Lowy Institute

Given Russia’s superior military capabilities this is a war that Ukraine cannot win, at least not by military means. The alternatives are to make a deal with whatever terms are possible or to continue the struggle for a long time, hoping that inflicting a high cost on Russian forces will eventually turn Russians against their government’s adventure. The former will lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government. The latter will take a very long time at best and result in huge numbers of civilian casualties.


Rosewater is the story of Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari, who was arrested and tortured in Tehran on claims of espionage during the 2009 presidential election campaign.

A piece of subtext: one of the things Bahari's interrogator used against him during his 118 days of detention was the fact that Bahari had once appeared on US news-comedy program The Daily Show. This film is directed by Daily Show host Jon Stewart.


(H/t The Browser.)


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

This week the Lowy Institute launched a powerful paper on violence against women in Papua New Guinea. The paper's author, Jo Chandler, also wrote an accompanying Interpreter post:

Over the past six years I've made numerous trips to PNG, usually intensive excursions but too quick (as media paradigms tend to dictate) and likely too ambitious, ranging across health and education and into politics, resources development and corruption. Violence was rarely the story I went looking for, but it was inevitably the one I found.

The first instinct of a journalist trying to communicate a crisis is to quantify it — to bundle it up in statistics. But the data on violence in PNG is scarce, and it is inevitably scrubbed clean of identity and humanity. The reality, by contrast, is raw, overwhelming, unfathomable, complex.

Still on PNG, Jenny Hayward-Jones and Tess Newton Cain commented on Port Moresby's growing clout in Pacific island institutions:

Fiji's historical role as a regional leader is well recognised. However, PNG looks to be signaling that regardless of the outcome of Fiji's 17 September elections, Suva should not expect that there will be a return to 'business as usual'. Diplomatic tensions between Fiji and PNG are evidenced in disputes over the Fiji National Provident Fund backing out of an investment in PNG, Fiji's rejection of PNG's High Commissioner as dean of the diplomatic corps in Suva, the absence of PNG's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister from some MSG meetings and Fiji's own Pacific Islands Development Forum, the absence of Fiji's Prime Minister from the MSG leaders' meeting in Port Moresby, and disagreements over the Melanesian candidate for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat's Secretary-General role.

Papua New Guinea is perhaps more ready now than at any time in its past to step up to a regional leadership role.  Bolstered by the election of Meg Taylor, PNG will also host the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' meeting in 2015, giving the Government in Port Moresby a rare opportunity to showcase its ambitions.  But it will need to battle a resurgent Fiji, which will be using a newly legitimate status after 17 September to reclaim its supremacy among the island states.

With Fiji's first election since the 2006 coup coming up, Alex Stewart argued that despite the now abandoned Australian sanctions and suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji's foreign relations are 'at their healthiest since independence':

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 The Bainimarama Government has mounted a strong challenge to the Australian-backed Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) by launching its own rival organisation. The Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) has now held two successful summits that have garnered significant international attention. While it certainly doesn't have the resources of the PIF, the PIDF looks set to stay, and significantly blunts the impact of Fiji's ongoing suspension from the PIF.

This strengthened web of bilateral and multilateral relations has given the Bainimarama Government the maneuvering room it needs to take a confident stance against its Australian critics. When Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Suva last February to start on the road towards normalising the relationship, Fijian sources confidently proclaimed that this was Australia's last chance to remain relevant.

At the start of this week it was reported that the Abbott Government was considering a military role  for Australia in any US-led campaign against ISIS. I wrote that if the Government does intend to send Australian forces to help, it needs to first address two big points:

1. A comprehensive statement describing the US strategy for countering ISIS, and Australia's role in it: In this regard, the PM's recent statement that 'There would have to be a clear and achievable overall purpose, a clear and proportionate role for us, a careful assessment of the risks and an overall humanitarian purpose' was reassuring.

But it already looks as if the Americans are defining 'humanitarian purpose' broadly, and if it stretches still further until it becomes indistinguishable from a mission to defeat ISIS (or ISIL), we need to know exactly how this is going to be accomplished. As Brian Fishmanjust wrote on War on the Rocks, 'No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.'

I happen to think a mission like that would be disastrous for the US, and that Australia should dissuade America from carrying it out rather than offering to take part in it. But if the Abbott Government disagrees, it ought to at least do Australians the courtesy of spelling out exactly what the parameters of the mission are and how the goals will be achieved.

