Lowy Institute

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 It stressed the need to resist an outdated international politics based on spheres of influence, bullying and coercion, and instead reasserted American support for peaceful management of disputes based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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

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.

Media

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The immediate risk of major armed conflict in Europe may have eased slightly, but Russia's brutally old-fashioned assault on Ukrainian sovereignty will have profound strategic consequences. These will matter as much to the rest of the world, including Asia, as they will to Europe.

Beyond the rude reawakening of Europe from what was left of its postmodern slumber, here are some major repercussions to watch for:

A new Cold War?

Only last week one of America's leading security practitioner-experts, Richard Haass, warned an audience at the Lowy Institute that the past few decades may yet come to be known depressingly as the inter-Cold War era.

He was referring to a potential future freeze in relations between the US and China. But observers who know Russia even more intimately suggest there is now the possibility of at least a limited Cold War between Washington and Moscow featuring a direct contest for influence, deep mistrust, and the end of even a pretence of cooperation on global issues like nuclear arms control. Russia's provocatively-timed test of an intercontinental ballistic missile can be read as the crudest kind of Cold War signaling.

An anxious Asia

China and America's Asian allies will be watching events in Europe closely, but what lessons will they draw?

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It is easy to make the argument that China will be emboldened and Japan dismayed by Russia's blatant crossing of an American red line against intervention in Ukraine. But this overlooks the point that Ukraine is not a US ally. So, if anything, the importance of alliances has just risen.

That will change, of course, if America lets down an ally, but there is no evidence of that happening just yet. Indeed, after having its bluff called on diplomatic red lines over Syria and Ukraine, Washington may be even more determined to hold the line in Asia. The ultimate lessons Asia and the rest of the world draw from the Ukraine situation depend on what happens next, placing a premium on the cleverness or otherwise of US diplomacy in the days and weeks ahead.

A conflicted China

Do not assume that the leadership in Beijing will be rejoicing that strategic partner Russia has poked a stick in America's eye and got away with it. China and Russia are partners of convenience, not allies, and have their own long-term currents of mistrust, including over Russia's far eastern territories (which, incidentally, have a large and growing Chinese population).

For now, China will draw some comfort that American attention has been distracted away from the maritime disputes on China's eastern edge. But Russia has now blatantly breached a bedrock principle of China's declared foreign policy: non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It will now be harder for Beijing to deflect future international interest in what goes on in Tibet or Xinjiang.

Yet for China to support some kind of international mediation or monitoring of the Ukraine situation or to keep up its earlier call for 'respect for international law' would raise awkward questions about its present rejection of an international legal process over its maritime dispute with the Philippines. No wonder the current Chinese 'objective, just, fair and peaceful' propaganda line can't do much better than the exquisitely anodyne ('There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today').

Meanwhile, China's rapid military modernisation proceeds apace: today, it announced yet another double-digit annual increase in defence spending.   

The dissipation, or at least the trifurcation, of America’s strategic attention

Washington's much-touted 'rebalance to Asia' was already facing scepticism among Indo-Pacific allies and partners who have seen modest and uneven follow-through to grand pronouncements like President Obama's 2011 Canberra speech. Now America's foreign and defence policy establishment faces deep tensions on three fronts at the same time: Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia (where China-Japan differences over disputed islands and history carry the small but real possibility of war).

Can America lead in managing all these woes at the same time? How will allies in one region read Washington's handling of troubles in another? Is it fanciful scare-mongering to start thinking of the prospect of a future double Cold War, with US-Russia and US-China relations in the freezer at the same time? All this when most Americans are weary of overseas entanglements and want foreign policy – and every other kind of policy – to begin at home.

A new justification for the intelligence world

A new atmosphere of confrontation between Russia and the US/NATO will remind governments and many in the wider public about the value of covert intelligence-gathering and confidential diplomacy. This may mark the beginning of the end of the trend of widespread public sympathy for Snowden, Assange and their indiscriminate spilling of American and allied secrets, information which has been of incalculable benefit to Putin's Russia.

The present Ukraine crisis is precisely the kind of situation where the US would understandably want to know exactly what its potential adversary, and some of its key European friends, are thinking. And who knows, timely intelligence might even mean the difference been a crisis managed and a one that spins out of control. Even Chancellor Merkel would be in the market for that.

Photo by Flickr user Jennerally.

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china pla navy exercise australia indonesia relations

China's Indo-Pacific naval exercise, which I first analysed in this post, is continuing to make waves, with David Wroe of the Sydney Morning Herald providing this good wrap-up on the implications for Australia. But what are we to make of the latest twist being reported in the Jakarta Post?  

The report quotes an Indonesian military spokesman as saying that Jakarta had allowed Chinese navy vessels to pass through Indonesian waters  as 'a token of our friendship'. The headline suggests, none too subtly, that this was also about Indonesia deliberately snubbing Australian sensitivities, presumably because of differences over issues such as illegal immigration and espionage.

But the report needs to be treated with caution. A few elements don't stack up.

For a start, the TNI spokesman, Rear Admiral Iskandar Sitompul, does not appear to have said anything about Australia when referring to the Chinese naval exercise, suggesting that the 'Indonesia thumbs its nose at Oz' headline may be a bit of editorial mischief aimed at stoking Australia-Indonesia tensions.

