Lowy Institute
US presidential race 2016

While US election campaigns are rarely conducive to the making of coherent foreign and national-security policy, the febrile state of America's political environment today seems especially fatal to the endeavour. In circumstances where electoral imperatives privilege point-scoring over policy and rhetoric over rigour, the necessary conditions for thoughtful evaluations of America's place in the world simply do not appear to exist.

By that desultory standard, Donald Trump's latest speech on foreign and national-security policy, delivered in Philadelphia on Wednesday (and his follow-up appearance in a televised forum on national security which also involved Hillary Clinton), lived down to expectations.

In many ways the appearances were in keeping with Trump's previous tone and style. There were routine denunciations of Clinton's recklessness, as demonstrated by her mishandling of sensitive emails, and Obama's fecklessness, which, he argued, had telegraphed American weakness and emboldened China, North Korea and Iran. There were the usual big pronouncements, for example on bolstering US defence spending at no extra cost to the American taxpayer, along with the trademark lack of detail about how such a policy might be achieved. The speech also rested, in at least a few cases, on dubious facts and analysis.

Yet there was an important difference, too. Throughout the speech, Trump appeared to adopt a more 'normal' vision of US foreign policy, marking a departure from some of the radically unorthodox views flagged during his bid for the Republican nomination. The US, he said, would promote 'regional stability' and 'an easing of tensions throughout the world.' It would 'deter, avoid and prevent conflict through unquestioned military strength'. Having apparently banished his earlier ambivalence towards alliances, Trump resolved that the US should 'make new friends, rebuild old alliances, and bring new allies into the fold.' If any of this sounds familiar, it's because these have been the ritual incantations of US foreign policy for much of the past century.

Of course, such a corrective will no doubt be heartening to some. But Trump's gradual conformity has also exposed new tensions and contradictions in his worldview.

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His Middle East policy offers a case in point. On the one hand, Trump flagged an end to the kind of overly militarised adventurism he ascribes to Clinton, which he correctly identifies as having produced turmoil, suffering and disorder. Under a Trump Administration, he declared, action in Middle East will be 'tempered by realism.' Gradual reform, not sudden and radical change, would be the overarching objective, and 'diplomacy, not destruction' the approach.

In virtually the next breath, Trump then vowed that one of his first acts as President would be to summon his generals to produce a new plan to 'defeat and destroy ISIS.' This is problematic for at least three reasons. First, and most obviously, it would require precisely the kind of action in the Middle East he claims to reject. As Trump himself acknowledges, it will inevitably involve the deployment of greater resources. Though not militarily unachievable, it will not be easy, and it would entail a significant cost in American lives and treasure.

Second, and more importantly, destroying ISIS would, like the infamous 'surge' in 2007, be unlikely to offer anything more than a temporary abatement of Iraq's problems. ISIS is itself symptomatic of intractable sectarian schisms in Iraqi society. Without a political arrangement in place which either ruthlessly represses Iraq's Sunni population or somehow reintegrates it into the state, destroying ISIS would be like treating a machete wound with a band-aid. For someone vehemently opposed to 'toppling regimes without a plan for the day after', Trump has flagged a willingness to reprise the exact same mistake.

And third, defeating ISIS would hand Iran yet another regional victory, allowing it to consolidate its influence in Iraq . This runs counter to yet another of Trump's policies, articulated in his recent speech, of resurrecting a tighter containment policy that constrains rather than emboldens Tehran.

Beyond the Middle East, there is another contradiction which revealed itself in Trump's speech, and which already bedevils US foreign policy. On the one hand, Trump flagged a commitment to address the problem of allied free-riding, albeit in more tactful language than he's used in the past, 'Early in my term,' he noted, 'I will also be requesting that all NATO nations promptly pay their bills. Additionally, I will be respectfully asking countries such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to pay more for the tremendous security we provide them.' At the same time, however, Trump has flagged an unequivocal commitment to America's global mission, and to the unchallenged military superiority which supports it. If, as Trump claims, his foreign policy would seek to achieve 'peace through strength', why would other states willingly assume greater burdens on behalf of their security?

To this question, like so many others, he is yet to provide an answer.


Tensions are once more running high on the Korean Peninsula. Yet again, North Korean provocations have triggered an action-reaction cycle that is bringing into sharp relief the competing interests of each of the major players on the Peninsula.

In the latest case, a fourth North Korean nuclear test in January, followed by the launch last week of a satellite aboard what is effectively an intercontinental range ballistic missile, has provided the impetus for Seoul to enter immediately into discussions with Washington about expediting the deployment of a sophisticated ballistic missile defence (BMD) system known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD). 

China, for its part, strongly opposes the deployment. Politically, such a development is an affront to China's prestige and its increasing sense of its role as the principal arbiter of security on the Korean Peninsula. More practically, Beijing is concerned that the placement of THAAD on the Peninsula, in particular the system's sophisticated X-Band radar, would provide radar coverage over much of China itself. This could be used by the US to complicate China's own strategic planning, especially when integrated with other BMD systems across the region. Such misgivings are not altogether unfounded.

On the surface, upgrading South Korea's BMD system seems like a natural policy response in the face of a missile threat that appears to be increasing in size and improving in quality. And yet a closer look at the technical specifications of THAAD and the geographic features of the Korean Peninsula, which impose tight constraints on the kinds of missiles able to be employed by both attacker and defender, reveals a system quite unsuited to most realistic defensive contingencies in South Korea.

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South Korea is a relatively small area. Seoul, home to more than a quarter of the population, lies only about 40km from the North Korean border. THAAD, meanwhile, is designed for high-altitude intercepts on either side of the earth's atmosphere, meaning that it is optimised mostly to defend against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Here's the dilemma: the North Korean missiles which THAAD is best suited to defend against are unlikely to be used against South Korea; at the same time, THAAD would be of little or no use against the short and tactical-range ballistic missiles most likely to be employed against the South, particularly against the strategically valuable areas of Seoul and its environs.

This dynamic is illustrated most starkly in relation to the threat posed by North Korea's long-range missiles (including the kind launched last week). It was this threat, after all, which has ironically catalysed the decision in Seoul to accede to the deployment. North Korea's long-range missiles are completely unsuited for use against South Korea; just as THAAD is manifestly incapable of dealing with intercontinental-range missiles. The Korean Peninsula is only 1100km long, whereas ICBMs have a range in excess of 5500kms. For Pyongyang, this would make less sense than Qantas buying A380s to service the route between Canberra and Sydney. 

Moreover, such missiles are expensive, incredibly difficult to produce, and available to North Korea only in very small numbers. They are, consequently, not for use 'in-theatre', but rather need to be understood as the backbone of North Korea's emergent nuclear deterrent against the US. Indeed, even if such a missile targeted at the US was to be intercepted from South Korea, it would need to occur within about one minute, while the missile was in its boost phase. To date, no BMD system has that capacity, least of all THAAD, which is designed for high altitude intercept in a missile's terminal phase.

A more compelling case may be made for the deployment of THAAD to defend the more sparsely inhabited southern reaches of South Korea against North Korean medium-range ballistic missiles. But even here the costs to US taxpayers, at almost US$1 billion per battery, are set unfavourably against other cheaper, more available options – especially given the relatively low value of this area as a North Korean target.

