratic debate and how to counter efforts that promote extremism on algorithmically-driven platforms.

As with other abusive behavior on the internet, the challenges will not remain static. Well-funded organizations, including state actors, are trying to shape online discourse and will adapt to efforts aimed at curbing their activities. Social media platforms can enlist the help of academics and researchers by providing them with anonymized data to study the effectiveness of countermeasures. Ongoing innovation will be needed to enhance disclosure and democratic debate on the internet

Trump and the $14 Trillion National Debt

The U.S. national debt now exceeds $14 trillion, prompting calls for tax reform and spending cuts as President Trump works with Congress on budget plans. 

Backgrounder by James McBride

Last updated November 02, 2017

A statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of the U.S. Treasury Department headquarters in Washington, DC. (Flickr/Tyler Merbler)

More on: United States Budget, Debt, and DeficitsTax Policy

James McBride

Senior Online Writer/Editor, Economics


With the U.S. national debt expanding rapidly over the past decade, the state of the federal budget has come under intense scrutiny. The annual deficit spiked following the 2008 financial crisis, and budget analysts say that without reform government spending will continue to outpace revenue.

President Donald J. Trump has pushed ambitious plans for tax cuts and new spending in budget negotiations with congressional allies, unnerving some fiscal conservatives who would like to see deficit reduction. Some members of both parties in Congress view the proposed cuts as too aggressive, but many Republican lawmakers see the current moment as a rare chance to achieve the first comprehensive tax reform in a generation. Meanwhile, the dependence of the United States on foreign investors to finance its growing debt has raised renewed questions over the U.S. economy’s vulnerability to foreign governments or shifts in investor sentiment.

What is the U.S. government’s fiscal position?

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, both the U.S. deficit and debt spiked for several years as the federal government collected less tax revenue and increased its spending to counteract the downturn.

The 2017 budget deficit was roughly $666 billion, with the federal government spending nearly $4 trillion while taking in $3.3 trillion in revenue. This amounts to about 3.5 percent of GDP,  an increase of 14 percent from the 2016 fiscal year, which saw a budget deficit of $600 billion, or 3.2 percent of GDP. (The United States’ debt-to-GDP ratio over the past five decades has averaged 3 percent and reached a high of nearly 10 percent in 2009.)

Debt held by the public—the measure of how much the government owes to outside investors—stands at $14.8 trillion. It has nearly doubled since 2007, rising from about 40 percent to nearly 80 percent of GDP. (Counting intragovernmental debt, or debts owed by one U.S. government agency to another, brings the total to more than $20 trillion, more than 120 percent of GDP.)

Under the status quo, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the public debt will grow by $9.4 trillion over the next decade.

How would Trump’s budget plans affect it?

The Trump administration issued its first full budget proposal in May 2017, and congressional Republicans followed up with their own blueprint in fall 2017. Trump’s $4.1 trillion budget would cut $3.6 trillion in spending over the next ten years, while Republicans in both the Senate and House have proposed budgets that, they say, would cut more than $5 trillion over that time. Both the White House and congressional plans propose sharply reducing health and welfare programs. But many economists, including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, say that cuts, paired with spending increases in other areas and a tax reform plan that lowers revenue, would likely significantly widen the budget deficit. The result, some say, would likely significantly widen the budget deficit, though supporters argue that faster growth will increase revenue and balance the budget. The major aspects of the various budget proposals include the following:

The White House and congressional Republicans have proposed a tax reform framework, which if passed would be the first comprehensive reform of the tax system since President Ronald Reagan’s administration. It would cut the corporate tax rate from 36 to 20 percent, cut individual rates and  reduce the number of brackets, and end inheritance taxes. Many details remain undetermined, but some tax analysts have estimated that such a plan would likely increase the deficit by more than $2 trillion over a decade. Trump and some Republican lawmakers say that tax cuts will boost growth enough to increase government revenues and balance the budget, though some congressional conservatives are skeptical of any reform that might increase the deficit.        

Trump repeatedly promised not to make any cuts to entitlements, welfare spending that includes Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Entitlements make up both the largest and fastest-growing chunk of the federal budget—nearly half of all spending—and economists project that they will be the biggest contributor to the deficit in the coming decades if lawmakers fail to reduce their rate of growth. Despite Trump’s earlier pledges, his proposed budget would cut Medicaid and related health programs for low-income Americans by some $800 billion over the next decade. The congressional plan calls for $473 billion in cuts to Medicare and more than $1 trillion in cuts to Medicaid.

