Lowy Institute

Bringing together all the longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

We've had some interesting responses to Hugh White's piece from last week on China-Japan competition and what it means for the US-Japan alliance. This is addition to Malcolm Cook's critique last Friday.

First up, Christopher Pokarier argued that a key part of China's foreign policy is an attempt to delegitimise Japan:

Clearly, central to such a strategy is the stigmatisation of Japan, given its locale, continuing economic, technological and cultural clout, and alliance with the US. In recent months, wilful misrepresentation of Japan's contemporary character as a society and a polity under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has escalated.

This has been evidenced starkly in Chinese media reaction to Abe's recent visit to Australia and the close and deepening ties affirmed by the Australian and Japanese governments. Shrill criticism from mainland media soon became news in its own right in Australia, and a counterweight to the otherwise upbeat news cycle around Abe's visit.

Next up, Dhruva Jaishankar argued that what China fears most in Asia is some sort of middle-power coalition to balance Beijing's growing power:

A security partnership with India offers Japan at least two other benefits, both of which, if carried through, could undermine Beijing's plans for regional hegemony. Japan's military-to-military contacts with India enable it to prepare for out-of-area contingencies, particularly in the maritime realm, which represents a key step in Japan's path to becoming a normal military power. More significantly, the possibility of joint production of the US-2 aircraft with India, and its potential export to third countries, could mark a major development as part of Japan's reversal of its self-imposed ban on defence exports.

Finally, Brad Glosserman suggested that given Japan's strategic and economic realities, its responses to China's rise are constricted:

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Given this context, Japan's choices become:

  1. The status quo, or alliance with the US: this allows Japan to balance psychological and structural constraints and maintain maximum freedom of maneuver. In truth, however, even this could push the Japanese public to the edge of its comfort zone.
  2. A nuclear power, without great power ambitions: this would be a practically impossible choice, given anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan. Pursuit of the nuclear option would isolate Japan and offer little security, which its strategic planners acknowledge. The public would never stomach an offensive posture, so any nuclear stance would be a poison pill, purely defensive in nature. (If I wanted to be as provocative as possible, I'd call this the 'North Korean option.') This undercuts Hugh's thesis of a nuclear-armed Japan striving to become a great power (add the cost of such a policy and the likelihood plunges even further).
  3. A junior partner to China: Japanese may not want to compete with China but they are too proud and too unsettled by China to accept subordinate status either. Even junior partner status within the alliance can be irritating, but the US uses the right language when discussing Japan to relieve that pressure. Japan could only accept a subordinate status to China when China is so transformed that it is no longer a threat to Japan (about the same time that Taiwan would vote to reunite with the mainland) and when Beijing offers a relationship that affords Japan the status it demands.

Hugh responded to his critics, offering this conclusion:

So what can Japan do? I think it faces a binary choice: accept Chinese primacy or try to preserve its full political and strategic independence. Which path Japan takes will depend, inter alia, on what kind of regional hegemon China might become. If it turned out to be as benign as the US has been in the Western Hemisphere, then a future for Japan as Asia's Canada might not be so bad. But how trusting are the Japanese willing to be? And what have the Chinese done to earn Japan's trust? 

And the alternative? I may have misled Brad by describing Japan's other option as a return to 'great power' status. I do not mean that Japan would need to compete with China for hegemony in Asia, or assert a sphere of influence of its own to match and balance China's. In the right regional setting Japan could establish itself as a great power on equal terms with China, without seeking hegemony or a sphere of influence. For reasons I set out in The China Choice, that regional setting would need to resemble the nineteenth-century European Concert of Powers: a Concert of Asia. Only as an independent great power in that kind of setting can Japan be secure over coming decades, unless it is willing to accept subordination to China.

Sticking with Northeast Asia, Robert Kelly gave us two posts on whether the US should withdraw its forces from South Korea. In Part 1, he argued in the affirmative:

The US is not an empire. Where it can retrench, it should. Commitments should not last indefinitely.

This is an openly normative argument. If one embraces a full-throated version of US hegemony (militarised, globalised, interventionist) then this will not appeal. But post-Iraq, there is clear public desire to rein in American interventions, so the normative case for restraint, on liberal democratic grounds, is strong.

The costs of hegemony are not just financial. They also include the regular war-making and killing of foreigners; a sprawling, hugely intrusive national security state; domestic nativism; as well as torture, indefinite detention, rendition, and similar penal abuses. All this suggests that retrenchment would be good for American democracy and liberalism. Allies may not like that. They will complain of abandonment. But sacrificing America's liberal ideals at home to promote them abroad is strange brew. It is increasingly obvious that hegemony abroad is deleterious to American liberalism at home. Where allies can stand on their own, as South Korea very obviously can, US retrenchment would be domestically healthy.

In Part 2, Robert gave us four reasons why US forces should remain in South Korea:

South Korea, standing alone, might slide toward a semi-democratic national security state like Pakistan

This cost is almost never reckoned by those advocating withdrawal from Korea. Most advocates of retrenchment from Korea, such as Cato's Doug Bandow, assume Korea to be a stable market democracy that can carry the costs of a head-to-head competition with North Korea. This is so economically, but I am not so sure politically. For thirty years the 'republic' of Korea was more like a Prussianised barracks-state dictatorship than a republic, with one dictator, Park Chung-hee, who genuinely seemed like the Korean version of Mussolini (Park's repression was the big reason President Carter wanted to withdraw from Korea as part of his human rights emphasis in US foreign policy). So thorough-going was the McCarthyite propaganda of dictatorial Korea about the 'reds' to the north that many older Koreans will tell you they actually believed that North Koreans had red skin.

Long, enervating national security competitions, like those between Pakistan and India, or North and South Korea, are corrosive to democratic and liberal institutions. South Korea's dictators used to justify repression and illiberalism on precisely these grounds. It is a huge achievement for South Korea that it managed to create real democratic and liberal institutions. It would have been easy for South Korea to stay a militarised faux-democracy like Egypt today, or Turkey and Indonesia earlier on. A US withdrawal that pushed up South Korean defence spending to 7% of GDP might threaten the South Korean experiment with liberalism and democracy, one of especial importance in the future as an Asian model against the authoritarian 'Beijing consensus.'

 This week Graeme Dobell rounded out his series on great Australian foreign policy speeches. His final pick was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's speech to Peking University in 2008:

Mark the Peking University speech as a key moment when China's ruling dynasty began to realise that Australia's new prime minister would not be their Manchurian candidate. Instead, his intimate knowledge of China gave Lu Kewen an ability to say dangerous things; that he was saying them in Mandarin doubled the menace.

