Lowy Institute

It's always good to leave a job while you're still enjoying it. After almost eight years, today is my last day as director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.

I am proud to have contributed a substantial part of my working life to the Institute's development as a force to be reckoned with in foreign and security policy debates, whether in Australia, its Indo-Pacific region or globally. In turn, I am grateful for the privilege of having been part of a powerhouse of ideas, dialogue and policy entrepreneurship.

From next week, my foremost professional loyalty will be elsewhere, as I take up the post of Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. My new mission will be very much about helping shape an inclusive and contemporary approach to Australia's security and foreign policy challenges.

I will remain affiliated with Lowy as a nonresident fellow, and I won't forget where I came from. A certain sandstone building on Bligh St in Sydney will always seem to me the forge where I finished a long apprenticeship – across diplomacy, intelligence analysis, journalism and academia. It has played a formative role in my vision of what a policy think tank can and should be.

It's impossible now to imagine the Australian foreign and security policy scene without the Lowy Institute. But the Institute is just 11 years old, and it wasn't always thus.

Lowy has played, and will continue to play, an exceptional bridging role between the realms of politics, official policymaking, media and academia. For too long, these were parallel domains in Australia, often characterised by a lack of understanding or even of respect for one another's way of making sense of a confusing world. For a country of Australia's size, and a democracy, this was never a sustainable or constructive state of affairs.

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In 2015, as Australia comes to terms with a world of increasing uncertainty, complexity and strategic risk, the need for policy communication and innovative thinking across the old boundaries of politics, bureaucracy, scholarship and journalism is greater than ever. Lowy, the National Security College and others in Australia's healthily expanding think tank scene will all have their parts to play.

The unique vantage point of the Lowy Institute – offering insights into business, media and wider community attitudes – has sharpened my sense of Australia's national interests and how they need to be protected and advanced.

My time at Lowy also leaves me with a rich trove of memories – illuminating dialogues with foreign counterparts, energetic debates on tough strategic problems (including on this excellent blog), fascinating research excursions, times when governments listened and times when they did not, rewarding moments of insight, and frustrating illustrations of the obstacles to good policy.

In particular, I have benefited from having such a strong platform to help advance Australia's understanding of its fast-changing Indo-Pacific region, and to encourage a sensible constellation of strategic relations with India, China, Japan, Indonesia and other regional powers as well as a revitalised and properly-explained alliance with the US.

In all of this, I am especially fortunate to have collaborated with and learned from so many talented colleagues. They range from wise veterans of the craft through to a successor generation of Australian strategic analysts, whose skills and interest I have been proud to encourage and cultivate. I thank them all.


The Sydney hostage siege is over and three people — the lone gunman and tragically two of the innocent people he had held captive — are dead.

The people of Sydney and Australia are still coming to terms with what has happened. How Australians respond in the next few days will matter greatly to whether this horrific incident will change this country in any way for the worse.  A few things are becoming increasingly clear:

  • The response by the security forces was professional and coordinated. It appears that their forceful intervention in the early hours of this morning occurred after the gunman had started shooting and any delayed response would have cost more lives.
  • While the Australian media could not help but report the crisis around-the-clock, and this provided the attacker with a kind of publicity, it turns out they showed a commendable degree of discipline and restraint in some areas. Most importantly, the perpetrator's demands were not broadcast. This is an important precedent that will help to discourage future incidents.
  • Was this a terrorist act or a crime? The methods were those of terrorism, and terrorism itself involves a whole set of crimes. Once, terrorists did not want to be called as such; the IRA, for instance, insisted on being seen as freedom fighters. Now the language of political violence has changed, and some people see the label of terrorist as almost too kind — providing an unwarranted layer of meaning and purpose to acts of murderous criminality. In a sense, whether this particular instance of criminal terrorism was more criminal than terrorist does not matter. What matters is that it was an act neither of war nor of faith, and should in no way be dignified as such.

I have spent most of today at a loss for words about the hostage situation, described as 'consistent with a terrorist attack', taking place just a few blocks from my Sydney office. Sometimes the smaller the amount of instant and semi-informed coverage an incident generates, the better. This is one of those times.

Frankly, there is not a lot that is meaningful to say about what is occurring.  Even if the situation is resolved peacefully, what has happened is plainly a cruel and criminal act: keeping innocent people detained at gunpoint and in fear for their lives. And at the time of writing, it is not over.

The rest of the story has been largely guesswork. The hostage-taker has used — or, to put it more accurately, abused — an Islamic flag. Understandably, there has been plenty of speculation that his agenda is broadly supportive of Islamic State or other violent extremists.  But at time of writing, there has been no public expression of a specific affiliation or a demand being made to negotiators. Australian authorities have been cautious about using the 'terrorist' label, even if some media have been quick to do so.

None of this is to say that the authorities are over-reacting.  Most of what we have seen shows calm, coordination and professionalism. Crisis-response mechanisms and capabilities, long in the making, have swung into action. It is commendable that authority figures, from the Prime Minister down, have emphasised the need for calm and normality.  Tony Abbott has called the perpetrator nothing more glorious than 'an armed person claiming political motivation'. That is the right approach.

And nor, from what I have seen today, has the Australian public lost its nerve. In peak Christmas shopping season, much of Sydney's central business district continued to function with relative normality for at least the first few hours after the incident began, and then began to wind down gradually, not in panic. Not far from the siege zone, faces were perhaps a little anxious at my favourite café, but it was still busy, still a determined attempt at business as usual.