Second, the details quoted about the Chinese exercise are not consistent with the Chinese navy's own official reports about what took place.

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The Chinese version is that three ships were involved: two destroyers and a large amphibious transport ship, with this taskforce traveling directly from its base in China.  The Jakarta Post version includes the extraordinary assertion that the vessels included multiple submarines, and that they were returning from 'anti-piracy training in the Gulf of Aden'. Either these details are incorrect, or the Jakarta Post and the TNI spokesman are referring to quite a different Chinese taskforce.

This raises new and interesting questions, whether about the tempo and nature of Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean, or the accuracy of Indonesian media reporting. (I should add that another Indonesian newspaper has been quite fair-minded in offering an Australian interpretation of events.)

In my view, it would be downright strange for Chinese submarines to be taking part in 'anti-piracy' training, and just as odd for them to be transiting the Sunda Strait from north to south on their way home to China from the western reaches of the Indian Ocean. So I suspect someone has their facts wrong.

In any case, it is misleading to suggest that Indonesia allowing Chinese ships to use an international waterway like the Sunda Strait is in any way a special favour. The Chinese navy has every right to exercise its right of innocent passage through such a waterway. It was perfectly normal for Indonesia to let them through, and a gesture neither of friendship to China nor of rudeness to Australia.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence Forum.

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Australia's strategic environment changed a week ago, even if much of our media did not notice. Last weekend, a Chinese taskforce of three warships steamed south through the Sunda Strait to conduct combat simulations and other exercises in the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Indonesia and Christmas Island.

The vessels, two destroyers and an advanced 20,000-ton amphibious ship capable of carrying some hundreds of marines (pictured), then skirted the southern edge of Java before heading north through the Lombok and Makassar Straits and into the Pacific.

This is the first substantial Chinese military exercise in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean and in Australia's maritime approaches. It seems also to be the first time a Chinese taskforce has transited the Sunda and Lombok straits as alternatives to the Malacca Strait.

With this decidedly Indo-Pacific foray, China is sending many signals, deliberately or not. One is about its ability and ambition to project force through and beyond the South China Sea. Another is its wish to be seen to be interested in protecting its commercial sea lanes into the Indian Ocean. A third is that the People's Liberation Army-Navy will go where it wants when it wants, without necessarily consulting or forewarning local powers.

A fourth is that the islands of East Asia are not a meaningful 'chain' to constrain China's military reach. In that sense, this exercise should be seen alongside a larger activity in the western Pacific last October.

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To be clear, there was nothing illegal or fundamentally hostile about what the Chinese navy has just demonstrated. A greater Chinese security role in the Indian Ocean is inevitable and at one level a corollary of China's economic interests.

Even so, this recent episode is bound to raise questions in national security establishments across the region, including in India and Indonesia as well as in Australia. I will have more to say about that next week in a joint opinion article with prominent Indian strategist Raja Mohan (a Lowy Institute nonresident fellow and incidentally my co-chair in a major Australia-India dialogue that kept us busy this week).

Although the Chinese navy may have surprised us all with the precise timing and nature of its Indo-Pacific venture, nobody can accuse Beijing of a lack of transparency in its public reporting during the event.

Indeed, the coverage of the exercise in the Chinese media and on social media is a textbook case for intelligence analysts and policymakers in how so-called 'open sources' can provide early warning of change in the strategic environment – earlier, I suspect, than much of the secret stuff.

I first learned of the exercise six days ago, with help from a friend who makes a habit of monitoring Chinese-language press, the magic of Google translate, as well as a tweet from American China expert Taylor Fravel. Within another day or two, Chinese state television was proudly reporting, in English and in some technical detail, about the Indian Ocean drill. These and other Chinese reports were more than enough to piece together a clear sense of the route and activities of the three ships, as well as the historic nature of their voyage.

Yet days passed before much of this made it into the international English-language media, and I am yet to see serious news coverage in Australia (the Hindu's excellent China correspondent was a little quicker off the mark).

The precise strategic implications of the Chinese navy's newly-demonstrated ability to operate in Australia's northern approaches are open to debate. Neither China nor Australia wants a confrontational relationship. The idea that China might pose a direct military threat to Australia remains far from mainstream in our strategic debate. Australia has rightly sought to engage China as a security partner in recent years, for instance in disaster-relief exercises.

Even so, it is a safe bet that the voyage of the three Chinese warships Changbaishan, Wuhan and Haikou will prove far more consequential to Australia's strategic future than any number of those certain other vessels in the waters off Indonesia that have so dominated our media and political attention of late.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence Forum.

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This week Japan released its first overarching national security strategy, a sign of the troubled times in North Asian geopolitics as well as a marker of where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to take Japanese policy.

So this was the logical moment for the Lowy Institute to launch a new analysis putting Abe's strategy into context. In Japan is Back: Unbundling Abe's Grand Strategy, noted American Japan-watcher Mike Green explains Abe's objectives for Japan in coping with China's rise, and offers some conclusions on how the US and partners such as Australia should seek to influence Japan's direction.

Mike Green is well placed to make such observations; he served as a senior adviser on Asia policy in the George W Bush Administration and is Vice-President for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS, as well as a nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute. I spoke with Mike recently about his Japan research, and about the directions of Asia policy under Australia's new government, led by a prime minister who has described Japan as Australia's 'best friend in Asia'.

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