Lowy Institute

You may have heard about a new comedy movie about North Korea. In The Interview, two American journalists are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-Un, who is portrayed as an obese, cigar-chomping playboy (which is likely not far from the truth). In response, it appears North Korea has hacked Sony Studios. After the hackers made threats against cinemas showing the movie, Sony pulled the planned Christmas release.

This North Korean reaction is not too surprising. As a neo-patrimonial sun-king cult, it cannot easily tolerate mockery of a leadership it suggests is semi-divine. It is also increasingly clear from Northern cyber-attacks on South Korean institutions that North Korea is ramping up in this area. Indeed, cyber, with its unclear rules for what constitutes aggression, is an ideal twilight space for North Korea to operate in.

Last month I wrote here about the South Korean film industry and its geopolitical penchant to plot around over-the-top American villains. Antagonists are often from the North, unsurprisingly, but usually the Northern and Southern characters discover their shared Korean brotherhood as the film unfolds. Together they then rally against the real enemy, a role often conveniently filled by the Yanks. But this month I thought I would look at portrayals of the North in South Korean and American film in the run-up The Interview (which unfortunately does not look very good; its pre-release Rotten Tomatoes score is just 50%).

North Korea in South Korean cinema

This is a huge topic. Not surprisingly, North Korea is a constant, lurking background for much Korean film, but I thought I would focus here on a few major geopolitical films in the last two decades. The overwhelming emphasis, contrary to US portrayals of evil North Korea, is on the DPRK as a tragically divided brother of the same family. The heartbreak of national division is regularly (and rightfully) mined for deep emotional impact on the viewer, as films on civil wars (such as Gettysburg) often do. For readers with little knowledge of Korean film but interest in North-South issues, the following are worth your time:

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1. Brotherhood of War (2004). This is the biggest and the best of the recent South Korean films on national division. It portrays the Korean War with disturbingly graphic yet credible violence, and demonstrates just how confused loyalties became. While the North is the aggressor, Southern atrocities and poor leadership are shown as well. Such honesty is rare in South Korean film and a major mark in favour of the movie.

Two brothers are shown landing on different sides of the conflict. Although this is a fairly transparent metaphor to show the division of Korea, it does reflect the reality that national division in the 1940s split some families (although not nearly as many as you see in the movies). In the midst of extraordinary carnage and waste, the two brothers eventually face each other on the battlefield. While much of the plot and characters are cliché, and the film clearly rips off Saving Private Ryan, it is still the best Korean War film I have seen. It conveys confusion, heartache, and sheer horror, without the silly North Korean comic book villains that mar so much Western film.

2. JSA: Joint Security Area (2000). Another strong film that investigates the pain of national division, with an extremely poignant ending shot. Two border guards from the South and two from the North (rather improbably) strike up a friendship across the Demilitarized Zone. This leads to much metaphorical line-crossing, intermingling, and references to one another as 'brother.' Again, it is fairly emotionally cliché but powerful nonetheless, and I find that Koreans I have watched it with are quite moved by the interaction and inevitable tragedy that ends it. Once again, the North and South are cast as tragically and inexplicably opposed brothers of the same family. Ideology is scarcely mentioned.

3. Shiri (1999). This is a mix of Mata Hari and James Bond: a beautiful female North Korean agent infiltrates Southern intelligence, launching plots that could provoke a war. Her romantic involvement with a Southerner again serves to blend the two Koreas and stress their unity against a tragic geopolitical backdrop. And again, no mention is made that, by the period in which the film story occurs, persistent national division was almost exclusively the fault of persistent, post-Cold War Northern intransigence. While I did not find this particularly good, it was a big hit in South Korea and fueled a wave of inter-Korean movies in the 2000s.

4. 71: Into the Fire (2010). Yet another sad film about the brutality and awfulness of the 1950 war. Based on a true story, a group of Southern students fights to defend their high school against the Northern invasion. Rare for Southern film, the North is portrayed harshly as aggressive imperialists.

US films on North Korea

In contrast to South Korea's marked seriousness and constant tragic emphasis, US film almost exclusively uses North Korea as a punch-line or preposterously powerful comic-book villain. Aliens, Nazis, and post-Soviet Russian gangsters have been used as villains in movies so many times that I guess we need new ones. But the Chinese movie market is too big and too censored to allow Beijing to be alienated with believable stories about Sino-US competition (a shame, that). So instead we get North Korean villains standing in. They are 'Asian' enough to give a hint of China without actually provoking the wrath of its censors:

5. Team America: World Police (2004). Probably the best 'portrayal' of North Korea in American film, because it is a hysterical lampoon that does not take itself seriously like the others below. It's very funny, although don't overlook the ethical issues of laughing about the worst country on earth.

6. Homefront (video game), (2011). This is not a movie, but it does seem to have a launched (below) a bizarre entertainment sub-genre of North Korean invasions of the US. Here is where the US entertainment industry goes off the rails and abjures serious treatment to South Korean filmmakers. Homefront is basically a video-game re-make of the film Red Dawn (1984), in which a group of good-looking young American resistance fighters wage a guerilla conflict against a Soviet invasion of the continental US.

That film has become a campy pseudo-classic of the Cold War, but the game update simply flies over the edge in asking players to believe that North Korea re-unifies Korea, absorbs Japan and then Southeast Asia. These resources in turn fuel its invasion of the US west coast. Hah! There are so many leaps of logic that the whole thing just falls apart. But there are always enough idiot fan-boys to suggest it 'might actually happen, dude!!' And it sold well enough that the Norks will try again to invade America in next year's sequel.

7. Red Dawn (remake), (2012). This film is simultaneously a re-make of the 1984 original and a rip-off of the game just mentioned (demonstrating yet again how bereft Hollywood is of ideas). It is awful, lacking even the camp fun of the game and film. Hot young models in tight-fighting clothes fire rockets and automatic weapons at Korean-Americans with bad accents. Yawn.

More interestingly though, this film was the first major casualty of Chinese geopolitical-cinematic pressure on Hollywood. The original version had contemporary China substitute for the earlier Soviet role as American invader. This far more credible (and potentially exciting) premise was dropped under pressure from Beijing, in exchange for the preposterous notion that North Korea has the resources to launch a trans-Pacific invasion of America. Whatever...

8. Olympus has Fallen, (2013). Yet a third 'North Korea invades America' premise in as many years. Does that mean something? Are Americans obsessed with North Korea, with being invaded, or have we just run out of bad guys? This film's premise is 'Die Hard in the White House': a lone American hero battles Nork agents who take over the White House. Once again, it's laughably ridiculous, but the White House take-over sequence is actually pretty exciting.

