Lowy Institute

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.

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The views expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent those of National Institute for Defense Studies or the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

I am inspired by the recent debate on The Interpreter about the trajectory of Japan's security strategy. Brad Glosserman's Washington Quarterly article, which prompted the debate, sketches the contemporary discourse in Japan. Many do indeed appear to accept the decline of Japan rather comfortably, which, Glosserman suggests, explains why Japan does not go beyond picking 'low-hanging fruit' in economic and security policy. Although I personally wouldn't use this expression, I agree with Brad's underlying message that the series of recently announced policy initiatives do not constitute a radical change in Japan's strategic posture.

Building on Brad's explanation, which focuses on Japan's domestic discussion, I would add another key factor which accounts for why Japan is not changing as fast or as dramatically as a number of external observers, including Hugh White, anticipate. That is: despite the hot debate about the end of the US unipolar moment, the Japanese Government continues to place a high degree of confidence in the leadership of the US, and indeed in the alliance. In other words, from a Japanese perspective, changes in the external environment have not yet reached the point where Tokyo is forced to fundamentally reconsider its post-war strategy, founded upon its alliance with the US.

The Abe Government's National Security Strategy (NSS) captures this perception: 'though its relative influence in the international community is changing, the US remains the country that has the world's largest power'.

Japan's confidence is also underscored by America's repeated commitment to the alliance, powerfully demonstrated by flying B-52s through China's so-called air defence identification zone in November 2013 and President Obama's affirmation of the US treaty obligation to defend the Senkaku Islands. The Abe Government's confidence is also widely shared by the public. According to a recent poll by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), 70% of respondents believe the alliance should be maintained or even further reinforced. I am sure this widely shared confidence in the Japan-US alliance shapes opinions and discourses within Japan and encourages many to feel comfortable with the status quo.

Of course, this does not mean the Japanese Government is blind to some of the challenges facing the US both on its international and domestic fronts.

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In order to support the US in this difficult time, Japan's policy aims to strengthen and further support the alliance rather than switching to any alternative strategy. This is, at minimum, a fourfold initiative: (1) reforming Japan's security policy and system by establishing the National Security Council, amending some long-standing self-imposed restraints and building a 'Dynamic Joint Defense Force'; (2) adjusting the alliance infrastructure, including the defence cooperation guidelines, in line with China's 'gray-zone' activities and Japan's constitutional reinterpretation; (3) reaching out to third parties who share Japan's interests and values, including most prominently Australia; and (4) attempting to manage the relationship with China.

As Malcolm Cook rightly argues, Japan's policy moves are largely consistent with what the US is trying to do in Asia. Perhaps the only existing discrepancy between Japan and the US is how successful each has been at engaging China. While the US institutionalises its relations with China through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and regular summit meetings, so far Japan's engagement vis-à-vis China remains stagnant, despite the Japanese Government's consistent calls for dialogue.

The current status of Japan's engagement with China is a concern for the alliance. It is more difficult for regional partners to cooperate with Japan if Sino-Japanese relations remain strained. It may also slow the US-Japan initiative to work with third countries (eg. a Japan-Australia-US or Japan-Korea-US framework). Furthermore, a functioning and healthy Sino-Japanese relationship is clearly advantageous to the alliance. For example, creating a Sino-Japanese maritime communication mechanism (a key agenda of Japan's China engagement) would help Japan and China avoid accidental or inadvertent escalations and hence prevent the US from having to make a difficult decision about how to respond. This is the key reason why the US vocally supports Japan's China engagement.

The past few weeks have seen some positive signs in the Japan-China relationship. On the sidelines of this year's ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting, the Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers held a dialogue for the first time since the Abe Government came to power. In addition, speaking to a visiting Japanese parliamentary delegation on 18 August, Chinese Vice-Present Li Yuan Chao made some positive remarks about the possibility of an Abe-Xi summit meeting when Prime Minister Abe visits China for APEC in November.

How effectively and quickly Japan's engagement with China is restored is still an open question. But there is no question that any progress in Japan's engagement with China will support the US-Japan alliance and thus further strengthen Japan's confidence in the alliance. 

Image courtesy of the White House.