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It is also impressive that the incident has led to immediate calls for tolerance, understanding and cohesion across multicultural Australia. Muslim community figures have spoken out against the crime, and sensible voices have emphasised the need to avoid any backlash against Muslim Australians.

So it is wrong to claim that this was the day Australia changed forever. Innocent people's lives are being threatened. People are being traumatised. But by all accounts, this seems the work of a lone criminal.

That fact should not of itself be cause for comfort. It is deeply disturbing that the work of one dangerous person has drawn such blanket attention in the national and global media. If terrorism thrives on the oxygen of publicity, then the Australian and international media has generally played to the script. Several journalists I have spoken with today are privately aware of this problem.

Still, it is hard to see who benefits from saturation media coverage of an event like this other than the criminal himself and those violent extremists whose agenda has been associated with his actions. The more attention a one-man outrage like this generates, the greater may be the incentive for someone else to try something similar.

Let's not pretend that the rest of us are not complicit. Social media has helped magnify and at times distort the picture. Early on, for instance, I saw one irresponsible tweet claiming the attacker had planted devices all over the city.  Meanwhile, those random members of the public who had nothing better to do but stand at police cordons waiting and watching can only have complicated things needlessly for the security forces.

Some social media users – and mainstream media – were transmitting real-time images of police positions or otherwise reporting on police movements. The Mumbai siege in 2008 proved the impact of social media in terrorist situations: there, the attackers and their handlers were reportedly using all forms of media to keep track of the Indian security forces, which may well have added to the duration and lethality of those attacks. It is a lesson that must not be forgotten. Perhaps today in Sydney the hostage-taker did not have media-monitoring accomplices, but none of us can know for sure.

I have not responded to most calls from the media today because at this stage I have little useful to say. And now I've said it.


Media coverage will probably be quick to recognise that Xi Jinping's latest speech on Chinese foreign policy is a big deal. But the headline writers are missing the story if they focus on his pledge to uphold China's claims in maritime disputes.

As someone who has done more than his share of professional worrying about the strategic implications of China's rise, I've surprised myself by reading this speech quite differently. Yes, it is a challenge to the world order we know, but not a confrontational or a jarring one. It's subtle and, other countries should be relieved, cautious.

Xi Jinping with Prime Minister John Key during Xi's recent New Zealand visit. (REUTERS/Nigel Marple.)

The good news is that Xi's speech is much more about diplomacy than raw power. It follows a season of statesmanship in hosting APEC and President Obama, advancing Chinese interests in a non-confrontational manner at the East Asia Summit and the G20, and successful visits to reassure Australia and New Zealand about China's intentions.

One way to read this speech is that it knits together China's ambitious diplomatic initiatives to change the Asian and global order, from a new infrastructure bank to new security conferences. Therefore it affirms China's intent to challenge that order, albeit carefully.

It underscores China's determination to defend and advance its maritime claims and interests, develop a 'maritime silk road' of economic, diplomatic and security links across China's version of the Indo-Pacific, and develop the capabilities to protect its growing overseas presence.

But the speech is also important for its notes of prudence and restraint, with an emphasis on better communicating China's 'soft power' message. It places weight on building regional institutions and a global network of partners. It contains reminders about the non-use of force and even respect for international law.

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Given such continuing Chinese activities as island-building in disputed parts of the South China Sea, these words will naturally be greeted with some scepticism.

But they could be taken as signals that Xi wants to channel China's deep currents of nationalism away from excessive risk-taking and adventurism. After two years of risky encounters in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, Xi has lately emphasised a need for crisis-management and 'confidence-building' measures with foreign navies. He has signed an agreement with Obama on this issue, and endorsed new efforts at military risk-reduction with Japan.

Whether they liked it or not, the PLA brass found themselves repeatedly endorsing the concept of CBMs at their Xiangshan Forum, the Chinese military's answer to the Shangri-La Dialogue, which I attended in Beijing not long ago.

Until this year, a confusing credo of Chinese maritime military diplomacy seemed to be that there was no point developing incidents-at-sea rules and crisis-management mechanisms with other countries until strategic trust – that is, the removal of disputes – had been somehow brought into existence. I always found this a fiction to permit Chinese tactical risk-taking for strategic advantage. It is a logic now consigned to the memory hole. My 2011 assessment Crisis and Confidence thankfully needs a major update.

At least since his in-principle support of military CBMs at the Sunnylands summit last year, it seems Xi Jinping has wanted to put some sensible political constraints on military risk-taking. Now he is making some progress, although it is still far from clear that the PLA is willing to develop comprehensive protocols, let alone implement them. Still, one positive dimension of Xi's speech is that it would be consistent with continuing efforts to exert control over the PLA to ensure its short-term actions do not jeopardize peaceful relations and China's long-term interests.

Until just recently, China's charm diplomacy in Asia had been foundering. In the past 12 months, China managed to alienate Japan, the US, Australia and others with its Air Defence Identification Zone, to unsettle Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia with its unprovoked oil-rig deployment in the South China Sea, and to spoil a chance to woo India's new leader by mixing provocative PLA forays with sensible economic diplomacy. The net effect of these premature powerplays  – combined with the strategic anxiety, coalition-building and deterrence response they have prompted — has been to inflict needless self-harm on China's interests.