9. Die Another Day (2002). And what would such a list be without a Bond film and a super-villain so ridiculous – and with such fluent English! – that it makes Team America look like sophisticated international relations analysis. But if you really feel compelled to scrape the bottom of the barrel of direct-to-video, try this.

So there's so fun geopolitical entertainment for you to relax with over the holidays! Merry Christmas!

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I found a great list of '122 things everyone should know about investing and the economy'. Some of the points are so perfectly applicable to the study and practice of international relations that they can be listed here under the above heading. When you see the word 'investing', just change it to 'diplomacy':

6. As Erik Falkenstein says: "In expert tennis, 80% of the points are won, while in amateur tennis, 80% are lost. The same is true for wrestling, chess, and investing: Beginners should focus on avoiding mistakes, experts on making great moves."

43. "History doesn't crawl; it leaps," writes Nassim Taleb. Events that change the world -- presidential assassinations, terrorist attacks, medical breakthroughs, bankruptcies -- can happen overnight.

57. The more someone is on TV, the less likely his or her predictions are to come true. (University of California, Berkeley psychologist Phil Tetlock has data on this).

100. What Marty Whitman says about information: "Rarely do more than three or four variables really count. Everything else is noise."

122. Take two investors. One is an MIT rocket scientist who aced his SATs and can recite pi out to 50 decimal places. He trades several times a week, tapping his intellect in an attempt to outsmart the market by jumping in and out when he's determined it's right. The other is a country bumpkin who didn't attend college. He saves and invests every month in a low-cost index fund come hell or high water. He doesn't care about beating the market. He just wants it to be his faithful companion. Who's going to do better in the long run? I'd bet on the latter all day long. "Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with a 130 IQ," Warren Buffett says. Successful investors know their limitations, keep cool, and act with discipline. You can't measure that.

(BTW, for me no.122 describes the difference between the Bush and Obama approaches to foreign policy nicely. Although I know Obama is whip-smart and George W Bush was allegedly a dummy, in this analogy I think Bush is the MIT rocket scientist and Obama the bumpkin.)

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Like much of Australia, The Interpreter is winding down for the Christmas-New Year break.

We will be back for the first half of next week with less-than-the-usual number of posts, and after Christmas we will have daily posts featuring some of The Interpreter's best material from 2014. That's until 12 January, when we are back on deck for 2015.

I feel privileged to have edited The Interpreter through an incredible 2014. It's the year in which we launched a concerted effort to cover the Asia Pacific region from the region, with contributors such as Catriona Croft-Cusworth (Indonesia), Elliot Brennan (Southeast Asia), Robert Kelly (Republic of Korea) and Julian Snelder (Hong Kong), as well as the UK-based Shashank Joshi and Vaughan Winterbottom, who covered South Asia and China respectively. Next year we will add a regular Tokyo contributor to the roster.

I'm also proud that, on top of our usual diet of think pieces, backgrounders and links, this year we made a more concerted effort to cover breaking international events such as the two Malaysian Airlines tragedies, the US-led operation in Iraq, the G20 summit, the Indonesian election and much more. Occasionally we even got ahead of the news, breaking stories about the Indonesian election, China's naval flotilla off Christmas Island, the flaws in the Australia-India uranium deal, and Russia's naval deployment during President Putin's APEC/G20 trip to Asia.

I'd like to thank Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove and Director of Studies Anthony Bubalo for their support of The Interpreter, the small team who have helped get our posts out every day (Alex Oliver, Brendan Thomas-Noone, Marty Harris and Philippa Brant), the team at Twisted Pear for their technical support, and the hundreds of contributors who make The Interpreter the most compelling, influential and occasionally diverting publication of its kind in Australia.

And of course, I thank the readers. Without you...

Please join us next week and throughout the Christmas-New Year break, when we will publish at a reduced pace. You'll see my name on a few 'pre-cooked' posts next week, but this is my last day at the keyboard for 2014. I'll be back on 12 January to start the new year on The Interpreter. Until then, having buried myself in so many crises, conflicts and contests this year, I'm only interested in one thing...

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China recently tested its WU-14 hypersonic device, marking its third flight test this year. These tests have elicited analysis for their impact on Beijing's military capabilities, including their potential to break through missile defences.

Chinese mobile ICBMs, displayed for a parade marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, 2009.

They merit even closer attention, however, for what they signal about possible shifts in Chinese views on deterrence, transparency and strategic stability. 

The WU-14 flights are just the latest installment of Chinese military systems revealed to the world through tests and roll-outs. Other examples in recent memory include China's anti-satellite test (ASAT) in 2007, its ballistic missile defence (BMD) tests in 2010, 2013 and 2014, as well as its unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter in 2010. This is not to mention its flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in 2013, test of the intercontinental ballistic missile DF-31A in 2014 and recent revelations regarding the DF-41. 

The level of sophistication and deployment of many of these systems remains to be seen. Still, these roll-outs indicate that China is shifting from transparency based on intent to one rooted in capabilities.

At one level, these displays allow a more accurate assessment of the systems that constitute Beijing's deterrent. At another level, they indicate that China's decades-old postures of no-first-use, de-mating and even credible minimum deterrence must be re-evaluated in accordance with the dynamism of its growing capabilities.

At first glance, Beijing's approach towards conventional and nuclear deterrence may appear distinct and static. China's conventional deterrence is based on war-fighting, counter-force, asymmetry and pre-emption. This is contrasted with its nuclear deterrence posture, which has for decades been founded on non-war-fighting, counter-value, asymmetry and no-first-use. It is often taken for granted that these two deterrence postures are isolated, with their only real point of intersection being asymmetry. Yet, there are indications that China's conventional and nuclear deterrence are far less independent and fixed than its rhetoric suggests.

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This stems from at least five factors:

  1. China's Second Artillery has been responsible for both its conventional and nuclear missiles since the early 1990s. The potential for crossover between these two domains has only grown since that time, particularly in light of its training of personnel and advances in missile technology in recent years.
  2. China's conventional and nuclear command and control centres are reportedly co-located. This means that an attack, whether through advanced conventional systems or cyber-attacks, while intending to negate conventional command and control centres, could also threaten China's nuclear command and control, thus leading to escalation. 
  3. China's system of tunnels leaves gaps in the understanding of its nuclear and conventional forces. While there has been debate about the potential trove of nuclear warheads within China's Great Wall Engineering project, the issue is less one of quantity than of overall inability to account for location, systems and practices that some Chinese experts maintain verify nuclear posture.
  4. With its pending deployment of a submarine-based arm of its nuclear deterrent, Beijing's policies of de-mating and low alert levels are likely to change, if not in rhetoric than in reality. Continued de-mating would demand uploading of nuclear warheads in a crisis, thereby negating their survivability. This posture is likely to change by sheer operational necessity.
  5. Advances in hypersonic, high-precision and boost-glide capabilities by the Second Artillery, which fields both conventional and strategic missiles, suggest that the line between the two may be blurring. The nuclear-capable nature of these systems, combined with robust discussions within China of their pre-emptive nature, cast questions on whether Beijing's posture of no-first-use will endure for systems intended not simply for conventional attack, but also as a means of penetrating missile defences. 