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Sure, Canada is famous for its comedians, but who knew they were working at NATO?

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Keep up with what has been happening in the Pacific island region with our  selected links.

  • As the 17 September election draws closer, political observers and commentators are thinking about what needs to come next to re-establish democracy in Fiji.
  • Meanwhile, in a  recent Interpreter post, Alex Stewart asserts that in diplomatic terms Fiji has outsmarted Australia.
  • Incoming president of Indonesia Joko Widodo has promised to give more attention to West Papua, but will building a presidential palace there be enough?
  • On the Devpolicy blog, Jonathan Pryke examines why Melanesians are under-represented in Australian communities of Pacific island descent.
  • Giff Johnson revisits his concerns about the proliferation of regional meetings and highlights the ongoing tension between regional rhetoric and national service delivery.
  • Management of the region's fisheries is vital for sustainable development and food security. How does the 'Parties to the Nauru Agreement' grouping influence this?
  • The forthcoming G20 summit in Brisbane has received no attention in the region. Australia's 'Special Representative' recently visited Suva and Noumea to discuss why this gathering is important for the Pacific.
  • Next week the international community will gather in Apia, Samoa for the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States:

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In his introduction to this Interpreter debate, Rory Medcalf raises the important question of how nuclear-armed ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) programs in Asia influence strategic stability.

Making such an assessment for any one weapons system in isolation is fraught with difficulty, as judgments are inevitably based on assumptions about doctrine, employment, escalation, and strategic concepts. Technical details also matter a lot, as was demonstrated in the late Cold War by the development of the highly precise Trident D5 (which gave the US SSBN fleet the ability to conduct counterforce missions against hardened targets) on the one hand, and the appearance of very quiet Soviet submarines (pictured) on the other. Strategic stability is thus always a question of net assessment.

Viewed in this light, the scale and scope of the programs under development in Asia today seem unlikely to change fundamental power relationships and military balances. India and China have toyed with SSBN technology for decades, and it is difficult to see either action-reaction patterns, or an out-of-character acceleration, that would indicate an incipient SSBN arms race. That said, the fact that SSBNs are now being introduced into the regional mix of capabilities throws a useful spotlight on the influence of geography, and on Chinese views about the vulnerability of their nuclear forces. Both of these factors are of fundamental importance to net-assessment-based judgments of strategic stability in the Western Pacific, and highlight the strengths of the current strategic order that China must still overcome.

The attraction of SSBNs is that they can be difficult to find and destroy, particularly if they are either isolated from adversary ASW forces in a 'bastion' or able to hide in the vast expanses of deep water found in the Pacific, Atlantic, and under the Arctic ice cap. Strategic geography thus favoured the employment of SSBNs by the main nuclear powers of the Cold War (the US, Soviet Union, France and Britain), whose submarine bases had direct access to suitable deployment areas.

Not so in China's case. While the waters of the northern South China Sea are deep, they are also confined.

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The need to pass through chokepoints into the Pacific places Chinese submarines at a disadvantage, as it makes it easier to for US and allied ASW forces to detect and track Chinese SSBN patrols passing into the Pacific, or to block them through mining in wartime. Moreover, the South China Sea is ringed by US allies, and any 'bastion' the PLA Navy might attempt to establish could be contested by a range of US and allied systems operating from friendly territory. Those systems would of course themselves be at risk of Chinese attack, but the heart of a conventional battle would not be a good place for an SSBN to be.

'Deploying' the SSBN in the cave complex on Hainan Island might align more closely with the Chinese preference to keep close control of nuclear warheads, but it would significantly limit the strategic benefit of having an SSBN capability: if they remain inside the caves too long, the Chinese SSBN force risks being disabled by a US strike (even if this required nuclear weapons). Should they leave the caves in a crisis, however, China risks sending inadvertent escalatory signals, and the boats would enter waters likely to be teeming with US attack submarines.

All of this raises the question of why China is developing SSBNs in the first place. The reasons are far from clear, and a coherent strategic rationale may not even exist in Chinese minds. SSBN development is consistent with the long-term features of Chinese nuclear strategy and force modernisation, which emphasise survivability through dispersion of its land-based systems. With the DF-31 and DF-31A, China can now retire its only silo-based system, the large DF-5 ICBM, and rely completely on solid-fuel, road mobile nuclear missiles.