2. An assessment of the threat: Attorney-General George Brandis now tells us that the threat of extremists coming back from the Middle East is the 'greatest national security threat that Australia has faced in many years...The escalating terrorist situation in Iraq and Syria poses an increasing threat, unlike any other that this country has experienced, to the security of Australians both at home and overseas.'

That's some strong language, but it sits oddly against the assessments provided to the Government by Australia's intelligence agencies

And while we're on the subject of air campaigns in the Middle East, here's Rodger Shanahan on air power coming to the fore in multiple Middle East crises:

 As a former Army officer, my service bias has always made me a believer that only events on the ground matter. The air force is a great enabler but rarely the decisive factor. But my experience of the Middle East has also taught me the value that many governments place in air power.

In the Gulf in particular, technically advanced aircraft symbolise modernity and make up for the limited manpower available to staff their militaries. And it is a service that can be both a path to, or symbol of, political authority. Both Syria's Hafiz al Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were air force pilots (and later commanders), while King Abdullah of Jordan (like his late father King Hussein) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are both qualified military pilots.

But as the region reels from multiple security crises, it is interesting to note the degree to which air power is being used by regional forces for a multiplicity of purposes. A student of air power would do well to focus closely on the Middle East at the moment for the rich field of research it is proving to be.

Tim Mayfield highlighted a recent Newspoll showing that a majority of Australians support aspects of the Government's proposed anti-terror legislation:

It is significant because, when it comes to matters of national security, public opinion really does matter. While on other issues it may be within a government's remit to move ahead of prevailing attitudes, when it comes to our collective safety there should be no such latitude.

This is because measures that are enacted with the aim of preserving the safety of citizens will inevitably impact on our liberty. And though the most basic function of any government is to protect its citizens, history is littered with examples of governments that have used this justification to concentrate their own power and quell opposition.

Our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability continues. This week we had contributions from Thomas Mahnken, Andrew Winner Stephen Fruehling. Thomas Mahnken is a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning:

Beijing is undertaking a large-scale modernisation of its military, including its nuclear force. According to Department of Defense and press sources, China is fielding the mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile and is developing the mobile DF-41 with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles. According to press reports, China has also conducted at least two tests of the WU-14 hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. China also fields theatre nuclear strike systems such as the DF-21. And China has invested considerable resources in developing and deploying the Jin-class SSBN and JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (pictured).

China's nuclear modernisation is aimed at giving the Chinese leadership a secure second-strike capability. As Tom Christensen has argued, that is in turn likely to embolden China (if it has not already done so) to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. The deployment of SSBNs is clearly part of that but is far less consequential than other Chinese developments.

Andrew Winner is Chair of the Strategic Research Department and a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island:

Both India and Pakistan are at the initial stages of deploying nuclear weapons on submarines. Being new to a deployed technology and operational technique does not mean the two governments and their militaries will not be careful or capable. Both states are likely to be highly cautious and professional in their deployment of these capabilities. However, there is always a learning curve with new capabilities and therefore always chances for misperception, miscalculation, and the threat of escalation.

And Stephen Fruehling is Senior Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, and a member of the external expert panel on the 2015 Defence White Paper:

The development of an SSBN force indicates that China is not fully confident in the survivability of its land-based nuclear forces, and is at least hedging its bets. This is not fully unjustified, as land-based missiles still have to operate in prepared deployment areas that are vulnerable to the large-scale nuclear suppression campaign, of which the US is still capable. US attempts to build a survivable launcher for its own land-mobile Midgetman missiles during the Cold War are a salutary reminder of the inherent fragility of mobile ICBMs to nuclear blast pressure. Adding SSBNs to the mix would certainly complicate US planning for the unlikely event that it should ever consider a disarming strike on China, but it does not change the basic source of China's vulnerability, which lies in the numerical imbalance of the nuclear forces of both countries.

Investment in SSBNs thus indicates that China remains uncomfortable with the limits imposed by its small nuclear arsenal. But the scale of China's investment doesn't really address the issue. SSBNs put a lot of eggs into one basket and are no panacea for the problem of survivability, especially given China's geographic disadvantage. As such, their appearance in the region is a useful reminder that the broader factors underpinning strategic stability in the region — US military capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal, and the alliances they support in the Asian littoral — have a lot going for them still.

Is Hilary Clinton a foreign policy hawk? James Bowden:

One factor that seems to answer the first question in the affirmative is the sizeable distance she and her camp have recently sought to put between her positions and those of President Barack Obama. In a much-publicised interview with The Atlantic, Clinton called out Obama's failure to offer support to rebels fighting Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria as being culpable in the rise of the Islamic State, an organisation most recently in the news for the horrific beheading of US journalist James Foley.