In the past few months, Chinese diplomacy has worked variously to sidestep, repair or move beyond that damage. Xi's speech can be read in part as the capstone of this new campaign.

China experts often point out how little outsiders really know of the hows or whys of Chinese foreign policy. But foreign governments and the analysts that advise them have no choice but to make judgments to guide their own policy responses. So my working assumption is this: Xi's speech is informed, above all, by a tension between two things. One is an awareness (however overstated) of the long-term trends conducive to China's relative influence and prosperity. The other is an appreciation of the short-term risks, miscalculations and missteps that could yet prevent the China Dream from coming true.

Xi's speech will not bring great comfort to friends of the US-led global order, and should compel them to play a smarter game. But being at least as much about diplomacy as about power, it is better than the alternatives.


America's commitment to security, dignity and prosperity in Asia, facing up to global challenges, and some strong words on climate change – President Obama's just-concluded speech in Brisbane was a hybrid package.

President Barack Obama addressing students at the University of Queensland, 15 November 2015.

I imagine other contributors will add context to his applause-evoking remarks on setting targets to reduce climate change, and they may well be perceived as a fairly blunt intervention into Australian politics. I'll confine my observations to the topic that had been touted in advance as the main theme of the speech: Asian geopolitics and America's rebalance to the region.

The speech was given at the University of Queensland, my alma mater, and I recall all too well that November is end-of-year exam time there. So it's only right to attempt a grading. On Asia, this speech scores a credit – solid and respectable, but not spectacular.

It won't go down in history as the speech that categorically revitalized the rebalance. But at least it held the line. It consolidated most of the messages that will likely keep the pivot alive for the next administration, and that's a start.

The speech emphasised the value of allies, Australia especially, and underscored an 'ironclad' American guarantee to their sovereignty and security. It stressed the need to resist an outdated international politics based on spheres of influence, bullying and coercion, and instead reasserted American support for peaceful management of disputes based on norms and the rule of law – like a Code of Conduct on the contested South China Sea.

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It reinforced US support for effective Asian regional institutions like the East Asia Summit and acknowledged recent progress in dialogue and military communications between the US and China, to help ensure incidents at sea do not escalate to conflict.

And Obama reminded us of the progress being made in maintaining and modernising alliances and partnerships, such as the Marines rotation to Darwin, new defence guidelines with Japan, missile defence with South Korea, wide-ranging alliance renewal with the Philippines and help with improved maritime patrol capabilities in Vietnam. He welcomed India's emergence as a power and partner in the Asia-Pacific and encouraged US partners and allies to cooperate more among themselves. He noted plans for the US to ensure that by 2020, more than half of its air and naval power will be in the Pacific.

For allies and partners, that is all well and good, even if it's nothing they haven't heard before.

Where Obama could have done better is in trying to reconcile his promised effort on Asia – 'the Asia-Pacific will always be a focus of our foreign policy' – with the reality of continued or even deepened US security attention this year to strife in Europe and the Middle East. Rather unconvincingly, he suggested that the involvement of the US and its Asia-Pacific allies like Australia in those situations somehow reinforced – rather than detracted from – the US rebalance to Asia.

The one way I can see a certain truth to this point is to say that American credibility anywhere is good for American credibility everywhere. And in Asia, despite all the handwringing about China's military modernisation (or Russia's peculiar new adventures), America's military edge is still such that the real question is not about the balance of power but the balance of uncertainty and resolve.

Which brings us to China. Sensibly, Obama's speech today did not directly challenge the legitimacy of the Chinese political system, in the way that his strong words in Canberra did just three years ago ('prosperity without freedom is just another kind of poverty'). 

Still, he did not resile from upholding values of democracy, freedom and human rights – linking them with themes of opportunity, innovation and youth - and pointedly included a reference to Hong Kong alongside Asia's democracies.

In these times when a rules-based liberal global order is under challenge from forces variously of destabilization, disorder, authoritarianism and sheer barbarism, Obama's Brisbane speech may not prove historic, but it has at least held the line. With clarity and conviction about the staying power of democracies, British Prime Minister David Cameron did at least as much in addressing the Australian Parliament yesterday.

With major public addresses in the days ahead by German Chancellor Merkel, Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is an open question how much more history is to be made in this week that Australia was all the world's stage.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.


In Australia and much of the world, 11 November, Remembrance Day, is a day to think of those who have fallen in war – and not only the First World War, which ended in an armistice on this date.

For me, there's a complicated additional resonance or two. Like many Australians, my family tree includes soldiers who fought for this country in the First World War. What's different about mine is that one of them was German.

Karl Wilhelm Albert Wengatz was born in the Pomeranian town of Pasewalk in 1882 and settled in Australia around 1906. Some time later he changed his name to a more Anglicised (if repetitive) Charles William Albert Williams (pictured), joined the Royal Australian Artillery and was promoted to sergeant in charge of a machine-gun section on Thursday Island in Torres Strait.

Who knows what conflicted thoughts went through his mind when Australia joined Britain in declaring war on his former homeland in 1914. What is known is that he fought against his former countrymen with the Australian 1st Siege Artillery Brigade on the Western Front from 1915 until 1918, when he was wounded in a mustard gas barrage. Family lore holds that it was friendly fire – a New Zealand bombardment that fell short. Whatever the cause, Lt Williams returned to Australia with stricken health, developed tuberculosis and died in 1929, not much older than I am now.

