Lowy Institute

Bringing together all the longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

We've had some interesting responses to Hugh White's piece from last week on China-Japan competition and what it means for the US-Japan alliance. This is addition to Malcolm Cook's critique last Friday.

First up, Christopher Pokarier argued that a key part of China's foreign policy is an attempt to delegitimise Japan:

Clearly, central to such a strategy is the stigmatisation of Japan, given its locale, continuing economic, technological and cultural clout, and alliance with the US. In recent months, wilful misrepresentation of Japan's contemporary character as a society and a polity under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has escalated.

This has been evidenced starkly in Chinese media reaction to Abe's recent visit to Australia and the close and deepening ties affirmed by the Australian and Japanese governments. Shrill criticism from mainland media soon became news in its own right in Australia, and a counterweight to the otherwise upbeat news cycle around Abe's visit.

Next up, Dhruva Jaishankar argued that what China fears most in Asia is some sort of middle-power coalition to balance Beijing's growing power:

A security partnership with India offers Japan at least two other benefits, both of which, if carried through, could undermine Beijing's plans for regional hegemony. Japan's military-to-military contacts with India enable it to prepare for out-of-area contingencies, particularly in the maritime realm, which represents a key step in Japan's path to becoming a normal military power. More significantly, the possibility of joint production of the US-2 aircraft with India, and its potential export to third countries, could mark a major development as part of Japan's reversal of its self-imposed ban on defence exports.

Finally, Brad Glosserman suggested that given Japan's strategic and economic realities, its responses to China's rise are constricted:

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Given this context, Japan's choices become:

  1. The status quo, or alliance with the US: this allows Japan to balance psychological and structural constraints and maintain maximum freedom of maneuver. In truth, however, even this could push the Japanese public to the edge of its comfort zone.
  2. A nuclear power, without great power ambitions: this would be a practically impossible choice, given anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan. Pursuit of the nuclear option would isolate Japan and offer little security, which its strategic planners acknowledge. The public would never stomach an offensive posture, so any nuclear stance would be a poison pill, purely defensive in nature. (If I wanted to be as provocative as possible, I'd call this the 'North Korean option.') This undercuts Hugh's thesis of a nuclear-armed Japan striving to become a great power (add the cost of such a policy and the likelihood plunges even further).
  3. A junior partner to China: Japanese may not want to compete with China but they are too proud and too unsettled by China to accept subordinate status either. Even junior partner status within the alliance can be irritating, but the US uses the right language when discussing Japan to relieve that pressure. Japan could only accept a subordinate status to China when China is so transformed that it is no longer a threat to Japan (about the same time that Taiwan would vote to reunite with the mainland) and when Beijing offers a relationship that affords Japan the status it demands.

Hugh responded to his critics, offering this conclusion:

So what can Japan do? I think it faces a binary choice: accept Chinese primacy or try to preserve its full political and strategic independence. Which path Japan takes will depend, inter alia, on what kind of regional hegemon China might become. If it turned out to be as benign as the US has been in the Western Hemisphere, then a future for Japan as Asia's Canada might not be so bad. But how trusting are the Japanese willing to be? And what have the Chinese done to earn Japan's trust? 

And the alternative? I may have misled Brad by describing Japan's other option as a return to 'great power' status. I do not mean that Japan would need to compete with China for hegemony in Asia, or assert a sphere of influence of its own to match and balance China's. In the right regional setting Japan could establish itself as a great power on equal terms with China, without seeking hegemony or a sphere of influence. For reasons I set out in The China Choice, that regional setting would need to resemble the nineteenth-century European Concert of Powers: a Concert of Asia. Only as an independent great power in that kind of setting can Japan be secure over coming decades, unless it is willing to accept subordination to China.

Sticking with Northeast Asia, Robert Kelly gave us two posts on whether the US should withdraw its forces from South Korea. In Part 1, he argued in the affirmative:

The US is not an empire. Where it can retrench, it should. Commitments should not last indefinitely.

This is an openly normative argument. If one embraces a full-throated version of US hegemony (militarised, globalised, interventionist) then this will not appeal. But post-Iraq, there is clear public desire to rein in American interventions, so the normative case for restraint, on liberal democratic grounds, is strong.

The costs of hegemony are not just financial. They also include the regular war-making and killing of foreigners; a sprawling, hugely intrusive national security state; domestic nativism; as well as torture, indefinite detention, rendition, and similar penal abuses. All this suggests that retrenchment would be good for American democracy and liberalism. Allies may not like that. They will complain of abandonment. But sacrificing America's liberal ideals at home to promote them abroad is strange brew. It is increasingly obvious that hegemony abroad is deleterious to American liberalism at home. Where allies can stand on their own, as South Korea very obviously can, US retrenchment would be domestically healthy.

