Lowy Institute
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.


My colleague Andrew Carr disputes the idea that Australia had a choice in the lead–up to World War II. Canberra's innately British identity, he argues, meant there was no alternative to supporting British operations much further afield, despite the risks to Australian security. I disagree.

With hindsight, of course, everything has the appearance of inevitability. And while Australia's cultural identity no doubt obscured the choice and suggested an intuitive course of action, it's important not to mistake a decision made instinctively for the absence of choice itself.

After all only a few years later, by 1942, Australia had made a choice. Canberra, apparently no longer feeling all that British, did turn away from Britain, as then Prime Minister John Curtin wrote, 'without any inhibitions' and 'free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship …'

If anything, then, Andrew's post reinforces the fact that culture and tradition do not always play a beneficial role in the making of strategy, and in many cases may be at odds with the optimal calculation of policy.

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The problem is not unique to Australia. In his 'Farewell Address' to the American people, George Washington, attuned to his nation's idealistic disposition, warned about the dangers of permanent alliances. 'A passionate attachment of one nation for another', he argued, 'facilitates the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists and … betrays the former into … the quarrels and wars of the latter.'

The US long ago discarded that wisdom, of course, while Australia never adhered to it. As a former Director of the Lowy Institute once said, 'We love foreign entanglements.' Indeed, the loneliness and anxiety that pervades Australia's world view has historically led Canberra to conflate, and in many cases subordinate, its own interests to those of its major power allies  — whether out of cultural allegiance, as Andrew suggests, out of apprehension about the futility of an independent defence effort, or most likely some combination of both.

Australia's involvement in World War I illustrates the point. In purely strategic terms, there was no compelling justification for deploying a massive land force to the shores of Gallipoli and the fields of Western Europe. Having federated over a decade earlier in recognition of the need for a national defence effort, Australia would have been far better served by defining its interests narrowly and building a powerful navy to defend them against the still distant threat posed by Japan. Instead, Australia unnecessarily sacrificed a generation of young men out of sentimental affection for the Empire and an unwillingness to reckon with own defensive requirements.

Worst of all, Australia didn't learn its lesson. More than two decades later, when the threat was finally materialising, Canberra still hadn't adequately provided for its own defence. Once again, Canberra deployed land forces at Britain's behest in the forlorn hope the favour would be returned — and avoided catastrophic consequences only by its deliverance at the hands of the US.

Remarkably, having been entrapped in World War I and abandoned in World War II, Australia has remained deeply committed to its strategy of dependence, which has necessitated participation in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the mindset lives on, and without a major enhancement of Australia's independent strategic weight — which would entail a diminution of the alliance in Australia's long-term military planning, as well as a much-needed overhaul of the administrative foundations of Australian defence policy — Canberra risks making the same mistakes again.

Photo, of Australia's WWII War Council, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.


In San Francisco this week, Australian and American leaders will mark the 60th anniversary of the US alliance. For Australia, they've been good decades. Indeed, the US alliance has served Australia so well for so long that it has come to be seen as an irreducible feature of Australian strategic policy.

Yet this is a dangerous assumption. As Canberra and Washington celebrate their historic partnership, it's important to remember that the origin of the alliance lies in the disastrous failure of Australia's previous alliance, with Britain, which was also seen at the time as a permanent and unlimited security blanket.

The analogy is telling. In the 1920s and 30s, Canberra's unwillingness to reckon with the decline of Britain and the rise of Japan — in particular, its failure to sufficiently bolster Australia's independent strategic weight to offset diminished British credibility — brought about the most acute crisis Australia has faced to this day.

Australia got lucky in that case. Yet today, as Asia goes through its next upheaval, Australia's instincts are unchanged. After more than sixty years, Canberra remains devoted to its small-power mentality, clinging (at increasing cost) to a great and powerful friend and hoping for the best.

New US military basing arrangements, to be announced this week, are symptomatic of this approach. For many Australians, an enhanced US presence in Australia is a beguiling prospect. Not only is it seen as a welcome symbol of Washington's enduring strength and resolve, but also as a more tangible expression of US strategic commitment.

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The reality is somewhat different. In fact, Washington's sudden interest in Australian real estate says less about its resilience than about its relative decline. In particular, it reflects the way in which China's growing power has already begun hollowing out US military dominance, pushing back the boundaries of US primacy.

The logic is straightforward. Since US bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam face an increasing risk from Chinese missiles, they no longer constitute an indefinitely reliable sanctuary from which the US can project power. The countries of Southeast Asia offer no viable alternative. They also lie within China's military reach, and in any case are too shrewd to be prematurely enlisted in America's strategic plans at the risk of upsetting China.

So Washington is looking to Australia, partly with a view to consolidating its position in the Indian Ocean as a way of offsetting the less favourable shifts in the Pacific military balance.

Yet US basing is not necessarily cost or risk free for Australia, and Canberra needs to be attuned to the potential dangers. Because such bases are likely to feature prominently in US contingencies aimed at throttling China's energy supply from the Indian Ocean, they will beckon Chinese attention.

In this regard, US bases may create an incentive for Beijing, however muted at first, to transpose its military strategy into Australia's own neighbourhood, even if that takes a decade or so to happen. This would involve Beijing either expanding the number and range of its missiles or deploying them further afield, along with associated air and naval platforms, within range of US bases in Australia, much as it has with other US bases across the region.