It gets stranger. Karl's brother – my great-grandfather, Erich Wengatz – followed him to Australia, and in 1910 married an Anglo-Australian and settled in the Hunter Valley farming district of New South Wales. It was there, a hundred years ago precisely to this day, that he was killed with a single bullet to the head. A coronial inquiry concluded it was an accident while on a kangaroo hunt. Other than my instinct for a good story, I have no strong reason to believe otherwise.

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Whatever the case, Erich did not live to experience the internment and harassment of Australia's 100,000-strong German community — suddenly transformed from pillars of society to the enemy within — that intensified as the war dragged on.

Why recall their stories now?  One reason is because the centenary of a world war is absolutely the right time to draw meaning and lessons from diplomatic failure and catastrophe, especially when the international system is struggling with dangerous new currents of disorder. 

But in Australia, there's special relevance to the realisation that the celebrated ANZACs were a diverse lot – as stories such as this one also remind us. As my colleague James Brown has so eloquently noted in this book, the so-called centenary of ANZAC will soon move into full swing. It's important that these commemorations are inclusive of the wider Australian community and its modern, multicultural texture. The message should be about citizenship, duty, and the national interest, qualities that stand quite apart from heritage.

As Australian forces engage again in military operations in the Middle East, as risks accumulate in our region of Indo-Pacific Asia, and as migration from both these regions adds new political complexity to the character of Australian society, the need to build an inclusive vision of this country's approach to security and defence is more important than ever.


The inauguration speech of Indonesia's 7th President, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, was powerful despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it. It contained a striking blend of personal humility, national pride and an ethos of unremitting work. But as an analyst of Asian geopolitics, I was most struck by its message about Indonesia's rightful aspirations as a seagoing Indo-Pacific power; an archipelagic country connecting two oceans.

Midway through the speech, these few sentences stand out as a vision of Indonesia's potential as a maritime power: 

We have to work really hard to return Indonesia's status as a maritime nation. Oceans, seas, straits, and gulfs are the future of our civilization. We have been showing our backs too long to these seas, to these oceans, to these straits, and gulfs.


This is the time for us to return them all, therefore Jalesveva Jayamahe, it is at the sea we are glorious, as the motto of our ancestors, may ring once more.

The nautical theme continues throughout. Towards the end of his remarks, the President also invokes the words of Sukarno: that to build a great Indonesia 'we have to possess the soul of cakrawati samudera, the soul of a brave sailor going through the rough and rolling waves'. The sea also lends him his concluding metaphor of leadership, teamwork and success in the face of hardship: 'As a captain, trusted by the people, I invite all people of this nation to get on board this Ship of the Republic of Indonesia and sail together to the Great Indonesia. We will be in full sail. We will face all storms and waves with our own strength.'

This is not just evocative rhetoric. There is a practical policy edge.

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For instance, as others have observed, the high-sounding words Jalesveva Jayamahe (also translated as 'at the sea we will triumph') happen to be the motto of the Indonesian Navy. The speech suggests Jokowi is serious about wanting to advance and deepen the efforts of his predecessor to make Indonesia a more active and capable maritime player in the region. This will require not only building up the Indonesian Navy – which has recently begun to modernise after long having little ocean-going capability to speak of – but also making Indonesia more effective at managing its archipelagic waters which include critical international sea lanes. This in turn will require better surveillance, patrolling, cooperation with partners on transnational and interstate maritime security challenges, and active diplomacy on contentious issues, notably the situation in the South China Sea.

It may very well be, as my colleague and Indonesia specialist Aaron Connelly has recently argued, that Jokowi leaves foreign (and defence) policy largely to his advisers. But on maritime issues at least – which in Indonesia connect external and domestic policy — he seems to be getting good advice.

Of course it is premature to assume that these aspirations will translate into sustained, effective action. Still, the initial signal is good news for Australia and the diverse other countries that want to engage Indonesia as a pragmatic, capable maritime security partner in this Indo-Pacific era.

Note: The author is grateful to Matthew Hanzel for an elegant and timely English translation of the speech, as quoted here. Another unofficial English-language translation can be found here. The original Indonesian-language text can be found here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Yulian Hendriyana.


The news that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address the Australian Parliament next month is a welcome sign of how far relations between Australia and India have advanced. As the Australia-India Roundtable concluded earlier this year, and as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently declared, ties between these two democracies have reached a new maturity.

It is fitting in every way that Mr Modi should speak to the Australian Parliament. He is, after all, the politician with the biggest democratic mandate in the world, given the scale of his victory in this year's Indian election. His worthwhile agenda to improve Indian governance, economic performance, science, education, development and strategic influence is in step with what Australia wants to offer India as a partner – as Indian public opinion broadly recognises, according to this poll. Hu Jintao, Shinzo Abe, and Indonesia's SBY, not to mention Barack Obama and George W Bush, have all had their moment to speak directly to Australia's elected representatives. In addition to China, Japan, Indonesia and the US, India is Australia's key Indo-Pacific partner.

And it would do no harm if Modi gave his address in Hindi. He is a brilliant orator in that language, and it would be a nice reminder to Australians that this is one of the fastest-growing languages in this country – and that the English language has no monopoly on democracy.

For all that, there is one aspect of Greg Sheridan's story breaking the news of Modi's parliamentary address that warrants correcting. The story emphasises the role of differences over nuclear issues in explaining why it has taken an outrageous 28 years for an Indian Prime Minister to get around to visiting Australia.