Both the White House and congressional Republican plans would cut non-defense discretionary spending across the board. Trump’s desired cuts include $192 billion from nutritional assistance programs and $72 billion from disability benefits. Most government agencies would face budget cuts, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget seeing the largest reduction, at 31 percent. Congressional plans would cut more than $600 billion in non-defense spending.

Defense spending totaled $584 billion in 2016, and Trump promised to “rebuild our military” by adding fifty thousand soldiers, expanding the Navy’s fleet, and adding planes to the Air Force. His budget includes a bump in military spending of $43 billion in the coming year, and nearly a half trillion dollars over the next decade. The Senate plan would not raise defense spending in the coming decade, while the House version calls for increases.

Infrastructure is another area in which Trump promised major spending. His budget would commit $200 billion in federal funds over ten years, with the goal of incentivizing private investors via tax breaks to spend up to $1 trillion to bring U.S. road, rail, airport, water supply, and internet infrastructure up to the standards of other developed countries. Another administration priority is building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a project estimated to cost between $12 and $25 billion, but which receives $1.6 billion in Trump’s proposal. Congressional Republicans have signaled openness to new infrastructure spending, but say that it would likely have to wait until 2018.        

What about the debt ceiling?

Congress has long tried to exert control over federal spending by placing a limit on U.S. debt. This “debt ceiling” has been raised fourteen times since 2001. During the administration of President Barack Obama, Republicans in Congress used it as a bargaining chip in 2011 budget negotiations. While the ceiling was ultimately raised in that instance, the standoff led investors to question the U.S. government’s ability to pay its debts and drew the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt, from the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s. In 2013, and then again in 2015, Congress voted to temporarily suspend the limit.

The most recent chapter in the debt ceiling controversy came in September 2017, when Trump made a deal with congressional Democrats to suspend the limit for three months, potentially setting up a confrontation in December 2017. Trump also voiced support for a proposal to repeal the debt limit altogether, a position opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan argues that the ceiling is “a useful tool as a check on fiscal policy to help us get smaller government.”     

How does U.S. debt compare to other countries?

The United States’ debt-to-GDP ratio is among the highest in the developed world. Among other industrialized countries, the United States is behind only Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Japan.

The United States, however, benefits from the U.S. dollar being considered the most stable and desirable currency in the world. High demand for the dollar as the global reserve currency means that the United States can finance its debt more cheaply and easily than most other countries.

Who holds the U.S. debt?

The bulk of U.S. debt is held by investors, who buy U.S. Treasury bonds at varying interest rates. This includes both domestic and foreign investors, as well as both governmental and private funds.

Foreign holders of U.S. debt have received particular scrutiny. Foreign investors hold roughly 43 percent of the total, amounting to about $6 trillion. As the Congressional Research Service explains [PDF], about two-thirds of foreign-held U.S. debt is held by governments.

By far the two largest holders of U.S. Treasuries are Japan ($1.09 trillion) and China ($1.05 trillion).

By far the two largest holders of U.S. Treasuries are Japan ($1.09 trillion) and China ($1.05 trillion). China had been the United States’ largest creditor for nearly a decade, but it was surpassed by Japan in 2016, according to U.S. Treasury data. No other country holds more than $300 billion.

Does foreign financing of the debt matter?

Steady demand from foreign creditors has allowed the United States to borrow money at relatively low interest rates. But some policymakers have raised concernsover the potential dangers of a single country, China in particular, using its holdings to to put pressure on the United States. Some economists have warned that a sudden sell-off of U.S. debt could spike interest rates, sharply increasing U.S. borrowing costs and potentially causing an economic crisis.

In 2015, for the first time in more than a decade, foreign investors purchased fewer U.S. Treasuries than they sold. That trend accelerated in 2016, with foreign holdings dropping by $201 billion. While China and Japan still hold the lion’s share of U.S. foreign debt, both countries reduced their holdings in 2015 and 2016.

Some investment analysts have raised fears that uncertainty over the new administration’s intentions are leading investors to drop their holdings. However, CFR’s Brad Setser points out that the drop predates Trump. He says it primarily reflects foreign governments’ own economic policies. For instance, he says, Japan’s government decided that it wanted to hold fewer long-term bonds and more cash, while China has been selling its reserves to support its currency. And while some central banks may be reducing their holdings of U.S. bonds, foreign private investors have been increasing their purchases. Ultimately, Setser says, there is little sign yet that foreign investors are losing their appetite for U.S. debt, particularly when many large countries continue to run large trade surpluses

Mohammed bin Salman’s Shakeup Is More Than a Power Play

06 November 2017


Jane Kinninmont


Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

High-profile arrests reflect the Saudi crown prince’s emerging brand of authoritarian populism for the post-oil era.