Rudd was speaking as China prepared for its great international coming-of-age party – hosting the Olympics – and as Beijing cracked down hard on any attempt by Tibet to catch the Olympic limelight. Rudd put his hand right onto that scorching subject.

The Prime Minister recounted his own journey to discover China, the history of Australia's relationship with China, and then started to move on to dangerous ground by talking about the many difficulties facing China – 'problems of poverty, problems of uneven development, problems of pollution, problems of broader human rights' – and the great impact China was having on the rest of the world. And then he started to offer suggestions and criticisms.

While we're talking about China, here's Julian Snelder hosing down suggestions that there might be some sort of climate change policy breakthrough for the world's largest CO2 emitter:

China indeed sees diplomatic and commercial opportunity in the global climate change carnival, but don't it to expect it commit to any hard targets.

Yet this very idea has been tentatively held out, both by a CASS professor suggesting a coal consumption cap at 4.5 billion tonnes in 2025, and by the Advisory Committee on Climate Change dangling a longer-term 11 billion tonne CO2-equivalent limit by 2030 (from 9.5 billion today).

But these were not official statements, and they were quickly disowned as such. Furthermore, there are a number of reasons to be cautious about any future 'breakthrough' on emissions caps.

China already mines 3.8 billion tonnes of coal every year, and Chinese coal alone accounts for 20% of all global CO2 emissions. On present coal use patterns, China is on track to belch almost half of the entire world's recommended maximum 'CO2 budget' of 32 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030.

It would therefore take a wrenching change in China's economy to suddenly alter its trajectory of rapidly growing coal use. 

And Vaughan Winterbottom on rising violence in China's northwest:

So why is violence spiking? I spoke with some of the foremost experts on Xinjiang to find out. Below are highlights.

Henryk Szadziewski, a senior research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, discussed recent policy and personnel changes:

"It's a good idea to look at the unrest from a broader chronological perspective. Uyghur grievances with the Chinese state stretch further back than the recent uptick in violence. Wang Lequan was known for dealing harshly with Uyghur expression of dissent. Post-2009, the appointment of his successor Zhang Chunxian was supposed to bring a 'softer' approach to governance in Xinjiang.

Given the policies we see in effect today, it's hard to distinguish this 'softer' approach. Xi Jinping's announcement earlier this year that security policies would be emphasized over development was viewed as a palliative to unrest. Although the Second Xinjiang Central Work Forum this year proposed some measurable goals in addressing economic disparity between minorities and Han Chinese, especially in terms of reducing unemployment, the systematic and ingrained social discrimination faced by Uyghurs remains. As with many economic policies in the past, these goals have been imposed from above with little agency in decision making from Xinjiang residents."

On Monday the Lowy Institute hosted the launch of the Australian Government's 'economic diplomacy' policy. Alex Oliver explained the economic diplomacy agenda for Interpreter readers:

In the increasingly globalised international environment Australia now faces, this economic diplomacy agenda will be a complex one to prosecute: it implies a far greater role for non-government entities, particularly the private sector, and means a much greater involvement for the Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in formulating and facilitating the Australian Government's approach to international trade and foreign investment.

Because economic diplomacy requires domestic policy settings which reduce barriers to trade, economic growth and investment, DFAT, along with its two ministers, will need to lead a whole-of-government, whole-of-society effort to achieve positive economic outcomes through diplomacy. As Ms Bishop described, the strength and uniqueness of this policy is that it aligns all Australia's international efforts – foreign policy, trade, tourism, investment and development – so that they are "pulling in the same direction."

Our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability continues. This week Rod Lyon argued that that sea-based nuclear weapons are indeed a strategic stabiliser:

I think there are important political gains to be derived from sea-based systems, and those might be more important than the strategic and technological ones. First, such systems suggest a commitment to a durable, resilient nuclear force. They suggest that resort to nuclear weapons needn't be — and won't be — a rushed decision. Second, they devalue the benefits to an adversary of a bolt-from-the-blue attack upon the land-based component of the force, usually sited in relatively static target sets. Third, because they make such an attack upon the land-based systems less likely, they help reassure the population of the nuclear weapon state that they aren't mere nuclear cannon fodder, and thus help sustain political support for the arsenal.

Iskander Rehman, conversely, stated that that a 'combination of dual-use platforms and doctrinal opacity could prove highly detrimental for crisis stability':

A common reading of the movement towards sea-based deterrence is that it provides a greater vector for strategic stability, not only by ensuring the relative sanctuarisation of nation's deterrents and thus reducing first-strike incentives on both sides, but also by displacing the locus of nuclear competition from heavily populated state territories to the wide open waters. This optimistic vision does not hold up to scrutiny, however, when applied to regional nuclear dynamics in the Second Nuclear Age. Indeed, in this particular case, one could argue that it is not so much the process of naval nuclearisation itself which is inherently stabilising or destabilising, but rather the manner in which it is being pursued. Pakistan seems to be taking a dangerous path which combines dual-use systems (nuclear-tipped cruise missiles), cultivated doctrinal ambiguity, and a fair degree of maritime brinkmanship.

There are, no doubt, numerous lessons that could be drawn from the Cold War, whose study unfortunately tends to be neglected or oversimplified in South Asia. During the second half of the Cold War, in particular, theorists warned that within a heavily nuclearised environment, and under conditions of strategic uncertainty, offensive submarine operations or deployments could give birth to dangerously escalatory dynamics. And interestingly, much as in contemporary Pakistan, this argument was countered at the time by a constituency that argued that the diversification — and resulting dispersal — of nuclear assets at sea both strengthened their survivability and buttressed overall deterrence.

Since we're on the topic of strategy, Peter Layton questions whether Australia still needs a new Defence White Paper, considering that many of the capability and budgetary decisions have already been made:

The missing element in all this is strategy. A word search for 'strategy' in the public consultation Defence Issues Paper finds the word only four times in the 65-page document.

In simple terms, strategy is the way that the force structure (the means) is used to achieve desired objectives (the ends). But making strategy is intellectually difficult, and not as much fun as buying new jets, ships and tanks! Devising the ends, and the ways to achieve those ends, is not easy. Giving advice to busy, harassed policymakers on how to develop strategy can be contradictory and confusing

Even so, it is worth the effort. Good strategy can magnify the effectiveness of a nation's military power. Moreover, efficiency processes are best based around a strategy. The Army, for instance, wants to be quickly adaptable to new and emerging circumstances. This objective might be incompatible with the push for a stable, unwavering acquisition plan that industry can 'bank' on for the next two decades or so. In the absence of a strategy, incoherence is a constant danger.

Photo by Flickr user coddogblog.

