Lowy Institute

In an interview with Chinese state television released on Wednesday, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte doubled down on his embrace of China and dismissive attitude towards the US-Philippine alliance. Duterte pronounced his state visit to China as 'the defining moment of my presidency', expansively claimed that a quarter of the Philippine population (including himself) are Chinese descendants, contended that China was the Philippines' 'only hope economically', and hoped that President Xi Jinping would find it in his heart to give the Philippines a railway.

In a speech to an overseas Filipino audience on the same day, Duterte repeated his 'son of a whore' reference for President Obama while stating 'No more American influence. No more American exercises. It's time to say goodbye, my friend. Your stay in my country was for your own benefit'.

As Duterte is rachets up the rhetoric on Manila's pivot away from the US and towards China, there are early signs of problems back home. In a moment of candour during his confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted his ignorance of recent presidential pronouncements on the US-Philippine alliance: 'Mr. Chair, I really don't know because the President has been issuing statements without consulting the Cabinet.'

An 8 October opinion piece by former President Fidel Ramos, who sat at the side of Duterte at his election celebration and who Duterte nominated to lead the recommencement of talks with China over the South China Sea dispute, strongly criticises Duterte's pivot and his caustic attitude to relations with the US. A recent Social Weather Stations' poll strongly suggests that the concern with Duterte's pivot to China and away from the US may well go much deeper. The poll shows that Filipinos' already very low trust levels towards China are worsening, with 55% expressing little trust in China, compared with only 11% 22% expressing much trust. The results for the US were the mirror opposite: 11% little trust and 76% much trust.

If this visit to China will be the defining moment of Duterte's presidency, he may not like the definition.


Before his first overseas trip as president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte answered a media question about his first planned meeting with President Obama, leader of the Philippines’ most important economic and security partner. It did not go well. 

His (un)presidential comments led the US to postpone this meeting indefinitely, and followed an earlier incident where he used a homophobic slur in reference to US ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg.

This unprecedented diplomatic faux pas is symptomatic of a serious problem with the 70-day-old Duterte administration; a problem that is more prevalent and troubling on the domestic front. During the presidential campaign, Duterte (who has been mayor or vice-mayor of Davao City in southern Mindanao for 27 of the last 30 years) said that should he win, he wanted people to refer to him as mayor of the Philippines, not president.

True to his word, since his inauguration as president on 30 June, Duterte has conducted himself in the same way he did as the long-standing mayor and dominant political figure of a peripheral city far from the gaze of the national and international media. This lack of political transition is most noticeable in three ways:

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  • His primary focus on the war on drugs, a law and order issue. The extreme measures taken and body count amassing from this war is reflective of an approach frequently used by many mayors imposed at the national level.
  • His virulent reaction to any criticism of the means adopted in this war (and their deadly consequences), and his attacks on critics (even when they represent co-equal branches of government with responsibility to ensure that government actions are in accordance with the law). At the local level, there are no co-equal branches of government to the mayor’s office, and local media outlets are usually much more amenable than their national and international peers.
  • His seemingly indiscriminate use of colourful and frequently derogatory colloquial language. Mayors, particularly of peripheral cities, do not represent their country on the international stage and thus do not need to follow particularly strict protocol. Duterte’s maverick persona is central to his political success so far.

Duterte’s undoubted success as mayor, broad public support, lack of an effective legislative opposition and fierce pride all push against a change of approach. Criticism of his conduct as president, especially from outside his circle of trusted kumpares, will carry little weight (and may even be counterproductive). 

There is a steep learning curve from being mayor of less than two million to president for more than 100 million. Duterte is the only one who can mount it. His behaviour over his first 70 days as president (culminating in his comments on the tarmac at Davao International Airport earlier this week) reveals just how big a challenge this is. 

Photo: Getty Images/Dondi Tawatao


Many hoped  and others feared that US-Philippine relations would deteriorate under the Duterte Administration that came into power on 30 June. There are good reasons for this preliminary judgement.

The relationship became much closer under the Aquino Administration, highlighted by the signing in 2014 of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement against the concerns of a majority of the Philippine Senate. After 2012, Aquino determined that China posed a major threat to Philippine sovereignty and closer relations with the US was part of the necessary response. President Aquino, Foreign Secretary Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Gazmin had all lived in the US, Aquino while is family was in political exile and Del Rosario for most of his education.