And yet 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.

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Jenny Hayward-Jones is Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program and Tess Newton Cain is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

One of the key announcements at the conclusion of the recent Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Koror, Palau was the appointment of Dame Meg Taylor as the new Secretary-General of the Forum's Secretariat. Much has been made of the fact that she is the first woman to be appointed to that role. But of equal and possibly greater significance is that she is Papua New Guinean.

Though Taylor is not the first Forum Secretary-General from PNG (Noel Levi held the position between 1998 and 2004),  given PNG's population (in excess of 7 million), economy (which continues to grow), and its strategic importance, it has for a long time punched below its regional weight.

However, since the 2012 elections which saw Peter O'Neill returned as prime minister, that situation has changed markedly. While PNG has not given up its hopes of joining ASEAN to forge stronger links with its Asian neighbours, the O'Neill Government has become much more present in the Pacific islands region in terms of investment, development assistance and diplomacy.

PNG pension fund NASFUND is a prominent investor in the Pacific and has formed joint ventures with other pension funds and PNG businesses to invest in hotels in Fiji and Solomon Islands. PNG's Bank South Pacific has pursued an expansion strategy in the region, acquiring banks in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Niue to grow its operations. PNG's BeMobile has acquired a telecommunications licence in Solomon Islands.

PNG has also increased its role as a development partner in the region, supporting more activities and devoting more money.

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This has prompted some to ask whether this is appropriate, given PNG's domestic development challenges. However, the PNG Government clearly sees the increased funding as a means of improving its standing and influence among its Pacific island neighbours, so we can expect more activity of this type going forward. In addition to numerous bilateral relationships (think scholarships for students from Solomon Islands and assistance with elections for Fiji), a recent development came at the latest meeting of Pacific Island Forum leaders. A regional package of US$122 million was announced to support the development objectives of smaller Pacific island countries.

In the diplomatic sphere, PNG's activities have been numerous, although it is not clear whether there is an overarching strategy at play rather than a more opportunistic approach.

Of particular significance is the role PNG has played in assisting Australia with detention of asylum seekers. O'Neill secured a realignment of Australian aid to bring it into line with his government's objectives (though this was more about rhetoric than practice, as Australia's aid program was largely designed to support PNG's objectives anyway). In addition, he has negotiated what can be described as a preferential diplomatic relationship with Australia, including a prime ministerial dialogue forum. This is a signal that PNG's relationship with Australia is singular and prominent in both Canberra and Port Moresby.

Elsewhere, PNG has taken a greater interest in the workings of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), having hosted the most recent Special Leaders' Meeting alongside the 5th Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture. Within the MSG Secretariat, the recently appointed Deputy Director-General is a PNG citizen, Moelan Kilepak. While the MSG has certainly become more prominent in recent times, high-level and continuing participation by its largest member is key to future growth and influence.

At the 'whole of the Pacific' level, the recent review of the Pacific Plan was led by Mekere Morauta, a former PNG prime minister. More recently, Meg Taylor, a former PNG diplomat, was appointed as Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat after intense lobbying by the O'Neill Government.

Not only has this latest development added to the list of indicators of increasing assertion of regional leadership emanating from Port Moresby, it has also served to crystalise an attendant risk: that of diplomatic tension between PNG and Fiji.

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.

Image by Flickr user AK Rockefeller.

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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.

  • Vietnam has sent its first envoy to China since the HYSY981 oil rig crisis.
  • With the recent election of Narendra Modi in India, speculation is emerging over the role of strong nationalist leaders throughout an already tense Indo-Pacific region.
  • Despite a recently aborted test, US experimentation with hypersonic weapons highlights an emphasis on investing in new technologies to improve capabilities.
  • News has emerged that China may be developing a next generation high-speed submarine design which would allow it to move faster by 'flying' through water.
  • Japan and India continue to express strong interest in improving their respective defence industries. 
  • This convergence has led to expectation that discussion over defence industry cooperation will be high on the agenda during the Modi-Abe Summit in Tokyo.
  • Closer to home, there is growing concern over Australia's own defence technology edge and the need for serious consideration in the upcoming Defence White Paper.