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Three months after Thailand's latest coup took place, it is finally complete. Yesterday General Prayuth Chan-ocha (pictured) was elected as prime minister by the country's National Legislative Assembly (NLA), a body he stuffed full of military colleagues earlier this month.

The 197 NLA members charged with electing him were all appointed by the junta. There were no other nominations for the top post. Under the interim constitution (the junta tore up the last one, which the military wrote in 2006), politicians from the recent governments are ineligible for NLA seats. As a result, of the body that elected Prayuth, over half were military (70 active, 36 retired).

The appointment of General Prayuth comes a few weeks before his mandatory retirement from the military. Other top brass will also reach mandatory retirement age in September and will likely take up civilian roles. 

For all Southeast Asia watchers, the similarities between Thailand's new quasi-civilian government and that in Myanmar are striking.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The horrific images surrounding the gruesome execution of the US journalist Jim Foley are dominating the headlines. The Islamist group had several reasons for doing what they did, and when they did it.

It reinforces the Islamic State's reputation as the baddest Islamists of them all, a useful tool when you're looking to knock off your Islamist competitors in Syria. It also shows the US that there are costs associated with its air campaign, and the warning that there is another hostage at their mercy reinforces that warning; the English language audio track was designed for the target audience.

I don't however necessarily agree that one of the aims is to goad the West into becoming more deeply involved in Iraq. The Islamic State is as aware as anyone that neither the President nor the American people are inclined to do it, and there are many more ways to skin the Islamist cat than simply put combat troops into Iraq.

But these are relatively minor aims given the shock value that the vision was intended to produce.

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People already know that the Islamic State is cruel and heartless, and they know the US isn't going to stop their air attacks just because Islamic State kills a hostage. Rather, I think the main point of the exercise was to do with the timing of the release. Islamic State had just suffered a couple of battleground reverses, having been rebuffed from Mount Sinjar and more importantly losing control over Mosul Dam, an important infrastructure prize for a putative caliphate. If you want people to stay with you, join you or submit to you, it's necessary to project an image of control and martial success. Images of destroyed Islamic State vehicles and equipment and triumphant Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers celebrating over ground you've just lost isn't good for business. In the space of a few hours though, this negative imagery was swept away by an execution video; people may have heard about Mosul Dam but they aren't reminded of it because those images are no longer displayed.

The Islamic State is very good at manipulating the social and news media space. And if it takes the beheading of someone to counter images of battlefield setbacks, then so be it. Such is the calculus of Islamic State's media department.  

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski.

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A couple of days ago I laid out the arguments for a US withdrawal from South Korea. Today, I lay out the arguments for staying.

This topic is rarely discussed. In the US, the foreign policy consensus for hegemony, forged between liberal internationalists on the left and interventionist neoconservatives on the right, remains strong. It has only just recently come under sustained criticism, likely due to the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That consensus takes the US position in Korea as a given. An American withdrawal has not seriously been mooted since the Carter Administration, when it indeed would have been a large mistake.

So what are the benefits of staying?

1. US Forces Korea (USFK) insures that the US retains a strong regional ally in a region the US now deems central

If the pivot to Asia (or 'rebalance' or whatever we are supposed to call it) is to take off, the US will need regional allies. Japan of course is the central US ally in the region. And others are being pushed toward the US by China's belligerent behaviour in the East and South China Seas. But India and the southeast Asian states are not so much pro-American as anti-Chinese.

By contrast, Korea has been a staunch US ally since the 1950s. It has deep inter-operability with the US military. It has never really wavered from the US camp. It even sent soldiers to fight in Vietnam to demonstrate loyalty. It is not the 'reckless driver' that other allies, most notably Israel, have been. While it spends less than it should on defence, South Korea free-rides far less on US power than Europe or Japan. As a percentage of GDP it spends around double what the average US ally does on defence.

The looming unknown question is whether South Korea would line up with the US in a Sino-US or Sino-US/Japanese war. The primary purpose of the pivot is to militarily hedge China (or openly contain it, if you're Chinese). South Korea is wary of this. China is its largest export market, and both Seoul and Beijing share a disturbingly bitter loathing for Japan. Will that draw Seoul and Beijing together? Probably not.

2. China will  claim that the US has 'fled' (or, once the US goes somewhere, it can never leave)

This is the worst possible argument for a US commitment — credibility. Staying some place for no other reason than that staying sends a good 'signal' is not a good rationale.

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But it is pretty clear now that the Sino-US relationship is 'sliding from engagement to coercive diplomacy,' as David Lampton puts it. As East Asia enters toward bipolarity, a zero-sum logic will increasingly kick in, in which a US retrenchment will happily be read by China — one can always count on the Global Times — as US capitulation. Whether the US wants to stay in Korea or not, now it can't leave. It's stuck.

Indeed this is one of the great unseen costs of US interventions: once in, America can almost never leave anywhere without provoking a crisis of confidence about its credibility and commitment. In this vein, the time to withdraw from Korea was in the 1990s, at the peak of the unipolar moment, before the Chinese challenge to US power in the western Pacific, and when North Korea was wobbling. That window has probably closed.

3. South Korea, standing alone, might slide toward a semi-democratic national security state like Pakistan

This cost is almost never reckoned by those advocating withdrawal from Korea. Most advocates of retrenchment from Korea, such as Cato's Doug Bandow, assume Korea to be a stable market democracy that can carry the costs of a head-to-head competition with North Korea. This is so economically, but I am not so sure politically. For thirty years the 'republic' of Korea was more like a Prussianised barracks-state dictatorship than a republic, with one dictator, Park Chung-hee, who genuinely seemed like the Korean version of Mussolini (Park's repression was the big reason President Carter wanted to withdraw from Korea as part of his human rights emphasis in US foreign policy). So thorough-going was the McCarthyite propaganda of dictatorial Korea about the 'reds' to the north that many older Koreans will tell you they actually believed that North Koreans had red skin.

Long, enervating national security competitions, like those between Pakistan and India, or North and South Korea, are corrosive to democratic and liberal institutions. South Korea's dictators used to justify repression and illiberalism on precisely these grounds. It is a huge achievement for South Korea that it managed to create real democratic and liberal institutions. It would have been easy for South Korea to stay a militarised faux-democracy like Egypt today, or Turkey and Indonesia earlier on. A US withdrawal that pushed up South Korean defence spending to 7% of GDP might threaten the South Korean experiment with liberalism and democracy, one of especial importance in the future as an Asian model against the authoritarian 'Beijing consensus.'