During the presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte questioned the utility of the alliance with the US and threatened to sever ties with the Philippines' largest source of foreign direct investment, remittances and military assistance after the US Ambassador chided him over a particularly offensive and misogynist 'rape joke.' Duterte prides himself on his militant leftist political origins, the main source of rabid anti-Americanism in the Philippines, opposed US-Philippine military exercises when he was mayor of Davao City, and wants closer, more economically focused relations with China. More recent reported comments again crudely criticising Ambassador Goldberg and contrasting the US negatively with China could reinforce this view of a pending bilateral break.

Political observers in the Philippines are still fine-tuning their 'Duterte filters' to figure out what are real statements of policy versus off-the-cuff remarks versus brain freezes.

The need for this filter is particularly acute when it comes to the Duterte Administration's positions on the South China Sea disputes and relations with the US and China. Making projections based on a selective number of statements is always risky, with Duterte much more so. Duterte himself tells us we should ignore his tirade against the US ambassador and that the alliance is in strong shape. This is backed by Duterte's reaffirmation that his Administration will continue the Aquino Administration's military modernisation program, in which the US is the most important partner.

Secretary of State Kerry is the most senior foreign official to visit President Duterte and the US will provide the Philippines with $32 million to fight the Abu Sayyaf Group, a top priority of President Duterte. And, as in 2015, the Philippines this year will receive the lion's share of the US Building Maritime Capacity in Southeast Asia initiative.

Duterte himself has noted that the Philippines has only one ally. This fact, and the need for the Philippines to leverage foreign support for its internal and external security needs, means US-Philippine relations will likely not alter alarmingly once we look at the facts and filter Duterte's frothy political language.

2 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

The ruling by the Arbitration Tribunal that is comprehensively in favour of the case filed by the Philippines in January 2013 poses four separate tests, none of them easy.

1. The test for China

The biggest test is that posed by the ruling for China. It is also the most difficult. Now, if China simply continues its present actions around features in the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea and continues to insist on the validity of the 9-dash line, it will be unambiguously undertaking unlawful activities. This will deepen the already profound distrust and fear of China in the region and contribute to China’s self-isolation in maritime East Asia. As President Xi notes, big powers are different to smaller ones. Ignoring international law should not be one of these differences.

2. The test for Taiwan's DPP government

As Taiwan is the other nine-dash line claimant, the ruling also poses a major challenge for the nation's new DPP government. While Taiwan is excluded from UNCLOS, the DPP has supported aligning Taiwan’s claim in the South China Sea with international maritime law. The nine-dash line claim and Taiwan’s argument that Itu Aba is an island with rights to a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone have been judged unlawful. The DPP government can distance itself from Beijing and the KMT opposition and strengthen relations with maritime Southeast Asia, the US, Japan, the EU, etc by acknowledging the ruling. Or it can remain tied to Beijing and the KMT on this issue.

3. The test for Philippines President Duterte

The ruling limits the latitude for the newly installed Duterte administration to distance itself from its predecessor by seeking better relations with Beijing. The ruling that no land feature in the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal has rights to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf likely precludes any further discussions of Philippine-China joint development in what the Tribunal has ruled is the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Duterte will also be under greater domestic and international pressure to publicly oppose present Chinese actions that limit Philippine maritime rights in their exclusive economic zone. Nuanced diplomacy, a rare skill the new Duterte team has yet to display, will be needed for the Philippines to leverage this ruling into better relations with China and support at home.

4. The test for the US

The Tribunal ruling that a number of land features in the Spratlys are low-water elevations with no territorial sea rights will likely increase pressure both within and outside of the US for new US navy freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of these features. If the US does not quickly conduct such an operation then it may appear that the Obama administration is making a China exception to the US’ global exercise of freedom of navigation rights as defined by the US.

Yesterday’s ruling ushers in a new, testing time in the South China Sea; it is much more a beginning than a conclusion.