People watch a projection of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in September. Photo: Getty Images.

A new anti-corruption purge in Saudi Arabia reinforces Mohammed bin Salman’s hallmark of sudden, spectacular action designed to signal radical change.

The rapid arrests of senior princes, former ministers and the country’s richest businessman came as regional tensions intensified; on the same day, Lebanon’s prime minister resigned while visiting Riyadh, and the Houthis in Yemen managed to shoot a ballistic missile further into Saudi territory than ever before. Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, thus faces political risks from multiple directions – but the arrests will probably reduce the risk of anyone in the family challenging him in the foreseeable future.

The arrests form part of MBS’s reinvention of the way Saudi Arabia is governed. Saudi media portray this as a much-needed battle against corruption while much of the Western media have viewed it as a political purge. Most likely, it is both. There is widespread public frustration over corruption, patronage and nepotism in Saudi Arabia. By showing that the powerful and wealthy can be brought down by corruption, the crown prince is addressing an issue of public concern, which is probably a popular thing to do.

At the same time, the arrests have removed a one-time rival prince, strengthened his control of the military, and raised questions about the future of powerful media organizations. And in general, anti-corruption efforts are often politically selective in countries where institutions and rule of law are weak and subservient to powerful individuals.

Since his father came to the throne in early 2015, MBS has launched several simultaneous projects– overhauling the economy, liberalizing social life, adopting a new confrontational foreign policy and most recently reforming the country’s interpretation of Islam – while restructuring the traditional royals-plus-clerics model of government in order to centralize power in his own hands. He has been unafraid of alienating traditional supporters and is betting on a new youth constituency that wants to see change.

The dramatic and high-profile arrests over the weekend serve three of these projects. On the economy, MBS is cutting government spending and courting foreign investment. Tackling corruption can be seen as a way of cutting costs, as well as signalling to foreign investors that this will no longer be such a risk to those doing business in the kingdom.

Arresting the kingdom’s richest man, Prince Waleed bin Talal, as well as princes and ministers, is being pitched as a sign no one is above the law – and fighting corruption is more credible if it starts at the top. But fighting corruption systematically also requires developing institutions and the rule of law. Just before the arrests were announced, MBS was made the head of a new anti-corruption commission, whereas in many countries this would be a judge or bureaucrat rather than a political leader.


Saudi Arabia's Post-Oil Future

At this 2016 event, the panel discussed the challenges and opportunities Saudi Arabia faces in its effort to reduce the kingdom’s oil dependence, diversify its economy and secure its long-term future.

That leads into the second theme: the centralization of power in MBS’s hands. Removing Miteb bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi National Guard, and sacking the head of the navy increases MBS’s control over all of the security services. He had already ensured his control of the interior ministry when he overthrew Mohammed bin Nayef, then the crown prince and interior minister, earlier this year. Miteb, a son of former king Abdullah, was himself once seen as a possible future king; now he and his brother Turki are both arrested, along with King Abdullah’s former gatekeeper at the royal court.

The businessmen arrested include a number who were close to the sons of Sultan, another former crown prince, as well as the heads of three major media organizations. They include Saleh Kamel, chairman of Okaz Press and Publishing and a founder of ART and the Dallal Al Baraka conglomerate; Walid Al Ibrahim, head of MBC; and Prince Waleed, whose businesses include Rotana Media.

Thirdly, Mohammed bin Salman needs to reinvent the social contract for the post-oil era, and to find new ways to legitimize his leadership through developmental success and nationalism, as well as an increasingly authoritarian approach. His very visible anti-corruption posture forms part of an attempt to appeal to a younger generation of Saudis, rather than focusing on the traditional supporters among the royals, clerics and merchants. MBS will be conscious that at a time when the population are feeling a fiscal squeeze, they want to see the royal family cutting back too (although he too has been criticized for lavish spending, for instance on a $500 million yacht last year).

