Lowy Institute

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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With its sudden announcement of an unorthodox aerial ‘defence identification’ zone, along with its aircraft carrier’s first voyage into the South China Sea, China continues to send troubling signals about its strategic intentions in Asia.

From a Chinese national interest point of view, this is a pity on many levels, not least because it overshadows Beijing’s belated but significant effort to contribute to security 'public goods' in the region. After lengthy internal deliberations, China last week sent its hospital ship Peace Ark to assist the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Two weeks ago, many commentators, myself included, made much of China’s failure to respond to the typhoon with speed and compassion. At that point, the idle Peace Ark was at risk of becoming the symbol of all that is self-defeating and indifferent about Chinese foreign policy. 

So, for the record, the deployment of the Peace Ark should be welcomed as a positive step, and better late than never. It is also a reminder that beneath the surface there is substantial debate within China about the merits of its foreign and security policy. It would be a mistake to treat official Chinese pronouncements as the only immovable object in the Asian or Indo-Pacific strategic order.

Photo by REUTERS/Carlos Barria.

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China’s announcement of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea has come in for widespread criticism, including from Japan, the US and Australia. Already, the US and Japan have made it clear that their aircraft will not comply, and the Pentagon has made its point by continuing its training missions within the zone

I agree with the view that China’s move is, on balance, a destabilising step, and one that will make tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands even harder to manage. This is the very opposite of the kind of diplomatic leadership former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called for in a recent speech reported on this site. It also flies directly in the face of recent statements by the Australian, US and Japanese governments opposing coercive or unilateral changes to the status quo in the East China Sea. It is more than ‘poking and prodding’; it is using a grey area of international law in an attempt to expand a geographic zone of accepted Chinese authority.

But in opposing China’s new move, it is important to be clear about precisely why it is objectionable, and why it did not have to be so.

An ADIZ is not a provocative or negative step in itself; indeed, it can be in the interests of stability and security of the nation enforcing it. Many countries have such zones already, including Japan, South Korea and the US, which started the whole trend decades ago.

If China’s new zone did not include disputed maritime territory, if its requirements for compliance applied only to aircraft heading into Chinese airspace, and if neighbours like Japan and South Korea had been consulted ahead of the announcement, then there would be little or nothing for others to object to. Indeed, it could have been part of a wider strategy of cooperation to reduce maritime security risks in North Asia.

Instead, there are several things wrong with China's declared position:

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  • It is a unilateral step, announced suddenly and apparently without consultation with two countries whose civilian and military aircraft will be most affected, the US and Japan.
  • It includes a contested maritime area, notably the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and thus can be seen as a deliberate effort to change the status quo, even a provocation.
  • Its ‘rules’ demanding that aircraft identify themselves and obey Chinese direction on flight paths seem to apply to all aircraft in the zone and not only aircraft en route to China. This conflicts with the basic early warning and air-traffic control purposes of an ADIZ, and with longstanding Pentagon regulations advising US military aircraft to comply with a foreign ADIZ only when they flying on a course into that country’s airspace, not when they are simply in transit or on patrol.
  • It looks like a pretext for one of two undesirable security outcomes. If foreign aircraft now regularly obey the new Chinese rules, we will see precedents set for the unilateral expansion of Chinese authority over contested maritime territory. Alternately, if foreign aircraft contest or ignore the Chinese zone and a dangerous or deadly incident occurs (such as a collision or a forceful encounter), then China will have prepared the way to absolve itself of legal or moral blame, making it easier to use the incident as a justification to escalate the crisis if China so chooses.

If the motive for establishing the ADIZ was solely or genuinely about the prevention of risky incidents, then China’s bureaucratic energies would have been better spent on reaching out and negotiating with Japan and America to craft effective ‘confidence-building measures’: communications protocols, hotlines and ‘rules of the road’, or incidents-at-sea (and in-the-air) agreements.

Instead, tension has become the new normal in the East China Sea, and it won’t end here. It was striking that the official Chinese announcement of the new zone included these words:

China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.

It sounds like we should expect another such zone over a substantial part of the South China Sea before too long.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Toby Melville.

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Applications are now open for the 2014 Michael and Deborah Thawley Scholarship in international security at the Lowy Institute. The closing date is Wednesday 4 December at 5pm.

The Scholarship is an exceptional opportunity for an emerging Australian strategic thinker — such as a junior official or postgraduate student — to take part in the work of two leading think tanks dedicated to generating original and policy oriented ideas and research on world affairs.