Photo: US Department of Defense


Contrasting Philippines President Benigno Aquino with President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is much easier than finding similarities. Undoubtedly, the Duterte administration will be very different from Aquino's. Duterte has brought communist party nominees into his cabinet but not the Vice President-elect, Leni Robredo. Aquino moved from the Senate to the presidential palace carrying the most powerful surname in Philippine politics. Duterte will, reluctantly, move to Manila from far-flung Davao City where he is mayor. Reflecting these differences, Philippine security policy under Duterte is also likely be very different to the present settings.

Yet, in one important aspect, their security policies could be similar in effect.

The biggest change in security policy introduced by the Aquino administration came in 2013 when it chose to take China to court over maritime rights disputes in the South China Sea, an action led by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario . This quickly became Aquino’s most famous policy internationally. It gained widespread public support, and was endorsed by the US and key security partners such as Japan.

It also seriously damaged the president’s personal relationship with China leading him to be castigated by Beijing and excluded from China-organised cooperative events with Southeast Asia. Many critics in the Philippines and beyond thought Aquino and del Rosario had pushed China too hard and that the rash Philippines would pay too high a cost.

What could be the biggest change to Philippine security policy under Duterte is already unfolding even before he is inaugurated. Duterte has restarted the peace process, which was largely moribund under Aquino, for the decades-old, nation-spanning communist insurgency. His peace envoys have had their first meeting in Oslo with the self-exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (and Duterte’s former teacher) Joma Sison, and the chief negotiator for the communists, Luis Jalandoni. The Duterte team is considering releasing political prisoners, a return for Sison, and a very quick negotiation of a peace deal. Negotiating to end the insurgency and the disruption and death it causes across the archipelago will likely gain public and international support.

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However, Duterte’s unprecedented offers to the communist insurgents at a time when the insurgency is not a threat to the state has triggered concerns from senators including the elder of the Senate, Juan Ponce Enrile. Former coup plotters turned elected politicians publicly spoke during the election campaign about a potential coup if Duterte goes too far and concedes too much. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has backed Duterte’s plans for restarting the peace process but many may find the release of political prisoners and other olive branches to the militant left bitter pills to swallow.

Aquino’s most significant change to Philippine security policy severely strained relations with China, the country’s largest trading partner, at a minor cost to Aquino and the Philippines. Duterte’s likely biggest change to security policy, if not handled well, could put serious strain on his relationship with elements of the army. Sison himself has warned Duterte of this risk.This should be more worrying for the Philippines than China’s opprobrium and cancelled invitations. 

Duterte’s likely biggest change to Philippine security policy is larger than Aquino’s move. It offers greater rewards, and greater risks as well.

The Lowy Institute has today released Dr Malcolm Cook's Analysis, 'Turning Back? Philippine Security Policy under Duterte'.

Photo by Lito Boras/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images




At first glance it looks like much has changed in Philippine politics. In Rodrigo Duterte the Philippines will have, for the first time, a president from the island of Mindanao, and one who came to power without either the backing of a major party or pre-existing network of local political bosses behind him. Moreover, it is still possible that the son of Ferdinand Marcos Sr, Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr, will be only a heartbeat away from the presidency. The dictator’s unrepentant son is in a very close race for the vice-presidency with Leni Robredo, the VP choice of President Benigno Aquino. A national elected position may for the first time ever be decided by overseas votes. And in another first, a trans-gender candidate has been elected to a national political position.

Yet, at second and third glance, four powerful trends in post-Marcos Philippines appear to be holding true.

1. Political dynasties rule and the number of locally dominant families is growing.

The Duterte family’s two decades-plus control of Davao City will continue with Inday Sara Duterte (Rodrigo Duterte's daughter) winning over 99.5% of votes cast for mayor. While vice president Jejomar Binay faded badly as a presidential candidate, his family’s lock on power in Makati City is unbroken after Abigail Binay replaced her deposed brother as mayor in a close-run affair. Imee Marcos won the governorship of Ilocos Norte by acclamation as did Pia Cayetano, sister of Duterte’s running mate Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, in their bailiwick of Taguig City in Metro Manila. Duterte and Binay are first-generation scions of new urban-based political dynasties. The 'anarchy of families' continues.