More than that, he appears to be betting that a large constituency of young Saudis wants to see radical change in the way the country is governed. He seems to want to harness that sentiment in support of change that is driven from the top down, by him, rather than the bottom up, be that by protests, activists or more radical challengers. The arrests of these senior figures, including the sons of a king who was once seen as revered, come a week after MBS said that the model of interpreting Islam over the past 30 years was ‘not normal’ and ‘not Saudi Arabia’. And the arrests are now likely to be followed by the exposure of many details about high-level corruption among Al Saud princes.

All this adds up to a dramatic break with the past. It is an attempt to a transition to a new model of government while preserving the continuity of Al Saud rule. And it represents an authoritarian populist approach which has an anti-establishment flavour despite coming from the heart of the ruling family.

Overall, the move against senior princes is likely to bolster both MBS’s popular support base and his autocratic tendencies. Questions will remain about dissent within the family, but it is likely that princes will be too wary about their own positions to mobilize against the current leadership. The US has shown no interest in raising any concerns; Donald Trump spoke to the Saudi King on Saturday, praised his stance against extremism and asked for Aramco to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback

Is Asia Reconnecting?

Essays on Asia’s Infrastructure Contest

October 31, 2017

ISBN# 978-1-4422-8031-1 (pb); 978-1-4422-8032-8 (eBook)

CSIS/Rowman & Littlefield


Purchase a print version

“Eurasia is thus the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played,” the late Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote two decades ago. His words ring true again as a massive infrastructure competition unfolds across the Eurasian supercontinent. If the roads, railways, and other connections that are emerging today shift flows of goods, people, and ideas, the long-term implications could be profound.

CSIS launched the Reconnecting Asia Project to make sense of these developments. Our website,, has a growing database of over 2,100 projects and an interactive map that tracks what is happening on the ground. In our Big Questions series, leading experts respond to wide-ranging questions. This report includes highlights from the first six questions posed in the series.

The Big Questions series begins with the biggest question of all: Is Asia reconnecting? Until the rise of Europe’s colonial powers in the sixteenth century, many of the world’s most important trading routes ran overland. Today, emerging overland routes aim to shift trade away from the sea, where 90 percent of international trade currently travels. As our experts point out in Chapter 1, many obstacles—economic, political, and strategic—stand in the way of this potentially epochal shift.

With a frenzy of investment and construction in recent years, Asia has in some respects become the world’s infrastructure laboratory. Reflecting this trend, China overtook the United States as the global leader in built assets in 2015, while three of the top four per-capita leaders were also in the region (Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan). In Chapter 2, experts consider what the rest of the world could learn from Asia about how—and how not—to make infrastructure investments.

Just as the compass and the domesticated camel facilitated greater mobility in ancient times, emerging technologies could impact Asia’s economic landscape. In Chapter 3, experts examine how automation could impact existing modes of transportation, whether shipping terminals on the water or driverless cars on land. They also considered an entirely new form of transportation: the Hyperloop concept popularized by Elon Musk.

Greater connectivity can also create unintended consequences. The ancient Silk Road, for example, carried not just commerce, but also disease. In Chapter 4, experts consider how greater connectivity could impact the movement of illicit drugs, wildlife trafficking, and infections. New roads, railways, and ports are not the primary drivers of these challenges, but could exacerbate them if policy is not updated to reflect an increasingly integrated region.

New connections are emerging in the Arctic as well. During the past year, Arctic sea ice has dropped to record lows. In August, a Russian tanker became the first ship to complete the Northern Sea Route, traveling from Norway to South Korea and shaving days off the dominant route through the Suez Canal. In Chapter 5, experts consider how the Arctic’s transformation might impact economic opportunities and what factors will drive or delay the region’s future development.

Economics has been our primary lens, but we have begun to consider strategic implications as well. History is filled with infrastructure projects that have advanced national security and foreign policy objectives. The same road network that Darius the Great used to rule the Persian empire was used by Alexander the Great to conquer it. In Chapter 6, experts consider how ports and railways transformed Japan, India, and Russia, and what lessons those cases hold for today.

Eurasia’s infrastructure game is still heating up, and it could take decades before these questions are fully answered. Eurasia remains the chessboard for global primacy, but the nature of that game has not remained static. Military power still matters, but economics has taken center stage. Infrastructure has become a more important tool for accumulating power as well as exercising it. As the world’s economic center of gravity continues moving east, the stakes of this game are likely to rise even higher.


Download PDF file of "Is Asia Reconnecting?"


Arrests in Saudi Arabia: Causes and Implications

November 6, 2017

Q1: What caused the sudden arrest of dozens of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful individuals?

