Lowy Institute

Since 1998, when India and Pakistan both burst out of the nuclear closet and publicly revealed their formerly recessed nuclear capabilities to the world, scant commentary has been made on the impact that the introduction of sea-based delivery systems would have on the South Asian nuclear equation.

This can be attributed, in part, to the relatively recent nature of naval nuclearisation in South Asia. India launched its first indigenously produced nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, in 2009, and Pakistan only formalised its ambitions for a functional nuclear triad (via an Inter Services Public press release) in May 2012. However, while public discussions in both countries on complex issues such as nuclear naval strategy still remain somewhat inchoate and have yet to fully mature, India's nuclear submarine program was, in fact, initiated over three decades ago. Furthermore, there are statements by Pakistani leaders and naval commanders referring to the need for Pakistan to acquire a nuclear triad that long precede India's public unveiling of the Arihant.

It is important, first of all, to emphasise that both countries have their own distinct sets of motivations to engage in naval nuclearisation.

All too often outside observers almost mechanically hyphenate the two South Asian nations and reduce the multi-layered complexity of their nuclear interactions to a simple action-reaction dynamic. India, for example, is motivated in part by a desire for prestige and international recognition, but also by a very rational objective to place its nuclear assets at a safer distance from a decapitation strike. This is particularly important in light of China's growing militarisation of the Tibetan plateau and the proliferation of Chinese ballistic-missile silos in strategic high-altitude points along the border. In addition, there are mounting concerns over the reach of Chinese air power, Chinese advances in electronic and cyber warfare, as well as over recent reports that indicate China is developing a navalised variant of its 3000km-range Dong Hai 10 cruise missile.

Pakistan has its own strategic rationale for developing a naval nuclear capability which is at least partly independent of a simple desire to mirror India's advances. But the point that bears most emphasis here is that through its threats to disperse nuclear assets among various components of its fleet, Pakistan can offset India's increasingly overbearing conventional naval advantage in the Indian Ocean. When interviewed, Pakistani commanders mention the precedent set by Israel's alleged decision to place nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard conventional submarines and have suggested to me, somewhat provocatively, that Pakistan should follow suit.

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Another option, some have argued, would be to station nuclear weaponry aboard surface ships and maritime-patrol aircraft. Not only would this provide the country with greater strategic depth, it would also extend some of the more dysfunctional elements of Indo-Pakistani nuclear interactions from land to sea. By threatening, either directly or indirectly, to employ low-yield nuclear weapons at sea, or against an advancing Indian aircraft carrier strike force, Islamabad can hope to acquire 'escalation dominance' and thus considerably dilute its larger neighbour's coercive naval power, much in the same way that it has managed to dilute India's conventional advantage on land.

In both cases, this has been achieved by a refusal to abide by a No First Use (NFU) policy and, increasingly, through a flirtation with the tactical use of nuclear weapons as warfighting instruments. This has been achieved, in part, through shifting from an earlier generation of enriched uranium nuclear weapons to a newer generation of plutonium weapons, allowing Pakistan to significantly expand its nuclear arsenal (which now appears to have overtaken India's nuclear weapon inventory) and to make progress in the miniaturisation of its nuclear warheads for battlefield use.

To provide a concrete example, most analysts now concur that Pakistan is developing a sea-based version of its Babur missile, a subsonic nuclear-capable missile that bears an uncanny resemblance to the US Tomahawk, albeit with a much shorter range.

The introduction of nuclear weapons will have a major impact on the future of naval warfighting in the Indian Ocean. Fleets caught under a nuclear shadow are compelled to operate under different principles. Most notably, ships must loosen their deployment patterns and adopt more dispersed configurations to better shield themselves from the ripple effects of a nuclear blast. For Pakistani security managers, acquiring nuclear-armed cruise missile submarines could provide an opportunity to skew the existing naval power dynamic, primarily by injecting an even greater degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in India's tactical calculus, but also by preventing the Indian Navy from concentrating the bulk of its power projection platforms in one location.

Such a toxic combination of dual-use platforms and doctrinal opacity could prove highly detrimental for crisis stability. In the event of conflict, there would be no way for India to ascertain whether Pakistani vessels or maritime patrol aircraft are nuclear-armed or not, and a radioactive 'fog of war' would float over combat operations.