In Part 2, Robert gave us four reasons why US forces should remain in South Korea:

South Korea, standing alone, might slide toward a semi-democratic national security state like Pakistan

This cost is almost never reckoned by those advocating withdrawal from Korea. Most advocates of retrenchment from Korea, such as Cato's Doug Bandow, assume Korea to be a stable market democracy that can carry the costs of a head-to-head competition with North Korea. This is so economically, but I am not so sure politically. For thirty years the 'republic' of Korea was more like a Prussianised barracks-state dictatorship than a republic, with one dictator, Park Chung-hee, who genuinely seemed like the Korean version of Mussolini (Park's repression was the big reason President Carter wanted to withdraw from Korea as part of his human rights emphasis in US foreign policy). So thorough-going was the McCarthyite propaganda of dictatorial Korea about the 'reds' to the north that many older Koreans will tell you they actually believed that North Koreans had red skin.

Long, enervating national security competitions, like those between Pakistan and India, or North and South Korea, are corrosive to democratic and liberal institutions. South Korea's dictators used to justify repression and illiberalism on precisely these grounds. It is a huge achievement for South Korea that it managed to create real democratic and liberal institutions. It would have been easy for South Korea to stay a militarised faux-democracy like Egypt today, or Turkey and Indonesia earlier on. A US withdrawal that pushed up South Korean defence spending to 7% of GDP might threaten the South Korean experiment with liberalism and democracy, one of especial importance in the future as an Asian model against the authoritarian 'Beijing consensus.'

 This week Graeme Dobell rounded out his series on great Australian foreign policy speeches. His final pick was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's speech to Peking University in 2008:

Mark the Peking University speech as a key moment when China's ruling dynasty began to realise that Australia's new prime minister would not be their Manchurian candidate. Instead, his intimate knowledge of China gave Lu Kewen an ability to say dangerous things; that he was saying them in Mandarin doubled the menace.

Rudd was speaking as China prepared for its great international coming-of-age party – hosting the Olympics – and as Beijing cracked down hard on any attempt by Tibet to catch the Olympic limelight. Rudd put his hand right onto that scorching subject.

The Prime Minister recounted his own journey to discover China, the history of Australia's relationship with China, and then started to move on to dangerous ground by talking about the many difficulties facing China – 'problems of poverty, problems of uneven development, problems of pollution, problems of broader human rights' – and the great impact China was having on the rest of the world. And then he started to offer suggestions and criticisms.

While we're talking about China, here's Julian Snelder hosing down suggestions that there might be some sort of climate change policy breakthrough for the world's largest CO2 emitter:

China indeed sees diplomatic and commercial opportunity in the global climate change carnival, but don't it to expect it commit to any hard targets.

Yet this very idea has been tentatively held out, both by a CASS professor suggesting a coal consumption cap at 4.5 billion tonnes in 2025, and by the Advisory Committee on Climate Change dangling a longer-term 11 billion tonne CO2-equivalent limit by 2030 (from 9.5 billion today).

But these were not official statements, and they were quickly disowned as such. Furthermore, there are a number of reasons to be cautious about any future 'breakthrough' on emissions caps.

China already mines 3.8 billion tonnes of coal every year, and Chinese coal alone accounts for 20% of all global CO2 emissions. On present coal use patterns, China is on track to belch almost half of the entire world's recommended maximum 'CO2 budget' of 32 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030.

It would therefore take a wrenching change in China's economy to suddenly alter its trajectory of rapidly growing coal use. 

And Vaughan Winterbottom on rising violence in China's northwest:

So why is violence spiking? I spoke with some of the foremost experts on Xinjiang to find out. Below are highlights.

Henryk Szadziewski, a senior research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, discussed recent policy and personnel changes:

"It's a good idea to look at the unrest from a broader chronological perspective. Uyghur grievances with the Chinese state stretch further back than the recent uptick in violence. Wang Lequan was known for dealing harshly with Uyghur expression of dissent. Post-2009, the appointment of his successor Zhang Chunxian was supposed to bring a 'softer' approach to governance in Xinjiang.

Given the policies we see in effect today, it's hard to distinguish this 'softer' approach. Xi Jinping's announcement earlier this year that security policies would be emphasized over development was viewed as a palliative to unrest. Although the Second Xinjiang Central Work Forum this year proposed some measurable goals in addressing economic disparity between minorities and Han Chinese, especially in terms of reducing unemployment, the systematic and ingrained social discrimination faced by Uyghurs remains. As with many economic policies in the past, these goals have been imposed from above with little agency in decision making from Xinjiang residents."

On Monday the Lowy Institute hosted the launch of the Australian Government's 'economic diplomacy' policy. Alex Oliver explained the economic diplomacy agenda for Interpreter readers:

In the increasingly globalised international environment Australia now faces, this economic diplomacy agenda will be a complex one to prosecute: it implies a far greater role for non-government entities, particularly the private sector, and means a much greater involvement for the Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in formulating and facilitating the Australian Government's approach to international trade and foreign investment.

Because economic diplomacy requires domestic policy settings which reduce barriers to trade, economic growth and investment, DFAT, along with its two ministers, will need to lead a whole-of-government, whole-of-society effort to achieve positive economic outcomes through diplomacy. As Ms Bishop described, the strength and uniqueness of this policy is that it aligns all Australia's international efforts – foreign policy, trade, tourism, investment and development – so that they are "pulling in the same direction."