For a first-hand sense of what is involved, here are some observations from 2013 Thawley Scholar Jack Georgieff:

The opportunity to work at two of the world's top think tanks was a life-changing experience. After five years of academic study, I relished the chance to work in a professional policy environment.

My initial placement at the Lowy Institute allowed me to get to know what its experts were working on and reacting to (such as when North Korea tested another nuclear bomb). In particular I valued the opportunity to talk and seek guidance from senior research staff on what I should do with my time at CSIS. Such mentoring was an integral part of my initial placement at Lowy.

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After a month at Lowy, I departed for Washington DC, arriving to a very chilly spring. My placement to work on alliance issues under Japan Chair Dr Michael Green allowed me to pursue a program of individual and collaborative research, participation in roundtables and CSIS conferences, and attending events at a number of think tanks around Washington DC. To be in the midst of some of the world's best strategic and political minds was enthralling. Not only that, but the ability to get face time with them in a way few young graduates do was intellectually and professionally the most satisfying part of my research placement.

The issue I focused on was alliances in the Indo-Pacific, particularly those the US has with Australia, Korea and Japan. It was striking how valued the Australian perspective on strategic issues was — many at CSIS (both senior and junior) were keen to hear my thoughts on how America was perceived in the framework of its 'rebalance'. My views on these alliances made me realise that they are more integral than ever for the success or failure of the rebalance strategy coming from Washington.

I also participated on a panel giving thoughts from an Australian perspective on China's ever increasing defence budget. The chance to share these views and interact with some of the top thinkers on this issue allowed me to see how complicated analysis of it really was. I came away from Washington with a much better understanding of the intellectual debates that take place. In an age of 24-hour news it is surprisingly difficult to understand the rich diversity of the world's most powerful country. My short time there helped.

Additionally, I was privileged to take part in the US-NZ Pacific Partnership Forum as a 'Future Leader', which gave me exposure to how Washington is engaging with New Zealand as a smaller partner in the Indo-Pacific. The conference included hearing six former US Trade Representatives on a single panel discuss the prospect of a Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, as well as a high-level panel discussing security issues, including Randy Shriver and the New Zealand Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones. Alongside my own work on alliances, participation at this conference made me realise how valuable a strong partnership with the US is for small countries.

By living and working in Washington DC, I got to know so much about the US and its people. I hope to one day to return to work there and further deepen the relationships and friendships the Thawley Scholarship allowed me to develop. It really is an experience I will value for the rest of my life.

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If there can be such a play as a diplomatic tragedy, then the story of Kevin Rudd as a foreign-policy and defence-policy prime minister would fit the bill.

He had a far-sighted vision of Australia’s interests and what needed to be done to advance and protect them in a changing Asia and a changing world. He set out to do great things. But much went awry in the doing of them, and his legacy is less than it could have been.

Now reviewing my own hasty and somewhat harsh appraisal of his record up to 2010 in light of Rudd's retirement from parliament, I must admit to a few second thoughts.

For instance, while his rough handling of Australia’s relations with Japan and India amounted to an opportunity cost (we could have advanced those relationships further and faster), the damage turned out to be short-term and superficial, and we have all moved on. Gillard on India and now Abbott on Japan have helped see to that.

Rudd deserves a place in history for his ambition for Australian external policy. He briefly played Australia back into a significant place on global arms control efforts, and his International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, though criticised by some, probably helped influence the debate in Washington towards a more restrained nuclear weapons posture (with more than a little help from Gareth Evans).

Rudd certainly recognised the big power shifts underway in Asia, particularly from the rise of China, and was ahead of the curve in identifying the risks from Chinese strategic assertiveness.

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Back in 2009, some of us were more sanguine and have since changed our minds to recognise the need for increased Australian defence spending.

Nor was Australia’s rocky relationship with China in 2008 and 2009 all Rudd’s doing, by any means. Beijing’s misreading of Rudd as pro-China, and its subsequent exaggerated sense of betrayal, was a malfunction of Chinese diplomacy too. And by taking a stand against China on issues like defence policy, consular protection and human rights, Rudd certainly can’t be faulted for a lack of self-respect on his country’s behalf.

It is also to Rudd’s credit that he had mutually-reinforcing aspirations for Australian foreign and defence policy: we could wield bigger diplomatic influence in our region if we increased our own military weight.