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In recent years, Australia's now-abandoned reluctance to consider uranium exports to India may well have slowed down relations – and does help explain Manmohan Singh's failure to show up at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in 2011. But it is bending history to suggest that that Australia's condemnation of India's 1998 nuclear weapons tests was the reason Singh's predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, pulled out of a 2002 visit for an earlier CHOGM, at Coolum in Queensland.

As a diplomat in Delhi at the time, I well recall the effort on both sides that went into planning that visit, and the frustration when it was called off. There was just one reason for its 11th-hour cancellation – the violent riots in Gujarat, a state then led by Mr Modi as chief minister, and the need for Vajpayee to manage the domestic political controversy that followed.

There is a curious circularity, then, to the fact that Mr Modi will now take the journey that Vajpayee never made. But it is still very good that he is making it.

Photo by Flickr user Tony Abbott.


Australian, US and Chinese troops at the opening ceremony of EX Kowari, Darwin. (Photo: Defence.)

Right now a good news story in Australia's strategic relations is unfolding in the country's vast Northern Territory. Australian, American and – most significantly – Chinese soldiers are training together, with indigenous Australians showing them a thing or two about survival.

Among other things, this exercise challenges the simplistic notion that the closer Australia gets to its US ally, or indeed to Japan, the more strained and mistrustful becomes its relationship with China. It also undercuts the nonsensical view, bandied about this year by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, that the alliance diminishes Australia's chances of doing constructive things with Asian partners.

I've long argued that US forces rotating through Darwin were more likely to find themselves training or even deploying alongside the People's Liberation Army than fighting it. Even while tensions persist in the South and East China seas, the US and China recognise the need for their forces to learn to operate safely and cooperatively in close proximity – thus China's participation, for the first time, in this year's RIMPAC exercise.

And Australia, given its central Indo-Pacific geography, its enviably large training areas and its web of mature defence relationships (including with China) is ideally placed as a hub for cooperation among capable military powers. Sometimes these minilateral activities will include China and sometimes not. Sometimes, as with the recent Kakadu naval drills, they will not even include the US.

A small number of specialist soldiers doing survival training in northern Australia's harsh conditions is perhaps more redolent of The Hunger Games (minus the nasty bits) than some new Great Game of incessant major-power rivalry.  On a day-to-day basis, Australia needs to work with China and other Asian powers as providers of security and order in the global commons – even while, deep down, sharpening its own capabilities and tightening select partnerships to guard against a possible breakdown in the peace.


Australia's national interests are enmeshed with international order, and daily we see grim reminders that armed force still matters in the contemporary world. Australian forces are reportedly close to going into combat against violent extremists in the Middle East. War has returned to Europe and a dreadful act, the downing of MH17,  has taken Australian lives. Militaries are modernising in maritime Asia, a region where strategic competition and signs of instability have a major bearing on Australian interests. And there remain underlying expectations on Australia as the security provider of first resort in its South Pacific neighbourhood.

2015 Defence White Paper Update, Canberra (Australian Department of Defence/Lauren Larking)

The Abbott Government, elected just over a year ago, has committed to increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP within a decade. A new Defence White Paper is being prepared, to guide long-term defence policy settings and capability. As a member of the external panel providing independent advice on that document, I have recently been involved in public consultations to gauge community views on what a meaningful and effective Australian defence policy should look like.

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That process is still underway, and amounts to an important opportunity for interested Australians from all backgrounds – and not just narrowly-defined defence experts – to have a say on the way the government spends their defence dollars. Written submissions are being invited, with a deadline of 29 October. These can address any topic: for instance, what are the main risks to Australia's security? What kind of military options might a future Australian government want to have? What foreign partnerships will matter most to our security? What should be the role of industry in Australia's defence effort? And how can the defence force best reflect and relate to Australian society? 

Submissions can focus on today's security concerns, or look to longer horizons – after all, the 2015 Defence White Paper is intended to look to 2035, and an issues paper has been released to help frame some of the many challenges that policymakers need to consider in looking that far. The obvious complexities and uncertainties of the world ahead are no excuse for a country to avoid the hard work of thinking about how best to prepare for the risks it faces. And defence capabilities selected and developed in the years ahead will be in place – and cost money - for decades.

Opinion surveys such as the Lowy poll can give a broad sense of public concerns about security issues, and professional defence analysts always have plenty to say, but there is also a wealth of considered insight among individuals in the wider community. Any defence policy in a democracy will rightly have its share of critics as well as its supporters. It is in the national interest for them to articulate their ideas before policy is made, not after it. 


On this day in 1945, the first nuclear weapon was used in conflict, with devastating consequences for the people of Hiroshima. In Asia today, nuclear weapons remain part of the strategic reality, for better or worse.

But calculations about nuclear armaments in the region may be changing, notably with the introduction of Chinese and Indian submarine-launched nuclear weapons. This could have profound implications for whether nuclear weapons continue to help keep the peace or become instruments of instability and catastrophic escalation.

Often, strategic analysts and policymakers consider nuclear deterrence as somewhat separate from broader strategic and economic change. This has been all too apparent in the grand maritime region of Indo-Pacific Asia, where economic growth has been accompanied by tensions at sea, military modernisation and growing strategic differences among the powers.