A1: These individuals were swept up by an anticorruption commission that King Salman had created merely hours before the arrests. Reports claim that the arrested include some of the most important economic actors in Saudi Arabia. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world’s most prominent Saudi investor, has gotten a great deal of attention, but the sweep included other billionaires, senior royals from other branches of the family, and technocrats who began guiding Saudi Arabia’s economic reform program under King Abdullah. These include Adel Fakieh, who served as minister of labor before becoming minister of economy and planning, and Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was minister of finance. While businesspeople in Saudi Arabia complain about the problems of corruption, and some of it involves granting special favors to the royal family, the pattern of these arrests suggest that they were intended to consolidate power and loyalty behind Crown Prince Mohammed and his ambitious plans to move the kingdom forward economically and socially. The arrests of two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, Prince Miteb and Prince Turki, suggest a strategic political calculus. Miteb commanded the National Guard, which was an armed force separate from the army to protect the royal family and could have blocked some of Mohammed’s moves against the family; Turki was governor of Riyadh, which gave him a political role building support among royals, a job King Salman himself used to great effect for decades.

Q2: What effect will this have on economic reform?

A2: The immediate effect is to spook investors, who will wonder about the fate of their current partners and wonder if their future partners will soon be rounded up. It will also silence critics and skeptics of the Vision 2030 plan. Fears over the scope of arrests are likely to pass with time as the contours of this action play out. Less scrutiny of the 2030 plan could either build consensus behind the plan or lead to the adoption of policies that have not been fully vetted because people are afraid to voice criticism. If a system emerges that heightens rule of law and allows for successful economic investments without requiring royal partners, that could boost the Saudi economy, but it would have to be part of a general rise in transparency and efficiency in the Saudi investment environment. The government’s bet is that this will end up as a net positive. At the very least, though, it will blunt the momentum established by October’s high-profile investor conference.

Q3: Is the crown prince likely to be successful, and if so, why?

A3: There is a 75 percent chance that this will consolidate power behind the crown prince. After all, when he moved against his cousin, the previous crown prince, he won a pledge of allegiance relatively quietly and smoothly. Crown Prince Mohammed has substantial public support, and many Saudis feel that change is necessary and that he is the leading change agent.

We should expect to see a broadly popular effort to root out corruption and confiscate wealth. Much as President Xi Jinping has done in China, the effort can build legitimacy and undermine opponents. Fines and confiscated wealth could also be steered toward state projects.

Politically, however, the crown prince’s changes will undermine many of the established power centers in the kingdom, and many billionaires inside and outside of the family will find their business models shredded. They will look for ways to protect themselves, and some may not choose to curry favor.

Simultaneous to these moves, the crown prince is taking on the religious establishment and social conservatives. It is not unthinkable that a coalition against him will consolidate, but the window of opportunity to blunt the crown prince is closing. If this settles in his favor, there is not likely to be another chance.

Q4: What does this tell us about Crown Prince Mohammed?

A4: Crown Prince Mohammed has been bold and ambitious, and this is another bold and ambitious step. He has not always seen around corners, however—critics say he has left himself little room for compromise to end conflicts with Yemen and Qatar that show no sign of resolving. He is certainly not risk averse nor consensus driven, and that represents a stark departure from the way Saudi Arabia has been ruled for 80 years.

Q5: How long will this go on?

A5: It will take some weeks for things to settle and for Saudis to map their strategy in the new environment. I would expect further actions in the next week or so, and if there is to be a backlash, there should be signs in the coming weeks.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author

November 06, 2017

The U. S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea: Strategy or Folly?

Posted by Guest Author

By Michael D. Armour, Ph.D.


Recently there has been discussions at the highest level of the U.S. military concerning the deployment of U.S. Coast Guard assets to the South China sea and integrating them into the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) conducted by the U.S. Navy relating to the manmade atolls constructed by the Chinese and subsequently claimed as Chinese sovereign territory. It may be that these U.S. Coast Guard units, if deployed to the area, may turn out to be a combat multiplier or a diplomatic plus. However, given the meager USCG budget and the limited assets of the service, their deployment may prove to be insignificant or even fraught with danger.