Given the limited practical utility of THAAD for inter-Korean contingencies, then, why is it now being discussed with such vigour?

In one sense, as Rod Lyon points out, this discussion reflects the paucity of meaningful options available to Washington and Seoul in dealing with the North Korean threat. Absent any good option, Washington feels obligated to make a largely symbolic act in order to be seen to 'do something' to reassure its allies. Seoul, cognisant of THAAD's limited usefulness but eager to reassure the South Korean people, has little choice but to settle for this.

The other explanations relate to China. As Beijing suspects, Washington is most likely taking advantage of North Korean bellicosity to create a useful pretext to begin deploying sensors along China's periphery. While THAAD isn't likely to be much use in North Korean contingencies, it would be better suited to blunting limited Chinese missile attacks, which would necessarily be launched from further afield. Perhaps more importantly, its radar system could also be used to complicate Chinese plans elsewhere in East Asia.

For both Seoul and Washington, there is a certain coercive logic that underpins this strategy. Each of them, at various times, have sought to outsource the North Korean problem to China. Each has made significant concessions to Beijing in the tacit expectation that China would use its presumed leverage to inhibit Pyongyang . And each time, those hopes have been dashed by a new round of North Korean provocations, followed by Chinese diplomatic soft-peddling. Having tried the carrot with Beijing and failed, they are now trying the stick in the form of an X-band radar.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Missile Defence Agency.


Over at ASPI's The Strategist, a timely debate is underway on the future of Australia's alliance with the US. For Geoffrey Barker, the changing regional order is upending Canberra's long-standing alliance calculus. With the costs and risks of alliance on their way up as China rises, and with the the credibility of American assurances diminishing, it may be time, he argues, for Australia to gracefully bow out.

Rod Lyon disagrees, though less with Barker's analysis than with his prescriptions. Lyon acknowledges that Australia faces a more uncertain regional order in the years and decades ahead. But it's precisely this uncertainty, he argues, that makes the alliance as central as ever to Australian interests and security.

Lt Gen Arthur Percival about to negotiate terms of surrender with Japanese forces, Singapore 1942. (Wikipedia.)

These contrasting viewpoints illustrate one of the age-old dilemmas of alliance politics: alliances are almost always easiest to maintain when they're least required, when benign circumstances mean that neither side has to incur major costs on behalf of the other. But peacetime offers little insight into how an alliance will work under more exacting conditions. As Stephen Walt notes, 'The litmus test comes not at annual summit meetings — which are designed for the ritual incantation of unifying rhetoric — but when member-states are called upon to do something for each other.'

Australia is familiar with the problem. Canberra regarded its alliance with Britain as a fundamentally reliable basis for Australian security, but that proved to be an illusion. With the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Britain had defaulted on its alliance commitments, leaving Canberra exposed to the most acute strategic crisis it has faced to this day. With British power eclipsed in Singapore, Japanese forces arrayed themselves against Australia's northern approaches. The bulk of Australian forces, meanwhile, were in North Africa and the Mediterranean, a down-payment on what turned out to be worthless British assurances.

For Australia, this historical episode holds a contemporary lesson. Prudent strategic policy needs to do more than just hedge against the rise of China. It also needs to offer a hedge against the potential failure of the US alliance in the context of a changing regional order. Thankfully, both tasks can be achieved in the same way.

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The answer is to discern a vital but defensible set of Australian interests, then calibrate Australia's independent strategic weight to most cost-effectively secure them.

In practice, that means building powerful, genuinely self-reliant military forces. To achieve their purpose, these would need to be optimised strictly for the limited task of defending Australia – not the regional order; not Japan, Taiwan or Korea; and not the countries contesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea. It would mean prioritising independent operational capability over interoperability (when the two goals conflict), and air and maritime forces over land power. It would also mean taking full advantage of Australia's fortuitous strategic geography, using asymmetric military technologies and doctrines in ways that impose intolerable costs and risks on an adversary seeking to surmount it.

The beauty in such a strategy lies in its ability to square Barker's and Lyon's perspectives. Australia could preserve the US alliance for as long as it serves Australian interests. Moreover, by providing for its own defence, Australia would reduce the burdens on the US. This would be a more meaningful undertaking on behalf of long-term US interests than virtually anything else Australia could offer.

Most importantly, by minimising its strategic dependence on the US, Australia could simultaneously insure itself against alliance failure in two distinct ways.

First, a more complete form of self-reliance would hedge against being abandoned in a time of need. That would avoid a repeat of 1942. If the US was unable to meet its alliance commitments, Australia could be relatively confident of securing at least its own most vital interests – namely its political independence and territorial integrity (though probably not much more than that).

Second, it would provide Australia with a valuable hedge against unnecessary entanglement. Confident in its ability to defend itself, Canberra would have the new-found diplomatic freedom to opt out of the alliance if the costs and risks of meeting our alliance commitments began to outweigh the benefits.

Of course, none of this would be cheap or easy. By necessity, a more comprehensive form of self-reliance implies downgrading the role of the alliance in Australian strategic policy. That cuts against Australia's long-standing habits of dependence, and presents as much a psychological challenge for Australia as a practical one. It means facing up to contingencies whose very consideration pose a major challenge to entrenched institutional orthodoxies.

And yet such a policy would maximise Australia's options. It would balance competing imperatives of preserving the US alliance on the one hand, while mitigating the dangers of strategic dependence on the other. In that sense, it's the best option Australia has. 


Last week, China's State Council released a new White Paper on Military Strategy. Although somewhat overshadowed by heightened tensions in the South China, the document has deep long-term implications for Australian defence. For the first time since World War II, a regional state is officially developing the full suite of conventional military capabilities, and now also the doctrine, to pose a direct threat to Australia and its vital interests. This is a big change.

The PLA Navy's new Type 052D destroyer. (Wikipedia.)

For more than seventy years, the defining feature of Australia's strategic environment has been the absence of a threat against which to plan its defence. It's been a good problem to have, and one which many countries would be only too happy to trade for their more exacting circumstances. But such a benign environment has also made things tricky when it comes to discerning what kind of military forces to build.

The 1987 Defence White Paper offered a clever solution: build a flexible force comprised of different military capabilities; keep a close watch on regional strategic developments, including the lead times on military capabilities and doctrines that could potentially threaten Australia; and if and when a more clear threat emerges, expand the existing force to meet the challenge.

Unfortunately, however, the White Paper didn't quite go all the way. What it failed to offer, at least publicly, was a concrete set of criteria by which the threat could be identified and the expansion process activated. The assumption regarding emerging threats seems to have been roughly in line with Justice Potter's famous test for obscenity: 'we'll know it when we see it.'

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Today, as a basis for defence planning, that threat is finally materialising in the form of China's blue-water navy. In particular, China's new White Paper outlines a naval strategy that formally expands the role of China's air and maritime forces. The PLA, it notes, 'will gradually shift its focus from 'offshore waters defense' to the combination of 'offshore waters defense' with 'open seas protection.'

This is more than a semantic difference or change in nomenclature. Nor does it simply expand the range of the existing anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) strategy, which remains strategically defensive and hence little threat to Australia. Rather, 'open-seas protection' represents a paradigmatic shift: the first formal, national-level policy endorsement of a blue-water navy and the sea-control missions it implies.