4. A US withdrawal might in fact encourage the North Koreans to try again

A common assumption, particular on the South Korean left and among more dovish commentators (me included), is that North Korea has no real interest in unification. Unification means the elimination, if not extermination, of the Kimist elite and their privileges. North Korea, we assume, knows it will lose a war. The (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), while very large, is based on Cold War-era technologies. And like many communist militaries, its force structure is based around a repeat of World War II: the KPA has many tanks, armoured personal carriers, and infantry. It could fight and win the 1943 battle of Kursk. It is however unprepared and unequipped for the sort of modern warfare practiced by the US: C4ISR, overwhelming airpower, stand-off strikes facilitated by space power, the rapid destruction of command-and-control, and so on. As such, the KPA would lose a war with combined allied forces. It knows this; hence Pyongyang built nuclear weapons. They are the ultimate deterrent for an otherwise outdated military.

But it is precisely these 'networked battlefield' technologies that the South Korean military lacks. The ROKA (Republic of Korea Army) is still configured around infantry and traditional homeland defence. It lacks many of the high-tech capabilities of the US military, particularly in the air. The US would indeed 'tank-plink' the KPA and rapidly dissociate its units from each other and Pyongyang by destroying command and control. Can the ROKA do this? As the never ending debate over the reversion of OPCON ('operational control') of the ROKA in wartime suggests, most are sceptical. If not, the KPA might actually hold together in the field in a conflict.

The question is tough: if the US left South Korea, would North Korea see an opportunity for victory, to absorb a successful economy and bail-out its own decrepit system?

So what does all this mean? In brief, the debate over US forces in Korea is far less clear than many think. The Cold War is over. North Korea is no threat to the US, and if South Korea ramped up seriously, it could probably win a war without US assistance. On the other hand, US forces are already there. The costs of staying are minimal, and if the pivot is to really define US grand strategy in the coming decades, then South Korea could be a valuable ally if it will tilt against China.

Image courtesy of U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive).

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The four excellent responses to my post on China-Japan relations all present important points about Japan's situation and its options in the face of China's growing power. Just to recap, my piece questioned whether Chinese political and military pressure on Japan in the East China Sea is as counter-productive for China's strategic objectives as many people believe.

That depends of course how Japan and the US react to it. I suggested that it would serve China's aim of weakening US leadership in Asia if it undermined Japan's confidence in the US alliance by exposing America's reluctance to support Japan militarily against China. This would be seen as a win in Beijing even if Tokyo responded by building up its own defences, because China would rather face Japan than America as a strategic competitor in Asia.

My old colleague and valued sparring partner Malcolm Cook argues that if Beijing's leaders thinks this way, they are wrong. He says China's pressure on Japan has strengthened the US-Japan alliance, and cites Abe's measures to 'normalise' Japan's military role as evidence.

This is a key issue: if Malcolm is right than the Chinese really are making a big mistake in the East China Sea. That is why it is so important to test our judgments on it quite carefully. I'd offer Malcolm two sets of thoughts about it.

First, how confident is Tokyo that America really would be willing to go to war with China over the Senkakus? This is not at all a hypothetical issue for Japan. Malcolm seems to think Tokyo has complete faith in US military support. I am much less sure. That's partly because of what people in Tokyo say to me. It's partly because of what Americans say, and don't say. The polite word for America's signals over the Senkakus is 'mixed', and they remain so even after Obama's Tokyo statement earlier this year. Above all, it's because of the military realities. When we look at what would happen if the US actually did fight China over the Senkakus, we can see why Japan would be wise to doubt US support. 

Second, what is Abe's motive in strengthening Japan's military posture? Malcolm is sure that it is to reinforce the US-Japan alliance, not to replace it. I think it is aiming to do both. Prime Minister Abe no doubt hopes that by doing more to support America in Asia it will strengthen US capacity and resolve to preserve the status quo. But I have argued before that this won't work, and it seems that Abe sees that as a real risk. So his new policies are also intended to lay the foundation for Japan to look after itself if US support should fail.  

If these thoughts are right, China would be right to think that its assertiveness will weaken the US-Japan alliance, and leave Japan with only the two choices I mentioned.

However Dhruva Jaishankar's elegant post raises a different possibility.

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He suggests that even if Beijing is right to expect a weakening US-Japan alliance, it might be overlooking a third Japanese option. Rather than meekly submitting to Chinese primacy or reconstituting itself as an independent great power confronting China, Japan could join and perhaps lead a coalition of regional powers along the lines recently suggested by Rory Medcalf and C Raja Mohan. This is what Abe himself may well have in mind. 

Rory's and Raja's fine paper deserves a post to itself, but let me just say here that I think the possibility that they and Dhruva raise is less threatening to China's ambitions than one might suppose. That is because, whatever might be its diplomatic attractions, the strategic potential of such a grouping against China is very limited. Ultimately, it depends on how willing its members are to go to war on one another's behalf. In Japan's position, of example, the value of a regional coalition would depend on whether India, Australia, Vietnam and others would be willing to go to war with China to support Japan over the Senkakus. I bet they wouldn't, and I think China would bet that way too. So without America, Japan is on its own.

Of course China is keen to make sure it stays that way. That is why, as Christopher Pokarier quite rightly says, China is going out of its way to stigmatise Japan's defence policy changes as 're-militarisation'. Like him I think this is quite unjustified. Japan has a perfect right to defend itself just as any other country does. It has almost 70 years of good international citizenship behind it, from which the historical revisionism of Prime Minister Abe and his circle does not materially detract. And, above all, Japan today lacks the strategic weight to threaten China or any country that Beijing chooses to support. This is why I don't think we should be too worried about Japan reconstituting itself as an independent strategic power in the new order that is emerging in Asia as the old one passes away.

Which brings me finally to Brad Glosserman's piece. Brad is another favourite sparring partner. As always, he goes straight to the core questions. I absolutely agree with him (and with Malcolm) that the best thing for Japan would be to continue to depend on America. But I do not believe that is possible, because the old regional order in which that posture worked so well for Japan has been overturned by China's new power and ambitions.

The impact on Japan's situation is a simple matter of what we might call Newtonian strategy. As China's wealth and power grows, the costs to the US of conflict with China grow, and the threshold for US support to Japan against China goes up accordingly. It has now gone up far enough that America may no longer be willing to support Japan militarily over issues like the Senkakus which Japan rightly regards as vital. I think perhaps many Americans are in denial about this. I don't think many Japanese are. The Chinese understand it very clearly, and that is the message their actions over the Senkakus are trying to convey.