Our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability continues. This week Rod Lyon argued that that sea-based nuclear weapons are indeed a strategic stabiliser:

I think there are important political gains to be derived from sea-based systems, and those might be more important than the strategic and technological ones. First, such systems suggest a commitment to a durable, resilient nuclear force. They suggest that resort to nuclear weapons needn't be — and won't be — a rushed decision. Second, they devalue the benefits to an adversary of a bolt-from-the-blue attack upon the land-based component of the force, usually sited in relatively static target sets. Third, because they make such an attack upon the land-based systems less likely, they help reassure the population of the nuclear weapon state that they aren't mere nuclear cannon fodder, and thus help sustain political support for the arsenal.

Iskander Rehman, conversely, stated that that a 'combination of dual-use platforms and doctrinal opacity could prove highly detrimental for crisis stability':

A common reading of the movement towards sea-based deterrence is that it provides a greater vector for strategic stability, not only by ensuring the relative sanctuarisation of nation's deterrents and thus reducing first-strike incentives on both sides, but also by displacing the locus of nuclear competition from heavily populated state territories to the wide open waters. This optimistic vision does not hold up to scrutiny, however, when applied to regional nuclear dynamics in the Second Nuclear Age. Indeed, in this particular case, one could argue that it is not so much the process of naval nuclearisation itself which is inherently stabilising or destabilising, but rather the manner in which it is being pursued. Pakistan seems to be taking a dangerous path which combines dual-use systems (nuclear-tipped cruise missiles), cultivated doctrinal ambiguity, and a fair degree of maritime brinkmanship.

There are, no doubt, numerous lessons that could be drawn from the Cold War, whose study unfortunately tends to be neglected or oversimplified in South Asia. During the second half of the Cold War, in particular, theorists warned that within a heavily nuclearised environment, and under conditions of strategic uncertainty, offensive submarine operations or deployments could give birth to dangerously escalatory dynamics. And interestingly, much as in contemporary Pakistan, this argument was countered at the time by a constituency that argued that the diversification — and resulting dispersal — of nuclear assets at sea both strengthened their survivability and buttressed overall deterrence.

Since we're on the topic of strategy, Peter Layton questions whether Australia still needs a new Defence White Paper, considering that many of the capability and budgetary decisions have already been made:

The missing element in all this is strategy. A word search for 'strategy' in the public consultation Defence Issues Paper finds the word only four times in the 65-page document.

In simple terms, strategy is the way that the force structure (the means) is used to achieve desired objectives (the ends). But making strategy is intellectually difficult, and not as much fun as buying new jets, ships and tanks! Devising the ends, and the ways to achieve those ends, is not easy. Giving advice to busy, harassed policymakers on how to develop strategy can be contradictory and confusing

Even so, it is worth the effort. Good strategy can magnify the effectiveness of a nation's military power. Moreover, efficiency processes are best based around a strategy. The Army, for instance, wants to be quickly adaptable to new and emerging circumstances. This objective might be incompatible with the push for a stable, unwavering acquisition plan that industry can 'bank' on for the next two decades or so. In the absence of a strategy, incoherence is a constant danger.

Photo by Flickr user coddogblog.


As we begin the second round of our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific, here is the first clear image of the INS Arihant, India's first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, to be armed with either a dozen 750km-range nuclear tipped ballistic missiles or four larger missiles with 3500km range. The image above is a still from a news report by India's NDTV, which broke the story yesterday.

An earlier image gave very little away, whereas in this shot we can clearly see the distinctive 'hump' aft of the sail, where the ballistic missiles will be housed. I'm no naval architect, but the sail looks to be of a rather dated design, reminiscent of the Soviet-era Kilo-class submarines the Indian Navy already operates. That's not too surprising, since Arihant has been in development since 1998. On the other hand, the designers seem to have done a much better job of integrating the missile hump with the hull than has China with its Type 094.

As our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons has already shown, the performance of the submarine is critical for strategic stability in the region. If the ship is noisy and easy to track, it will not give India the guaranteed second-strike capability it wants in order to dissuade an adversary from mounting a surprise attack. And of the ship is armed only with relatively short-range weapons such as the 750km K-15 missile, it would need to operate dangerously close to an adversary's home waters, thus making the ship vulnerable and destabilising. The longer-range K-4 missile has been tested from an undersea platform but is years from being operationally deployed on Arihant and her eventual sister-ships.


Here's Business Spectator's Fergus Ryan on Clive Palmer's Monday evening TV outburst about China:

It was only after Julie Bishop apologised to the Chinese embassy that the Chinese government put out a statement saying Palmer’s attack was “full of ignorance and prejudice”, absurd and irresponsible. By getting the Chinese embassy involved over comments made by a member of another party, the government has given more oxygen to Palmer’s remarks. It’s the kind of oversensitive micromanaging of the Australia-China relationship that ends up making us look weak...

...The Chinese government knows that Australia is a democracy. Apologising to them for what happens in the rough and tumble of Australian democratic discourse encourages the Chinese government to think they can exert pressure on Australia to dampen debate.

To be fair to Bishop, it seems she did not actually 'apologise' to the Chinese Embassy for Palmer's remarks; rather, she contacted them to distance the Government from Palmer. Yet I agree with the broad sentiment here; Australia is a robust democracy, and that's an image we should actively cultivate on the international stage, not shy away from. It is one of our great soft-power strengths.