'Open-seas protection', if it's to be realised, will mean sustained budgetary increases for the PLA Navy; continued investment in ocean-going capabilities, namely major surface combatants and their logistical support vessels; an operational focus on controlling and using distant seas for military purposes (rather than just having the ability to deny such control to others); and ultimately, a more expansive strategic and geopolitical vision for China in the region and the world.

What makes the announcement all the more compelling is that it is already underway. Only fifteen years ago, China's surface navy was a motley fleet of a few dozen warships at various stages of obsolescence. Since then, a comprehensive modernisation effort, beginning fitfully but accelerating rapidly over the last decade, has propelled it on to the front ranks of naval power. In 2013 alone, China's Navy laid down, commissioned or launched more than 60 surface vessels, considerably more (ignoring type) than Australia's entire naval fleet.

One aircraft carrier has been delivered and more are on the way. China has also commenced serial production of cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes. Many of these, to be sure, are largely confined to China's 'green-water', and as such would be unsuitable for use against Australia. But an increasing number of bigger, more advanced warships are also coming on line, and these do not face the same constraints. As the US Office of Naval Intelligence notes, '(T)he addition of these new units allows the PLA(N) surface force to operate with increased confidence outside of shore-based air defense systems, as one or two ships are equipped to provide air defense for the entire task group.'

None of this is to suggest that China's blue-water navy will ever be directed against Australia — only that it eventually could be, and that this portends a major change in Australia's strategic circumstances. Prudent defence planning need to be done on the basis of capabilities, not intentions.

The challenge now for Australian defence planners is to transform the ADF into a ship-killing A2AD force, beginning with a comprehensive study of the threat and the capability sets needed to meet it. On this front there's good and bad news.

The good news is that an effective template for this kind of approach already exists, ironically, in China's own efforts to offset the threat posed by the US blue-water fleet. Australia could do much worse than to emulate this approach and adapt it to our own circumstances. The bad news is that trends in Australia's naval force structure appear to be moving in exactly the opposite direction.

Election Interpreter 2013

What a difference a few years makes.

When, in 2006, WikiLeaks set out to begin exposing official malfeasance from the shadowy recesses of cyberspace, it did so as a largely amorphous organisation and in relative obscurity. By the end of 2010 a string of high profile disclosures had changed much of that. The publication of war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, including the now infamous 'Collateral Murder' video, followed by a mass trove of US diplomatic cables, thrust WikiLeaks into public view and generated unparalleled notoriety for its key figures. 

Yesterday, US Army Private Bradley Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for his role in the so-called 'Cablegate' affair, while Julian Assange remains in legal purgatory in Ecuador's London embassy.

In the meantime, the metamorphosis of WikiLeaks continues, this time from media insurgent to political party. The new focus is on legitimising the movement's ideology through participation in the processes of government, with the added hope that it might complicate the US pursuit of Assange.

Launched in March this year, the WikiLeaks Party is contesting seven Senate seats in Australia's upcoming federal election. The evolution has been a strange one. As Sam Roggeveen put to Assange himself in a recent video forum, rather than 'raging against the machine', WikiLeaks now finds itself eagerly trying to join it. 

To that end, a new constitution and policy platform have been drawn up, and a user-friendly website has been launched that alludes to WikiLeaks' distinctively raw online aesthetic without fully embracing it.

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The hacktivists, meanwhile, have retreated back into their darkened basements, replaced by candidates from an altogether different milieu. Beyond Assange, who remains the figurehead, these are older and less controversial figures: academics, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. Each is steadfastly committed to the enhancement of accountability, transparency and justice, though presumably less by the freewheeling, anarchistic means traditionally associated with WikiLeaks than by the formal structures embodied in Australia's system of parliamentary oversight. 

In terms of its electoral prospects, the WikiLeaks Party faces an enormous challenge. Even in Victoria , where Assange himself is at the top of the ticket, the Party's primary vote is unlikely to be high enough for him to be elected directly. The fate of the campaign will thus depend on the outcome of the Party's interlocking preference deals.

This was always going to be a tall order. After revelations this week that WikiLeaks has allocated preferences in NSW and WA to a slew of right-wing parties over the Greens, the job may have become even harder. Leslie Cannold, the second Victorian candidate and designated replacement for Assange, has already resigned. With the party now facing an existential crisis over claims of infighting and a lack of transparent and accountable decision making, more are expected to leave. In short, the WikiLeaks Party now needs a miracle.

Remote though the Party's prospects are, they are not completely dead. And if WikiLeaks can somehow snag a seat, it will confront the same challenge as other single-issue parties that have gone before it — namely, having to develop coherent policy responses to the full spectrum of issues that fall beyond its core interests in whistleblower protection, media freedoms and privacy laws. This includes, of course, foreign, defence and national security issues.

So what is the WikiLeaks Party's foreign policy, and how do the organisation's other ideological foundations — libertarianism, suspicion of large-scale organisation, rejection of secrecy etc — translate into its view of Australia's place in the world?

With its collective brainpower understandably devoted to other issues, the Party has not fully articulated its position on foreign affairs. A quick review of its policy platform and the public statements of its lead candidates, however, does reveal a certain level of coherence and, surprisingly, a worldview only lightly infused with the philosophy and conspiratorial mindset we associate with WikiLeaks. Indeed, the most striking thing about the Party's outlook on foreign policy is its overriding sense of moderation. There is throughout a conspicuous absence of radicalism and utopian ideology. 

This is notable at least partly for the opportunity cost it entails.

With no ambition or hope of ever actually forming government, the party is at full liberty to espouse a view of the world which more perfectly accords with its broader ideology, however unrealistic it might be. Doing so might even have practical benefits, preserving the Party's credentials for uncompromising adherence to its ideals even from within the 'halls of power'.

This is not to suggest that the WikiLeaks Party's worldview is devoid of moral consideration.

Its platform extols the importance of a foreign policy 'based on human rights and international law', on resolving conflict before it escalates into violence, and on the need for Australia to play a role as a 'good international citizen'. But these are virtually axiomatic principles in Australian foreign policy, and they could just as easily be read out of the ALP handbook. Beyond this, the Party evinces no concrete attachment to any really big ideas — to isolationism, pacifism or international cosmopolitanism, or even to the more mainstream tenets of liberal institutionalism, which emphasise communication and transparency as a means of fostering peaceful relations among states.

Instead, the party's foreign policy views appear to have been formulated with a conventional, if realistic, model in mind: an international system of states, animated by mistrust and the ever-present risk of conflict. Unsurprisingly, then, the dominant concern seems to be about enhancing Australia's security and independence (in other words, its sovereignty). 

In this vein, the WikiLeaks Party has no fundamental objection to the traditional instruments of national power, so long as their purpose and activities are more openly known and consistent with a higher standard of official transparency and individual privacy. 'Our regional security alliances are very important', noted Assange last week in Google Hangout. '[W]here the public is aware of it, we should have as many alliances as possible...and the US should be a factor in our alliances, so should Europe, so should the region.' 

For Assange, the issue is not so much about divesting Australia of its alliance with the US as about redressing what he sees as problematic dynamics within it — namely, a lack of dignity and respect for Australia, a lack of reciprocity on the part of the US, and a situation in which the alliance operates in conflict with the individual freedoms and privacy of Australians to the point of constituting an abrogation of Australian sovereignty. 