All of these issues merit greater analysis, but the last one in particular demonstrates the complications inherent in Chinese experts suggesting that Beijing's nuclear posture is static and can be verified using its capabilities. Beijing's suite of weapon systems is diversifying in the hands of organisations that are responsible for both conventional and nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, devotion of co-mingled personnel and systems to both conventional and nuclear training and scenarios demonstrates the inherent complexity of arguing for pre-emption and restraint at the same time. 

Much has been made of the centrality of no-first-use in Beijing's nuclear posture, with some Chinese experts arguing that China values transparency of intent over capabilities. Yet, with all of its recent weapons tests and omissions of intent, such as the absence of references to no-first-use in Chinese reports on Xi Jinping's visit to the Second Artillery and in China's official defence document The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces, Beijing's official posture may be undergoing a re-evaluation. 

More analysis is needed into the points of intersection and divergence between Chinese concepts of conventional and nuclear deterrence. Particular attention should be paid to how these arenas are being shaped by Beijing's advances in survivability with the Type 094 and Type 096 submarines, ASATs, missile defence, DF-31A, DF-41 and WU-14. 

Among these systems, the WU-14 that underwent tests in January, August and December is reportedly pursuing boost-glide, high-precision and hypersonic capabilities among its attributes. Such systems illustrate Beijing's steps towards enhancing its ability to break through missile defences and to reach new accuracy, speeds and distances. Enhanced precision, speed, range, maneuverability and multiple-targeting must be factored into evaluations of Beijing's nuclear posture. 

The time has come to begin formally expanding strategic dialogues with China to include exchanges and panels devoted to co-mingling of conventional and nuclear capabilities, whether in the domains of land, air, sea, space or cyberspace. Without such exchanges, the gap left from misalignment of Chinese capabilities and posture threatens to increase the risk of miscalculation and to exacerbate strategic mistrust. 

The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, the US Pacific Command, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.

The Lowy Institute’s work on nuclear issues in Asia is partly supported through a partnership with the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Nir Elias.

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At the end of the year, Australia will complete its fifth term as an elected member of the UN Security Council, the world's premier international peace and security body. It has been a difficult 24 months. The Council's focus has been erratic, and its permanent membership increasingly divided. Yet amid the turmoil, Australia has forged for itself a reasonably successful term on the Council.

Australia has done the bread-and-butter work while deftly responding to crises such as the shooting down of MH17. In this case, Australia had something at stake: 38 citizens were killed, and in response the Government rightly called for Council action; the facts needed to be established and the perpetrators brought to justice. The Australia mission crafted Resolution 2166 which condemned the downing, supported the establishment of an international investigation of the incident, demanded that those responsible be held to account, and allowed for the safe, secure, full and unrestricted access to the site. Australia sparred with Russia on the wording (the Russians insisted on changing 'shooting down' to 'downing'). In the end Russia supported the resolution – a clear victory for Australia.

Since then the problem has been one of translating the resolution into action on the ground.

Implementation problems have also stymied the Council's action on securing humanitarian access in Syria. The collective hard work of Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan on the Syrian humanitarian crisis has been commendable, but at the end of the day resolutions are only pieces of paper. Humanitarian access has been appalling overall, but somewhat improved since the adoption of resolution 2139.

Australian diplomats have also been active on the Council's two other Syria tracks, namely chemical weapons and ISIL.

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Most recently, the campaign against ISIL in Iraq has shifted the Council's agenda towards the issue of foreign fighters. Australia has been involved in developing a suite of new policies aimed at clamping down on foreign terrorist fighters, their financing and movement. These new policies, adopted under resolution 2178, invoke the Council's legislative powers, which have been used twice since 9/11, to impose binding transnational counterterrorism obligations on all member-states. The resolution is both a potential cure and a curse, and it remains to be seen what affect it will achieve.

Meanwhile, UN forces (MONUSCO) have gone on the offensive in Eastern Congo against armed groups, while peacekeepers (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights have been torn apart by their own command and control problems and the threat posed by Al-Nusa. A profoundly dysfunctional mission in Darfur (UNAMID) appears besieged by the Sudanese Government, bandits and rebels, while peacekeepers in South Sudan (UNMISS) contend with civil war and famine. This is the bread-and-butter work of the Council: mandating, evaluating, and troubleshooting for the UN's various peacekeeping, stabilisation, and special political missions. Australia's pre-term priorities (the Asia Pacific) have been usurped by these pressing crises in Africa (the Council's primary region of focus) and by all accounts Australia has performed well in a supporting role.

Pet projects

In September 2013, Australia wielded the gavel, as president of the Council, for the first time in its term. The position of president has evolved considerably during the post-Cold War era. Where once it was a procedural role, today it is more far-reaching position which allows members to champion pet projects. During its first presidency, Australia too pursued its own project: small arms and light weapons. The choice was reportedly made at the last minute, and the resolution (2116) produced was seen by many in the Secretariat as a waste of time and energy.

The recent November presidency, however, was an improvement. It was a more focused outing, which produced a strong crosscutting resolution (res. 2185) on the role of police in UN peacekeeping (see Lisa Sharland and also Charles Hunt for in-depth analysis), and allowed airtime for a series of extended conversations on Ebola and the aforementioned foreign terrorist fighters regime.

Australia's other notable pet project has been sanctions, that much over-used instrument of the Council. The Australian mission has administered the UN's most challenging sanctions committees (Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Iran sanctions) with competence, while jump-starting a process of reform aimed at streamlining the work of the various sanctions committees.

The future

Australia has performed exceedingly well on the Council over the last two years. As Richard Gowan noted in his Lowy analysis, Australian diplomats are often described as 'hardworking, well-informed, collegial and (most frequently of all) pragmatic;' and all this from one of the more modestly staffed missions. Ambassador Gary Quinlan has been singled out for praise, and rightly so, he was arguably the person most responsible for Australia's successful bid.

The government now needs to decide when Australia will next bid for a seat. To begin the discussion: if Australia were to adopt a 'once every 10 years policy' then it should consider bidding for the 2023-24 Western Europe and Others (WEOG) seat. Switzerland has announced that it will bid for one of the two available seats, so the clock is already ticking. Policy-makers must concede that a seat on the Council allows Australia to punch at its weight on the world stage. They must also recognise that to bid for a seat in Australia's group requires, at least the very least, bipartisan support and a modest war chest.