Now, changes in the region are beginning to challenge traditional deterrence dynamics. Throughout the next decade, sea-based nuclear-weapon delivery platforms are set to proliferate in the Indo-Pacific, with China reportedly due to conduct its first at-sea nuclear deterrence patrol sometime this year, India readying for sea-trials of its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and even potential Pakistani interest in putting nuclear arms to sea.

Advocates of sea-based nuclear weapons see these fleets as providing stability because of their relative invulnerability to surprise attack. This is meant to provide a secure 'second strike' capability, ensuring that nuclear deterrence is credible and thus successful at preventing war.

But the picture is murky.

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The implications of new sea-based nuclear weapons for deterrence, stability or instability will not be determined by those weapons systems alone. Investment in other capabilities like ballistic missile defences, anti-submarine warfare (including nuclear-powered attack submarines) and hypersonic missiles could complicate the picture. And much will depend on doctrines, the professionalism of personnel, and matters of perception and communication.

The nexus between new platforms, the factors driving their introduction and broader strategic realities raises the critical question of strategic stability. Will these new platforms, on balance, add to long-term stability in the region, greatly reducing the incentives for war or escalation, or will they contribute to the risks of crisis, arms races and coercion?

Will the deployment of an assured second-strike capability by India and China in the coming years lead to recognition of mutual vulnerability between them and also between China and the US? Or will sea-based nuclear weapon delivery platforms add to already heightened maritime tensions and risk? How will the shifting dynamics of nuclear deterrence interact with conventional force postures in the region? Are there stability-enhancing lessons to learn from the Cold War experience of the established sea-based nuclear powers?

In the weeks ahead, The Interpreter will host an international online debate to help answer these critically important questions. To open the debate, we have invited contributions from four leading scholars of strategy, maritime security and nuclear deterrence: Bruno Tertrais of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Ravi N Ganesh of Asia Centre Bangalore, Wu Riqiang of Renmin University of China and Peter Dombrowski of the US Naval War College.

These initial posts will be followed by contributions from a range of security scholars and practitioners, and there will also be opportunity for the original contributors to reply and expand upon their arguments. Interpreter readers are also invited to join the conversation through the comments section, with the best comments to be featured in special posts. I hope the discussion, like our debate some years ago on extended nuclear deterrence, will prove lively, informative and of genuine value to policymakers.

Most of all, I hope it will help illuminate the way to measures that might minimise the risk that nuclear weapons will ever be used again.

The Lowy Institute gratefully acknowledges support from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation for this Interpreter debate, which is part of a broader research, dialogue and outreach project on strategic stability in Indo-Pacific Asia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


A hundred years since the beginning of World War I, the guns of August 1914 are still echoing. Right now it's useful sport among strategic analysts and historians to pick the similarities and differences between the world today and on the eve of the First World War. The worrying state of global geopolitics is leading many to ponder: could it happen again? Is devastating war between powerful states really a thing of the past?

Here are a few thoughts from my own checklist of what to watch for when we consider the possibility of interstate war in today's world. It's hard to improve on this thoughtful recent piece by Graham Allison, but my assessment differs in a few places, notably on the roles of technology, alliances, diplomacy and sheer folly. On balance, though, I tend to reach the same conclusion: 'just because war is irrational, does not make it unthinkable'.

Interdependence versus mistrust

This issue has been done rather to death, and this essay by Oriana Mastro reminds us why economic and financial enmeshment across today's Indo-Pacific Asia need not mean automatic peace, just as the mutually reinforcing aspects of Anglo-German prosperity failed to stop catastrophe in 1914. The markets did not see that one coming, so why (as Niall Ferguson reminds us) should they be any more enlightened now?

Unintended and unexpected consequences

In 1914, a few supremely unlucky gunshots by a troubled Serbian youth began the cascade to catastrophic war. The much greater interdependence and complexity of today's joined-up world means that a disruptive event – such as an assassination or annexation — could have consequences even harder to predict and manage, no matter how good our real-time information.

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Deficient diplomacy

Improvements in the methods of interstate relations have not kept pace with the speed or complexity of today's international environment. Sure, as Graham Allison suggests, things are better now because 'intelligence systems provide near real-time information' to help make decisions in a crisis. Moreover, leaders 'can talk directly to one another' by phone or videoconference. In 1914, on the other hand, he notes that governments 'sent cables to ambassadors who transmitted messages to foreign offices, increasing the chances of miscommunication'.

The sad secret of 21st century diplomacy, however, is that a lot of the time it still works likes that, even during crises. Consider the lack of operational hotlines between, say, China and Japan or even China and the US; or the potential for mischief or miscommunication. A telephone call can only help avert crisis if both sides are willing at least to talk. And while crisis and disaster can strike suddenly, even the most urgent and accomplished multilateral diplomacy – like the recent UN Security Council resolution on flight MH17 – takes precious days.


Alliances are easy to blame for the 'chain-gang' effect that drew so many countries into what began as a Balkan war. But a focus on the entangling potential of alliances in 1914 can overlook their stabilising value in 2014. It's hard to see how a Japan allied to the US would be a more volatile actor in the Asian strategic order than one anxiously alone.


Plenty has been made of the role of propaganda in fanning misinformation, hate and nationalism before and during World War I. But it is worth pausing before we assume that rapid access to information is somehow breaking down barriers by raising awareness of how much we all have to lose from conflict. Social media is proving a prime vehicle for dangerous forms of nationalism and confrontation-mongering in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. And if you've seen Moscow's glitzy RT channel lately, you will (hopefully) know that state-sponsored propaganda is proliferating in shameless new forms.