2. The incumbent’s choice is the kiss of death.

In the past four elections, the serving president’s choice has lost, usually by large margins. In 1998, Vice president Joseph Estrada smashed Jose de Venecia. In 2004, Fernando Poe Jr (Estrada’s best friend), is widely believed to have won the vote but lost the vote count. In 2010, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was widely seen to be backing Estrada (whom she had pardoned as president), yet Benigno Aquino romped home. Yesterday, Duterte easily beat Manuel Roxas. Lame ducks indeed.

3. The recent return of the Marcos family to the national stage continues largely unabated.

When Imelda Marcos ran for president in 1992, she came a distant fifth with about 10% of the vote. When her son ran for the Senate in 2010, he finished a creditable 7th (the 12 highest vote winners become Senators) with roughly 35% of the electorate including him among their 12 choices for the Senate. As of 9:00am this morning, Bongbong Marcos had amassed 34.6% of the vote for vice president, only 0.4% behind Robredo’s total. Marcos has easily won Metro Manila and his family’s bailiwicks of northern Luzon and Leyte. 

4. Home region and language group are still the most powerful determinants of voting behaviour.

This holds true in every region outside of Metro Manila, the common shorthand for Metropolitan Manila, the country's national capital region and the predominant destination for internal migration. Duterte triumphed by winning Mindanao, Cebu where his family originates from, and Metro Manila. If Marcos wins the vice presidency, the pattern will be very similar.

Philippine politics are not changeless but they have not changed as much as some fear or hope with these election results.

Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images


Two recent extraordinary political statements by the Abe Administration reflect how deep, even neuralgic, Japan's sense of rivalry with China is. Each suggests that this rivalry may be undercutting Japanese diplomacy in general and its aid program in particular.

1.Mugabe in Japan

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is in the midst of a four-day state visit to Japan where it is reported he will be given the protocol honour of a court luncheon hosted by the Emperor and Empress. Not only that, Japan will extend a ¥600 million grant to the Mugabe regime for infrastructure development.

From 2001-2015, Zimbabwe received no new Japanese aid. What has changed? Not the quality of Mugabe's leadership (for length and venality of rule, Mugabe stands at or the near the top of the global pile), or Zimbabwe's management of foreign aid. Rather, China's commercial and diplomatic push into Africa and Japan's desire to gain more global support for its UN Security Council membership push, which China steadfastly opposes, appear to be the main drivers behind the Abe Administration's embrace of Mugabe. It is likely that while Mugabe will benefit from Tokyo's warm embrace, Japan's long frustrated UN Security Council reform plans, the Japanese taxpayer, and the people of Zimbabwe (the supposed beneficiaries of Japan's aid) will not.

2. Tokyo criticises Jakarta, and lowers its aid standards

In September 2015, Yoshihide Suga, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister Abe's right-hand man, was highly critical of the Jokowi Administration's decision to award the Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail project to China and not Japan. Jakarta insisted that the project bidder waive the condition of an Indonesian government loan guarantee. As noted by Suga, this requirement, which the Chinese side met, goes against Japan's decades-long approach to aid and to the fiduciary principle of having host government investment in projects supported by Japanese overseas aid.

Not only did the fierce Japan-China competition over Asian infrastructure projects lead one of the most powerful Japanese political leaders to publicly criticise Indonesia and the Jokowi Administration (an extraordinary political statement), it has weakened Japan's decades-old policy of requiring host government loan guarantees for its aid projects. In May 2015, Japan announced a US$110 billion Partnership for Quality Infrastructure initiative, seen by many as a response to China's recent Asian infrastructure initiatives. The third pillar of this Partnership seeks to 'double the supply of funding for projects with relatively high-risk profiles'. The main mechanism to achieve this fiduciarily questionable goal is to:

...empower JBIC (the Japan Bank of International Cooperation) to actively provide funding for PPP infrastructure projects etc. with relatively high risk profiles (e.g. a project without a guarantee from a government of developing country to support the payment obligations of the off-taker under the purchase agreement).

The Japan-China rivalry is deeper and broader than the US-China one, and it is driving deep Japanese policy changes across a wide spectrum. These two extraordinary Japanese political statements reflect this change, and the risk that the Abe Administration's approach to its rivalry with China is warping long-standing bipartisan policy settings in ways that do not clearly benefit the Japanese people or those whom its aid program seeks to help.