'The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,' she said, adding that great nations needed better organising principles than Obama's favoured 'don't do stupid stuff.'

So far, so hawkish.

To finish off with a bit of economics, Stephen Grenville wrote on the continuing tragedy of European unemployment:

What is to be done? Draghi's answer is 'a bit of everything'. He'll keep monetary policy loose (and presumably do 'whatever it takes' if the euro comes under threat). But he is looking for help from fiscal policy and structural reform. A call for structural reform (ie. productivity improvement) is a standard element of just about any macro-economic prescription, but it carries more weight and urgency given the duration and depth of the European recession. 

Draghi quotes figures showing that European structural unemployment (the part that can't be fixed just by getting economic activity back to full capacity) as having risen from 8.8% in 2008 to 10.3% in 2013 as a result of the crisis and the lacklustre recovery. This would imply that the usual instruments of counter-cyclical macro-policy can't take the unemployment rate down very far. 

He reports that Ireland has done better than Spain in terms of wage flexibility, but Ireland's main method of getting its unemployment rate down has been emigration, not only of disenchanted Irish youth but also the migrants from other parts of Europe who had flocked to Ireland when it was the Celtic Dragon, before the crisis.

 And Daniel Woker asked if France is now the 'sick man of Europe':

While the lack of economic reform remains a major drag on the country and on its role in Europe, the opposite is true with regard to two other major elements of potential progress towards the 'great European promise', as symbolised by the EU.

Firstly, Europe will have to develop the means to guarantee order in its 'near abroad' (Mediterranean, Africa) and to take a bigger part of responsibility for a functioning global order. As we all know, the US is unwilling and unable to continue to shoulder the burden on its own. It is fair and necessary that Europe should help, and here France has been a leader, especially with regard to Africa

The second area where France counts among the leading countries in Europe concerns assimilation of immigrants, especially those with non-European roots. The ugly historical chapters of racism in its colonies and of rampant antisemitism notwithstanding, 'la nation fondatrice des droits de l'homme' nevertheless has a pretty good record over the last 50 years of integrating the huge influx of immigrants from former colonies. The remaining challenge from mainly Muslim 'banlieus' (suburbs) and the present political onslaught from the xenophobic far-right have economic rather than social roots. They can be solved when the aforementioned economic reforms are tackled in earnest.

 Photo by Flickr user MyTudut.


The opening of this essay, about the arbitrariness of the Middle East's national boundaries drawn up nearly a century ago under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, will be familiar to most. But then George Friedman takes things in an interesting direction:

The map may show a nation, but (Lebanon) is really a country of microscopic clans engaged in a microscopic geopolitical struggle for security and power. Lebanon remains a country in which the warlords have become national politicians, but there is little doubt that their power comes from being warlords and that, under pressure, the clans will reassert themselves.

A similar process has taken place in Syria. The arbitrary nation-state has become a region of competing clans. The Alawite clan, led by Bashar al Assad (who has played the roles of warlord and president), had ruled the country. An uprising supported by various countries threw the Alawites into retreat. The insurgents were also divided along multiple lines. Now, Syria resembles Lebanon. There is one large clan, but it cannot destroy the smaller ones, and the smaller ones cannot destroy the large clan. There is a permanent stalemate, and even if the Alawites are destroyed, their enemies are so divided that it is difficult to see how Syria can go back to being a country, except as a historical curiosity. Countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States might support various clans, but in the end, the clans survive.

Something very similar happened in Iraq.

(H/t The Browser.)


President Obama is already being pilloried for his statement, made in a press conference earlier today, that 'we don't have a strategy yet' for combating ISIS. No strategy? This for a terrorist group that his own Defense Secretary described as 'an imminent threat to every interest we have...Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen, so we must prepare for everything'.

Still, at least Obama has things in the right order: strategy first, then bombing. William Kristol, on the other hand, would prefer to just get started: 'What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.' Kristol is a neo-conservative and leading foreign policy voice among Republicans.

It's a good thing Australian Defence Minister Senator David Johnston signaled on Wednesday evening that an Australian decision on whether to join US military action was not imminent:

I think the Americans and most of us would want to see a stable government in Baghdad. And that's not going to occur until 10th September when the new Prime Minister takes over. And if he's inclusive, I think that will make things a lot more visible, tangible and concrete going forward. So we're a long way from that.