The Lowy Institute's 2013 Poll suggested that 64% of Australians believed a seat on the Council would afford Australia more global influence. On reflection, those 64% are probably correct. The key now for Australia is to consolidate its legacy, learn from its time on the Council, and further its engagement with the Council beyond 31 December 2014.

Photo by REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.

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As the fall-out from the US Senate Intelligence Committee report into the CIA's torture program continues, what has been the reaction from America's allies?

The CIA torture report, long awaited and much debated, removes all doubt, lest anyone still harboured any, that America tortured detainees in the 'war on terror' in the most horrific of ways.

Australia and the UK, remember, were implicated in America's treatment of detainees and in its undermining of the international-law principle prohibiting torture without exception. Their own citizens were detained in the war on terror and, for many years, their governments publicly supported their detention at Guantánamo Bay (Australia for much longer than the UK) even after claims were made that they were tortured.

Across the Atlantic, where UK intelligence agencies have for years faced accusations of complicity in the torture of detainees after 9/11, the Government has come under renewed pressure over its involvement in the CIA's torture program.

Here, however, there has been next to no interest in pressing current and former political leaders for accountability for Australia's part in this sorry saga. How can we explain this indifference?

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Australian intelligence agencies have never faced the same level of allegations of complicity as their UK counterparts. But we do know in the case of Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, who was sent to Egypt for interrogation and where, by many accounts, he was brutally tortured, Australian officials were consulted a number of times before his transfer there from Pakistan. In fact, in 2011, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Vivienne Thom, uncovered an ASIO report which noted it had advised a foreign government that, after consultation between the various Australian agencies, 'we could not knowingly agree to Habib being sent to Egypt given that there is no warrant for his arrest and given Egypt's poor human rights record'. Thom thought that was an unfortunate choice of words, and risked 'being misinterpreted as Australia possibly being willing to turn a blind eye to the transfer'.

We might also recall that the Howard Government publicly supported the US treatment of detainees for far longer than the UK did, providing legitimacy for its military commissions, for example, which allowed evidence obtained under coercion. This was after the Blair Government refused to do the same.

Fast forward to 2014 and we have a US Senate Committee report which lays bare the full horrific details of the CIA's detainee program, with its accounts of gruesome, degrading, personality-destroying torture of individuals that are quite sickening to read.

Now consider the following.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron's office has in recent days been forced to admit under pressure that, contrary to its initial assertions, the UK Government sought redactions from the Committee's report implicating British intelligence agencies. The UK Prime Minister has issued a statement on the US torture report asserting the 'issue has been dealt with from the British perspective'. This, he maintains, is occurring through the Detainee Inquiry into UK complicity in detainee torture after 9/11 (prematurely-aborted in 2012) and the ongoing UK Intelligence and Security Committee investigation set up to pursue questions raised by Sir Peter Gibson in that first inquiry. Others aren't so sure. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has raised the possibility of the need for another full public inquiry into the UK's role in the US torture program.

In Australia, it's a different story.

Habib and his fellow Australian detained at Guantánamo Bay, David Hicks, have staged one-man protests. Habib said he is thinking about suing the Australian Government (again) over its alleged complicity in his treatment. Hicks heckled the Attorney-General Senator George Brandis at a human rights awards function. 'I was tortured for five-and-a-half years in Guantanamo Bay in the full knowledge of your party! What do you have to say?' he cried out as Brandis walked off the stage.

Brandis later dismissed Hicks as a 'terrorist'. And why not? Deflecting questions about torture by labeling the alleged victims as terrorists and therefore undeserving of any sort of acknowledgement was a tactic that worked extremely effectively for many years for the Howard Government. Brandis is simply continuing this tradition.

To recap, back in 2004, Prime Minister John Howard told Australians to take the claims of mistreatment of Hicks and Habib 'with a grain of salt'. His foreign minister, Alexander Downer, suggested in 2005 that whether one believed allegations of torture made by men allegedly involved with al Qaeda, or the Americans, 'depends where your prejudice lies'.

What this lack of accountability all points to, I argue, is not necessarily a reflection of Australia's political leaders. Governments agree to accountability when citizens demand it, when the political stakes in ignoring voters' wishes become too high to ignore. The fact is the Australian public and civil society have never cared enough about the likelihood that two Australians were tortured in the war on terror to force the government into holding a full, public inquiry into whether and how that occurred.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The end of the year is a nice time to reflect on big events and try to prioritise them. This is often seen as a fool's errand. There are so many events, and weighing their causal significance, in real time particularly, seems impossible. Still, assigning causal weight is what we are supposed to do in social science; it is what makes us different from pundits who just assign causality to their favorite arguments. So even if our judgments are poor, we still have to try.

What that in mind, here are the top five foreign policy events for Korea (where I live and work) for 2014.

The relevant benchmark is security events which impacted the security of the two Koreas, specifically those which impacted their competition and moved the debate about North Korean collapse and/or unification. All in all, South Korea had a pretty good year, while North Korea struggled. Indeed, North Korea is now so isolated (points 1 and 5 below), that denuclearisation is becoming ever more unlikely: to give up its best deterrence against a hostile region would be folly.

Anyway, here's that list:

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1. Improving Xi-Park relations, and the mini-freeze between Beijing and Pyongyang

There's a lot of nattering about the good relationship between South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Pro-American South Korean conservatives have accused her of being a sinophile and preferring Xi to Obama.

I have never understood this criticism. I suppose very partisan Americans might see Park's supposed 'sinophilia' as a threat to the alliance. But that is pretty myopic. The whole point of the alliance is to control, if not eventual dispose of, North Korea. And this is precisely what Park is trying to wrangle from Xi. China now holds the key to North Korea. It pays Pyongyang's bills, allows massive sanctions-busting along the border, provides political cover at the UN and elsewhere (point 5 below), and so on. North Korea has no other meaningful allies to carry its costs. So if Park can slowly pull Xi away from Pyongyang, that is a huge achievement. We should all be cheering for this and the distance it has already created between North Korea and China. 

2. Kim Jong Un's disappearance

Ah, wasn't the autumn fun? For six weeks you could indulge all your paranoid fantasies and conspiracy theories about North Korea, and by mid-October, Kim Jong-Un's disappearance was so lengthy that saying nutball stuff (eg. he was overthrown in a coup and his sister has taken over the country) was actually credible.