Pyongyang's latest nuclear test led to the same responses as the earlier ones: calls for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks and an overwhelming focus on how the present US approach is flawed and needs to change. It feels like we're in a time warp. You could write the same story about each North Korean nuclear test, updating the name of the North Korean leader, the US president and the US policy (this time known as 'strategic patience') that is the subject of criticism.

Statue of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, Pyongyang. (Flickr/Matt Paish.)

Not only is this time warp mind-numbingly repetitive, it is also based on two flawed assumptions. Correcting these assumptions and tweaking the 'strategic patience' approach in three ways may help get us out of this flawed and increasingly dangerous time warp.

First, using the latest North Korean nuclear test as a reason to restart the Six-Party Talks is wrong in principle and in practice. As noted by Japan, this nuclear test is the latest is a long line of North Korean actions that run counter to its Six-Party commitments. North Korea's actions show that nothing which is agreed in the Six-Party Talks affects North Korea's decades-long nuclearisation strategy. Restarting the talks, which permits North Korea another media-friendly gap in attempts to isolate it for its destabilising behaviour, sends the wrong message (do wrong and get rewarded in the hopes that you will not do wrong again) and will likely encourage further transgressions.

Second, China's policy towards North Korea should be the focus of criticism, not that of the US. China's rhetoric on North Korean nuclearisation has certainly become less contradictory to that of the US, Japan and South Korea. Yet China willingly provides the largest gaps in attempts to isolate North Korea for its nuclear destabilisation. Isolation is still the best tool available to try to change North Korea's nuclear calculations and has the significant added benefit of imposing costs on North Korea for its destabilising behaviour and for welching on its commitments. It also sends the right message to Pyongyang: do wrong, suffer the consequences.

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Three tweaks to the US 'strategic patience' approach, supported by Japan and South Korea, would help correct these persistent assumptions and make the approach more consistent:

  • All six parties should admit the twin realities that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state (hence comparisons with the Iran nuclear deal are false) and that Pyongyang shows no signs of altering this long-sought status. This will not be easy.
  • The US, Japan and South Korea (and Russia and China, if willing) should declare the Six-Party Talks dead due to North Korea's continued transgressions. To not do so implies that the Six-Party Talks are more important to the US, Japan and South Korea than they are to North Korea.
  • There should be greater efforts to crack down on known North Korean ways of getting around sanctions. Announcing new sanctions would be to fall into the time warp again. Expending more effort and diplomatic capital on truly enforcing the existing ones would be new.

These changes will not lead Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. But they would be more consistent in principle and practice and would raise the costs for North Korea of its transgressions and destabilisation, and increase the incentives for China to live up to its newly critical rhetoric towards its only formal ally. We should replace strategic patience (an inherently passive approach) with strategic determination.


The most important outcome of Prime Minister Turnbull's flash visit to Japan today probably won't be in what deals are signed or not (unless Turnbull is delivering bad news on the submarine tender). Rather, the most important outcome will be the hardest to judge from the outside: will Turnbull and Abe establish trust and a close working relationship?

Prime Minister Howard struck up a close relationship with prime ministers Koizumi and Abe (in Abe's first term in 2007), and the Australia-Japan relationship was elevated to a new, much higher level. Kevin Rudd was able to form such a relationship with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and the bilateral relationship blossomed. Prime Minster Abbott developed close relationships with both Abe and Singaporean leader Lee Hsien Loong, and again both bilateral relationships were quickly elevated to new heights.

Good chemistry between leaders is key to both elevating bilateral relations and protecting them from tough divisive issues such as Japan's unwelcome return to whaling, something that will undoubtedly anger many in Australia and elsewhere. With both Abe and Turnbull in strong political positions facing weak opposition leaders, they could be at the peak of the Australia-Japan relationship for the coming years. It would be good for both countries if Turnbull is able to strike up as a good a relationship with Abe as his two Liberal prime ministerial predecessors did.


Tomorrow's meeting between President Ma of Taiwan (pictured) and President Xi of China in Singapore truly will be historic, and good history at that.