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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The signing of the first Geneva Convention, by Charles Edouard Armand-Dumaresq. (Wikipedia Commons.)

In a month where the horrific realities of armed conflict have dominated the news headlines, it is poignant to note that 150 years ago the international community first came together to develop rules to limit the barbarity of war.

The result of that August 1864 diplomatic conference, hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was the first Geneva Convention protecting the sick and wounded on the battlefield. Despite this agreement (and the host of international humanitarian law [IHL] treaties negotiated since then) we continue to witness blatant disregard for the laws of war. Today, more than ever, ICRC is calling for stricter compliance with IHL to preserve life and human dignity around the world.

As Australians this month recall the devastation of the First World War, dozens of countries remain in the theatre of armed conflict. Unlike the wars of recent centuries, however, these modern battles are not characterised by opposing state armies trading fire across the trenches. The majority of contemporary conflicts take the form of civil wars; and it is civilians, not combatants, who are the primary victims of violations of IHL. All too frequently civilians are deliberately targeted and terrorised, used as shields, or their means of survival — water, food and shelter — are destroyed. Women and girls, in particular, are the victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence, in some cases on a massive scale. Forced displacement is unsettling entire communities. In Iraq and Syria alone, we are seeing populations the size of Adelaide uprooted from their homelands, and facing the bleakest of futures in the extreme conditions of temporary desert camps. 

The international community has not sat back in the face of these changing realities. States and civil society have successfully negotiated a host of international agreements to protect the most vulnerable from the cruelty of war and ban indiscriminate weapons, from cluster munitions to anti-personnel landmines. As recently as June this year Australia ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, an historic agreement that has put in place global rules to better regulate the trade of conventional weapons, with the express purpose of reducing human suffering.

In spite of this progress, millions of civilians are bearing the brunt of the world's enduring wars.

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It is not surprising, then, that we at the ICRC are often asked whether IHL remains relevant in an era of these violent confrontations, when atrocities are reported on an almost daily basis. While it is acknowledged that this body of law faces challenges, we are convinced it remains the best framework for regulating behaviour in war. It is the insufficient respect for applicable rules, rather than a lack of rules, that is the principal cause of suffering during armed conflicts. If IHL were better respected, there would be less death and destruction. At present, however, IHL lacks effective means of identifying, preventing and halting violations while they are occurring. The mechanisms within IHL that do exist are rarely, if ever, used. This impotence has often meant appalling devastation for those affected by war. And a right that is regularly violated without provoking any clear response is likely to lose its validity over time.

Underlying it all is our collective failure. Contracting States to the 1949 Geneva Conventions have undertaken to respect and to ensure respect for these treaties in all circumstances. Thus far, however, they have failed to give themselves the resources required to keep their promises.

In recognition of this, the ICRC, along with the Swiss Government, has been holding talks since 2012 with all states, including Australia, on the best way to improve compliance with IHL. Our work is based on a mandate given by the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. A variety of proposals have emerged from this initiative, such as the formation of a dedicated forum where states can decide jointly on the measures needed to bring better compliance with IHL. This could include regular and systematic discussions on how States Parties are meeting their obligations under the Conventions and addressing associated challenges.

The concept of rules regulating behaviour in conflict is not a new or Western notion. Throughout history and across cultural boundaries, from the tribal wars of the Pacific to the major interstate conflicts in Europe, combatants have created rules to regulate the conduct of hostilities. This universal principle that even wars have limits has seen every state in the world ratify the Geneva Conventions. It is now up to our generation to create a strong institutional framework to ensure that these rules are respected. If it is to be fully effective, the law needs suitable instruments. Today, a solution is within our grasp. It is up to us to seize this opportunity.

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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.

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Libya

Days of unverified reports of an aerial bombing by Egyptian and Emirati aircraft on a Libyan weapons storage area and Tripoli's international airport have now been verified by American officials (the officials claim they were not informed of the strikes beforehand, which is not to say they did not know about them beforehand). If true, the strike says much about UAE and Egyptian concerns regarding the need to contain the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, as well as to stymie Qatari efforts in Libya to do the opposite. It is also further evidence that the UAE is adopting a more muscular and independent approach to regional security issues.