Too bad none of the fun was true. But we did learn some things few of us want to admit, the most important being that the regime can fly on autopilot. There may be a neo-patrimonial sun-king cult at the top, but there are also institutions below – however deformed, neofeudal, or mafiaosi. And they did a pretty good job holding the DPRK together during Kim Jong-Il's sudden illness (fall 2008), after Kim Jong-Il's sudden death (December 2011), and again this time. So don't get too excited for regime collapse next time some high figure dies suddenly or is purged.

3. Decision to permanently delay OPCON transfer

This probably the most under-reported of all my points in this list, given how dull and bureaucratic it is. I wrote on this last month for The Interpreter. OPCON is the 'operational control' of the South Korean military in wartime. OPCON is currently in the hands of a US four-star general, in order to ensure unity of command during a war. (In peacetime, OPCON belongs to the South Koreans, naturally.)

Needless to say, this is controversial. Many South Koreans, especially on the left, see US OPCON as an infringement on South Korean sovereignty (it is) and a major provocation to North Korea (it isn't). So under South Korea's most recent liberal president last decade, an agreement was struck to return OPCON to Seoul. But the right in South Korea strongly opposed this as (correctly) reducing the American sense of commitment to South Korean defence. After conservatives re-took the presidency, OPCON was repeatedly delayed until last month, when the delay was effectively made permanent by pushing the issue to the 2020s. In other words, the US commitment here will indefinitely remain as it has been.

4. The Kono Statement pseudo-review 

2014 was another bad year for rapprochement between Japan and Korea. The low point was probably Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to revisit Japan's apology for the sexual enslavement of Korean women (the 'comfort women') during World War II. This apology, known as the Kono Statement, was examined for politicisation, and Abe indeed found what he wanted – that Seoul pressured Tokyo over the crafting of the statement. But then Abe decided not to alter it anyway.

I don't understand this at all, and said so on The Interpreter at the time. What is the point of running a 'review' – which everyone knew would be politicised and give Abe what he wanted – but then not change the statement in response? Abe thus got the worst of both worlds: he convinced the South Koreans once again that the Japanese Right is unrepentant about wartime atrocities, while simultaneously inflaming and the disappointing Japanese conservatives who want to dump the Kono Statement altogether. This outcome makes everything worse – Seoul and Tokyo are as far apart as ever, while Japanese conservatives' revanchism has now spread into government. Yikes.

5. The UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights

Early this year, the UN told everybody what everybody already knew: that North Korean gulags are on par with the Nazi Holocaust. But this has turned out to be a pretty big deal, bigger I think than most of us thought when it was released. The COI report has acquired a global credibility that no amount of reports from the US Government or NGOs could, and now there is discussion of sending the North Korean leadership before the International Criminal Court. I think this report broke through, because many less developed states intrinsically distrust US human rights pronouncements as either self-serving, hypocritical (post-Abu Ghraib), or 'human rights imperialism.' But the UN is trusted in much of the global South because it is far more open to their concerns. So a UN report on North Korea is turning out to have far more weight in moving global public opinion than anyone thought.

Happily, China may be forced into publicly voting to prevent a referral of North Korea to the ICC. That would be a huge victory, as it would starkly reveal to the world just how much China protects its hideous, Orwellian client. And such embarrassing publicity is probably the best way to pull China from North Korea.

BONUS: 'Events' that weren't:

6. The curious lack of impact of the Sewol tragedy

At the time, the sinking of the Sewol ferry got enormous play in the local and global media. Pundits across Korea talked of it re-setting politics for years and beginning the decline of the Park Presidency. The opposition took up the banner of Sewol for the year's elections – and lost three times on it. What happened to all that social anger? It's still not clear.

7. Japan's non-remilitarisation

If the Korean media or government made a list such as this one, I have little doubt that it would include the re-militarisation of Japan. It is perennial Korean concern, frequently wildly exaggerated, and under Abe, it has gained new life. But Japan actually woefully underspends on defence, a truth widely recognised outside the region.

Happy holidays, all.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christian Senger.

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AGE: anti-government elements; PGF: pro-government forces. (Source.)

In reaction to the despicable killing of over 100 school children in Pakistan whose only 'crime' was attending an army school at a time when the army was battling the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Afghan Taliban expressed 'sorrow over the tragedy and grief for the families of the victims.' The killing of innocent civilians, it said, is against Islamic principles. The Afghan Taliban has 'always condemned the killing of innocent people and children.'

This is of course true. Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has made it a frequent practice in his Eid Statements to proclaim the group does not kill civilians. But, as I have pointed out previously, the Afghan Taliban's definition of 'civilian' diverges from that accepted under international humanitarian law agreed upon by a majority of the civilized world, including Muslim states.

The Afghan Taliban continues this narrative because it needs to portray itself as an insurgency fighting foreign invaders and only really targeting those who deserve it. That the list of 'those who deserve it' is getting increasingly long is illustrated by another recent Taliban statement (by the same Zabiullah Mujahed who voiced the Taliban's rejection of what happened in Pakistan) about an 11 December 2014 suicide attack at a French cultural centre inside a school. The attack occurred during a production that was considered un-Islamic because it dealt with the trauma of – wait for it – suicide attacks:

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Taking the opportunity, the Islamic Emirate warns all the (so called) media sources, and organizations working under the name of civil society, those who publish/show, organize demonstrations, meetings contrary to Islamic values, and spread anti-Islamic music, obscene acts and immorality in the community, and try to mislead the youth, that our Mujahideen will no longer tolerate this, and will uproot such activities through conducting similar actions, till the core of immorality is destroyed.

Data from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan continues to show a rise in civilian casualties in Afghanistan, a majority at the hands of the Afghan Taliban. Undeniably, Afghan National Security Forces, foreign forces and others also kill civilians, but if you look at the graph above, the facts speak pretty loud. According to the UN nearly 5000 civilian casualties (1564 deaths and 3289 injured) were reported in the first six months of 2014, a 17% increase of civilians killed over the same period in 2013. Of these, 74% are attributed to anti-government elements.

But according to the Taliban, this is all propaganda. The UN has no idea who real civilians are and never checks its facts, the Taliban says. Most people are killed by Afghan Nation Security Forces and international military, it argues. Or, in a concession by a high-ranking ex-Taliban minister, the civilian deaths are mistakes. 

Regarding the Afghan Taliban's claim that it never targets children, this from the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict in a May 2014 report:

At least 545 children were killed and 1,149 injured in 790 documented incidents. Child casualties increased by 30 per cent in 2013 compared with 2012. Armed opposition groups, including the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, were responsible for a majority (889) of the recorded child casualties.