So while Bishop was telling the Chinese ambassador how disgraceful Palmer's comments were, I hope she also found time to say that this sort of thing is commonplace in a democracy, and that as a nation we not only survive it but are even strengthened by the debate it provokes. China ought to try it sometime.


Earlier this week I posted a rather terrifying video about the implications of robotics for the global economy and employment. Thanks to Stephen Grenville for pointing me to this critique of the video. The piece has a couple of key arguments, the first refuting the notion that human workers will become redundant in the production process just as horses were once moved aside by the machine age:

...unlike the horses, the humans are also useful as consumers. They are the people who will value the products the robots (and other humans) produce. Think about that for a moment. For each person who is disengaged from society because of a robot, if you cut them off from consumption as well (by say not giving them any money), that is a unit of demand gone. So this pool of unemployed are left outside the system and do not interact in any way with the robot-employed economy.

If that sounds unsustainable, it is. There is a contradiction in the story. You have a person who values the product produced by robots by more than the ‘total cost’ in terms of resources to supply them with that product. You have to feel pretty ill about the prospects of capitalism to suppose that such an opportunity (certainly at scale) will go unexploited.

Also, we need to think more deeply about who will own the robots:

The presumption is always that the bourgeoisie rather than the proletariat owns the machines. But why should that be the case? The robots we are talking about these days are not industrial scale. Why would it be the case that a pure capital owner will purchase the robot rather than a displaced worker any more than it was the case that those who drove horse drawn wagons where displaced by pure car owners?


CENTCOM released this statement yesterday:

TAMPA, Fla., Aug. 18, 2014 — U.S. military forces continued to attack ISIL terrorists in Iraq Monday, using a mix of fighter, bomber, and remotely piloted aircraft to successfully conduct 15 airstrikes near the Mosul Dam.

The strikes damaged or destroyed nine ISIL fighting positions; an ISIL checkpoint; six ISIL armed vehicles; an ISIL light armored vehicle; an ISIL vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft artillery gun, and an IED emplacement belt. All aircraft exited the strike areas safely.

Since Aug. 8, U.S. Central Command has conducted a total of 68 airstrikes in Iraq.  Of those 68 strikes, 35 have been in support of Iraqi forces near the Mosul Dam.  These strikes were conducted under authority to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces as they work together to combat ISIL, as well as to protect critical infrastructure, U.S. personnel and facilities, and support humanitarian efforts.

If that sounds like 'mission creep' for an operation sold as an effort to protect Iraqi civilians and Americans in Iraq, then consider President Obama's justification:

In a letter released Sunday notifying Congress of the action, Obama said the militants’ control of the dam posed a threat to the U.S. Embassy 200 miles away in Baghdad, which could be inundated if the dam were breached. “The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” he wrote.

Obama had signaled in a statement last week that protecting “critical infrastructure” would be part of what officials have described as a limited military intervention.


Holy crap, this video is terrifying. From the narration:

We have been through economic revolutions before, but the robot revolution is different. Horses aren't unemployed now because they got lazy as a species; they're unemployable. There's little work a horse can do that do that pays for its housing and hay. And many bright, perfectly capable humans will find themselves the new horse: unemployable through no fault of their own.

(H/t Kottke.)


Bringing together all the longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

Rodger Shanahan's provocative piece on ISIS's 'strategic gift' to the Obama Administration got a lot of attention early this week:

Iraq clearly needed military assistance but the US needed to offer it in such a way that it wouldn't be seen to profit Maliki politically. What better way to introduce US firepower than in support of a humanitarian cause and in defence of Kurdish-controlled areas? It came with the imprimatur of the Iraqi Government but is not directly in support of it. It is a difficult act to juggle but it gives the US some leverage: if Maliki tries to cling to power, expect a narrow range of US military support. If he leaves and is replaced by a more inclusive government, then air support could be more widely employed.

Anthony Bubalo looked at the domestic angle to the Iraq crisis:

The main reason the Islamic State has made such gains in Iraq is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not ruled for all Iraqis. In particular, by disenfranchising the Sunni minority, he created a fertile field for the Islamic State to plow. There is no way the group's relatively few fighters could have made the gains they did without the implicit and in some cases explicit backing of Sunni communities in Iraq's north.

That backing came not because these communities loved what the Islamic State was offering. Quite the contrary. In fact, the main threat to the Islamic State's gains is not the Iraqi Army (with or without US air cover), but the likelihood that ordinary Sunnis will chafe under the Islamic State's harsh rule. Indeed, it is a significant measure of Sunni discontent with Baghdad that Sunnis are prepared, for the moment at least, to do a deal with this particular devil.

Which brings us to Australia.

We also talked about the annual AUSMIN talks, held in Sydney this week. I warned about the implications of missile-defence cooperation, and here's James Brown:

...the long term issue of most importance to the alliance which needs to be discussed this year is the future force posture of the US Navy in Australia.