It is also a rare case in which the dual roles of national leaders as both statesmen and leading figures in their political parties (Ma Ying-jeou is no longer Chairman of the KMT but he is a senior figure) do not conflict but converge. So often in foreign policy, we hear that a particular leader could not take action due to 'domestic politics' (eg. the fear of losing popular support and/or alienating key constituencies in their party). But in this case both leaders have something to gain domestically by appearing statesmanlike, and this first meeting of the leaders of Taiwan and China is only possible because this rare alignment is in place for both Ma and Xi. 

For Ma, Taiwan's least popular elected president, now at the end of his final term, the meeting will be a major legacy moment. It will put Taiwan back in the international spotlight in a favourable way (a very hard thing for Taiwan to achieve), and it will be presented as the ultimate sign of success of Ma's signature policy over two four-year terms of warming up cross-Strait economic relations and reducing cross-Strait political tensions.

Domestically, Ma and the KMT's calculation may be that this meeting in Singapore will change the campaign dynamics of the January presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan.

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Presently, it looks likely that the opposition party that favours greater Taiwanese autonomy from China, the DPP, will win the presidential election and for the first time ever also become the largest party in the Legislative Yuan. If that occurs, the KMT would be completely out of power at the national level for the first time in Taiwan's history. This meeting will focus the media spotlight back on cross-Strait relations, an area where the KMT has long thought (possibly mistakenly, as shown by the Sunflower Movement) it has a distinct advantage over the DPP. 

For Xi, the meeting will likely be presented as the first concrete success of China's policy of pursuing closer economic integration with Taiwan as a means of starting cross-Strait political negotiations. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party also likely share the KMT's hope that the meeting shifts Taiwan's electoral balance away from a double DPP win. Domestically, it also could enhance Xi's image as a strong leader willing and able to tackle problems and do things his predecessors shied away from.

Given Ma's two-month shelf life as Taiwan's leader, this rare alignment will likely be fleeting. If it backfires on the KMT electorally (or simply doesn't shift the present electoral trajectory), then the effects of the meeting will not last the year. There is no foreseeable way from either side of the Taiwan Strait for President Xi to follow up with a meeting with Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP's leader and presidential candidate. As is usual, domestic political realities may again trump the hoped-for outcomes of statesmanship.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jameson Wu.


Among the five bilateral relationships successive Australian Governments have agreed upon as being the most important (US, China, Japan, Indonesia and India), the sudden, though not unexpected, change in Liberal Party leadership will cause the most angst in Japan.

When Kevin Rudd replaced John Howard in 2007, many in Japan were concerned. This anxiety was further inflamed with Rudd's first maladroit steps in regional diplomacy. Luckily, while more slowly and awkwardly, the bilateral relationship and security partnership continued to strengthen as shown by the signing of the Cross-Servicing Agreement in 2013.

Common security interests, more adroit diplomacy on the Australian side and a strong and expanding network of operational cooperation quickly assuaged Japanese angst. Test passed. 

The change of leadership from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull will pose another test of the degree to which common strategic interests and ongoing intergovernmental cooperation shape policy, versus local domestic interests and individual leaders. As with Rudd, there are concerns (again flowing from the domestic debate in Australia) that Turnbull is 'pro-China' and hence not a 'friend' of Japan. 

In two ways though, this second test will be harder:

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  1. The Abbott-Abe relationship is very strong and developed from the beginning of Abbott's term and Abe's second. Howard's close personal ties with Koizumi and Abe came in the second half of Howard's long prime ministerial stay.
  2. This close personal relationship was seen to be the key to delivering the Japan-Australia trade deal. The security relationship moved from a walk to a sprint with prime ministerial support for Australia's consideration in buying Japanese submarines or submarine technology. On each side, the potential submarine deal is a huge, ground-breaking initiative and, unfortunately, has become a media touchstone in both countries for the direction of the relationship as a whole.

It is unlikely that Turnbull will be able to develop such a close and in some ways defining relationship with Abe before the next Australian election. Likewise, it's unlikely that Turnbull will retain Kevin Andrews as Defence Minister, so the delayed 2015 Defence White Paper will probably be delayed again, as will any decision on submarines.