In response to the 2013 UN report documenting civilian casualties, the Taliban reiterated that protecting civilians was part of its aim, and that it gives clear instructions to not carry out attacks of any nature near markets, schools and bus stations. But let's look at some more memorable (in the sense of weighing heavily on the psyche of the Afghan population) non-civilian killings:

  • 14 July 2014: at least 42 people killed and dozens injured in a suicide attack at a busy market in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika province, local officials say.
  • 23 November 2014: a suicide bomber kills at least 50 people, wounding another 63, at a volleyball match, again in Paktika province.
  • 14 December 2014: IED on road to school in Nangarhar injures six students. 

When the Taliban insurgency first emerged, I had some sympathy for it. The Taliban was excluded from the Bonn peace agreement, hunted down in many parts of the country and initially tried to respond to communities' dissatisfaction with the Afghan Government. But the Taliban has brought neither security nor justice, as it promised. It also opposes education and development, aiming to keep people out of the 21st century. Few Afghans want this, and few Afghans I have spoken to have bought into the propaganda that the Taliban does not kill civilians.

So let's not rejoice in a simple condemnation of a heinous attack in Pakistan by a group that does more or less the same at home in Afghanistan. Let's see it for what it is: propaganda. Until the Taliban's rhetoric starts matching its actions, peace talks will be empty. We can only find peace if the facts come out and all sides practice what they preach.

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By Anna Kirk, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia program.

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The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

  •  What are the views of the newly nominated US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, on Asia?
  • India's first indigenously produced nuclear ballistic missile submarine, the INS Arihant, conducted its first sea-trials in the Bay of Bengal this week.
  • Construction of the largest coast guard vessel in the world, at 10,000 tons, is nearing completion in a Shanghai dockyard. The largest coast guard vessels are currently operated by Japan, at 6500 tons. The Chinese ship will reportedly be ready for commissioning sometime next year.
  • Vietnam has filed a 'statement of interest' with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague regarding the Philippines arbitration case against China in the South China Sea. This follows position papers issued by China and the US outlining their respective legal positions on the issue of SCS territorial disputes last week.
  • The Lowy Institute's Danielle Rajendram released a new research paper this week on India's foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the country's developing Indo-Pacific strategy.
  • War is Boring has written on the rise of amphibious forces among Indo-Pacific powers.
  • Is Indonesia's potential role in the Indian Ocean underdeveloped?
  • India has now officially banned the Islamic State.
  • Lastly, Shuja Nawaz says that the Taliban's attack on a school in Peshawar may provoke a 'nationwide civil-military consensus on fighting terrorism' in Pakistan.

 The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

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It has been a busy year for India in the Asia Pacific. From multilateral summits to bilateral diplomacy, the Modi Government has deliberately moved to step up engagement with its East and Southeast Asian partners.

At this year's India-ASEAN Summit, Prime Minister Modi announced his intention to upgrade India's long-standing 'Look East Policy' to 'Act East'. As I argue in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, this is more than just a rebranding, and signifies India's intention to play a more serious role in the region. 

Look East started primarily as an economic policy, and part of this enhanced effort has to do with the trade and investment opportunities presented by greater integration with the Asia Pacific. China is already India's top trading partner with a value of US$65 billion in 2013-2014, and at approximately US$74 billion, trade with ASEAN as a whole is even larger.

However, Look East shifted to a broader economic and strategic focus about a decade ago, and this has intensified in recent years. Even before coming to power, the BJP made it clear that it intended to pursue a greater global role for India, creating 'a web of allies' to further its interests, and the leveraging of all resources and people to 'play a greater role at the international high table'.

India's Asia Pacific strategy can be viewed as part of this broader drive for an enhanced global presence.

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But in recent years, one of the primary drivers of India's engagement with the Asia Pacific has been its concerns about China. China's assertiveness along the disputed border with India, and increasing influence among India's Indian Ocean neighbours, has driven New Delhi to pursue a strategy of external balancing against China in its own neighbourhood.

China's relations with India have long proceeded along two distinct economic and security tracks. However the recent border incursion during President Xi's visit to Delhi, and the docking of a Chinese submarine in Colombo, represented a significant misreading of India's new leader and served only to reinforce the relevance of this strategy for Modi. China's assertiveness in maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea has also reinforced the relevance of a more 'involved' India for its Southeast and East Asian partners, which are reaching out to India as a potential strategic counterweight.

At the heart of India's Asia Pacific strategy are practical partnerships with key states and institutions, centering upon Japan, Vietnam, Australia and ASEAN. India has recognised the potential of these partners under previous governments, but has considerably stepped up engagement under Modi.

Modi made Japan the venue for his first trip outside of India's South Asian neighbourhood. This year has also seen an unprecedented level of interaction between Australia and India. Prime Minister Abbott was the first foreign leader Modi welcomed to New Delhi, and Modi made a full bilateral visit to Australia following the G20; the first of any Indian Prime Minister in almost 30 years. The same goes for interactions with Vietnam. Modi sent External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and President Pranab Mukherjee to Hanoi in August and September, welcomed Prime Minister Dung to New Delhi at the end of October, and has agreed to visit Vietnam at a mutually convenient time. Swaraj and Modi have also both made trips to Naypyidaw for ASEAN engagements this year.

All of these countries offer India opportunities for deepening its engagement with the Asia Pacific.

As the central regional institution, ASEAN has long been at the heart of India's eastward shift in focus. Japan is the most advanced Asian naval power in the region and a potential source of considerable investment and technological assistance. Vietnam's geostrategic position in Indochina and the South China Sea makes it a natural partner for India to balance against China in its own neighbourhood. Australia continues to offer assistance as a source of natural resources and as a partner for naval cooperation. Japan and Vietnam each have tense relations with China, providing additional impetus to their ties with India. And although largely underdeveloped, I've made the case before that India should expend more effort cultivating its partnership with Indonesia. Indonesia's geographic location at the centre of Asia's strategic straits, plus President Jokowi's vision of Indonesia as a 'global maritime axis', serves only to reinforce the relevance of this relationship.

On top of this enhanced diplomatic effort, India's partners in the region can expect greater Indian involvement in regional security, particularly in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, transnational crime, and joint bilateral naval exercises. However India will be unlikely to engage in any security initiatives that can be perceived as threatening or directly targeted at limiting China's influence.

Should Modi be able to maintain this momentum, there is significant potential to transform India into a consequential actor in the Asia Pacific. If carefully managed, especially with relation to Chinese sensitivities, cautious Indian engagement could act as a stabilising force in the region. More importantly, successfully enhancing its role in East and Southeast Asia could signal the beginning of the pursuit of a more serious role for India across the entire Indo-Pacific region.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Toru Hanai.

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Christmas is a time of year when Indonesia's state motto of 'Unity in Diversity' is really put to the test. The holiday provokes a variety of responses from the Muslim-majority population, ranging from taking selfies with shopping mall Christmas trees and celebrating with Christian friends to refusing to wish others a 'Merry Christmas', or, in extreme cases, violently interrupting church activities.