Technology and speed

While diplomacy still often moves at a 20th or even 19th century pace, military technology has streaked ahead, dramatically compressing the time for sensible decision-making during a crisis. An incident at sea or in the air over contested Asian waters would be over in minutes, perhaps seconds. Frontline commanders and political leaders would have scant time to weigh the risks of striking first against those of restraint. By today's measures, the fateful month following the assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was a leisurely slide to disaster. In a present-day contingency, the first hours would be crucial, not least for shaping the clash of narratives.

1914 or 1941

A centenary is a neat frame of reference, but an artificial one: there is no intrinsic reason why 1914 should be a better guide to the future of conflict-management than, say, 1939, 1962, or even 1814. In an Asian context, where China's strategic decision-making remains difficult for outsiders to comprehend, perhaps 1941 rather than 1914 may be the historical analogy most worth studying. That was the year that the deeply dysfunctional decision-making of the Japanese military and cabinet led to Japan's attack on the US and the madness of a war that key Japanese players privately believed they could not win.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The Chinese rhetorical fireworks over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend have been so widely reported that we are at risk of losing a sense of what Mr Abe actually said.

As Interpreter readers will recall, the speech was denounced by the senior Chinese military delegate at the conference, Lt Gen Wang, as nothing short of 'unacceptable' and 'unimaginable'. Wang attacked it in the same breath as his rejection of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's remarks; both, he claimed, were full of provocation, intimidation and threat against China.

Abe is a controversial figure at home as well as abroad, but what exactly did he say on this occasion that was so objectionable?

In my view, Chinese warnings about a supposed return of Japanese militarism and fascism are far removed from Abe's carefully-worded policy speech which focused on Japan's willingness to help other countries build their own security capacities, Japan's readiness as a normalising military power to work more with allies and partners to discourage Chinese maritime coercion, and Japan's record as a peaceful nation. If you want to form your own judgement, here is the full text

The onus should be on Abe's and Japan's critics to say precisely what is unreasonable about a Japan that can protect its interests and help its partners. That point applies not only to Chinese generals but also to a former Australian prime minister.

Malcolm Fraser has become an outspoken critic of the Australia-US alliance and US policy in Asia. Now Abe's Japan is also in his sights. On Saturday, he fired off a tweet about Abe's Singapore address, describing it as an 'aggressive speech, pro war'. (The original tweet is no longer in Mr Fraser's prolific twitter stream, but it can still be found on his Facebook page.)

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When I asked Mr Fraser what precisely was pro-war about the Japanese leader's remarks, he replied that the meaning behind the words was most relevant – the context, the things unsaid. He went on to list some of the Abe policies he finds troubling. 

I respect Mr Fraser's readiness to contribute to Australia's contemporary foreign policy debate, and look forward to bringing an open mind to his book calling for an end to the US alliance, as well as hearing him speak about it next month. But I would also be interested to know exactly how he thinks Japan, Vietnam and other states experiencing frictions with China should change their policies to protect their interests in ways that are, in his view, pro-peace.

Although Abe expressed remorse in Singapore, Japan remains vulnerable over its brutal history, which included the prolonged occupation of Korea and much of China and ended with the suicidal conflagration of the 1941-1945 Pacific War. Abe has made matters worse through his apparent indifference to the widely-accepted international record of much of this history, particularly on the issue of so-called 'comfort women'.

Unless Mr Abe reaches out to repair damage to ties with South Korea, and stays away from Yasukuni Shrine for the rest of his time as prime minister, he risks undermining his own policy achievements in making Japan a more effective defender of its interests in a changing Asia.

Photo by Flickr user IISS.


Amid tensions in the South China Sea and new alarm about a China-Russia alignment, President Obama's speech at West Point sends some confusing signals to the countries of Indo-Pacific Asia.  

To be fair, the speech was not meant to be principally about Asia. It was intended to draw a final line under the US military commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq. It perhaps was also meant to help clarify some of Obama's recent off-the-cuff remarks, including the ones during this media conference last month in Japan, about the limits of US reliance on military force in solving global security problems.  

Yet a broader reading is unavoidable. In the continued absence of a long-promised National Security Strategy from Washington, the speech will be studied closely at home and internationally for its formulations about US policy more generally. Some observers have already gone so far as to see in it the contours of a new foreign policy doctrine based on the limits of US power

And the view from Asia? There is little in this lengthy pronouncement that will ease misgivings among regional partners and some allies about the US commitment to the region's security.

The speech sits uneasily with the idea of a rebalance to Asia. For a start, it could be read as giving terrorism and human rights issues a higher priority than maintaining peace and stability in the very region that Obama himself has claimed to be central to the world's future.

It also sends out mixed messages to China and other Asian countries about what really constitutes an American core interest. On the one hand, President Obama says America will fight only for its core interests and defines the security of allies as being one of those interests.

Yet the speech fails to refer to deterrence against intimidation or aggression. And it says almost nothing about specific Asian security challenges like North Korea, Chinese assertiveness or the risk of armed miscalculation between China and other maritime states. It is also not clear regarding how much support countries that are not US treaty allies, such as Vietnam, can expect when they find themselves under extreme pressure from powerful neighbours.