It's doubtful that Turnbull will choose to pay as high a price for being seen to support buying submarines off the shelf (the cheapest and easiest option, but one that limits the number of jobs and ribbon cuts in the Australian defence industry and the option seen most favourable to the Japanese) as Abbott was.

After the first failed attempt to unseat Abbott in February, the process for choosing submarines was hurriedly revised at a rushed news conference in Adelaide where the Defence Minister was surrounded by the Liberal members of parliament from South Australia, the self-named 'Defence State.' The new 'competitive bidding process' was widely seen as less favourable to the Japanese. In a rare show of bi-partisanship, the Labor and Liberal Party leaders of South Australia have already publicly noted they have contacted Turnbull and pushed for a submarine choice that maximises the amount of work done in South Australia. With senior Japanese defence figures questioning Adelaide's ability to build Soryu submarines, any commitment by the Turnbull Government to a 'build in Australia (Adelaide)' approach to submarines will cast further doubt on the Japanese option.

To pass this second tougher test and assuage Japanese angst, Turnbull would be well-served to stay firm on the proper policy that Australia will choose the option that provides the best submarine at the best price to Australia, especially given the huge expenditure of taxpayers' money the project will entail. It would also be a good idea to find ways of promoting other less complex and sensitive aspects of the bilateral security partnership and relationship as a whole, such as Japanese training exercises in Australia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.


There were huge protests over the weekend in Japan against legislation, approved in principle by the Abe cabinet in July, which will reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to permit the very limited exercise of collective self-defence. This fierce public opposition to the normalisation of Japan's Self Defence Forces highlights two connected problems for Prime Minister Abe. 

The size and cross-sectional nature of the protests highlight a serious policy communication problem for the Japanese Government in general, and a particular problem for the Abe administration. There is a strong bipartisan consensus, supported by Japanese public opinion, that Japan faces a very serious and growing security threat from China and North Korea. As shown by the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines released under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, there also is strong bipartisan support for Japanese foreign and security policy to become much more focused on these neighbourhood threats, for a stronger US-Japan alliance and for Japan to play a more active alliance and regional security role.

But there is partisan disagreement on how to do this, with the leader of the DPJ joining the leader of the Japanese Communist Party at the protest rallies. The partisan disagreement is fuelled by the public's unwillingness to support a more active Japanese security role in general, and particularly changes like collective self-defense seen to undercut the totemic war-renouncing Article 9 in the Japanese Constitution.

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Unfortunately, Abe, with his conservative, revisionist views and tense relations with much of the media, is not the leader to help bridge the gap between what policy and legal changes the Government thinks are necessary for Japanese security, and what many parts of Japanese society are willing to support. Rather, Abe is likely to widen or harden this gap that so frustrates Japanese security policymakers and those who want Japan to play a more active security role.

As the demonstrations show, Japan's battered opposition parties see an opportunity to wedge Abe on this issue. The media and governments in Seoul and Beijing likewise.

The protests, while large and loud, are not a significant political threat to Prime Minister Abe or his administration. Abe's position in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is rock-solid and it looks very likely that he will be re-elected unopposed as party leader this month. Second, the LDP faces no serious opposition party threat, and the popularity of Abe's cabinet has actually increased despite these mounting, headline-grabbing demonstrations, a slowing economy and an embarrassing flip-flop on the centrepiece stadium for the upcoming 2020 Olympics.

We should expect more demonstrations and denunciations inside and outside Japan, but the process of revising Japanese legislation to operationalise the limited right of collective self-defense seems as secure as Prime Minister Abe himself.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christian c.


Over the last two months, there has been noticeable progress on three separate fronts in Japan's 30-year process of 'renormalising' its' approach to external defence:

  1. Last week, the Abe cabinet approved the 2015 Japanese Defence White Paper after revisions were made to make it focus more squarely on the growing military threat from China, both to Japan and the region more generally. As Malaysia, the Philippines and the US are doing in the South China Sea, Japan is more frequently providing photographic evidence of Chinese actions in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.
  2. On 15 July, Japan's House of Representatives passed the first of many key legislative changes that will enact last year's constitutional reinterpretation that permits Japan to exercise a limited right of collective self-defence.
  3. Regional support for Japan's more active defence policy has grown and become more tangible. For instance, in early June the Philippines and Japan signed a joint statement on security cooperation with an attached action plan. On 25 May, Japan and Malaysia signed a similar, but less ambitious joint statement. Discussions have started on a possible status of forces agreements between the Philippines and Japan. On 23 June, as part of a Japan-Philippine bilateral exercise, a Japanese P3-C Orion anti-submarine surveillance plane flew over disputed waters in the South China Sea to Beijing's ire. The Philippines could also be the first recipient of Japanese arms exports when it finalises the purchase of a small number of these maritime surveillance aircraft from Tokyo.