Gaza

Up until two weeks ago, the Israeli air force had already conducted 4900 sorties against Gaza since the most recent conflict began. And yet, just as was the case in the 2006 Lebanon war, even the Israeli air force admits it cannot completely extinguish the threat of indirect-fire weapons from Gaza. 

Iraq

As politicians mull the possibility of air strikes against Islamic State, and the US increases surveillance of possible targets in preparation for future strikes, it is interesting to note that America has already flown 1500 sorties since 8 August (about 600 of these were combat sorties, which included 96 attacks against Islamic State targets). This shows again just how resource-intensive even a 'low intensity' air campaign can be, and why regional states will need plenty of enabling support if they are to take on Islamic State.

Iran

In the east, Iran triumphantly announced the destruction of an Israeli drone spying on its Natanz nuclear facility. The truth is that the drone was more likely flown from Azerbaijan, as this detailed report outlines. Secular Shi'a Azerbaijan and religiously Shi'a Iran have a rather testy relationship and Baku's cosiness with Israel has been an irritant to Tehran for years. Whether the drone was actually shot down near the nuclear facility or somewhere much closer to the Azeri border is perhaps something we'll never know, but it reinforces the type of surveillance technology available to a wide range of states.  

Syria

To all of this we could also add the fall of Tabqa airbase, the last military base held by the Syrian Government in Raqqa province, now under the complete control of Islamic State. Syrian Government efforts at targeting the militants from the air ultimately proved futile, again showing that effective aerial campaigns against ground forces require a concentration of effort and duration that few states can manage. 

Over the next few weeks it is increasingly likely that air power will be on display in the region in a significant way. For students of air power, the Middle East is certainly the place to watch. 

Photo by Flickr user Garry Wilmore.

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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.

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There are several sources of instability in the Asia Pacific region today. Some are political, such as China's pursuit of territorial claims at sea and on land at the expense of its neighbours. Others are military, such as those elements of Chinese military modernisation aimed at coercing Beijing's neighbours and countering US extended deterrence guarantees and power projection capabilities. Chinese doctrine also contains features that could be highly destabilising. Finally, there is a considerable potential for misperception among actors in the region.

The deployment of nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs) is unlikely to contribute greatly to stability, but neither is it likely to create instability where none existed or to magnify existing sources of instability.

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. These include:

  • The continuing deployment of large numbers of precision conventional ballistic missiles that threaten China's neighbours.
  • The fact that China apparently to some extent co-mingles the deployment and command and control of its nuclear and conventional forces.
  • The Chinese Second Artillery Force's doctrine, which discusses missile strikes in close proximity to hostile forces as deterrent actions.

Misperception and miscalculation are always a possibility with the deployment and operation of any new capability, and it would behove the Chinese Government to be transparent in its plans for its SSBN force. That said, the deployment of SSBNs is likely to be far less consequential than other elements of Chinese military modernisation.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence Forum.

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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.

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The early numbers are in on the Government's proposed toughening of Australia's anti-terror laws and they make for interesting reading. According to Newspoll, 77% of respondents were in favour of the new law that would require individuals who travel to pre-designated conflict zones to prove they had not been in contact with any terrorist groups.

This result is significant.

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.

While a robust and mature democracy like Australia is unlikely to go down such a path, the centrality of individual rights and liberty in our system of governance demands strong public support for any measures that impinges on our freedoms.

So what should we make of the Newspoll results recently published in The Australian?

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Given that Newspoll has addressed the most controversial of the proposed enhancements to our current anti-terror laws, it is reasonable to assume that there would be the equivalent or greater support for the other measures, which in the main seek to maintain existing powers of the AFP and ASIO* beyond their current sunset clauses.

Furthermore, the decisive outcome on the specific question of reversing the onus of proof for people traveling to designated conflict zones indicates that Australians are largely comfortable with the proposed recalibration of the liberty/security scale toward ensuring our collective safety.