At the 2012 AUSMIN in Perth, then Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said that the growing strategic importance of the Indian Ocean was leading the US Navy to shift its attention to the waters off Australia's northwest coast. That AUSMIN meeting committed a joint working group of Australian and US officials to investigate options for the additional presence of US Navy vessels on Australia's west coast. A formal study didn't begin until December 2013, and the group will report its finding to the leaders over the next few days with a view to forging a way forward to new naval force posture arrangements.

Stephen Grenville looked at the crisis in multilateral trade negotiations and Mike Callaghan called on the G20 to save the World Trade Organization:

One of the threats to global economic cooperation that the G20 must confront is the impact of India's veto of the Bali WTO trade deal.

The G20 must respond and restore confidence in the multilateral trading system and the WTO. Tom Miles sums up much of the reaction to India's decision when he says that 'India has dealt a potentially fatal blow to the World Trade Organization's hopes of modernising rules of global commerce and remaining the central forum of multilateral trade deals'. Simon Evenett from the Swiss Institute for International Economics said that 'without a serious shake-up, the WTO's future looks like that of the League of Nations.'

The US military did some cozying up to Vietnam this week, reported Elliot Brennan: 

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Hanoi has long pushed its brand of 'more friends, fewer enemies' foreign policy. Of course, a stronger American partnership now could be a counterweight to Chinese assertiveness and what some might see as a fitting punitive measure. But while this Pentagon visit offers a welcome window for greater cooperation with the US, it should not be overstated. Vietnam's 'orbit' is well populated. Indeed, that has been Vietnam's policy since 1988. For Washington, there is probably also a concern not just about Beijing's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea but also of Russia's increasing ties with Hanoi.

Julian Snelder discussed China's rough treatment of multinationals: 

International business people are often told here that 'they are not invited to China to profiteer; they are invited to make the Chinese better'. The guests are held to higher standards than locals, and they should be. Chinese officialdom is making a mighty effort to build future Chinese global champions like Immelt's GE. Knocking foreigners is part of their strategy, forcing them to be more responsive and competitive. Multinational companies are 'making China better', but China is making them better too.

Here's Mathew Sussex on that mysterious Russian aid convoy bound for Ukraine:

The idea that the Russian aid convoy really contains heavily armed soldiers, ready to pour out of their trucks and open fire, is probably better left to Hollywood.

The troops would automatically be discovered at the border and turned back. And if they decided to fight, they would be quickly cut down as they left their vehicles. Either way, it would be a public relations disaster for Moscow, with domestic as well as international consequences. Putin would have been caught out in a barefaced lie about humanitarian relief. And engaging in a shooting match from trucks makes for a senseless and unpopular waste of well-trained personnel.

It is almost definitely the case that the convoy does indeed contain aid, and it will continue to do so as it attempts to cross into Ukraine. The International Committee for the Red Cross was able to confirm, as the convoy moved towards the border, that the trucks were indeed full of relief supplies.  

But this raises a couple of scenarios much more likely than the idea of a series of Russian Trojan Horses.

Twitter loved Hugh White's question: Is China making a big mistake about Japan?:

One thing is for sure: China's conduct, especially over the Senkakus, is undermining Japan's post-war strategic posture, a posture which has served both Japan and China so well for so long. The foundation of that posture has of course been Japan's confidence that it can rely on America for its security, which in turn has seemed essential to Japan's unique version of 'national pacifism'.

As I have argued before (Explaining China's behaviour in the East and South China Seas), China's actions over the Senkakus seem deliberately designed to undermine Japan's confidence in American support by showing Japan that on a critical issue America is not willing to risk a clash with China on Japan's behalf. And that seems to be working. Despite President Obama's bold affirmation of US support over the disputed islands in Tokyo in April, Japanese confidence in US support against China does seem to have waned. The clearest signs are of course Mr Abe's steps to embrace collective self-defence and start looking for allies in Asia, including Australia.

These are exactly the kinds of steps towards normalisation that we could expect Beijing to want to avoid. So what is going on? There seem two possible alternatives to the conclusion that Beijing is just making a mistake.

Malcolm Cook disagreed, and there will be more on this debate next week.

Photo by Flickr user Hamster Factor.


Here's The Australian's Greg Sheridan on this week's AUSMIN talks:

...the two governments committed to establish a working group on integrating their efforts on ballistic missile defence...In time, the US ideal is to be able to track and follow any hostile missile with seamless allied co-operation, and have the missile interceptor with the best shot, whether ground or sea-based, from whichever allied nation, shoot the missile down. This could even involve US commanders being able to fire, remotely, missiles from Australian ships.

Marc Lippert, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s chief of staff, told me how the US already, at times of heightened missile tension with North Korea, co-ordinates its ship placements with Japan to provide the best possible cover. Australia is a long way from this kind of integration. We don’t have air warfare destroyers in service. But that’s the road we’re on.

Yes it is. Mind you, it's a long road. The AUSMIN communique says only that Australia and the US will establish 'a bilateral working group to examine options for potential Australian contributions to ballistic missile defence in the region'. And as Sheridan says, the Australian ships are not built yet.