Yet it is the very fact that Rudd’s agenda was so grand that makes its flawed delivery disappointing.

Much of the energy of his confusing Asia Pacific Community initiative was consumed in a flurry of airfares and thought bubbles, with Rudd first telling the region what it needed by way of diplomatic architecture, then asking the region what it needed, then discovering what many (including within the Australian bureaucracy) had known all along: that the region did not need a new forum, it just needed America and Russia to join an existing one, the East Asia Summit. They already had invitations pending, since 2005, and I still believe that their joining up was only a matter of time.

Still, it has to be said that none less than Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell have praised Rudd for doing more than anyone else to tilt the debate within Washington on this issue.

The gap between ambition and outcome is greatest, though, when it comes to defence policy. Whether one agrees with the entire force structure from the 2009 white paper – including a submarine fleet that will take decades to deliver at a cost that can still barely be calculated – it remains the blueprint for Australian military modernisation. It is yet to be seen whether the Abbott Government’s next defence white paper departs all that much in substance.

But Rudd’s defence plans will also be remembered for their failure to match capability with costings – and an almost immediate failure to follow through with the required budget.

In foreign and defence policy, as in domestic policy, Kevin Rudd’s performance will be remembered for its dissonance of promise and delivery. The wrong lesson from all this would be for future Australian leaders to overcorrect by attempting not much at all.

Photo by REUTERS/Mick Tsikas.

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Amid the horrific human tragedy, it may feel heartless to speculate about the strategic consequences of the typhoon that has taken more than 10,000 lives in the Philippines. But you can be sure such thinking will be well underway within governments all around Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific, even while they work in good faith to do something to help the afflicted.

Think back to the Indian Ocean tsunami that caused such devastation in December 2004. A notable feature of the international response was the rapid mobilisation of a coalition of four nations — the US, Japan, India and Australia — to deliver relief using military and civilian assets.

That arrangement had real geopolitical effects. It advanced military cooperation, trust and dialogue among those four powers, setting the ball rolling for a four-way security dialogue a few years later that in turn led to accusations from China that an ‘Asian NATO’ was being created to contain its rise.

Although China gained some kudos for its own civilian aid to Indonesia after the tsunami, it would not – or more probably could not – provide rapid assistance using military capabilities.

Things have changed.

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Regional diplomacy is scarred by deeper security competition and mistrust than in 2004. China is also stronger. The PLA now has substantial maritime assets that can be turned towards disaster relief, such as a hospital ship (pictured) which is now used as a major platform for Chinese diplomacy, in ways the US Navy would recognise from its own long tradition. The 2004 experience may have even hastened Chinese efforts to acquire this capacity.

Moreover, what little embryonic security cooperation there is within inclusive multilateral organisations in Asia (such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus process) is focused around humanitarian assistance, because that is such a non-controversial subject.

So the next few weeks will be a big test for those institutions to live up to their promise of real cooperation.

Already, US Pacific Command is deploying forces to assist the people of the Philippines. This is not just kindness to an ally and its people. At a time when American power and purpose in Asia are being questioned, it will also be noticed as a reminder that the forward-deployed American military is still the first and fastest responder to contingencies of any kind.

What Beijing does next will be an important sign of how sensible, capable and magnanimous a power Xi Jinping’s China is going to be when it comes to regional diplomacy. After all, China’s relations with the Philippines have most recently been marked by bitter differences over maritime boundaries. Important questions now are: what assistance will China offer? What if any conditions will be attached? what will Manila accept? Can competing powers coordinate to bring succour to people in need?

And finally, what impact will all this have on the balance of influence in Asia?

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Today, the 11th of November, is Remembrance Day, marking the Armistice that ended the First World War, a time to reflect on the fallen in that and so many other conflicts. In Australia this year, it also happens to be a day to look to the nation’s future in Asia, since a major conference of the Indian diaspora is getting underway here in Sydney (see my opinion piece on India-Australia relations in The Australian today). The date is not the only thing these two events have in common.

This year I was privileged to learn of an extraordinary thread of military history connecting the nation’s past and its multicultural, Indo-Pacific future. Australians, and even more so Indians, tend to forget that they have long been comrades in arms. Indians fought and died alongside Australians from Gallipoli to Tobruk.