It should be noted that Newspoll's question does not actually mention anything about reversing the burden of proof, which is the key element of the provision in question. No doubt more cautious wording would have dampened some of the apparent enthusiasm for the proposal.

It is also important to acknowledge that public opinion must not be the sole determinant of the utility of enhanced anti-terror measures. Any broad-based consensus should be combined with targeted consultation, especially with those communities likely to be disproportionately affected by the changes.

We are seeing this process play out in the form of engagement by key actors, including Prime Minister Abbott and ASIO Director-General David Irvine, with representatives of the Islamic community. While these meetings do not appear to have resulted in the consensus that I am sure the Government would have liked, they nonetheless serve an important purpose in providing a platform for alternative views to be expressed by those who feel that they have the most to lose.

Our parliament should also heed expert opinion. This will become especially pertinent when the draft legislation is tabled later this year. Indeed, it will be crucial to determine whether the laws will actually have the desired effect of combating the threat of radicalised fighters returning to Australia to carry out terrorist attacks. This is easier said than done. The concept of reversing the burden of proof will require careful thought and deft drafting in order to achieve the desired effect while not entangling innocent travelers.

If the Government can get the drafting right, it has a sound basis to move forward with this measure along with the other proposed enhancements to Australia's counter-terrorism framework.

Photo by Flickr user Jeff Nelson.

Ed. note: ASIO is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute.

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Last Friday Fijian Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama began his first visit to Australia since taking power in 2006. In response to the 2006 coup, Canberra had imposed travel bans for all members of the Fijian government. These were abandoned earlier this year by the Abbott Government.

One would expect such a visit to be about mending fences and shoring up relations. But Rear Admiral Bainimarama was not visiting Canberra to speak with the Abbott Government. His visit was to Sydney, to meet with Fijian overseas voters as part of his campaign for the Fijian elections next month. Bainimarama is more concerned with gaining support for his Fiji First party than securing the goodwill of the ostensible leader of the Pacific Islands region.

This focus on Fijian domestic affairs even when visiting Australia is symptomatic of the confidence with which the Bainimarama Government has approached regional affairs, and of the fact that it does not feel cowed by the largest power in the region.

Given the success of Fijian foreign policy since 2006, this is not surprising.

Despite the fact that Australia provides Fiji with a significant amount of aid, Fiji does not regard itself as dependent on Australia and has been quite prepared to challenge the Australia-dominated regional status quo. Since 2006 the Bainimarama Government has assertively broadened its international relationships, both within the region and further abroad. While a lot of attention has been given to Fiji's relationship with China, Suva has also strengthened relations with the rest of Melanesia and with global players such as India and Brazil. Overall, Fiji's relations with other states are at their healthiest since independence.

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The Bainimarama Government has also 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.

The decision by the Abbott Government to lift sanctions in February had raised hopes that there might be a warming of relations between Fiji and Australia. Those hopes were always expressed cautiously, but six months on there has been little sign that the Bainimarama Government has been swayed by Canberra's softened stance. When the campaign trail led Rear Admiral Bainimarama to New Zealand earlier this month, he bluntly said that he doesn't consider Australia a part of the Pacific Islands region. A harsh statement, given that Australia is a founding member of the PIF.

Furthermore, the Bainimarama Government remains determined to hold elections in Fiji in the manner it sees fit, including by passing controversial electoral legislation just over a month before the poll date. Forcing a return to democracy had been a key goal of the Australian sanctions regime, but in that respect appeasement appears to have had as little effect as confrontation. The rhetoric and policies enacted by Suva have not changed since 2006, nor will they unless the Rear Admiral is handed an unlikely defeat on 17 September.

This is not to say that abandoning the sanctions regime was a bad decision. There is nothing to be gained from maintaining an ineffective regime of sanctions that gave the Bainimarama Government rhetorical ammunition in its attempts to reshape the order of the region to its liking. But it is important to point out that lifting them has not healed the rift between Canberra and Suva.

If the Abbott Government wants to reassert the full measure of Australian influence then more work is required not only in Fiji but also in the rest of the Pacific Islands. The fact that the Bainimarama Government weathered Australian sanctions without feeling the need to compromise will have implications that will be felt for some time in what John Howard described as 'our patch'.

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