For Alison Broinowski, a WikiLeaks candidate in NSW and a career diplomat and academic, the concerns go even further. Echoing the Party's official admonition against blindly following allies into 'disastrous illegal wars', she is concerned that the US alliance will necessitate Australian participation in yet another conflict, possibly against Iran. At that point, she argues, 'we repeat the disasters of Iraq all over again, including the manipulation of information in the headlong rush to war, with serious consequences for Australia's moral standing and strategic position in the world.' While Assange and Broinowski would prefer a more circumscribed alliance, not least to disrupt what they see as a creeping, increasingly indiscriminate surveillance program that lies at its heart, neither calls for its wholesale dissolution.

Nor is there a general aversion to Australia's military forces and intelligence agencies. To the contrary, Assange has recently flagged increased defence spending as a potentially necessary means of mitigating the risks to Australia in an era of American decline. 'The Australian military has the most important task in Australia', notes Assange, 'and the Australian intelligence agencies are related to it, which is (to) ensure that Australian sovereignty isn't compromised'. Again, the concern appears not to be with the instruments of national security, but rather with ensuring more fulsome disclosure of the nature and extent of their activities, and with harnessing them more tightly in service of Australia's independent national interests. 

Relative to the mainstream precepts of Australian foreign and defence policy, all of this might be seen as something of a departure. But relative to the imaginable possibilities of a WikiLeaks foreign policy, especially considering the almost revolutionary acts of defiance that have sustained and propelled the organisation from its inception, this is a very benign vision indeed.


Compared with the Rudd Government's 2009 Defence White Paper, which was criticised for what many viewed as its alarmist treatment of China's rise, the most recent White Paper, released in April this year, has become known for its considerably more relaxed take on the issue.

There may be good diplomatic and political reasons for this. Yet however much these concerns weighed on Canberra, one thing needs to be clear: there is no strategic basis for the newly optimistic assessment of China's rise. To the contrary, military developments in China since the late 2000s reveal a more ominous picture than many previously anticipated, or indeed than many within our defence and security establishment are today prepared to openly acknowledge. Over that period China's military build-up has entered a new phase, in parallel with the emergence of its increasingly assertive diplomacy and voracious intelligence collection.

This is an unfamiliar situation for Australia. For the first time since World War II, a major power in our region appears set to develop a full suite of military capabilities that could pose a direct military threat to Australia. And China could do so in the same or even less time than it would take to acquire countervailing capabilities.

That Chinese leaders regularly profess benign intentions is cold comfort. While an attack remains highly unlikely, prudent defence planning, because of the scale of risk it seeks to mitigate, is always based on capabilities. Capabilities take years or decades to develop, whereas intentions or behaviour can change overnight (and in China's case, they did so as recently as 2010, when its then conciliatory diplomatic style unexpectedly hardened).

Concerns among Australian defence planners about the direct threat posed by China's military power have long been tempered by two crucial considerations: the limited range of most of China's conventional forces and their strategically defensive orientation.

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Even as decades of growth in China's military spending allowed it to amass more and better submarines, combat aircraft, missiles of all varieties, and surveillance systems, these have been stitched into a defensive strategy, what the Pentagon calls anti-access/area-denial (A2AD), essentially a muscular form of coastal defence. This approach is intended to make it impossible for US forces, primarily aircraft carriers, to operate along China's maritime periphery in a conflict, denying the US military control of the air and sea and hence the ability to conduct the full-range range of follow-on operations.

This strategy still entails risks for Australia. But China's A2AD strategy has long acted as an implicit source of reassurance, since it precludes China from undertaking activities relating to the most serious threats, a direct attack on our continent or a lodgement in the islands to our north.

China's military has never been structured for tasks associated with the sustained projection of power or acquiring territory from the sea. Without aircraft carriers, China cannot control the air beyond the range of its land-based aircraft, and lacking a flotilla comprised of destroyers, frigates and nuclear-powered submarines, it could not reliably clear threats on, above or beneath the sea to ensure the safe transit of men or materiel over long distances.

Today, all aspects of that situation are changing.

As its A2AD strategy matures, China's focus has turned increasingly toward the kind of naval fleet that will give it punching power further afield, including into the seas north of Australia. At the heart of this effort is China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

Vulnerable to detection and lacking a launch-catapult that would extend the range and payload of its aircraft, the Liaoning is not by itself a formidable military capability. However, this belies its broader significance. According to Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation, 'China will probably build multiple aircraft carriers over the next decade.' The Liaoning thus marks the beginning of a more earnest phase in China's blue-water experiment.

Beyond the ship's role as a status symbol and source of national pride, it will begin familiarising Chinese strategists, sailors and pilots with the complexity of carrier operations. Some approaches will be discarded; others will be absorbed into the design and operation of successive carriers, reducing cost and lead-times and paving the way for a more potent capability in future.

Meanwhile, China's blue-water ambitions continue to materialise in less conspicuous ways. After lengthy experimentation, serial production has begun on a new class of destroyers. These can function as escorts, providing carriers with a protective screen against enemy aircraft and, to a lesser extent, submarines. China has also begun redressing longstanding weaknesses in its capacity for early warning, command and control, and at-sea replenishment, all important components in the portfolio of unglamorous capabilities necessary to support long-range maritime operations.

Taken together, these developments point to three worrying conclusions, with deep implications for Australian strategic policy.

First, China is in the early stages of building a genuine blue-water navy. The advent of costly support capabilities with little prestige value suggests the fleet is not intended purely as a status symbol, as many had previously assumed (myself included). Nor can we confidently dismiss it as just 'boys with their toys'. The scale of investment appears to exceed that of a side-project designed to satisfy any institutional preferences the PLA Navy harbours for large surface combatants.

That just leaves the simple explanation. From a defence planning perspective, China's blue-water ambitions should be interpreted as a subset of its geopolitical ambitions, and taken just as seriously. Like every great power before it, China wants to keep open the option of exerting a more monopolistic influence over the region it inhabits. To this end, Beijing recognises power-projection capabilities as a necessary if not sufficient prerequisite.

Second, the operation of China's fleet for such purposes presupposes sharper limits on American military power, and particularly on those elements of American power that would most imperil Chinese ships, namely US submarines. That Chinese plans are moving ahead anyway suggests that Beijing conceives of circumstances in which it could either overcome American resistance or else avoid it altogether. It would, after all, be unwise to assume that China is building capabilities it believes could never be used. Whether this means defeating the US militarily or deterring it, or else waiting for some form of US retrenchment, remains unclear.

The disturbing thing for Australia is this: Where Canberra has gambled on the more-or-less permanent military superiority of our American ally, Beijing has, with its incipient fleet, placed a sizeable wager on the exact opposite outcome. Both can't be right.

Finally, China is making another bet: that the smaller countries in the region, including Australia, will neither independently acquire the A2AD capabilities necessary to offset the threat posed by the Chinese fleet before it becomes operational, nor form a sufficiently cohesive group that could aggregate its military resources to do so. Given the enduring anaemia of strategic cooperation in Southeast Asia and beyond, and considering that Australia has itself prioritised building a lumbering blue-water navy at the expense of more appropriate A2AD capabilities, that's not looking like such a bad bet.