US military basing entails political risks as well. While Australia already hosts a small number of joint facilities, a more extensive basing arrangement risks imposing further strictures on Canberra's ability to avoid becoming entangled in a crisis between the US and China (should one occur), including one in which Australia has potentially no direct interest and which its fortuitous geography —  far away from Northeast Asia, beyond an archipelagic screen — might otherwise allow it to avoid.

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

In short, Australia today finds itself in an uncomfortably familiar situation, though one it would prefer to ignore. The costs and risks of Australia's alliance are going up as the value of the alliance is coming down. Meanwhile, there are faint echoes of the 1930s: preoccupied with its alliance, Canberra is neglecting preparations for contingencies in which it may have to go it alone.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.


James Brown's recent piece about why the Prime Minister should stop attending military funerals gets it a bit wrong.

As the Australian death toll mounts in Afghanistan, the public has become quietly anesthetised. While public opinion polls reflect gradually increasing discomfort with the war, no one is marching down Collins or George Street or bringing any real pressure to bear on our political leadership to change its policies.

For James, this may seem an encouraging sign, a reflection of a healthy divestment of the myth that casualties in war are extraordinary, and an acclimatisation to the gruesome realities of conflict (as if partaking in military operations overseas should lead us to expect, unquestioningly, the loss of Australian lives, irrespective of what's at stake).

In fact, the explanation for Australia's silence is much more mundane: after a decade at war, the Australian public, almost completely unaffected by the costs of our role in Afghanistan, has all but perfected the ability of tuning out.

Partly as a cause of this and partly as a consequence, a convenient bipartisanship has settled over the issue of what we're doing in Afghanistan and why. Neither side of politics has any inclination to be seen 'back-flipping' or upsetting the status quo over an issue of such limited political consequence.

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Contrary to James' argument, then, the de-politicisation of Afghanistan lies at the heart of the problem. The ready bipartisan acceptance of our soldiers' deaths and funerals has engendered, and compounded, the kind of complacency that lets our Prime Minister get away without 'working hard to prevent Australian soldiers from being killed in the future' — even if to do so only requires, at a minimum, placing a few additional strictures on the kinds of operations they perform, and comes at no real cost to our national interest.

This political situation is unlikely to change. If Prime Minister Gillard is to be jolted out of her complacency, the impetus will have to come from her own conscience. That, in turn, will rely on her remaining fully, and personally, attuned to the scale of pain and suffering that her policies are producing, manifest most obviously in the form of military funerals.

For this reason, and others, she should definitely keep going to military funerals — provided, of course, that her attendance does not conflict with the wishes or preferences of the bereaved. She should also make regular visits to repatriation wards around Australia. There, missing arms and legs, the use of colostomy bags and the stricken faces of young men with post-traumatic stress disorder testify to the true cost of our reckless unwillingness to change tack in Afghanistan. 

Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister's Flickr account.


Andrew Carr has distilled an important question out of our recent paper on maritime security in Indo-Pacific Asia: what accounts for Beijing's ambivalence about maritime confidence building, something which seems so conducive to Chinese interests? After all, such confidence building measures could allay regional concerns and impose greater predictability on maritime interactions along China's periphery.

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie meets with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore during the 10th IISS Security Summit, 3 June 2011.

Andrew raises the possibility of a tactical ploy, an attempt on China's part at establishing a strong bargaining position by raising the diplomatic buy-in cost to the US. There may be something to this. Anyone who's had diplomatic dealings with China can attest to its reputation for driving a very hard bargain.

It was Chinese diplomats, after all, who achieved the impressive feat of bringing Australia's otherwise indomitable foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, to tears in Copenhagen. Chinese diplomats double blind-sided Washington for years at the Six-Party Talks, ratifying Pyongyang's de facto nuclear status under the guise of an attempt at disarmament. And, despite their country's weakness at the time, they extracted a cracking deal from Nixon and Kissinger in the 1970s which paved the way to a wholesale transformation of China's economy and decades of success.

So yes, Beijing knows how to play its diplomatic hand very well, indeed.

And yet there's something deeper, more fundamental, at the heart of China's reluctance to negotiate limits on its own maritime conduct in the South and East China Seas.

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One reason, among others, involves a potent historical narrative that militates against any inclination to compromise. For China, the prospect of sitting at a table with a militarily dominant US, accepting limits, however modest, on its own prerogative and in its own backyard, echoes the most painful episodes in the Chinese national consciousness.

The legacy of China's 'century of humiliation', so called in part because of the imposition by Western maritime powers of unequal treaties that circumscribed Chinese sovereignty, is to be divested as China grows stronger, not reprised. For many in China, particularly the military, the enduring and inherent inequality in its dealings with the US makes such talks a non-starter on principle.

This is a principle that, deep down, the US understands well. In 1812 Washington acted even more extremely on the same rationale. As the Napoleonic wars raged in Europe, the US went to war against Britain in the western hemisphere to preserve its own sovereign prerogative in waters that it considered vital to American security, prestige and economic well-being.

In the face of British maritime dominance, and in the context of increasing diplomatic tensions arising out of an asymmetric balance of power, negotiation (though almost certainly a better option for the US, given the outcome of the war) was deemed unbefitting of an ambitious maritime nation.

China is unlikely to make the mistake of deliberately initiating war before it's ready — and that won't be for a another decade or two yet. In other important respects, however, Beijing is reading straight out of Washington's very own geopolitical playbook.

Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defence.