Chinese Territorial Expansion Claims

The South China Sea (SCS) has become a flashpoint on the world stage. The People’s Republic of China has asserted territorial claims for many islands in the Spratly and Parcel groups that other nations, such as Viet Nam and the Philippines, claim as their own sovereign territory. In addition to these claims, the Chinese have occupied and militarized many of the manmade atolls which they have constructed in the same area. The photo below of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly chain illustrates the militarization of these artificial atoll platforms and the amount of military hardware that has been installed on many of them.1

Fiery Cross Reef (CSIS AMTI)

Jeremy Bender reports that U.S. officials estimate that the Chinese construction at Fiery Cross Reef could accommodate an airstrip long enough for most of Beijing’s military aircraft and that China is also expanding manmade islands on Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Gaven Reef around the Spratlys  He goes on to say that China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructures including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks on some of the manmade atolls. These would likely be used as launching points for aerial defense operations in support of Chinese naval vessels in the southern reaches of the SCS.2Additionally, China considers the waters surrounding these islands to be sovereign territory requiring foreign vessel notification before approaching the 12-mile limit.

U.S. Opposition

An international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s behavior in the SCS, including its construction of artificial islands, and found that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis. The tribunal also stated that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment.3 In relation to this the U. S. Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) around these atolls. On October 27, 2015, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen transited within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of China’s artificially-built features in the SCS.4 On 10 May, 2016 the USS William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.5 Also, in early 2016, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels without prior notification.6 According to Alex Lockie the Trump administration may be willing to continue these confrontational FONOPs which will surely heighten tensions in the area.7

Enter the China Coast Guard

The China Coast Guard (CCG) is a critical tool in the effort to secure China’s maritime interests. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the enlargement and modernization of the China Coast Guard has improved China’s ability to enforce its maritime claims. In relation

to this, a survey conducted by China Power showed that of the 50 major incidents identified in the SCS, from 2010 onward, at least one CCG (or other Chinese maritime law enforcement) vessel was involved in 76 percent of incidents. Four additional incidents involved a Chinese naval vessel acting in a maritime law enforcement capacity, raising that number to 84 percent.8China now possesses the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet and that it uses its law-enforcement cutters as an instrument of foreign policy.9 In relation to this, analysts conclude that in the flashpoints in the South China Sea, the Chinese are deploying coast guard ships and armed fishing vessels instead of its regular navy assets.10

Crest of the China Coast Guard

Enter the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)?

In January of 2017, Robbin Laird conducted an interview with the Commandant of the USCG, Admiral Paul Zukunft. He quoted the Admiral as stating the following in regard to the Coast Guard’s possible role in the SCS:

“I have discussed with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) the concept that we would create a permanent USCG presence in the South China Sea and related areas. This would allow us to expand our working relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. We can spearhead work with allies on freedom of navigation exercises as well.”11

The proposal to deploy USCG assets to the SCS was also espoused by David Barno and Nora Bensahel, who offered ways in which the United States could try to deter further Chinese encroachments in the SCS. One of their scenarios included the U.S. countering aggressive Chinese tactics by establishing a regular and visible Coast Guard presence in the area. They went on to say that:

“Only the United States has a major global coast guard capability, but some regional and even some international partners might be able to assist. As China has demonstrated, Coast Guard vessels are less provocative than warships, and their employment by the United States and partners could confront similar Chinese ships with far less risk of military escalation.”12

Others disagree with the above assessment. Brian Chao notes that the use of coast guard or constabulary forces in the South China Sea might actually increase the risk of war instead of easing tensions. He notes that using these forces as a diplomatic tool could lull all participants into a false sense of calm; however, these constabulary forces may be more willing to take aggressive actions because they may believe that the law is on their side.13

In addition to this negative stance, Aaron Picozzi and Lincoln Davidson question whether or not the U.S. Coast Guard could handle a mission in the South China Sea. They point out the reality that the U.S. Coast Guard lacks the capacity to base a “visible” presence in the SCS and that due to budget restraints, it simply does not have the ship capacity to carry out effective, sustained patrols in that area of operations. They also claim that the placement of U.S. Coast Guard cutters in the SCS would create a void in the service’s main mission, namely law enforcement, or search and rescue operations in home waters.14

If USCG assets are deployed to the SCS, it is hoped that because of the USCG’s good relations with its Chinese counterpart, tensions could be lessened and that U.S. interests could be better served. At this point, however, one must ask the following questions: What would happen if hostilities actually occurred and a situation arose pitting coast guard against coast guard? What kind of enemy capabilities and dangers would USCG personnel face?