So what can Japan do? I think it faces a binary choice: accept Chinese primacy or try to preserve its full political and strategic independence. Which path Japan takes will depend, inter alia, on what kind of regional hegemon China might become. If it turned out to be as benign as the US has been in the Western Hemisphere, then a future for Japan as Asia's Canada might not be so bad. But how trusting are the Japanese willing to be? And what have the Chinese done to earn Japan's trust? 

And the alternative? I may have misled Brad by describing Japan's other option as a return to 'great power' status. I do not mean that Japan would need to compete with China for hegemony in Asia, or assert a sphere of influence of its own to match and balance China's. In the right regional setting Japan could establish itself as a great power on equal terms with China, without seeking hegemony or a sphere of influence. For reasons I set out in The China Choice, that regional setting would need to resemble the nineteenth-century European Concert of Powers: a Concert of Asia. Only as an independent great power in that kind of setting can Japan be secure over coming decades, unless it is willing to accept subordination to China.

Image courtesy of the White House.

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Since 1998, when India and Pakistan both burst out of the nuclear closet and publicly revealed their formerly recessed nuclear capabilities to the world, scant commentary has been made on the impact that the introduction of sea-based delivery systems would have on the South Asian nuclear equation.

This can be attributed, in part, to the relatively recent nature of naval nuclearisation in South Asia. India launched its first indigenously produced nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, in 2009, and Pakistan only formalised its ambitions for a functional nuclear triad (via an Inter Services Public press release) in May 2012. However, while public discussions in both countries on complex issues such as nuclear naval strategy still remain somewhat inchoate and have yet to fully mature, India's nuclear submarine program was, in fact, initiated over three decades ago. Furthermore, there are statements by Pakistani leaders and naval commanders referring to the need for Pakistan to acquire a nuclear triad that long precede India's public unveiling of the Arihant.

It is important, first of all, to emphasise that both countries have their own distinct sets of motivations to engage in naval nuclearisation.

All too often outside observers almost mechanically hyphenate the two South Asian nations and reduce the multi-layered complexity of their nuclear interactions to a simple action-reaction dynamic. India, for example, is motivated in part by a desire for prestige and international recognition, but also by a very rational objective to place its nuclear assets at a safer distance from a decapitation strike. This is particularly important in light of China's growing militarisation of the Tibetan plateau and the proliferation of Chinese ballistic-missile silos in strategic high-altitude points along the border. In addition, there are mounting concerns over the reach of Chinese air power, Chinese advances in electronic and cyber warfare, as well as over recent reports that indicate China is developing a navalised variant of its 3000km-range Dong Hai 10 cruise missile.

Pakistan has its own strategic rationale for developing a naval nuclear capability which is at least partly independent of a simple desire to mirror India's advances. But the point that bears most emphasis here is that through its threats to disperse nuclear assets among various components of its fleet, Pakistan can offset India's increasingly overbearing conventional naval advantage in the Indian Ocean. When interviewed, Pakistani commanders mention the precedent set by Israel's alleged decision to place nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard conventional submarines and have suggested to me, somewhat provocatively, that Pakistan should follow suit.

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Another option, some have argued, would be to station nuclear weaponry aboard surface ships and maritime-patrol aircraft. Not only would this provide the country with greater strategic depth, it would also extend some of the more dysfunctional elements of Indo-Pakistani nuclear interactions from land to sea. By threatening, either directly or indirectly, to employ low-yield nuclear weapons at sea, or against an advancing Indian aircraft carrier strike force, Islamabad can hope to acquire 'escalation dominance' and thus considerably dilute its larger neighbour's coercive naval power, much in the same way that it has managed to dilute India's conventional advantage on land.

In both cases, this has been achieved by a refusal to abide by a No First Use (NFU) policy and, increasingly, through a flirtation with the tactical use of nuclear weapons as warfighting instruments. This has been achieved, in part, through shifting from an earlier generation of enriched uranium nuclear weapons to a newer generation of plutonium weapons, allowing Pakistan to significantly expand its nuclear arsenal (which now appears to have overtaken India's nuclear weapon inventory) and to make progress in the miniaturisation of its nuclear warheads for battlefield use.

To provide a concrete example, most analysts now concur that Pakistan is developing a sea-based version of its Babur missile, a subsonic nuclear-capable missile that bears an uncanny resemblance to the US Tomahawk, albeit with a much shorter range.

The introduction of nuclear weapons will have a major impact on the future of naval warfighting in the Indian Ocean. Fleets caught under a nuclear shadow are compelled to operate under different principles. Most notably, ships must loosen their deployment patterns and adopt more dispersed configurations to better shield themselves from the ripple effects of a nuclear blast. For Pakistani security managers, acquiring nuclear-armed cruise missile submarines could provide an opportunity to skew the existing naval power dynamic, primarily by injecting an even greater degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in India's tactical calculus, but also by preventing the Indian Navy from concentrating the bulk of its power projection platforms in one location.

Such a toxic combination of dual-use platforms and doctrinal opacity could prove highly detrimental for crisis stability. In the event of conflict, there would be no way for India to ascertain whether Pakistani vessels or maritime patrol aircraft are nuclear-armed or not, and a radioactive 'fog of war' would float over combat operations.

A common reading of the movement towards sea-based deterrence is that it provides a greater vector for strategic stability, not only by ensuring the relative sanctuarisation of nation's deterrents and thus reducing first-strike incentives on both sides, but also by displacing the locus of nuclear competition from heavily populated state territories to the wide open waters. This optimistic vision does not hold up to scrutiny, however, when applied to regional nuclear dynamics in the Second Nuclear Age. Indeed, in this particular case, one could argue that it is not so much the process of naval nuclearisation itself which is inherently stabilising or destabilising, but rather the manner in which it is being pursued. Pakistan seems to be taking a dangerous path which combines dual-use systems (nuclear-tipped cruise missiles), cultivated doctrinal ambiguity, and a fair degree of maritime brinkmanship.

There are, no doubt, numerous lessons that could be drawn from the Cold War, whose study unfortunately tends to be neglected or oversimplified in South Asia. During the second half of the Cold War, in particular, theorists warned that within a heavily nuclearised environment, and under conditions of strategic uncertainty, offensive submarine operations or deployments could give birth to dangerously escalatory dynamics. And interestingly, much as in contemporary Pakistan, this argument was countered at the time by a constituency that argued that the diversification — and resulting dispersal — of nuclear assets at sea both strengthened their survivability and buttressed overall deterrence.

For instance, Linton Brooks, who served on the Reagan Administration's National Security Staff, wrote in 1986 that:

Deterrence is enhanced through the deliberate importation of both risk and uncertainty...Sea-based systems, able to attack a wide spectrum of targets from a large number of platforms, over a broad spectrum of attack azimuths, complicate Soviet defense planning immeasurably, thus strengthening deterrence.