 As I said on Wednesday, before Australia commits military force, we first need a clear assessment of the threat and a plausible strategy for defeating that threat. Without that, we would essentially just be dropping bombs to 'see what happens'.


It has an odd name and a confounding operative clause, but the 'Australia-Indonesia Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct' signed today in Bali by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa is good news.

What's with the name? According to the Associated Press, Julie Bishop 'wanted to call it a "Joint Understanding," while her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa preferred "Code of Conduct." So they combined the titles.' (And, it might be added, mangled the English language in a way reminiscent of the award Montgomery Burns once conferred on Homer Simpson for 'outstanding achievement in the field of excellence'.)

As for the operative clause, in Julie Bishop's words it 'specifically says that Australia and Indonesia will not use our resources, including our intelligence resources, to harm each other's interests'. The actual text reads:

The Parties will not use any of their intelligence, including surveillance capacities, or other sources, in ways that would harm the interests of the Parties.

There are several ways to parse that statement, and no doubt that is just what was intended. In fact, there is probably no agreed definition behind it, which is just fine for both sides. A deal like this is not enforceable anyway, and is more about finding a face-saving way to resume a relationship which is mutually beneficial.

Mind you, it carries risks. Although we haven't heard from Mr Snowden for some time, were the Guardian to release a new tranche of documents tomorrow exposing more Australian spying activity against Indonesia, the language about not using intelligence assets to harm each other's interests could become a weapon in the hands of angry Indonesian legislators. Then again, if such a possibility actually deters both sides from doing too much spying on the other in future, it's a good thing.

And here's another good thing: according to Bishop, the Code 'lays the groundwork for even greater cooperation in the area of intelligence sharing...including in relation to the issue of foreign fighters.'

That is excellent news. The counter-terrorist cooperation between Australia and Indonesia since the 2002 Bali bombing is something of which both sides can be genuinely proud. It has stopped bombings that could have killed countless more Indonesians and Australians and stalled Indonesia's democratic transition. It has also dealt a severe blow to the feared terrorist group Jemaah Islamiya, and ought to serve as an international model of how the terrorist threat can be contained.

Photo courtesy of @aosny2011.


On Monday we read in The Australian that 'The ­ Abbott government is ­actively considering an extended military role for Australia in Iraq...The three main military ­options for Australian involvement are renewed humanitarian air drops, deployment of special forces and ground-attack roles for our aircraft', Greg Sheridan reported.

The New York Times has reinforced this line, reporting that US officials 'said they expected that Britain and Australia would be willing to join the United States in an air campaign' against the extremist group ISIS.

But this morning we read in the Fairfax press that, according to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, 'Australia had not been asked to provide any military assistance to try and counter Islamic State's advance across Iraq and said the Government was focussed on providing humanitarian support.'

Presumably there is a prime ministerial statement in our near future which will clear this up. When that moment arrives, and if Mr Abbott does announce that Australia is taking a role in military operations, Australians have a right to expect two key things from their 'team captain':

1. A comprehensive statement describing the US strategy for countering ISIS, and Australia's role in it: In this regard, the PM's recent statement that 'There would have to be a clear and achievable overall purpose, a clear and proportionate role for us, a careful assessment of the risks and an overall humanitarian purpose' was reassuring.

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But it already looks as if the Americans are defining 'humanitarian purpose' broadly, and if it stretches still further until it becomes indistinguishable from a mission to defeat ISIS (or ISIL), we need to know exactly how this is going to be accomplished. As Brian Fishman just wrote on War on the Rocks, 'No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.'

I happen to think a mission like that would be disastrous for the US, and that Australia should dissuade America from carrying it out rather than offering to take part in it. But if the Abbott Government disagrees, it ought to at least do Australians the courtesy of spelling out exactly what the parameters of the mission are and how the goals will be achieved.

2. An assessment of the threat: Attorney-General George Brandis now tells us that the threat of extremists coming back from the Middle East is the 'greatest national security threat that Australia has faced in many years...The escalating terrorist situation in Iraq and Syria poses an increasing threat, unlike any other that this country has experienced, to the security of Australians both at home and overseas.'

That's some strong language, but it sits oddly against the assessments provided to the Government by Australia's intelligence agencies (my emphasis):

Senior intelligence officials told journalists their assessment was that the terrorist threat from global Islamist terrorism would rise, that some of the 60 or so Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq would come home dangerously radicalised, and that the Syrian dispute was also re-radicalising Indonesian extremists. Currently the threat was unchanged.