For Australia, the principal threat posed by the growth of China's military power is not yet to its direct strategic interests but rather to the US-led order from which much of Australia's security derives.

As China's ongoing accumulation of advanced air, maritime and surveillance capabilities hollows out US military dominance, hitherto the defining feature of Asia's order, the benign regional dynamics which have resulted from that order, and from which Australia has benefited for so long, are being eroded, seemingly faster than many anticipated, in at least three mutually reinforcing ways.

First, having imposed new limits on America's capacity for intervention in the Western Pacific, China has greater latitude to resort to coercion in its dealings with lesser regional powers. Beijing's recent management of its territorial disputes with Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia – in which more aggressive patrolling by Chinese ships and aircraft, backed by the latent capacity for escalation dominance, is being used to establish more favourable terms – reflects the extent to which this dynamic is already underway.

Second, the US is increasingly unable to preserve its preponderant power, much less deploy it in ways that dampen strategic competition, as it has for decades. No longer able to fulfil its self-appointed role as regional pacifier, Washington is instead becoming a direct participant in the kind of strategic competition that its power has traditionally been used to ameliorate, with the 'pivot' (or 'rebalance') exemplifying the trend.

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Finally, patterns of balancing among lesser states – both through tighter strategic relations with the US and each other and, to a lesser extent, through military acquisition – are becoming more urgent and pronounced, contributing to the overall deterioration of the regional security environment.

Taken together, these processes have already produced a situation which looks much more ominous than any time in recent memory. Almost imperceptibly, coercion has become one of the principal means by which major powers relate to each other.

Interactive patterns of military procurement are accelerating. These reflect the advent of an arms race and, together with the development of offensive military doctrines that rely on speed and escalation, which compress the time available for cooler heads to prevail in a crisis, they portend new dangers of miscalculation and escalation. Virulent forms of nationalism are increasingly finding expression in the form of national policy rather than just public demonstration, while economic interdependence shows no sign of inhibiting competition - and in some cases may even be at risk of going into reverse.

Unfortunately for Australia, its stake in the continuation of a peaceful Asian order is, as for many other countries in the region, unmatched by its capacity to do anything meaningful to preserve it. While Canberra has little to lose from encouraging some kind of Sino-Japanese-American accommodation (one of the only ways a new Cold War, if not an actual shooting war, can be averted) it is only realistic to acknowledge that, with competition so deeply embedded in the structure of the international system, it will most likely prove impervious to even the most adroit diplomatic efforts. Perhaps worst of all, however bad the situation in East Asia looks today, history and theory affirm that it is likely to get much worse as the balance continues to shift in coming years and decades – that is, if it doesn't combust sooner.

All of this should serve as a much needed wake-up call to the executors of Australian strategic policy. As risks multiply, serious changes are needed in the way Australia does defence. Given the time cycles associated with military modernisation, this should have begun a decade ago and now needs to begin immediately.

But don't hold your breath. The traditional impetus for change in Australian strategic policy has almost always been an immediate crisis, at which point it's usually too late to do much other than rely on dumb luck to muddle through. Given the calamitous state of Defence today, with inadequate funding and, worse, a questionable ability to formulate and execute coherent policy even when there is money, Canberra is on track to repeat its past mistakes.

Photo by Flickr user Sharon Drummond.


The electoral process that will decide today whether Australia has been successful in its bid to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council is elaborate; unsurprisingly for a legalistic organisation like the UN, which was set up in the hope of subordinating war and power politics to a constellation of rules, regulations and highly formalised mechanisms for consultation and collective action.

As described in the series of posts here which have dealt with various aspects of the bid, the three candidates from the geographically unwieldy Western European  and Others Group – Australia, Finland and Luxembourg – are vying for two places on the Council. To succeed, Australia needs at least two-thirds of the vote, or 129 countries out of 193. Voting will continue in rounds until two candidates are selected. Adding to the suspense, intrigue and general sense of gamesmanship, voting is anonymous. This means, as others have noted, that countries can vote regardless of any private diplomatic commitments. In many cases, votes will have been promised twice or three-times over and can still be betrayed.

To complicate matters further, a number of UN heads-of-mission will ignore the direction of their foreign ministries and vote according to their own interests; this especially applies to those representing smaller nations.

For Australia, the process will revive the spectre of 1996, when Canberra last strove for the Security Council and failed, which still looms large in the collective consciousness of Australia's policy establishment. Having proffered all the inducements and ticked all the boxes, it was betrayed humiliatingly, provoking Australia's then UN Ambassador, Richard Butler, to decry the treachery of his foreign counterparts, the 'rotten lying bastards', who had blind-sided and back-stabbed Canberra out of the race.

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The vicissitudes of this experience reinforce a simple reality: at the end of formalities, once the machinations and counter-ploys have been actualised, Canberra faces a stark, binary outcome: it will win or lose.

At first glance, a loss seems the more disturbing result; not because of the risk of being precluded from important international opportunities, which, as I’ve noted before, would actually be quite minimal. It's the reputational damage that would sting most, especially as the country's sense of diplomatic self-assurance has come to depend unhealthily on the approval of others.

Indeed, the prospect of being diplomatically outmuscled by a country like Luxembourg – tiny and powerless – is a distinctly lowering one, from which the morale of our otherwise indefatigable foreign service would take a nasty blow and might not recover all that quickly.

If Australia does lose, one thing is certain: the recriminations will be vicious and instantaneous – and intensely political. What did we do wrong? And who bears the responsibility for failure? Kevin Rudd, the architect of the bid who prosecuted it with ruthless determination, or his successors to whom it was bequeathed? Perhaps most crucially, how could we have allowed ourselves, yet again, to stake our credibility and reputation along with vast sums of money, not to mention the opportunity costs of diverted aid and superfluous new consulates, on the diplomatic equivalent of a roulette roll on red?

And yet from the burning wreckage of defeat, new opportunities can arise. In time, aid flows could be redirected and diplomatic representation consolidated according to core strategic priorities. Australian foreign policy would be infused with a renewed and healthy scepticism of the value of large multilateral organisations, and of the costs and risks inherent in the pursuit of diplomatically grandiose prestige-projects.

Meanwhile, policy makers could get back to their core task: distilling a realistic conception of Australia's national interests, embedded largely in our own region, into an actionable set of foreign policy tasks for our diplomats to prosecute.

Ultimately, Australia is entirely deserving of a spot on the Security Council and well placed to win one, not least because the people who've been working tirelessly on it are some of our best and brightest. And while being elected will be a significant victory in and of itself, any elation should also be tempered by recognition of the challenges ahead.

Canberra will have no choice but to follow through on its extensive range of commitments. It will have to double-down on its UN representation, potentially at the expense of more important priorities closer to home. And, in the worst case, as I’ve argued before, it could also find itself forced to make difficult choices on issues of contention between China and the United States, with the risk of upsetting one or the other.

Win or lose, things are about to get interesting.

Photo by SXC user CWMGary.


Before he took the stand to speak at the Lowy Institute in August, Stephen Smith had already achieved a considerable feat in Australian defence policy. He had united Defence's 'tribes'. The Army, Navy, Air-Force and civilians, hitherto in near-permanent disagreement, had finally found common cause, though problematically for Smith, only in their disdain for his management of the portfolio.