However, Japan is still far from a normal external security actor and alarmist talk of Japanese remilitarisation tells you more about the ideological predispositions of the accuser than of present reality. Yet, it's clear that Japan is again becoming a more proactive and independent security actor in East Asia in both words and action. It is also increasingly focused on the threat from China and is finding growing support from regional countries with similar concerns.

The US-China major power relationship is not the only one that is reshaping the regional security order.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Fleet.


Michael Thawley's comments on China's present global leadership credentials and ambitions are correct and phrased in the refreshingly direct manner Australians usually take as a badge of national pride and uniqueness.

The fact that his comments caused such a stir in Australia (and seemingly in Australia alone) tells us more about the commentators than the comments themselves.

The Chinese state has so far eschewed attempts at global leadership. Rather, Chinese policy-makers are focusing their institution-building efforts at the regional level, as part of what Beijing refers to rather undiplomatically as 'peripheral diplomacy', and among fellow developing-economy states.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for instance, are both regional institutions. The SCO only has Asian member-states and observer-states, while the AIIB has regional and non-regional members, though membership is in strong favour of the regionals and China itself. The New Development Bank (known widely as the BRICS Bank) is in line with China's decades-old view of itself as a leading state in the developing world.

In existing global multilateral bodies, from the UN Security Council to the WTO, China has been comparatively low-key and primarily focused on defending specific national interests.

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China was a late-comer to the WTO and its restrictive trade practices and policies have made it not a leader in that institution but the most frequent subject of cases heard by the WTOs dispute-settlement mechanism. In the G20, a new global body created to better acknowledge rising powers like China and India, Beijing has also failed to take a leading role. In the UN Security Council (another body that has long recognised China's leadership potential), Beijing rarely leads or uses its veto power (unless it is in company with others, usually Russia). On climate change, China was painted as the major villain of the failed 2009 UN summit in Copenhagen. 

Recent Pew Research Center polling shows that Australians seem to be a global outlier when it comes to judging China's global economic weight. 57% of Australians mistakenly see China as the world's leading economic power, the highest score among the 40 countries polled. In no other country did a majority of respondents identify China as the world's leading economic power.

The comparatively disproportionate amount of money being invested in Australia into understanding China risks reducing the Australian discussion of Asia as a whole. Given the tempest in the teapot caused by Michael Thawley's remarks, this risk may spill over from Asia, where China is starting to flex its leadership muscles, to the world as a whole, where it is not. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.


Sidu River Bridge in Hubei Province, China, the world's highest bridge.  (Wikimedia Commons.)

China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative was has spurred an explosion of opinion and analysis. The Asian Development Bank's (ADB) 2009 estimate that Asia will need US$8.22 trillion in infrastructure investment is the headline figure used to explain the importance of the new bank. Much of the opinion expressed so far has also assumed that the AIIB will be, as the main Chinese media agency Xinhua puts it, a Chinese gift to the world, with China as the main creditor.

But looking more closely at the ADB's figures and at China's present interactions with the World Bank and ADB, a more interesting possibility emerges that has so far escaped attention or analysis.

China, befitting its huge size and developing-economy status, could be a major AIIB borrower. China's own infrastructure needs alone account for over half of the total for Asia, according to the 2009 ADB estimate. In 2014, China was second-largest recipient of ADB loans after India. This was also the case in 2013. Likewise, China has the second-largest present borrowing obligations with the World Bank (at US$17.2 billion) after India (at US$36.4 billion).

Will the lending portfolio of the AIIB follow suit? Asia's present infrastructure needs and China's use of the existing development banks suggest it should.