Depressingly, however, things may in fact be even more complex and unstable now, in large part because the South Asian maritime environment is so alarmingly unstructured. At least during the second half of the Cold War (from 1972 onwards) the Soviets and Americans enacted the INCSEA, which worked towards limiting critical misinterpretations in times of tension. India and Pakistan have no such regime in place, and Pakistan continues to rely on a policy of maritime brinkmanship to compensate for its conventional inferiority.

There are frequent reports, for instance, of near collisions between Pakistani and Indian surface vessels. And in 1999, a Pakistani maritime patrol aircraft was shot down by an Indian Mig-21 when it strayed into Indian airspace. If Pakistani frigates or maritime patrol aircraft were transporting nuclear weapons and such incidents were to reoccur, the implications could be severe.

The scattering of nuclear assets at sea, particularly aboard surface ships, also heightens the risks of a nuclear weapon being intercepted by a malevolent non-state actor, a perennial concern when discussing Pakistan's growing nuclear arsenal. Another question worth raising is whether the escalation dynamics of nuclear warfare in the maritime theatre are less constrained than those that would attend similar operations on land.

A classic example is the tense situation which unfolded underwater during the Cuban Missile Crisis and which almost led to disaster. We now know that each of the Soviet submarines deployed off Cuba was in fact armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, a fact which was not known by the US Navy at the time. In an attempt to force the Soviet submarines to surface, the US fleet dropped depth charges which were not intended to hit the submarines but rather to coerce them into revealing themselves. The Soviet submarine commanders, however, viewed these actions under a different light, and one harried commander even ordered his men to assemble the nuclear torpedo to battle-readiness.

This incident highlights two disturbing dimensions of naval nuclear interactions: the perennial risks linked to misperception and ill-conceived or designed signaling, and the various challenges linked to command and control. When it comes to contemporary South Asia, even though Pakistan has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons against advancing Indian tank formations on land, one could be forgiven for expressing severe reservations over whether Pakistani commanders would be willing to detonate nuclear weapons on their own soil. Out on the open waters, however, such a question remains uncomfortably open.

Finally, analysts will now need to pay much closer attention to the interaction between conventional and nuclear assets at sea, and how this will impact on each country's strategies, doctrines, and acquisitions. Technology, like geography, can blur the line between defence and offense. For example, whereas previously the question of submarine proliferation in South Asia could be viewed through a purely conventional prism, everything will become a lot more complicated now that nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered assets have been thrown into the mix. Formerly conventional naval warfare capabilities such as anti-ship warfare or anti-submarine warfare can now also be equated with counterforce capabilities, with all the destabilising ramifications such a conceptual shift implies.

Photo by Flickr user Kashif Mardani.

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A selection of news, analysis and commentary from and about the Pacific island region.

  • Nominations for Fiji's general elections closed on 18 August. Twelve of the received nominations were rejected by the Fiji Electoral Authority, including that of Mahendra Chaudhry, leader of the Fiji Labour Party. Of the 249 accepted nominations, 41 are women. Fiji First was the only party to have all of its nominated candidates accepted; a number of these have since been challenged by the People's Democratic Party (PDP).
  • The future of the Gold Ridge mine in Solomon Islands looks increasingly uncertain. Further to suspension of operations and a massive reduction in the workforce, a deterioration in law and order in the area has resulted in the evacuation of all non-local staff.
  • Jope Tarai reflects on incidents of intimidation by Fijian authorities against those who support the cause of West Papuan independence. Meanwhile, in West Papua, the detention by Indonesian authorities of two French journalists is part of a decades-old policy of restricting international coverage of what happens in the province.
  • The IMF's quarterly 'Asia and Pacific Small States Monitor' is out, with a special focus on the impacts of climate change.
  • The Micronesia Challenge is a conservation initiative of five Micronesian countries. It has been awarded a Pacific Oceanscape Leadership award in recognition of its innovative and influential approach.
  • Ben Bohane highlights some key messages arising from a recent workshop that examined regional security issues.
  • Sean Dorney is leaving the ABC after 40 years of reporting on and from the Pacific. In 2012 he was awarded the inaugural Media Award from the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) in recognition of his work. This is the speech he gave on receiving that award:

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As we begin the second round of our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific, here is the first clear image of the INS Arihant, India's first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, to be armed with either a dozen 750km-range nuclear tipped ballistic missiles or four larger missiles with 3500km range. The image above is a still from a news report by India's NDTV, which broke the story yesterday.

An earlier image gave very little away, whereas in this shot we can clearly see the distinctive 'hump' aft of the sail, where the ballistic missiles will be housed. I'm no naval architect, but the sail looks to be of a rather dated design, reminiscent of the Soviet-era Kilo-class submarines the Indian Navy already operates. That's not too surprising, since Arihant has been in development since 1998. On the other hand, the designers seem to have done a much better job of integrating the missile hump with the hull than has China with its Type 094.

As our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons has already shown, the performance of the submarine is critical for strategic stability in the region. If the ship is noisy and easy to track, it will not give India the guaranteed second-strike capability it wants in order to dissuade an adversary from mounting a surprise attack. And of the ship is armed only with relatively short-range weapons such as the 750km K-15 missile, it would need to operate dangerously close to an adversary's home waters, thus making the ship vulnerable and destabilising. The longer-range K-4 missile has been tested from an undersea platform but is years from being operationally deployed on Arihant and her eventual sister-ships.

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Having read the initial round of contributions to this debate, I must say I'm not a believer in the idea that sea-based nuclear weapons are destabilising. In large part, that's because I'm finding it difficult to construct a scenario in which a senior defence adviser ever uses the sentence, 'Mr President, we have to attack now, they have sea-based nuclear weapons.' True, the future is an unwritten page so it's impossible to say with certainty that such a sentence will never be uttered. But on any rational calculation of probabilities, I know which way I would bet.

Does that mean we can look with equanimity at the forthcoming deployment of nuclear weapons at sea by Asian nuclear powers? Well, not entirely. It's true that some force structures are more destabilising than others. In particular, deployment of vulnerable high-value targets doesn't contribute to good crisis stability. So if Asian powers were to deploy large warhead numbers in vulnerable, noisy SSBNs, they'd have to anticipate losing at least some of those boats early in a conflict. Still, even vulnerable SSBNs might have value if deployed in protected bastions, behind layered defensive screens, exploiting known seabed topographies, confusing the targeteer with diversionary noisemakers, and keeping the warhead loadings low per boat. Quiet SSBNs would have value without that supporting architecture.