His speech at Lowy only aggravated the situation. It shouldn't have. With competition intensifying across the region and Australian defence expenditure reduced to its lowest level since 1938 – inauspiciously, the time when Australia last failed to reckon with its deteriorating strategic circumstances – a major public speech of this kind should have served as an opportunity to face up to the complex, interlocking predicaments confronting Defence.  Here was a chance to take the initiative on policy, to begin softening the ground for a strategic rethink in light of new financial realities, and to canvas a few practical ideas about how the ADF might adapt to a new era of austerity. Although no panacea, this would have been a useful first step in restoring confidence in the coherence of Australia's long-term defence planning.

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Unfortunately, Smith failed to grasp the opportunity. He took a different course instead, using the speech to insulate himself from being criticised for denuding ADF capability. He did this cleverly. Having raided the defence budget, Smith pre-emptively tied the hands of his strategists, particularly those assigned to the White Paper team, by publically affirming Australia's long-standing hierarchy of strategic objectives as the basis for the forthcoming White Paper, due in the first half of 2013.

Put simply, the Minister committed the ADF to all the same tasks, but in a more exacting strategic environment and with much less money. No major capabilities or roles would be divested, and like the 2000 and 2009 White Papers, the ADF would be expected to prepare for the self-reliant defence of the continent. It would also retain the capacity to exert a decisive strategic influence to the immediate north, play a leading role in Maritime Southeast Asia, and make contributions along a spectrum of commitment in contingencies further afield.

These have always been worthy ambitions, to be sure, but they were unattainable even with the steady 2% of GDP to which Defence had become accustomed. At 1.5%, they had devolved into the realm of fantasy. With Defence Secretary Duncan Lewis – who'd already registered his discontent in a public speech to ASPI – refusing to fall in line, the White Paper was frozen and a crisis ensued, the full consequences of which were apparently averted with a last-minute deal: Lewis posted to Brussels, the redoubtable Dennis Richardson to become the new Secretary.

This bureaucratic reshuffle may have defused the immediate crisis, but as my colleague Peter Dean points out, it has not resolved the fundamental dispute that brought it on. The incoming Secretary now faces two formidable challenges which need to be addressed consecutively: first, to dissaude the Minister from propagating the misleading notion that the ADF can do more with less. And second, if proper funding is not restored, to begin the process of determining which of the two inner concentric circles – defending the continent or underwriting stability in the immediate neighbourhood, which are the determinants of ADF force structure – will be compromised to bring Australia's ends and means into balance.

Photo by Lowy Institute.


No sooner had the tragic news broken yesterday of five more Australians killed in Afghanistan than Canberra's propaganda machine coughed and spluttered to life, all set to churn out its trademark combination of myth, platitude, euphemism, selective half-truth and straight-out lie.

The Prime Minister took the lead: 'This is a war with a purpose and an end', she said, pre-empting what by now should be obvious to even the most casual observer: that the war is devoid of purpose, its goals unattached to even a broad conception of Australia's national interest, and its end-date so arbitrarily ear-marked for some vague point in 2014 that the intervening period has become a kind of grisly, nihilistic waiting game, a prelude to capitulation, sustained only by the official illusion of imminent breakthrough.

On this front, someone hasn't been keeping the PM in the loop. 'We are making progress', she went on, apparently serious and with a kind of unswerving optimism no longer being peddled even in the US. This formulation, which we've heard time and again for over a decade, has been sapped and battered to the point of meaninglessness by the unavoidable realities of rising violence, persistent and endemic corruption and underdevelopment, and a local security force metastasising from mere ineffectiveness to murderous hostility.

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So let's be clear: in no meaningful sense is progress being made. If the past decade has any lesson for us, it's that the scale and intractability of Afghanistan's problems militate against improvements that are anything other than negligible or ephemeral, or both.

And they're not our problems anyway, certainly not problems worth dying for. So forget training the Afghan Army. The alliance is why we've always been in Afghanistan, and the metrics for our commitment to that have, for better or worse, already returned to our own region. Australian troops should follow, post-haste, before any more are laid to waste out of political inertia and expedience.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia.

7 of 7 This post is part of a debate on Hugh White's 'The China Choice'

In the artificially narrow categories that have long demarcated the world of Australian strategy, Hugh White and Paul Dibb are sometimes lumped closely together. As former senior officials and now professors at ANU, each has played an influential role both in designing defence self-reliance for Australia and establishing that concept as the nominal, if not always actual, basis of Canberra's defence planning.

Yet their outlooks are different. And when it comes to the growth of Chinese power, the evolution of the region's security order and the optimal means by which to preserve Asia's long peace, the two are worlds apart.

In a recent rejoinder to White's new book, The China Choice, Dibb takes issue with the prescription for accommodating China through a power-sharing arrangement akin to the post-Napoleonic European Concert. He also dismisses much of the analysis from which that prescription derives. Where White sees the likely alternative as a combustible hegemonic rivalry, prone to escalatory pressures and crises and aggravated by different calculations of interest, risk and reward, Dibb is considerably more sanguine.

That optimism seems to stem from a particular reading of the Cold War: as an episode that was both more dangerous and intense than the emergent Sino-US rivalry, but which consistently defied worst-case predictions, whether because of luck or a mutual understanding about the costs of conflict, until it reached a largely peaceful conclusion. The lessons were clear and salutary: the US had held firm in the face of a challenger, even intensifying competition as it dropped the more conciliatory aspects of détente. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, buckled under the pressure.

Having cut his teeth in that heady era, and taking the Soviet Union and its military power as his reference point, Dibb thus sees little cause for concern today. Not in China's evolving capabilities, which he maintains are over-hyped, or in its interactions with the US, whose military preponderance and strategic commitments are, he suggests, as assured as ever. This isn't an uncommon view among Cold Warriors, for whom nothing is ever likely to look as scary as the Soviet Union.

But just as Cold War notions of 'containment' don't adequately capture  the dynamics of US strategy today, there are, I think, limits to how useful  the Cold War is as an analogue and predictor of the intensity of the emerging US-China rivalry. In particular, there are two reasons to be sceptical about Dibb's optimism.

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First, as White himself has pointed out many times, in economic terms (which is what really matters) China is already more powerful relative to the US than the Soviet Union ever was. The Soviet Union might have been a strategic behemoth, but its military strength belied a defunct political and economic system and a limited population and industrial base that precluded its ability to keep up. While Soviet central planners channeled extraordinary resources into armoured divisions, submarines, and nuclear weapons, with an anaemic industrial base, all of this became less a source of strength than an unsustainable economic burden.

China's fundamentals are immeasurably better. With its massive population and virtually inexhaustible labour force, as well as policies to harness its productive capacity, China's unprecedented growth portends its emergence within a decade or so as the most powerful superpower in history. Beijing has also learned from the Soviet experience. Although it has been slower than the Soviet Union to translate wealth into military power, economic success has allowed China to sustain annual double digit increases in defence spending without imposing a crippling economic encumbrance on its society.