Christianity accounts for two of the six officially recognised faiths in Indonesia, split into Protestantism and Catholicism. Some pockets of the country are majority-Christian, especially in the eastern islands and in parts of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Major cities also have substantial Christian populations, including many ethnic Chinese Indonesians. Among communities where Christianity is a long-established faith, Christmas is celebrated openly with a mix of Western and indigenous traditions.

In Jakarta's city centre, Christmas lights can be found everywhere, along with banners wishing citizens a happy Christmas and New Year. Competition is high among the capital's most extravagant shopping malls to out-do one another with their holiday displays, involving forests of spangled Christmas trees, mountains of fake snow and the obligatory pop Christmas albums on repeat.

But in areas where Christianity is seen as expanding into new territory and gaining converts, the atmosphere is entirely different.

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In parts of Java, newspaper headlines regularly warn against 'Christianisation', despite Islam's unquestionable dominance among the Indonesian population as a whole. In Bogor, a town in West Java  that brushes the edges of Jakarta's urban sprawl, a Protestant congregation has been battling for the right to open a church. The planned church building was sealed in 2010 by a former mayor who said it lacked the required permits and community support. Four years and two favourable Supreme Court rulings later, the congregation has still not been allowed to enter their church building. They plan to spend yet another Christmas worshiping on the footpath in front of the sealed church, potentially under threat of confrontation with opponents of the service, as has been the case in past years.

Christmas and New Year celebrations are guarded across the nation by security forces as part of an activity known as 'Operation Candle'. This year, almost 146,000 security personnel will be stationed at churches and other sites for worship and celebration across Indonesia. Throughout the year, churches around Indonesia come under attack by hardliners, usually under the pretext of accusations related to a lack of building permits and community endorsement. One of the major criticisms of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's 10 years in office was his lack of action on growing religious intolerance in Indonesia.

During this year's election campaign, rumours calling the now-President Jokowi a closet Christian were designed to detract from his widespread popularity. This in itself signals a poor state of interfaith relations, suggesting that voters were expected to be swayed by a candidate's religion over his credentials. To Jokowi's credit, rather than distancing himself from the rumours surrounding his faith, Jokowi plans to celebrate Christmas in Papua, where Christians are the majority.

These plans were made before a deadly clash occurred between civilians and security forces in the province last week, in which five locals were killed. Now some church leaders have withdrawn their invitation to the President, in protest over his refusal to make a statement on the incident. Nonetheless, government representatives have claimed that the visit will go ahead on 27 December.

It seems unlikely at this point that Jokowi could get away with visiting Papua and not making a statement on last week's deaths. In this way, the visit has the potential to address two important areas said to have suffered under the previous government: religious tolerance and recognition of human rights abuses. The question now is whether Jokowi will take the opportunity to deliver a Christmas message of peace and goodwill among all Indonesians.

Photo by Flickr user Rezwan.

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For years, decades even, professional Burma watchers, activists and other commentators have been making assessments about developments in Burma (Myanmar) on the basis of very little hard information. Government statistics could not be trusted, official spokesmen rarely gave away anything of value and the state-run press largely peddled propaganda. Reports generated outside Burma were often highly politicised and had to be treated carefully.

There were some notable exceptions to this rule, but even well-informed analysts tended to refer to Burma as an intelligence black hole.

In such circumstances, gauging the popular mood in Burma was always fraught with risk. Structured surveys of public opinion were forbidden. There were occasional attempts by embassies and international organisations to sound out certain target groups, but access to different parts of the country was difficult and the regime's coercive apparatus was so pervasive that the likelihood of gaining an accurate picture was low.

As a result, Burma watchers of all kinds were heavily reliant on fragmentary information derived from relatively small numbers of personal contacts, anecdotal sources and gossip. Whenever there was a major incident of any kind, the Rangoon rumour mill went into overdrive. This did not prevent educated speculation about what people in Burma felt about certain issues, but such judgements usually lacked hard evidence. 

Since the advent of President Thein Sein's hybrid civilian-military government in 2011, however, the atmosphere within Burma has changed dramatically. There is now much greater freedom of speech, of association and of movement. As a result, it has been possible to conduct comprehensive surveys that give more reliable snapshots of public opinion. Two such exercises, both conducted by US institutions with the support of foreign governments, stand out.

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The first was published in April this year by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and enjoyed the backing of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Survey of Burma Public Opinion, December 24, 2013- February 1, 2014 canvassed the views of 3000 adult men and women from 208 rural and 92 urban locations in all 14 states and regions of Burma. 

Not surprisingly, the survey showed that there was overwhelming support for democracy as the most desirable form of government, although understanding of what 'democracy' actually meant seems to have differed widely. Those surveyed were also generally supportive of the Government's reform programs, although their views seem to have been influenced by the optimism then prevailing about Burma's future economic development.

Interestingly, when asked about the three biggest problems facing Burma as a whole, the majority of respondents identified unemployment, ethnic or sectarian violence, and high prices. Almost all other issues raised related to daily life, such as poor health care, the lack of electricity and inadequate transportation. Politics only featured at the far end of the scale, with the need to amend the constitution scoring lower even than natural disasters.

The second survey has just been released. It was conducted by the Asia Foundation with help from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. Entitled Myanmar 2014: Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society, it was conducted in May and June this year. It too sought the views of 3000 respondents across all fourteen states and regions, once again through personal interviews. 

The Asia Foundation survey was more comprehensive than the IRI exercise, and has yielded more nuanced results. It found, for example, that there is very limited knowledge in Burma about the structure and functions of the country's multi-level system of government, particularly at the subnational level. Respondents still hoped for a real democracy, but there was little understanding about the principles and practices that underpin a democratic society.

Also, the survey suggests that Burmese are generally positive about the situation in their country, and welcome the results of the reform programs introduced since 2011, as far as they go. However, there is a pervasive underlying uncertainty about the future, particularly in the peripheral areas where most of the ethnic minorities live. Governments are still viewed with suspicion, political disagreements are deeply polarising and social trust is low. 

Once again, the country's economic fortunes figured prominently in the thinking of those surveyed. As the IRI project also found, economic performance not only serves as a key indicator of how the country is seen, but it also strongly affects popular attitudes towards the central government. There is a high expectation that the government will play a strong role in ensuring economic growth, and an equitable and inclusive society.

None of these conclusions will be surprising to those who have followed Burma closely. Also, there is still a dearth of reliable information about many critical issues, such as the political views of the armed forces leadership. However, these and other surveys can provide the basis for more reliable judgements about the public mood in Burma and the wishes of the Burmese people. They should also result in better informed policy decisions.