Deployment of nuclear weapons at sea doesn't guarantee invulnerability. But the development should typically be seen as positive in relation to Asia's current monopedal force structures. No Asian power has a strong 'air-breathing' strategic leg. They're mainly just land-based forces. Having a sea-based leg is something of a safeguard against technological surprise.

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Moreover, I think there are important political gains to be derived from sea-based systems, and those might be more important than the strategic and technological ones. First, such systems suggest a commitment to a durable, resilient nuclear force. They suggest that resort to nuclear weapons needn't be — and won't be — a rushed decision. Second, they devalue the benefits to an adversary of a bolt-from-the-blue attack upon the land-based component of the force, usually sited in relatively static target sets. Third, because they make such an attack upon the land-based systems less likely, they help reassure the population of the nuclear weapon state that they aren't mere nuclear cannon fodder, and thus help sustain political support for the arsenal.

Finally, I'd make one simple observation: if Asia's nuclear-armed countries want to build and deploy sea-based nuclear weapons, who's going to stop them? Nations typically have the right to get their own defence procurement decisions wrong. And in this case it's far from evident that decisions to deploy nuclear weapons at sea would be wrong.

Photo by Wikipedia.

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Clive Palmer says the Chinese government shoots its own people. If he's talking about Xinjiang, he's right. 

Last month saw the deadliest violence in years in the autonomous region, which has a sizeable Uyghur Muslim population. A knife attack in Yarkand on July 28 saw 100 deaths, including a whopping '59 terrorists' shot by security forces. A separate incident near Hotan on August 1 involved 30,000 locals teaming up with security forces to trap and kill nine terrorists, according to state media. 

There are reasons to be suspicious of official accounts, but there's no denying the security situation in Xinjiang has deteriorated. On Sunday the People's Daily reported drones were to be deployed in the region. 

Some great pieces have been filed from Xinjiang over the past month (here, and here), while Getty photographer Kevin Frayer supplied some stunning photography on a recent Ramadan trip. 

A lot of the reporting has highlighted Beijing's oppressive religious and security policies towards Uyghurs. But these have been in place for years, and Beijing is currently engaged in an unprecedented effort to raise living standards ad generate 'social cohesion' in the region. Xinjiang's hard-line Party boss Wang Lequan was kicked out of his post following mass rioting in July 2009, and his successors in regional policy, Zhang Chunxian and Yu Zhengsheng, initially signaled a softer approach. 

So why is violence spiking? I spoke with some of the foremost experts on Xinjiang to find out. Below are highlights.

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Henryk Szadziewski, a senior research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, discussed recent policy and personnel changes:

It's a good idea to look at the unrest from a broader chronological perspective. Uyghur grievances with the Chinese state stretch further back than the recent uptick in violence. Wang Lequan was known for dealing harshly with Uyghur expression of dissent. Post-2009, the appointment of his successor Zhang Chunxian was supposed to bring a 'softer' approach to governance in Xinjiang.

Given the policies we see in effect today, it's hard to distinguish this 'softer' approach. Xi Jinping's announcement earlier this year that security policies would be emphasized over development was viewed as a palliative to unrest. Although the Second Xinjiang Central Work Forum this year proposed some measurable goals in addressing economic disparity between minorities and Han Chinese, especially in terms of reducing unemployment, the systematic and ingrained social discrimination faced by Uyghurs remains. As with many economic policies in the past, these goals have been imposed from above with little agency in decision making from Xinjiang residents.

Reza Hasmath, a lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Oxford, said socioeconomic disparities and lack of institutional access for Uyghurs were at the heart of discontent. He also saw significance in this year's Xinjiang Central Work Forum: 

The work forum outlined what I think can be construed as a moderate option to deal with the spread of radical Uyghurs: namely, to boost employment and income levels among Uyghurs. The problem at hand, however, is the manner in which the state actually attempts to do this. The work forum proposed increased fiscal transfers. This does not necessarily increase the odds of Uyghurs obtaining high status/high wage jobs. Moreover, the forum's recommendations to increase urbanization and inter-regional migration, while a good step in principle, often means more Han migration into urban Xinjiang rather than ethnic minority migration.

Finally, the last major recommendation (of the work forum) to 'strengthen state education,' while important, can have a moot effect given that Uyghurs have difficulties obtaining good jobs in spite of having high education. In short, a moderate option does exist for the state. The problem is that it is often not executed in a manner that will yield tangible results. 

James Leibold, a Xinjiang expert at Latrobe University currently based in Beijing, says the Government is increasing its micro-management of locals' lives: 

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Party-state has doubled down on Xinjiang, increasing its penetration into nearly every aspect of Xinjiang society: quadrupling the regional public security budget since 2009; sending thousands of high-level cadres down to live alongside local villagers and community members in small groups; re-doubling efforts to urbanise and industrialise southern Xinjiang; and regulating the daily activities of Xinjiang's Uyghur minorities from the length of their facial hair to what sort of religious activities are 'legal.'

As Li Xiaoxia, deputy director of the Xinjiang Social Science Academy recently wrote, and I quote loosely here: "As the scope of religious extremism expands, the government's management of religious affairs must be further strengthened, become more detailed and penetrate into more areas of Muslim social life, so that it touches on every aspect of daily life, such as clothing, food, housing, marriage and deaths."

Finally, Michael Clarke, a research fellow at Griffith Asia Institute, discussed the issue of radicalisation: 

Most of the violence until recently has been the result of the state's heavy-handed approach to Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. However, the violence that we have seen in the past six to 12 months, I think, suggests that there is evidence of some level of radicalisation. The March attack in Kunming, the bombings in Urumqi in April and May, and the latest incident in Yarkand point to a certain level of premeditation and planning that we have generally not seen before. 

Chinese claims that groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Party are to blame for these events are difficult to verify. Overall I think that the strategy or tactics of the more recent attacks in Xinjiang point at least to some Uyghurs looking to the example of regional (ie. Central and South Asian) and global Islamist groups for inspiration. In this context, though, I would argue that state policy has played a facilitating role. Through its systematic repression of Uyghur dissent — including of modern and secular Uyghurs — it seems inevitable that elements within the Uyghur population will turn to violence.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS?David Gray.

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The need for a new Defence White Paper is fast diminishing. The Government has been busy making big decisions that will shape Defence and the ADF force structure for decades to come. 

The latest budget papers set out the steps by which the 2% of GDP funding target will be met. The Air Force's future force structure has been finalised with decisions on buying lots of Joint Strike Fighters and some P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft and Global Hawk surveillance drones (and perhaps more C-17 cargo planes and KC-30 aerial tankers). The Navy's future fleet seems set with new tankers, new patrol boats, an aviation support ship, a $78 million study that effectively locks in a particular eight-ship future frigate solution and the slipping of the Collins submarine replacement. Meanwhile, Army's flagship project, Land400 (Land Combat Vehicle System), is well advanced with tenders expect to be released before year's end. 