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The speech suggests that the US would be willing to fight for its treaty allies, such as Japan. But America would be much more reluctant to threaten war over issues that 'push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us'. In this kind of situation, which happens to be a neat description of what is happening in the South China Sea, the US would seek to mobilise allies and partners to take action together, with force as a last resort and only then wielded multilaterally.

Obama's main points on the South China Sea come across as somewhat contradictory, and almost admissions of US weakness. Obama's speech makes clear that any solution to maritime territorial disputes must be based on norms and rules. Thus he highlights that the US is supporting Southeast Asian nations as they 'negotiate a code of conduct with China'.

This does not mean much. Every honest diplomat in Asia privately knows that the code is an ever-receding mirage and has been for the past 12 years: China will keep delaying agreement while it gets on with unilaterally changing facts in the water

At the same time, Obama points out that America's failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea means the US 'can't try to resolve problems in the South China Sea'.  This, however, is more a lament than a useful basis for policy. After all, the President knows that this situation won't change, since the roadblock lies with Republican senators he has no hope of budging.

So having just emphasised the limits of US military power, the President highlights (and arguably exaggerates) the limits of its diplomatic and moral influence too. I am not sure how such a confession is meant to reassure anyone, let alone Vietnam, the Philippines or China's other smaller rival claimants.

Of course, much of the West Point speech was about sending honourable signals to American audiences: bringing closure to a decade of foreign wars, bloody and un-won, and prudently sheathing military power in a scabbard of diplomacy, values and economic renewal. 

But the low priority it seems to place on Asia and this region's core strategic problems will needlessly sustain doubts about US commitment to the rebalance, announced so confidently in Canberra just a few years ago. 

 Image courtesy of the White House.


Prime Minister Abbott poses with the leaders of the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean military efforts searching for MH370 at RAAF Base Pearce.

Tony Abbott is about to depart on the most important international visit of his prime ministership thus far. Over the next week he will visit Japan, South Korea and China, three of Australia's top trading partners and key powers in Australia's strategic future.

Canberra's preference will be for trade and economic opportunity to dominate these talks: Mr Abbott will be accompanied by a large business delegation and – in a welcome sign of federal-state cooperation – several state premiers. A priority will be to move free trade agreement negotiations with Japan and China closer to conclusion.

But the most delicate diplomatic challenges of the tour may well be about security. Australia's greatest foreign and strategic policy problem in recent months has been the pressure to choose between China and Japan.

As I noted in a recent article, Australia has been caught up in a propaganda war between the two rivals, with their very different views on maritime disputes and the wartime atrocities of a lifetime ago. Instability has become the new normal in relations between the two wealthiest, most consequential powers in Asia.

Much has been made of Mr Abbott's fresh focus on Japan as a security partner, not quite an ally but seemingly not far from it. This at a time when Japan, under Shinzo Abe, is taking steps to 'normalise' its defence policies, including in allowing defence exports, expanding scope for military cooperation with others and slightly increasing defence spending.

Some commentators are warning that Prime Minister Abbott could let his judgment be swayed by sentiment rather than diplomatic reason. After all, he has called Japan Australia's 'closest friend in Asia'. (Mind you, one of those commentators, Hugh White, has previously called Japan something not entirely dissimilar, Australia's 'most successful relationship' in Asia.)

Contrary to some perceptions, Australia has not taken sides on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands maritime dispute between China and Japan.

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Australia is right not to recognise one country's territorial claims over another's. But Australia is also right to support the principle that differences should be settled by means other than force. That, in my view, was the underlying reason for the Abbott Government's decisions in late 2013 to state its opposition to coercive efforts to change the status quo in the East China Sea and, in particular, China's new air defence identification zone.

That said, there is no question China has been seriously unhappy with Australia's stance on these issues. So the forthcoming visit to Bejing is a vital opportunity to signal that Australia's foreign and security policies towards the Asian powers are based on principles, interests and mutual respect.

An Australian prime minister has nothing to gain from delivering grand pronouncements or surprises while in Beijing, as Kevin Rudd discovered. Much has been made of the reference in Mr Abbott's recent Canberra Press Club speech to possible future Chinese domestic 'liberalisation', with the implication that this would be a condition for closer Australia-China relations. It is unlikely, however, that Mr Abbott will go beyond such ambiguous and carefully-worded statements while in Beijing. His 2012 speech there as Opposition leader was not especially provocative (indeed, I suspect he said nothing that the then Labor Government did not privately think) and it is difficult to imagine him going further as head of government.

Instead, on the security front, Mr Abbott has an exceptional opportunity to underscore Australia's determination to work with the major Asian powers against common challenges. Australia's coordination of the international search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 – working closely with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean assets — is a reminder of this country's potential as a convener for security cooperation on transnational problems like humanitarian assistance, stabilisation missions, counter-piracy and search-and-rescue. Australia can and should become a partner of choice for China in legitimate security efforts to help its nationals abroad.

Tragedy has here provided Australia with a chance for sensible security diplomacy. Likewise, the predictable unpredictability of North Korea – amid recent artillery barrages and rumours of a fourth nuclear test – offers a moment for Mr Abbott to emphasise the need for Australia to work with the other North Asian powers to manage a common danger.

On that note, Mr Abbott could usefully send a signal to the US too. With President Obama due to visit Tokyo and Seoul later this month, Australia has a chance to help shape a shared message by America's three key Asian allies – Australia, Japan and South Korea — about the need for a credible US rebalance to this region.

Photo by REUTERS/Jason Reed.