The Capabilities, Structure, and Assets of the China Coast Guard

The China Coast Guard (CCG) was created in 2013 by the merging of five different organizations. These included the China Marine Surveillance (CMS); the Department of Agriculture’s China Fisheries Law Enforcement; the Ministry of Public Security’s Border Defense Coast Guard; and the Maritime Anti-Smuggling Police of the General Administration of Customs and the Ministry of Transport.15

The largest operational unit of the CCG is the flotilla, which is a regimental-level unit. Every coastal province has one to three Coast Guard flotillas and there are twenty CCG flotillas across the country.16 In 2015 the CCG possessed at least 79 ships displacing more than 1,000 tons, among which, at least 24 displace more than 3,000 tons. Most of these ships are not armed with deck guns but are equipped with advanced non-lethal weaponry, including water cannons and sirens.17  However, it seems that other CCG vessels are being armed with an array of more lethal weaponry. The China Daily Mail has reported that a number of CCG ships are being equipped with weapons which will give them greater strength to intensify law enforcement on the sea. The article also stated that China will transform many fishery administration and marine surveillance ships into armed coast guard cutters.18 The CCG has deployed a vessel (3901) that will carry 76mm rapid-fire guns, two auxiliary guns and two anti-aircraft machine guns. This monster ship, displacing 12,000 tons, is larger than U.S. Navy aegis-equipped surface combatants.          

Chinese Coast Guard Mega Cutter 3901 (China Defense Blog)

Jane’s 360 reported that images circulated on the Chinese internet indicate that the CCG has equipped its lead Type 818 vessel with the Type 630 30 mm close-in weapon system (CIWS).Two turrets of the system have been installed above the ship’s helicopter hangar, providing it with a means of defense against guided munitions and hostile aircraft. Information also indicates that the ship has also been armed with a 76 mm PJ-26 naval gun as its primary weapon.19

Lyle Goldstein relates that the Type 818 design discussed above can be rapidly configured into a naval combat frigate. He denotes the key characteristics for this class of ship, including, “134 meters in length, 15 meters at the beam, 3900 tons, and with a maximum speed of 27 knots. The ship is armed with a 76mm main gun, two heavy 30mm machine guns, four high pressure water cannons, and will also wield a Z-9 helicopter.”20

A photo taken by the Japan Coast Guard on Dec. 22 shows a Chinese coast guard ship equipped with what appear to be gun turrets (circled) cruising in a sea area near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. (Japan Times)

Enter the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM)

In addition to their coast guard assets, the Chinese also deploy a vast number of fishing and merchant vessels that comprise what is referred to as the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM). China has the largest fishing fleet in the world and it uses these assets as a third force in their effort to control the South China Sea. The CMM is a paramilitary force that operates in conjunction with the CCG but is cloaked behind the international legal shield of being civilian commercial assets.21 A 1978 report estimated that China’s maritime militia consisted of 750,000 personnel and 140,000 vessels and a 2010 defense white paper reported that China had 8 million militia units with the CMM being a smaller subset of that group.

The CMM personnel are trained in activities such as reconnaissance, harassment and blocking maneuvers, and this organization possesses the potential to evolve into a more formidable maritime fighting force. Militia ships could be armed with light anti-ship missiles such as the C-101 or HY1-A and be trained in more elaborate tactics such as maritime swarm tactics interconnected by Network Centric Warfare (NCW).22

A crewmember on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23). Impeccable was conducting routine survey operations in international waters 75 miles south of Hainan Island when it was harassed by five Chinese vessels. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)


It is entirely possible that the introduction of U.S. Coast Guard assets into the South China Sea area of operations will result in positive results in the form of increased capabilities and support off U.S. FONOPS and that USCG “white hulls” will relieve tensions in a conflicted milieu. However, there is also a possibility that USCG forces may become embroiled in actual conflict in the area; therefore, a comprehensive risk analysis should be undertaken before any considerable commitment is undertaken and the mission should be considered a “go” only if the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.

If the U.S. Coast Guard is faced with conflict in the South China Sea, it will not be alone in the effort. The full weight of the U.S. military will also be present. U.S. forces will be confronted with three levels of threat. These include the formidable Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the China Coast Guard, and the Chinese Maritime Militia.  It is obvious that the main counter to these entities will be the U.S. Navy and the allied navies in the area. The assets that the U.S. Coast Guard could contribute to the effort would be limited and the cost might be considerable. While such a mission would enhance the Coast Guard’s image, it may turn out to be folly rather than strategy.

Michael D Armour, Ph.D, retired as a Colonel from the U.S. Army and is an  Instructor of Political Science at The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee. He served as Adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and holds an M.S.S. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a member of Flotilla 15-03, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, in Memphis, Tennessee.
















