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China, Turkey, and a Waiting World: Armed and Active

Americans need less of a reminder today than we did a year ago that the world waiting beyond U.S. power and international consensus is not a gentle, stable one. But the reminders are accelerating. Two cropped up this week on opposite ends of Asia.

In Taiwan, Tsai Der-Sheng, the director of the National Security Bureau, briefed a legislative committee on China’s deployment across the strait of what he characterized as an entirely new type of ballistic missile. According to Tsai, the new missile’s destructive capacity is beyond anything previously deployed with the Chinese forces. The range of the missile, which he called the “Dongfeng-16,” would allow China to target U.S. facilities in Guam and Okinawa as well as Taiwan.

One Western analyst suggests that the new missile may be an upgraded version of the Dongfeng-15 (or DF-15), a tactical ballistic missile in service for some time with the Chinese army. That may be clarified in the coming days; what is more significant about this situation is that there has been no notice from foreign intelligence agencies that China was developing either a wholly new DF-16 or an upgrade like this one to the DF-15. The implication of that is that China’s missile-development cycle has been — at least in this case — considerably shorter than in the past, when Chinese development efforts were recognized and tracked for years before weapons were fielded with the operating forces.

At the other end of Asia, Greece has lodged a complaint with Turkey for sending a warship to interfere with an Italian cable-tending ship operating in an international strait in the Aegean Sea. The Italian ship has Greece’s approval for its activities, which involve entering Greek waters. The delineation of territorial waters is a particularly sticky problem in the Aegean; it is not self-evident which competing interpretation — Turkey’s or Greece’s — is “correct.”  But the ascendancy of NATO and U.S. maritime power has held this and other such disputes in check for decades.

Not surprisingly, the cable-laying operation in question is related to an agreement between Italy and Israel to install an undersea communications cable linking the two countries. Industry analysts suggest that the cable will position Israel as the region’s most attractive high-speed communications hub. It’s becoming a pattern for a weapon system to pop up where economic activity is expected to benefit Israel — but the broader perspective on this trend is equally worrisome.

In the past 40 years, the Mediterranean has been almost entirely free of the kind of maritime intimidation regularly attempted by China against its neighbors. A Turkish warship harassing one of Italy’s civilian cable ships, as it operates under contract to Alcatel-Lucent, is the kind of threat China has used against third parties’ marine assets in its economic disputes with Vietnam. No particular armed vigilance has been required to discourage such power moves in the Mediterranean — as long as the U.S. and other NATO leaders were perceived to have the will to counter them. Small incidents like this one in the Aegean are early indicators that that perception has changed.


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