And although Australia’s military history, and the ANZAC legacy, has long been seen as principally the preserve of Anglo-Celtic Australia, there were always some fascinating exceptions, precursors of the inclusive democracy that has become one of this nation’s great strengths and that today’s Australian Defence Force increasingly reflects.

As this country prepares to mark the Centenary of ANZAC, the director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, has introduced a powerful new element to the narrative that institution tells. At the museum’s Last Post ceremony at the end of each day, the story is given of one individual from among the more than 100,000 Australians service personnel who have died in war.

Earlier this year, I visited the War Memorial with a colleague, Indian scholar and Lowy Institute nonresident fellow Raja Mohan. Here is the remarkable story we heard at the end of that day, as prepared by AWM historian Meleah Hampton:

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Private Nain Singh Sailani, 44th Battalion

Today, we remember and pay tribute to Private Nain Singh Sailani.

Nain Singh Sailani was born in Simla, India, in 1873. Very little is known about his arrival in Australia, although he may be the N. Saliaani who arrived in Geraldton, Western Australia, in 1895. He would have been 22 years old.

Sailani worked in Western Australia as a labourer, and used the Perth General Post Office to receive his mail. He was friends with Mr Cyril Coleman, a tobacconist in Perth, whom Sailani nominated as the executor of his will.

Sailani volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force in February 1916 as a British subject. He was 43 years old when he was allotted to the 44th Battalion, and went on to have a clear military record except for one training accident in early 1917.

Otherwise he earned no particular censure or praise, but instead was one of thousands of Australians and new Australians who served their battalion quietly. In the period Sailani was with the 44th Battalion in France, they were mostly involved with either holding the front line, or in working parties in or near the front line. Working parties could be particularly dangerous, as they had to work under enemy fire, either repairing or constructing trenches, or carrying ammunition and supplies to the front.

In late May and early June 1917 the battalion was involved in working parties for more than a week in the area around Ploegsteert Wood. On 1 June 1917 the whole Australian front line and reserve area came under heavy German artillery and machine-gun fire. Somewhere in this fire, Nain Singh Sailani was killed in action.

There are no records of the manner of his death, nor was his mother, Ranjore Singh, in Simla sent any details. However, he was clearly a remarkable man. Not only did Sailani, an Indian man, enlist and fight as a private in the Australian Army during the period of the White Australia Policy, but he did so at the age of 43. He arrived in France during one of the harshest winters on record, and yet there is no record of him visiting hospital for any reason, unlike the many stricken by influenza or pneumonia. The silence of his records remains a testament to a strong man. Nain Singh Sailani was buried as an Australian solider in the Strand Military Cemetery in Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium.

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, along with more than 60,000 others from the First World War.

This is but one of the many stories of courage and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Private Nain Singh Sailani, and all of those Australians who have given their lives in the service of our nation.

Photo by Flickr user Prescott.

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I have mixed feelings about a big new report from a US defence think tank on Australia’s potential role as a US ally in the Indo-Pacific. Sure, it will help focus US minds on the alliance in the lead-up to the next high-level AUSMIN meeting on 19-20 November, but at risk of the kind of publicity that may aggravate Australian policymakers, not to mention public opinion.

First, the positives. Gateway to the Indo-Pacific, by a research team from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, gets some important things right.

It correctly assesses the changing nature of the Asian geopolitical framework from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, as China’s interests expand south and west and India’s expand east, lending greater strategic centrality to Southeast Asia and Australia. I am in furious agreement on that analytical point.

The report also neatly stresses Australia’s strategic importance through its use of diagonally pivoted maps of the Indo-Pacific. Scottish-Australian explorer and soldier Thomas Mitchell had that idea 165 years ago, and I would be the first to agree that is a clever way of accentuating the proximity of Australia’s north and west to Asia and its sea lanes.

There’s also evidence of detailed research in this report, into both the history and the contemporary shortcomings of Australian defence policy and capability. For example, it looks in some depth at an issue identified earlier this year by my colleague James Brown, namely the risks from failing to modernise our defence infrastructure, especially for Australian and allied air operations.

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The report is right that Australian defence is under-funded – although of course this is not only in terms of our ability to contribute to the alliance. The report is also far-sighted in identifying Australia as potentially America’s most valuable ally this century. And it makes an interesting if incomplete effort at producing a typology of Australian strategists’ attitudes to the alliance (maximalist, minimalist and incrementalist).