Still, given that the lead Air Warfare Destroyer is due to be delivered in 2016 and that North Korea provokes an international crisis approximately once a year, it's not too early to ask why we are on this particular road. The deployment of missile-defence ships has become a standard part of the Japanese and American response to heightened tension with North Korea, so you would think that if this trilateral integration goes ahead, Australia too would deploy a ship in the event of a crisis. It would certainly be diplomatically awkward to develop the joint capability and then refuse to take part.

And yet, Australia has not participated militarily in response to recent crises such as the 2013 nuclear test, the 2012 satellite launch or the 2010 Cheonan sinking. No political leader in Australia pushed for it, and the Japanese, Koreans or Americans did not seem to mind that we stayed out. So why are we contemplating a capability that would make it near impossible for Australia to stay out of regular North Korea crises? It is a particularly pointed question given that, if North Korea one day deployed missiles that could reach Australia (they don't have them yet), the missile-defence system being envisaged in partnership with the US and Japan could NOT protect the Australian continent. Any North Korean missile of that range would fly too high and too fast for the AEGIS-based system to intercept it.

The obvious response to these concerns is that Australia is getting involved in order to be a good ally. But there are may ways we can do that.

Photo courtesy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.


There's a pretty extraordinary revelation buried in today's Paul Kelly column in The Australian regarding Prime Minister Tony Abbott's response to the MH17 downing:

In the early days of the crisis several weeks ago Abbott wanted to put 1000 Australian troops onto the crash site in conjunction with 1000 Dutch troops. Nothing better testifies to his outrage at the event and his keenness to deploy Australian assets in a cause that affected Australians. This option remained on the table for a few days.

It was never going to be viable. Yet debate around this idea continued before the Prime Minister was talked around and decided it was too dangerous and inappropriate an option. Putting Australian troops into that highly charged situation would have been far too risky.

Yet it offers insights into Abbott’s approach to military issues: he is impatient with limitations relating to logistics and deployment. When Australians are involved Abbott wants to make a difference as soon as possible.

Kelly's claim is not sourced but assuming it is true, the idea presumably foundered on the fact that such a deployment could only have happened with Russian acquiescence, which was never likely. Still, the instinct to consider such a large deployment is telling, as is Kelly's broader conclusion about Abbott's impatience with those in uniform who want to put the brakes on such initiatives. I have heard a similar account of Abbott's disposition from another source.

'Abbott’s every instinct is to deploy Australian military and police assets and he needs to be persuaded by his advisers from such options', says Kelly. He might have added that, on MH370 and Operation Sovereign Borders as well, Abbott also chose to get the military involved.

But against this we need to weigh the fact that Abbott was wary of America's proposed military intervention in Syria in 2013, which President Obama abandoned at the last moment (Abbott: 'We have to be very careful because if we break something, we own it.'). And although Abbott was a supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he has since defended it in only the most qualified and diffident ways.

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Furthermore, Kelly makes much of Abbott's 'profound moral code' and how it affects his approach to foreign policy. But Kelly's examples draw heavily from the MH17 incident where, as I have argued elsewhere, Australia has no major foreign policy interests in play. It's easier to show moral rectitude when very little is at stake.

I'm not ready to say that Kelly is wrong about Abbott's alleged instinct for morals-driven military activism. I have been following Abbott's foreign policy thinking for some years, but even during the last election campaign, I was torn on this issue, listing five reasons Tony Abbott will be a steady-as-she-goes foreign policy leader and four reasons he won't.

At the core of this debate is the question of Abbott's political identity. Yes, he is a conservative, but this masks the fact that Abbott's worldview draws from two distinct sources which cannot comfortably co-exist: British conservatism (cautious, realist, wary of military adventurism) and American neo-conservatism (Manichean, confrontational, willing to impose democracy by force).

Depending on the quotes you choose, Abbott could belong to either tradition. It is not yet clear that he has made a choice between them.

Photo by Flickr user US Pacific Command.



A young woman joins the military to be part of something bigger than herself and her small town roots. But she ends up as a new guard at Guantanamo Bay instead, where her mission is far from black and white. Surrounded by hostile jihadists and aggressive squadmates, she strikes up an unusual friendship with one of the detainees.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


This one comes out in selected Australian cinemas next week, and could hardly be more timely. Synopsis:

In the style of a tense psychological thriller, this extraordinary documentary recounts the true story of the son of a Hamas leader who emerged as one of Israel’s prized informants, and the Shin Bet agent who risked his career to protect him.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


Events are moving fast. Here are a few sources to help you make sense of it all:

The story, which has seemed to be all about religion and military developments, is actually mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice. True, one side is Sunni and the other Shia, but this is not a theological conflict rooted in the seventh century. ISIS and its allies have triumphed because the Sunni populations of Mosul and Tikrit and Fallujah have welcomed and supported them—not because of ISIS’s disgusting behavior, but in spite of it. The Sunnis in these towns are more afraid of what their government may do to them than of what the Sunni militia might. They have had enough of years of being marginalized while suffering vicious repression, lawlessness, and rampant corruption at the hands of Iraq’s Shia-led government.


Bringing together all the longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

Although I would hate to distract you from reading our fine long-form content, before highlighting this week's best pieces, I'll mention one other feature from this week, our multi-part series on the best films about World War I, as nominated by you, our readers. Here are part 1, part 2 and part 3, and part 4.