Second, and almost always overlooked when Cold War comparisons are made, China is a more dissatisfied power than was the Soviet Union. Why? Because it lacks the kind of 'strategic space' that the Soviet Union enjoyed from 1945 onwards, with all the attendant benefits in security and prestige this conferred. Of course, strategic dominance in Eastern Europe was not actively ceded to the Soviet Union. It was taken by force as the Red Army pushed Nazi Germany west across the continent, and so was a fait accompli by the time allied forces arrived in Berlin. But once established, it was respected and accommodated by the West as an inviolable buffer and Soviet sphere of influence.

China has no equivalent, except for North Korea. Even the maritime boundary that separates Beijing from its main rivals is subject to American military intrusion as well as war planning that aims to deny China the capacity to contest, much less control, the waters along its direct maritime periphery.

Taiwan lies just off the east coast, a permanent reminder of Chinese weakness, and Japan not far beyond that. To the south, Vietnam and the Philippines are actively contesting China's maritime claims, enlisting ASEAN and the US to help ratchet up the pressure on Beijing. Further south still, Australia has eagerly embraced a more confrontational form of US hegemony, symbolised for now by the deployment of US Marines to Darwin.

While I've always had my doubts about the feasibility of Hugh White's model for a Concert of Asia, I'm under no illusions about the dangers of the alternative. If the Cold War constituted an intense rivalry with a country that was both much less powerful than China and much less geopolitically hemmed in, it's hard to avoid one conclusion: we're in for a turbulent century.

Photo by Flickr user Beige Alert.


Winston Churchill once described 'success' as the ability to 'go from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm'. By that standard, the Afghanistan war might have been considered a pretty successful venture, at least until recently, when everyone lost enthusiasm. By any other measure, it's been a disaster.

With Western leaders scrambling to justify their dash for the exit, last month's NATO summit in Chicago was, unsurprisingly, all about saving face. After all, what is there to show for 11 years at war? Beyond the rag-tag Afghan army, itself unaffordable at levels needed to deny a Taliban resurgence, the reality is that very little has been achieved, and certainly nothing commensurate with the costs. The only mitigating factor is that, because Afghanistan never mattered much in the first place, the geopolitical ramifications of its abandonment in 2014 are likely to be similarly inconsequential.

In paving a way to the exit, an expanding range of deceptive language is being deployed with increasing regularity. Earlier mantras like 'clear, hold and build' have all but disappeared, replaced with more passive, value neutral or euphemistic phrases designed to obscure the reality of failure or at least make it appear more palatable. 'Transition' and 'political solution' are two talking points we'll be hearing more of as the Afghanistan war ends.

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When the US and its allies lose the stomach for small, futile wars in out-of-the-way places – think Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan – two things generally happen. The first is that a local force is set up to inherit the mess and facilitate withdrawal, which becomes the overarching objective of the whole enterprise.

'Transition' becomes code for managing defeat: the culmination of a process by which the bar for success is continually lowered as previous objectives are recognised as unattainable or unnecessary and scaled back accordingly. The beauty of arriving at 'transition' is that the bar can't get much lower. The only remaining metric for success, the number of Afghans that can be fitted out for a uniform, is completely unattached to any war-fighting outcome, though of course not without its own practical difficulties.

The second tendency, probably the most exasperating for strategic types, is that Western officials begin loudly proclaiming the need for a 'political as opposed to just a military solution'. This is not so much wrong as a banal truism and, as Anton Kuruc points out, a sure-fire indication that whoever is uttering it hasn't kept up with their Clausewitz. War is defined by a contest to shape the resulting political solution, so simply arriving at a political solution, any political solution, is next to meaningless.

What matters is the nature of the solution and whose interests it reflects, which in turn depends on which side has prevailed in war. If one side loses a war or finds itself in retreat, as the West is in Afghanistan, the political solution is imposed by the enemy to reflect their own interests, ambitions and concerns. Calling for a 'political solution' thus needs to be seen for what it is: an indirect way of conceding defeat and a tacit and admission of failure.

Prevarication is understandable. It legitimises and expedites withdrawal, and it's better than being sucked further into the morass. But there are also dangers in too readily accepting the latest talking points at face value. Governments, militaries and societies almost always find it easier to sugar-coat their strategic failures than confront them head-on. In so doing, they can defer taking responsibility, fail to recognise their mistakes, ignore hard lessons, and avoid making corrections that might preclude similar failures down the track.

Photo by Flickr user Marco Vossen.


In the midst of a number of ongoing national security debates here on The Interpreter, Hugh White this week opened a third front in The Age, exposing the dubious thinking behind the proposed transformation of a substantial portion of the Australian Army into a mini-Marine Corps, to be embarked on two enormous LHD amphibious assault ships. His arguments are basically threefold:

  1. As a result of technological changes in the balance between offense and defence at sea, the presence of even limited enemy sea-denial capabilities – torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and sea-mines — pose operational risks so high as to render the LHDs, packed full of Australian soldiers, virtually unusable.
  2. There are few, if any, credible high-level contingencies in which the large-scale deployment of Australian land-power could would be a cost-effective operational choice. 
  3. For non-vital sea-lift operations – uncontested stabilisation missions and disaster relief, for example – massive amphibious ships embarked with soldiers trained in amphibious assault go well beyond the necessary requirements, and so once again fail the test of cost-effectiveness.

By themselves, these arguments should be sufficiently compelling to dissuade Australian defence planners from their present course. But there's a third argument which Hugh hasn't raised that lends even more weight to his misgivings. Because amphibious forces confer the ability to seize and hold territory from the sea, a concerted effort at cultivating such capabilities, even a quite modest force, risks fueling very real Indonesian anxieties about Australian territorial ambitions.

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For decades now, Australia has managed to remain the dominant military power south of China and east of India without provoking any major Indonesian response.That's not because Jakarta trusts us, but because we've tended to wisely eschew the kind of offensive capabilities most likely to spark a security dilemma – that is, those capabilities necessary to threaten Indonesian territorial integrity.

The development of an otherwise irrational amphibious force, taken together with the  deployment of US Marines in Darwin, represents the beginning of the unwitting reversal of this implicit policy of restraint.

Needless to say, the timing is hardly propitious. With tectonic changes underway in north Asia and in a new era of fiscal stringency, Australian strategists should not only be thinking very hard about optimal force structure requirements, but also about how to allay Indonesian concerns. In particular, they should be exploring innovative ways to encourage, maybe even institutionalise, the concentration of Indonesian military power to the north of the archipelago, where by acting as an outer barrier it would redound to Australia's benefit.

Instead, in a forlorn attempt by the Army to retain relevance, which the Navy seems willing to indulge, Australia risks leaving Indonesian defence planners distracted, with little option but to divide their northward focus by keeping one cautious eye to the south.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Royal Australian Navy.


New Year in the Persian Gulf has opened in the usual atmosphere of scurrility, mistrust and competition. The Iranian nuclear crisis — already animated by economic and cyber warfare, an unrelenting diplomatic offensive, and a systematic program of sabotage, espionage and assassination – has, over the past month, incorporated yet another aspect: the spectre of naval confrontation.

Iran is planning a new round of naval war-games in February. These follow an earlier round which unfolded against the backdrop of two unusually bold threats: the first, to close the Straits of Hormuz in response to the imposition of new sanctions; the second, to attack a US aircraft carrier, should it return to the Gulf. 

Neither threat has so far been acted upon, of course, nor are they likely to be. As a number of analysts have noted, any attempt by Iran to disrupt the passage of oil out of the Gulf would be largely self-defeating, given its economic fragility and abiding dependence on oil exports.