So far, so good, and I am sure there will be more to say after a closer reading. No doubt Australia's strategic community will have plenty to say about whether the report's view of alliance military objectives, or its liberal use of World War II analogies, is helpful or realistic.

Even short of that, some significant flaws are apparent at once.

There are odd points of detail that suggest a superficial grasp of Australian politics (‘the new Liberal-Nationalist’ government) as well as this country’s policy debates and security commitments. For instance, I doubt anyone in Canberra seriously thinks that the Five Power Defence Arrangement would be a reason for us to find ourselves at war with China in the South China Sea.

These may seem quibbles, but they mean that other parts of the report are less likely to ring true to Australian readers.

The deeper problems, though, are with the report’s assumptions and the way its conclusions are framed. Those conclusions revolve around defining four possible roles for Australia in the future of the alliance, with the rather dramatic labels of 'Supportive Sanctuary', 'Indo-Pacific Watchtower', 'Green Water Warden' and 'Peripheral Launchpad'.

All of these roles assume a central role for Australia in a possible future US-China military conflict or confrontation – in other words, predetermining and limiting the nature and purpose of the alliance. It seems less about shaping the Indo-Pacific strategic order than about preparing for conflict with China.

The report is built on the questionable assumption that any or all of these roles would be automatically acceptable to Australia and Australians.

As this year’s Lowy Institute poll suggested, none of this should be taken for granted. While large majorities of Australians support the alliance and are comfortable with a larger US military presence in this country, only 36% 38% would support US military action in Asia.

There are good arguments for Australia to continue intensifying the alliance with the US. But as James Brown and I have argued recently, this should include a greater Australian contribution to the crafting of alliance strategy (especially in helping determine its objectives) and not simply greater Australian contributions to the execution of a strategy pre-made in Washington.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

An earlier headline for this post ('Flawed US report sells Australia's alliance role short') was changed because it did not reflect the tone of the article. Neither headline was written by the author.

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The outcry over the extent to which the NSA and other agencies collect intelligence electronically will have some notable policy consequences. Already, there are reports of a mutual non-spying agreement between the US and Germany, a de facto extension of one aspect of the ‘five eyes’ arrangement.

And there is some understandable worry about how much damage the Snowden leaks are doing to US influence, playing into the hands of authoritarian states untroubled about striking a balance between democratic transparency and effective intelligence capabilities.

But there may be another unintended consequence of Snowden’s mega-leaks about US and allied signals intelligence (or SIGINT). To be sure, the NSA is coming under intense political scrutiny and can expect to have its ears clipped, literally.

Yet in a weird way, this whole saga may be good for spies.

In a self-help world, any self-respecting government will want the advantages of possessing classified intelligence – information that other states do not want it to have, and the very obtaining of which it wants to keep secret. Governments may not necessarily need this information on a day-to-day basis, but they do want to have options open so they can get hold of it in a crisis, precisely the hardest time to set up new collection sources and channels. Hence they typically ensure themselves the ability to collect more than they immediately need.

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If it can't be got one way, perhaps it will be got another. With the prospect of much greater political and public scrutiny on SIGINT – its ambit, targets and methods – what will be the effect on another realm of spying, the use of human intelligence, or spies as traditionally understood?

One possibility is that governments which curtail their electronic efforts might begin to reinvest heavily in the human side of things, the old-fashioned world of running agents to gather forbidden information and insight through time-honoured if not exactly honourable methods of interacting in certain ways with other people. In other words, what is bad for the NSA may be good for the CIA.

This of course brings its own political and moral dilemmas. Human intelligence or HUMINT has its own fallibilities, including those that depend on the less-than-pure motives of people who give or sell classified information to foreigners. The sorry tale-telling of Iraqi defector Curveball is a reminder of HUMINT’s unique capacity for inaccuracy and distortion (and there’s a German connection in that story too).

Of course, HUMINT can occasionally deliver intelligence gems, such as a timely insight into the intentions of leaders or terrorists. But typically this comes with commensurate risk to diplomatic relations or even to a source’s life.

In any case, there is one kind of spy agency that is sure to find itself even busier due to all this rage against the SIGINT machine. Presumably, pressure is going to increase for domestic security organisations like the FBI and ASIO (a corporate member of the Lowy Institute) to identify and stop the next Snowden (and the next Manning while they are at it).

Regardless of whether a few countries now reconsider the extent of their own electronic eavesdropping abroad, it is absurd to imagine that the intelligence game can be wished away from relations between states.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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