[15] Martinson, Ryan D., “From Words to Actions: The Creation of the China Coast Guard” A paper for the China as a “Maritime Power” Conference July 28-29, 2015 CNA Conference Facility Arlington, Virginia, p.2.


[17] Martinson, op cit, pp. 44-45.




[22] Kraska, James and Monti, Michael, The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,International Law Studies, Vol. 91, 2015.


[24] Armour, Michael D., The Chinese Maritime Militia: A Perfect Swarm? Journal of Defense Studies, Vol. 10, No.3, July-September 2016, pp. 21-39.

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell returns to homeport in San Diego after a 90-day counter drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Oct. 6, 2014. During the patrol, the Boutwell participated in six separate cocaine interdictions. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell

November 05, 2017

Daughter of Dr Allah nazar broke down the toy gift given to her by CM balochistan

Daughter of Dr Allah nazar broke down the toy gift given to her by CM balochistan

Kurdish referendum fallout threatens Western interests in the Middle East


Guney Yildiz 
01st November, 2017

Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

If Europe fails to up its diplomatic engagement with the Kurds it will lose influence to Tehran and Ankara.

The independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), on 25th of September, was calculated to strengthen their negotiating leverage with Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara, and to bolster their domestic political position by rallying Kurds behind the nationalist cause.

But instead, the vote has provoked an aggressive response from the Hashd al Shabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) and the Iraqi Army, who together launched an offensive on Kurdish territory, reclaiming several disputed areas including the oil-rich Kirkuk.

The resulting political backlash has weakened the KRG’s position vis a vis Baghdad and fractured Kurdish groups even further. Indeed, the referendum may be about to claim the political life of its champion, President Masoud Barzani, who has said he will step down this week.

Losing control of Kirkuk, which is considered by many Kurds to be their spiritual home, was a huge catastrophe. But the subsequent internal political fracturing signals that the disaster might not be limited to Kirkuk. The crisis could break up the political parties and further fracture the Kurdish political landscape, ending the previous inefficient but stable status quo.

Kurdish politics are now bitterly divided between factions who were in favour of the referendum and those who opposed it – a division that cuts across political parties. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which championed the independence idea, is split between the KRG PM Nechirvan Barzani and his uncle, President Masoud Barzani.

The PUK, which had been much less enthusiastic about the independence referendum, eventually supported the vote on the basis that opposing it would be too politically costly for the party. Now it finds itself bitterly divided between various factions openly accusing each other of betrayal.

This blame game won’t help any of the existing political parties, and it is likely that both pro-referendum and anti-referendum forces will emerge weaker from the current turmoil. Anti-referendum factions will be blamed for dividing the ranks, and pro-referendum ones for their political miscalculation.

This chaos is not just bad news for the Kurdish population in Iraq, but also for European countries. Iraqi Kurdistan has been one of the closest allies of the West in the region. It has proved to be essential in countering extremist Sunni groups such as ISIS and tempering Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Western leaders have played a positive role in Kurdish politics multiple times in recent history. The former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s successful efforts to bring together the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani, who died last month, was crucial in bringing political stability to the region, ending the era of civil war between the Kurdish parties.

European countries could now revive this positive role by facilitating negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil, as well by encouraging dialogue between rival Kurdish factions and personalities. The aim should be helping the parties get back to discussing the core disputes in a way that does not destabilise Kurdish areas or undermine those Iraqis aiming for a less corrupt and more politically independent future.

The suggestions in US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s letter to President Barzani two days before the referendum could provide a good framework for this Western role. In his letter Tillerson promised US and UN support for a one year dialogue between the Kurds and the government of Baghdad to address the following issues: the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region, including Kirkuk, within the scope of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution; the status of the Peshmerga forces; the sharing of national oil revenues; and diplomatic representation for the KRG in foreign capitals.

A deal between Iraq and Erbil is needed for the sake of long term stability. But with the Kurds so weak and divided, there is little appetite among hardliners in Baghdad to make any concessions. International pressure may therefore be needed to encourage these groups to give Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi a mandate for a more conciliatory approach in negotiations.

If Europe fails to up its diplomatic engagement in these ways, it will cede influence to Tehran and Ankara. With their conflicting agendas, which unite only on clipping the wings of the Kurds, this would constitute a distinct backwards step in the region.

Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa,Syria / Iraq / Lebanon