Rather, Iranian bellicosity is better understood as an attempt to shape expectations about its future behaviour. In the rough-and-tumble world of international politics, a reputation for recklessness, even irrationality, can be a useful bargaining tool, as North Korean negotiating behaviour attests. In particular, Iran is determined to drive up the risks of an attack on its territory, especially its nuclear facilities, by conveying the resolve and ability to respond with naval operations along a spectrum of intensity, from low-level harassment of merchant shipping to the kind of hit-and-run attacks on US naval platforms more commonly associated with Chinese strategy in the Western Pacific.

That questions remain about the credibility of these threats is cold comfort for US military planners. For them, a preoccupation with capabilities rather than intentions, which can change, means they now confront a potentially asymmetric challenge in the Gulf at a time when they are trying to make deep cuts in the defence budget and reorient their strategic focus to Asia. Indeed, evidence suggests that Washington is taking Tehran's threats seriously.

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This is no surprise. By regional standards, the Iranian navy represents an atypically strong coastal force with a coherent force structure designed not to defeat a superior naval power so much as impose prohibitive costs on intervening in Iran's southern air and maritime approaches. Built for sea denial, it comprises submarines, mines and fast-attack craft armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. Each of these capabilities is cheap relative to the platforms against which they're being fielded, and each places a disproportionate burden on the side seeking to defend against them. Submarines are hard to find; mines take a long time to clear; and fast-attack craft, especially when used in numbers and in dispersed formations, are difficult to prevent closing to a range at which their missiles become a serious risk to even well protected ships.

The effects of this force are magnified by congenial naval geography. By contrast to the Western Pacific, with its oceanic expanses and concentric archipelagic chains, the Persian Gulf is a narrow body of water, making it conducive to offensive denial operations. It has one constricted entry point. This creates a funneling effect that allows Iranian forces to concentrate their firepower.

Short distances make operations less surveillance intensive, and therefore less technologically demanding. They also compresses the warning time available to an enemy defending against missile strikes, while long stretches of noisy coastal water create an ideal acoustic environment for lurking Iranian submarines.

All of this makes Iran is a tough competitor on its coastline, undoubtedly capable of raising the threshold for US intervention in the Gulf. But it is not, ultimately, insurmountable. Iran's naval potency diminishes sharply with distance and duration. Iran could mine the Straits, restrict commercial traffic and delay entry to US forces while imposing moderate levels of risk in the meantime. However, its sclerotic command and control systems and lack of survivable land-based air-power betray an enduring inability to enforce a close or continuous blockade of the Straits, much less defeat the US Navy in an open, protracted naval war.

No military balance is static, however, and the current extent of Iran's naval inferiority is not necessarily immutable. Over the longer term, two shifts in the geopolitical landscape bode well for continued improvements to Iran's prospects at sea.

First, the emergence of a weak and divided Iraq in the place of a former existential rival is a geostrategic windfall. Historically, the greater salience of defending land borders has been a principal constraint on the development of naval power in countries with both coastlines and contestable continental frontiers – think China or France or Germany. For Iran, that may no longer be the case. With its western continental approaches now largely secure (and with the situation to its east improving as the US backs out of Afghanistan), Tehran can channel a progressively greater proportion of is defence expenditure into its navy.

Second, for China, cultivating Iran's sea-denial capabilities is emerging as the most cost-effective means of diluting US primacy in the Gulf. This matters to Beijing because it is profoundly dependent on the sea-lines traversing the Gulf, yet it is unable to reach or secure them with its own navy and therefore vulnerable to a distant US blockade. There's a reason, after all, why a good number of Iran's anti-ship missiles are already stamped 'Made in China'.

Photo by Flickr user yeowatzup.


While most Australians are beguiled by the prospect of this week's presidential visit, it's easy to overlook the fact that President Obama is dropping by for one simple reason: to hike the cost of our alliance.

Though specific details remain vague, the new defence arrangement will involve more extensive training, ship visits and exercises, and the forward deployment of a small detachment of US Marines. It is also likely to cover the prepositioning of materiel, thereby creating a latent staging point for the US military in the Indian Ocean.

The rationale for all this is not hard to discern. While the US has spent the past decade losing wars and squandering power, China has been studiously undercutting US advantages across virtually every realm of policy — economic, diplomatic and strategic. The transformation of Asia's order is well underway, and Washington is playing catch-up. Still, why the sudden interest in Australia? Three reasons stand out.

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1. The proliferation of precision strike: over the past two decades, China has accumulated a formidable array of precision-guided strike capabilities, namely long-range ballistic and cruise missiles. These have been woven into an offensive war-fighting doctrine that places an operational premium on their use early and en masse. Since US bases in Japan, Korea and Guam are now at risk of being saturated by Chinese missiles at the outset of a conflict, they no longer constitute an indefinitely reliable basis from which the US can project power.

The countries of Southeast Asia offer no viable alternative; they also lie within range of Chinese missiles. And though their governments clamour for US support whenever China plays rough, they remain unwilling to be prematurely enlisted in US military plans at the risk of becoming a target or arousing Chinese antipathy. Thus, US interest in Australian real estate reflects a simple desire for time and space and a new operational sanctuary beyond China's striking range.

2. America's two-ocean strategy: as US strategists reckon with the scope of Chinese military progress, they are developing an Indo-Pacific strategy for fighting China. In the Pacific, the US Air Force and Navy are fleshing out the fledgling AirSea Battle concept, a war-fighting doctrine aimed at countering China's area-denial strategy from further back. It's a problematic concept, as I've written elsewhere: costly, risky and excessive. Still, by denying China's capacity for denial, the US intends to preserve its options for sea control and power projection, reinforcing its primacy and role as the region's dominant player.

The second aspect of the strategy involves exploiting China's substantial vulnerabilities in the Indian ocean. Such an approach would involve crippling China's economy by blockading or destroying its merchant shipping and energy supplies in war, and, in peacetime, holding them at risk to encourage Beijing's acquiescence. It's a strategy straight out of Washington's World War II playbook. Indeed, the mere presence of a powerful allied naval contingent along China's sea-lines would require Beijing to divert considerable resources away from its coastline, much as it did with Japan in the 1940s, thereby diluting the singularity of Chinese efforts in the western Pacific.

This is where Australia would come in: as a central point between the two theatres, a hub to reduce transit times between each end, and a base supporting an expanded commerce raiding or blockading campaign against China, most likely in the western reaches of the Indian Ocean, beyond China's naval reach. 

3. Keeping Canberra on the leash: the third motivation for an expanded US presence in Australia is political. Washington is keenly aware of the centrality of China to Australia's economic wellbeing. American strategists also recognise the extraordinary geographic advantages that Australia enjoys — a shoulder each in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, its back to Antarctica and shielded by a long archipelago. They understand what many Australian fail to see: that Canberra could, with some clear thinking and a substantial yet sustainable increase in spending, defend itself without becoming entangled in the power-politics of Northeast Asia. And they are determined to prevent that from happening.

In this regard, Washington is being clever. It is taking full advantage of Australia's current strategic dependence, locking in Canberra's political and military support, thereby minimising the likelihood of any future Australian defection.

Photo by Flickr user Turkinator.