We began the week with qualified good news from the Pacific, thanks to economist Tim Harcourt:

There's been a lot of talk about getting women into top positions in business in Australia, but our friends in the Pacific have been walking the walk. The inaugural Pacific Export Survey 2014 reveals that around 27% of exporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the Pacific are run by women, compared to 11% of exporters in Australia according to the DHL Export Barometer. That's almost a 3:1 ratio.

Monday was the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, and Rory Medcalf took the opportunity to look at parallels with today's security picture:

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.

Rodger Shanahan argued that there is no hypocrisy in Obama's decision to intervene in Iraq while staying out of Syria:

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There will of course be accusations that Obama is a hypocrite for intervening in Iraq but not Syria. That argument is simplistic and wrong. If the US is obliged to intervene militarily everywhere there is a humanitarian need, it would never stop intervening. Obama said as much in his speech. He is one of the few US leaders to understand the limits of American power. 

Moreover, the situation in Syria is far more complex. To have assisted one side would have meant breaching a nation's sovereignty (no big deal) and potentially assisting the very Islamist forces that pose a security threat to the region and the West (a very big deal). The intervention in Iraq requires Obama to do neither of those things, so the calculus is completely different.

This week we kicked off a debate thread on sea-based nuclear deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. The entire thread (with much more to come) is here, but it's worth highlighting this piece from Chinese scholar Wu Riquiang:

Chinese and Indian SSBNs are unnecessary because China-India and China-US strategic relations are stable, and will probably remain so in near future. While the Indian nuclear weapons program is driven by China's nuclear capability, it is America that drives China's nuclear development. Neither China nor India has first-strike capability against the other side, and neither side is seeking such capability. Some American nuclear and conventional strategic capabilities, such as missile defences and conventional prompt global strike (CPGS), do pose a big challenge of China's nuclear deterrent, but China can deal with these threats and restore strategic stability with its land-based nuclear missiles, which are relatively cheap and technologically mature compared to sea-based nuclear weapons.

Stephen Grenville said the international ratings agencies were being unfair to Australia:

Remarkably, some of the key actors responsible for the 2008 financial debacle have managed to restore their reputations, and no rehabilitation is more remarkable than that of the Teflon-coated credit rating agencies. Leading up to 2008, they handed out AAA ratings to worthless mortgage securitisations (but of course these were a different sort of AAA rating: the debt issuers simply paid for it). Nor were the country ratings much better: S&P's 'investment-grade' endorsements of bankrupt Greece survived well into 2010.  The role of the CRAs was under critical review well before the 2008 crisis but no satisfactory answer has yet been found for their undue influence and they are still accorded a role in the Basel prudential supervision arrangements.   

Could it be that S&P is peeved because it recently lost its reputation-damning court case in Australia? It's little wonder that analysis of the sort produced by S&P for Australia evokes a derisive response. Can't they do better?

Here's Hugh Jorgensen on a potentially thorny problem for the G20: America locking French bank BNP Paribas out of USD transactions:

While the French have accepted BNPP's guilt, they have taken issue with what they see as America's exploitation of the central role of the US dollar by blacklisting BNPP's oil-and-gas divisions from USD clearing houses. Of the judgement, Francois Hollande pointedly stated 'I am conscious of the risks of totally disproportionate, unfair sanctions, that could have economic and financial consequences for the whole of the euro zone...there are other banks that could also be targeted, creating a risk and a doubt over the solidity of the European financial system'. Indeed, Societe Generale, Credit Agricole and Deutsche Bank are all believed to be in line for DoJ investigation on similar sanction-breaking grounds.

In essence, the European leaders are concerned about the precedent that might be set by the DoJ's ruling. Global banks rely upon access to USD clearing houses to complete international payments on behalf of their clients. If an Indian importer wants to buy goods from Russia, it is easier for both parties to complete the transaction in US dollars than rupees or rubles. Accordingly, of the US$5 trillion that is traded every day on foreign exchange markets, the US dollar features in 87% of transactions.

One of our most popular posts this week was Vaughan Winterbottom's treatment of the tit-for-tat diplomatic measures taken this week by Russia and Japan:

Japan imposed limited new financial sanctions yesterday on 40 individuals and two groups implicated in Russia's actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions attempted to walk a tightrope between appeasing the US and keeping alive hopes of settling a nearly seven decade-old territorial dispute with Russia, but it looks like Moscow has pushed Tokyo off the tightrope.

Julian Snelder asked this week: just how big are CNOOC's oil reserves? Worryingly low, it seems:

Researchers have previously noted the significant long-term decline in CNOOC's domestic offshore oil reserve life. Based on updated information presented in the filing, and assuming CNOOC's forecast production rates, the company may run down its reserve life to barely six years by 2015. This compares to almost 15 years in 2001, and it is well below the 10 years normally considered comfortable for an 'upstream' oil exploration company.

Rhys Thompson surveyed Myanmar's media environment:

Since 2011 there have been many positive changes. The Government abolished pre-publication censorship and issued new 'daily' licences to local publications. It also extended visas for international journalists to three months and passed a new media law in early 2014. However, these changes need to be contrasted with later developments which challenge President Thein Sein's rhetoric and suggest the Government still remains uncomfortable with reducing its control of the media.