With little left to discuss about budgets and force structure, the Defence White Paper process now seems to be moving towards becoming efficiency-focused. The two main areas of interest in this are a long-term set-in-concrete shipbuilding plan and a First Principles Review into how to expedite acquisition and sustainment decisions. The new emphasis on these two important but narrow issues reveals the shift underway from a true Defence White Paper to what is steadily becoming a Defence Efficiency Review.

So a new Defence White Paper now seems redundant, except as a compiled listing of recent announcements. But the missing element in all this is strategy. A word search for 'strategy' in the public consultation Defence Issues Paper finds the word only four times in the 65-page document.

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In simple terms, strategy is the way that the force structure (the means) is used to achieve desired objectives (the ends). But making strategy is intellectually difficult, and not as much fun as buying new jets, ships and tanks! Devising the ends, and the ways to achieve those ends, is not easy. Giving advice to busy, harassed policymakers on how to develop strategy can be contradictory and confusing

Even so, it is worth the effort. Good strategy can magnify the effectiveness of a nation's military power. Moreover, efficiency processes are best based around a strategy. The Army, for instance, wants to be quickly adaptable to new and emerging circumstances. This objective might be incompatible with the push for a stable, unwavering acquisition plan that industry can 'bank' on for the next two decades or so. In the absence of a strategy, incoherence is a constant danger.

A new Defence White Paper may still be useful if it sets out a defence strategy, but if not, it is arguably becoming unnecessary. Without strategy, the new Defence White Paper might be better and more accurately reconceived as a Defence Efficiency Review.

Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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The view from Hong Kong

Another month, another huge political street protest in Hong Kong. Last Sunday the territory's residents marched again, this time against the planned but so far unscheduled Occupy Central sit-in. Just as July's pro-democracy marchers comprised a broad cross-section of Hong Kong society, so did the counter-demonstration this weekend. The coalition against Occupy Central included members of the business community worried about commercial upheaval (which, presumably, is the whole point of Occupy Central), establishment moderates opposed to civil disobedience, and pro-Beijing patriot groups.

The events have been peaceful, reflecting the restraint of both Hong Kong's citizens and its police force. Yet there is an edgy aspect to this back-and-forth mass mobilisation which is worryingly reminiscent of Thailand.

I disfavour the Occupy Central movement because I believe, as my previous posts make clear, a reasonable nomination and voting process for the position of Hong Kong's Chief Executive is probably the preferred option for the 'silent majority' of Hongkongers. To expect more ignores the reality of the city's constrained political identity. Occupy Central's campaign to threaten deliberate disruption is unduly provocative and self-harming; Sunday's march can be interpreted as a backlash by pragmatists who rationally fear the wrath of both Beijing and financial markets. 

There are, however, some really worrying aspects about what happened on Sunday.

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For a start, nobody can agree on the number of participants. This might seem unimportant, but it reflects a lack of objectivity, and perhaps of trust, in society. Invariably when a rally occurs, there are wildly differing claims from each side about how much support they have. But even purportedly neutral institutions like the police and University of Hong Kong's respected public opinion program differ. Sure enough, we're 'tangled up in the numbers game' again. 

There are strong suspicions of 'rent-a-mob', voiced here, here and here. Mainland tourists were reportedly directed to the event with PRC flags. Chinese state-owned companies ordered local employees to attend. Well organised friendship groups kitted out in smart uniforms helped out with meals and maybe cash. Their placards brandished slogans like 'stability' and 'harmony', terms often used by China's authorities. 

The covert marshaling of Beijing-friendly crowds outside China is something foreigners witnessed before the 2008 Olympics. As Andrew Browne  notes in his essay this week, the Overseas Affairs Office organising them 'puts established overseas Chinese communities at risk by raising the issue of their national loyalties.' But Hong Kong is within China itself and the Liaison Office has unlimited resources at its disposal here. Its website openly features pictures of 'harmony' protesters and 'anti-suffrage' messages. In the crowd-on-crowd game, Beijing will prevail. The state itself, if necessary, could numerically overwhelm its own citizens for 'popularity.'

Indeed, that is the most troubling prospect. For years Hong Kong's government was goaded by liberal civil movements, but 'since at least 2012, pro-government groups, such as Voice of Loving Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power, have increasingly relied on disruptive protests of their own to neutralise the opposition', as the Oxford sociologist Larry Au writes. Whereas a powerless opposition resorts 'by necessity' to silly stunts, the Government's aim is to wear them down. In Hong Kong's twisted political pathology, people now protest against protest. Those who support a restricted nomination committee rather than free suffrage are, consciously or not, choosing against choice. At its nihilistic extreme, they will be voting against voting. 

Even a pro-business conservative like myself can recognise the danger of voluntarily self-restricting political choice. The next thing to go will be the independent media, then the rule of law, and then after that Hong Kong will empty. Meanwhile the street parades go on. As Au puts it, 'unfortunately, countering one protest with another only goes so far. The forces of necessity and fatigue will only perpetuate — if not worsen — the current state of affairs. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to rework the political structures that spawned this insanity.'

Photo by Flickr user pasuay @ incendo.

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The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

The Lowy Institute International Security program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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Here's Business Spectator's Fergus Ryan on Clive Palmer's Monday evening TV outburst about China:

It was only after Julie Bishop apologised to the Chinese embassy that the Chinese government put out a statement saying Palmer’s attack was “full of ignorance and prejudice”, absurd and irresponsible. By getting the Chinese embassy involved over comments made by a member of another party, the government has given more oxygen to Palmer’s remarks. It’s the kind of oversensitive micromanaging of the Australia-China relationship that ends up making us look weak...

...The Chinese government knows that Australia is a democracy. Apologising to them for what happens in the rough and tumble of Australian democratic discourse encourages the Chinese government to think they can exert pressure on Australia to dampen debate.

To be fair to Bishop, it seems she did not actually 'apologise' to the Chinese Embassy for Palmer's remarks; rather, she contacted them to distance the Government from Palmer. Yet I agree with the broad sentiment here; Australia is a robust democracy, and that's an image we should actively cultivate on the international stage, not shy away from. It is one of our great soft-power strengths.

So while Bishop was telling the Chinese ambassador how disgraceful Palmer's comments were, I hope she also found time to say that this sort of thing is commonplace in a democracy, and that as a nation we not only survive it but are even strengthened by the debate it provokes. China ought to try it sometime.

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