Sometimes it feels as if the post 9/11 period has never happened, because we keep making the same mistakes: we hype the threat, terrorise ourselves, and over-react in ways that only strengthen those we are fighting. Let's take a deep, deep breath before starting on the same road again.


I loved this bit from US environmental activist Bill McKibben, who is guest blogging on Andrew Sullivan's site:

Every day there’s something more immediately important happening in the world: ISIS is seizing an airbase this morning, and California is recovering from an earthquake, and Michael Brown is being buried.

But there’s nothing more important that’s happening each and every day than the ongoing deterioration of the planet on which we depend. Though on a geological time scale it’s proceeding at a hopelessly rapid pace, in terms of the news cycle it happens just slowly enough to be mainly invisible. It’s only when a new study emerges, or a shocking new data set, that we pay momentary attention, until the Next New Thing distracts us.

Quite right. The news media focuses on events, and the deterioration of our environment is a process, not an event.

So what's the 'shocking new data set' McKibben is referring to? A new study published in Science claiming that invertebrate numbers have dropped by a staggering 45% over the last 35 years. Good grief.

Photo by Flickr user Dan Foy.


Last Friday we learned that a Chinese fighter pilot had earlier in the week engaged in some Top Gun-style antics with a US surveillance aircraft (see photo):

An armed Chinese fighter jet aggressively confronted a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft earlier this week over international waters in the South China Sea, mounting a series of “unprofessional and unsafe” maneuvers that included passing within 20 feet of the Navy aircraft’s wingtips, a Pentagon official said...

...The Navy P-8 was on a routine mission gathering intelligence in international airspace over the contested South China Sea, about 135 miles east of Hainan Island, China’s southernmost point. The incident occurred several days after Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made a historic visit to nearby Vietnam.

On three separate passes, the Chinese J-11B flew directly under and alongside the Navy aircraft, at one point bringing its wingtips within about 20 feet of the P-8’s wings before conducting a roll over the top of the U.S. aircraft. The Chinese fighter jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at a 90-degree angle, showing its belly loaded with weaponry to the U.S. Navy pilot, Kirby said.

China has been unrepentant in response to US claims of unsafe pilot conduct, and it looks like the US is trying to de-escalate the situation, with un-named US officials telling the Wall Street Journal that 'the midair encounters may be attributable to a "rogue" pilot or group of pilots in a squadron responsible for intercepts in the South China Sea. These officials also said they don't believe the aggressive flying was directly authorized by the Chinese military.'

In other words, the US is signaling that recent efforts to improve military-to-military relations aren't jeopardised by this single incident.

Clearly the US and China need to improve their mutual understanding of how these intercepts ought to be managed. When there are clear rules and procedures in place, there is less room for rogues on either side to make snap judgments that could be misinterpreted by the other. The problem will only become more acute as China develops its capabilities to fly missions close to US Pacific territories and even the continental US. Not that improving these 'rules of the road' is any guarantee of safety. The US and Soviet Union (then Russia) have decades of experience with these aerial encounters, yet in April a Russian fighter performed almost exactly the same dangerous manoeuvre with a US spy plane.

Speaking of 'rules of the road', the WSJ article points out that:

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The U.S. maintains all vessels have a right to freedom of navigation outside another country's territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coast under international law. China has at times said that freedom doesn't apply to military surveillance and mapping and has bristled at the presence of U.S. military aircraft and ships coming so close to its shores.

It's true that China has made this distinction, but in June last year it also undercut its own case by admitting that it had conducted incursions into America's exclusive economic zone.

That said, the balance of maritime surveillance and espionage capability massively favours the US at present. China does not even have a long-range maritime patrol aircraft in its inventory or any bases close to US soil from which to operate them. The US, by contrast, has bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii, and is rebuilding its fleet with the new P-8 Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton drone. Its ally Japan also has a huge fleet of maritime surveillance aircraft.

If China does develop the capability to conduct regular surveillance missions off US Pacific territories or even the mainland, the US reaction to such flights will be a symbolic indicator of America's willingness to cede China the rights and privileges of a great power.  China's conduct in this case may well have been provocative and dangerous, but these surveillance flights do take on a different resonance when they  are happening in your own backyard.

Finally, it's worth pausing to think about how technology may change this high-stakes game: as I mentioned, the US is in the process of introducing drones to conduct some of this surveillance work. So what would last week's incident have looked like if the US aircraft had not been carrying a crew? On the one hand, with no lives in danger it would have lowered the stakes for the US. On the other, would the lack of risk to the crew also make US military commanders more willing to take risks with flights close to China's shores? 


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.

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


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.