Matt Hill looked at the 'salami tactics' practiced by Moscow and Beijing, and how democracies are responding:

So the risk is not that the developed democracies will march into conflict with Russia or China after some predictable accumulation of provocations. Rather, the risk lies in the fact that the complex nature of democratic popular sentiment means we cannot effectively judge the political ramifications of any given security event until we observe the way it merges with or diverts from the strategic narrative. 

The MH17 tragedy may or may not galvanize sufficient political will in democratic states to change the political calculus in Europe. But who is to say how government, media, and social perceptions will evolve, and how it will affect calls for action in, say, Britain and the Netherlands, but also attitudes towards Russia in bordering states such as Finland and Sweden which are weighing the prospects of NATO affiliation? Moreover, if Putin continues his efforts to destabilise eastern Ukraine, MH17 is unlikely to be the last tragedy with collateral damage to the West. Another such shock could tip the balance of Atlantic sentiment.

Photo by Flickr user Kevin McShane.


So, President Obama has announced that the US is delivering air-dropped humanitarian aid to refugees in northern Iraq, and that he has authorised air strikes to prevent a genocide.

As a rule, I tend to side with 'defensive realists' such as Stephen Walt on these issues. As Walt argued yesterday:

Some will argue that we have a moral responsibility to try to end the obvious suffering in different places, and a strategic imperative to eradicate terrorists and prevent the spread of WMD. These are laudable goals, but if the history of the past twenty years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse. The Islamic State wouldn't exist if the neocons hadn't led us blindly into Iraq, and Iran would have less reason to contemplate getting nuclear weapons if it hadn't watched the United States throw its weight around in the region and threaten it directly with regime change...

...this argument would not preclude limited U.S. action for purely humanitarian purposes -- such as humanitarian airdrops for the beleaguered religious minorities now threatened with starvation in Iraq. That's not "deep engagement"; that's merely trying to help people threatened with imminent death. But I would not send U.S. forces -- including drones or aircraft -- out to win a battle that the Iraqi government or the Kurds cannot win for themselves. The United States spent the better part of a decade chasing that elusive Grail, and the end result was precisely the sort of chaos and sectarian rivalry that has produced this latest crisis.

Yet if Obama's description of the situation is accurate, the distinction between military and humanitarian action is far from clear cut. Obama opened his statement by saying the refugees stranded on a mountain in northern Iraq faced 'certain death' (he also used the word 'genocide') from ISIS. If it's acceptable to help these people by feeding and sheltering them, I see no obvious moral barrier to using proportionate and discriminating force to protect them too. In fact, if there is a moral imperative to help the refugees with aid, it would be somewhat obtuse to refuse them other kinds of assistance when it is available.

Of course, this moral logic needs to be bounded by practical reasoning. Will force actually work, or will it make things worse? That is Walt's concern, and I share it. The use of force therefore needs to be severely limited, but it should not be ruled out entirely. I think the tone of Obama's statement, and his reluctance to use force in Syria, suggest this is his instinct too.

BTW, if you're looking for background on the Yazidi, the religious group ISIS is evidently trying to exterminate, look here. (H/t Browser.)


Just four days after MH17 was brought down over the Ukraine, Russia scholar Matthew Sussex wrote  a scathing assessment of Moscow's early reaction to the incident for The Interpreter. But he closed his piece by arguing that it could have been much worse: 

...Putin could have expressed horror at the loss of MH17 and promised to persuade the separatists to stop fighting immediately, regardless of any 'provocations'. He could then have called a Security Council meeting to guide its focus towards accessing the crash site, rather than who was to blame. Finally (and this is the insidious part) he could have declared Eastern Ukraine a dangerous warzone and unilaterally nominated Russia as the regional power with the capacity to secure it. That could have been the pretext to roll 12,000 troops across the border, ostensibly to create a cordon sanitaire to MH17's resting place.

Now NATO is warning that Russia may be contemplating that very strategy:

Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine's eastern border and could use the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission to invade, NATO said on Wednesday. Stating the conflict in Ukraine was fueled by Russia, NATO said in a statement that the troop build-up had further escalated "a dangerous situation".

"We're not going to guess what's on Russia's mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground – and that is of great concern. Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine’s eastern border," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in an emailed statement. NATO was concerned that Moscow could use "the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into Eastern Ukraine", she said.

A fortnight ago I wrote an op-ed for the Financial Review arguing that, for Australia, the MH17 shootdown was a consular crisis, not a test of foreign policy. My purpose was to warn that Australia ought to be wary of involving itself too closely in the power politics of this crisis. Australia has few interests at stake in the region, and Russia is not a serious threat to Australia's interests.

Further catalysts for closer Australian involvement are now emerging: overnight there was an announcement that Russia is imposing sanctions that will target Australian agribusiness. And now, according to NATO, there is a heightened threat of Russian invasion, which apart from being a crisis for Europe, would be particularly serious for Canberra if Australians working at the crash site were caught up in it.