If there is an underlying message in both surveys, it is that since 2011 Burma's reforms have had a positive impact. The country is still facing serious problems, resulting in attendant caution, but there are now palpable hopes for a more democratic system of government and (in particular) a higher standard of living. These trends are to be welcomed and encouraged. That will require not just moral support, but also technical advice, practical assistance, and patience.

Photo by Flickr user Francisco Anzola.

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An ambitious Chinese initiative to build a series of strategic maritime distribution centres, west to Africa and beyond, has been revealed. This is an extension of the Maritime Silk Road, which in turn complements a plan to revive the terrestrial Silk Road through central Asia.

China's strategic maritime distribution centers  (Courtesy of East by Southeast.)

A 'string of pearls' — bases through the Indian Ocean — has long been denied by Beijing, possibly in deference to India. Recent naval deployments suggest Beijing is less obliging now. 'China's growing investment and its international prestige associated with the Maritime Silk Road must be protected which will in turn demand presence', notes one China watcher. Formal alliances and bases are unlikely for now, but 'fighting terrorism' and guarding African oil overseas has been authorised.

The term 'string of pearls' invokes the British coaling stations of olden times. The Chinese maps today, showing railways and shipping lanes spanning the globe, remind an English friend of mine of the British Empire on which the sun never set: 'This move from China is straight out of the playbook of Queen Elizabeth (the First), who granted a charter to the East India Company to take the City of London's excess savings and "go out." The Company did this until 1857, when some fairly serious corporate governance issues in one of its key assets (the Indian Rebellion) led to the Company's ruin and nationalisation.'

That's a provocative analogy for China, especially given the Company's heinous record as a state-sponsored drug pusher. But it raises fair questions about how nations recycle surplus savings, and also the conduct of their corporate-state-security complexes overseas.

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Jacob Zuma says China can 'help cast off Africa's colonial shackles'. In the Congo, Chinese companies are everywhere, but so discreet behind their ubiquitous ten-foot walled compounds that locals puzzle about their activities. A Peruvian economist marvels at the cohesion of the new conquistadores: 'behind Chinese investment lies the strategy of an entire country.' Elsewhere policies to 'build influence' and 'deploy overcapacity' may meet resistance.

A hundred years ago, after its Civil War, America was in an expansive mood, rough-riding its way to Manifest Destiny. Supposedly Britain acquired empire in 'a fit of absent-mindedness', but as Mark Twain witnessed in the Philippines, the American empire was anything but absent-minded. If there remains an American empire today, as some argue, China might seek something similar. Of course China remains ideologically committed to Marxism, for which 'imperialism' is anathema. But then again, Marx's Bolshevik followers were as keen on territory as the Romanov empire they overthrew.

'Europeans waged a Five Hundred Years War on the rest of the world' writes Ian Morris of the period 1415 to 1915. By then 'they had conquered 84% of the earth's surface', including chunks of China. Notably, it was only halfway through this onslaught, following the Thirty Years War, that they could establish — at least among themselves — how the Westphalia Treaty rules operate. Andrew Phillips at ANU reckons 1915 in turn marked the start of Asia's own Thirty Years War, at which time China made its own transition from celestial kingdom to nation-state. China today is a strong proponent of 'Westphalian sovereignty', yet Westphalia's signatories only respected 'non-interference' at home; arguably it fueled imperial expansion abroad.

Phillips predicts that 'much like the post-Vienna Congress period (another grand intra-European agreement in 1815), the world will be multipolar in its essential form, but informally underwritten by the dual hegemony of the two preponderant powers.' From 1815 to 1915, these were Russia and Britain. The 20th century ultimately saw both diminished. In 2015, Phillips reckons, America and China 'will serve respectively as the maritime liberal and continental autocratic anchors of an uneasy but relatively stable international order. Globally these great powers will compete for influence in major energy producing regions.'

A Chinese historian demurs: 'Westerners fear China dominating the world because they think China will act just like they did. But traditional Chinese civilization never acted that way.' Its tributaries were comfortable in the Sinosphere. Would Tibetans and Uighurs and Mongols agree today, though? 'That's the problem', the historian admits: 'China today is not traditional.' It more resembles the hard-edged Western nation-states which emerged after 1648, the ones who professed sovereignty and non-interference at home but pursued colonialism abroad.

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Within China's bureaucratic system, sometimes it is in an agency's interest to compete with others, rather than coordinate, in order to advance its own bureaucratic power and receive more funding.

Linda Jakobson's recent Lowy Report, China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors, highlights this phenomenon between maritime agencies. Such a bureaucratic shortfall could explain to some degree China's behavior in the South China Sea, particularly why China's maritime enforcement agencies are increasingly ready to confront vessels of other claimants in disputed waters. 

Jakobson's report argues that China lacks a grand strategy in the South China Sea. However, I would argue that competition or lack of coordination among government agencies is not incompatible with the existence of an over-arching strategy. China's maritime agencies do appear to take actions independent of each other, but they do not aim to contest or alter Beijing's overall strategic objective. That objective is clear, which is to advance Beijing's control of the ocean to the best of its capacity.

This suggests that we should be less concerned about the complex interaction among government agencies and more concerned with understanding the very nature of Beijing's claims.

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Beijing claims a 'historical right' over waters within the nine-dash line. It claims all the features within the nine-dash line as Chinese sovereignty. So far there is no sign that China would compromise these claims for a peaceful resolution with other claimants, even though Chinese leaders have on different occasions acknowledged the existence of disputes and the need for a peaceful resolution.

Additionally, China rejects third-party arbitration. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs position paper on the South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines asserts that it will not shake China's 'resolve and determination to safeguard its sovereignty and maritime rights and interests'. As pointed out by Jakobson, China is evidently building up naval capacity and ramping up civilian enforcement equipment.

Perhaps the best evidence of a grand strategy is that China's domestic legal framework is being constantly updated to expand de facto jurisdiction over the water and features within the nine-dash line. This is likely to embolden Chinese maritime enforcement agencies to take even more resolute actions against other claimant's vessels in the future. 

Jakobson's report is a very good reminder of how China's internal politics run. Often, institutional defects intervene in China's foreign policy-making, and make it difficult to predict China's actions. As Jakobson rightly points out, not every action taken by the government agency rightly reflects the will of China's leaders, even when it's done in the name of protecting China's national interests. This creates problems at a tactical level for Chinese policymakers and may have foreign policy consequences they might not want. But China's leadership does not hide the fact that it has strategic objectives in relation to the nine-dash line, and none of the actions by China's maritime enforcement agencies we are seeing now seem to be at odds with these.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yuan2003.

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