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

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

For instance, Linton Brooks, who served on the Reagan Administration's National Security Staff, wrote in 1986 that:

Deterrence is enhanced through the deliberate importation of both risk and uncertainty...Sea-based systems, able to attack a wide spectrum of targets from a large number of platforms, over a broad spectrum of attack azimuths, complicate Soviet defense planning immeasurably, thus strengthening deterrence.

Depressingly, however, things may in fact be even more complex and unstable now, in large part because the South Asian maritime environment is so alarmingly unstructured. At least during the second half of the Cold War (from 1972 onwards) the Soviets and Americans enacted the INCSEA, which worked towards limiting critical misinterpretations in times of tension. India and Pakistan have no such regime in place, and Pakistan continues to rely on a policy of maritime brinkmanship to compensate for its conventional inferiority.

There are frequent reports, for instance, of near collisions between Pakistani and Indian surface vessels. And in 1999, a Pakistani maritime patrol aircraft was shot down by an Indian Mig-21 when it strayed into Indian airspace. If Pakistani frigates or maritime patrol aircraft were transporting nuclear weapons and such incidents were to reoccur, the implications could be severe.

The scattering of nuclear assets at sea, particularly aboard surface ships, also heightens the risks of a nuclear weapon being intercepted by a malevolent non-state actor, a perennial concern when discussing Pakistan's growing nuclear arsenal. Another question worth raising is whether the escalation dynamics of nuclear warfare in the maritime theatre are less constrained than those that would attend similar operations on land.

A classic example is the tense situation which unfolded underwater during the Cuban Missile Crisis and which almost led to disaster. We now know that each of the Soviet submarines deployed off Cuba was in fact armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, a fact which was not known by the US Navy at the time. In an attempt to force the Soviet submarines to surface, the US fleet dropped depth charges which were not intended to hit the submarines but rather to coerce them into revealing themselves. The Soviet submarine commanders, however, viewed these actions under a different light, and one harried commander even ordered his men to assemble the nuclear torpedo to battle-readiness.

This incident highlights two disturbing dimensions of naval nuclear interactions: the perennial risks linked to misperception and ill-conceived or designed signaling, and the various challenges linked to command and control. When it comes to contemporary South Asia, even though Pakistan has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons against advancing Indian tank formations on land, one could be forgiven for expressing severe reservations over whether Pakistani commanders would be willing to detonate nuclear weapons on their own soil. Out on the open waters, however, such a question remains uncomfortably open.

Finally, analysts will now need to pay much closer attention to the interaction between conventional and nuclear assets at sea, and how this will impact on each country's strategies, doctrines, and acquisitions. Technology, like geography, can blur the line between defence and offense. For example, whereas previously the question of submarine proliferation in South Asia could be viewed through a purely conventional prism, everything will become a lot more complicated now that nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered assets have been thrown into the mix. Formerly conventional naval warfare capabilities such as anti-ship warfare or anti-submarine warfare can now also be equated with counterforce capabilities, with all the destabilising ramifications such a conceptual shift implies.

Photo by Flickr user Kashif Mardani.


A selection of news, analysis and commentary from and about the Pacific island region.

  • Nominations for Fiji's general elections closed on 18 August. Twelve of the received nominations were rejected by the Fiji Electoral Authority, including that of Mahendra Chaudhry, leader of the Fiji Labour Party. Of the 249 accepted nominations, 41 are women. Fiji First was the only party to have all of its nominated candidates accepted; a number of these have since been challenged by the People's Democratic Party (PDP).
  • The future of the Gold Ridge mine in Solomon Islands looks increasingly uncertain. Further to suspension of operations and a massive reduction in the workforce, a deterioration in law and order in the area has resulted in the evacuation of all non-local staff.
  • Jope Tarai reflects on incidents of intimidation by Fijian authorities against those who support the cause of West Papuan independence. Meanwhile, in West Papua, the detention by Indonesian authorities of two French journalists is part of a decades-old policy of restricting international coverage of what happens in the province.
  • The IMF's quarterly 'Asia and Pacific Small States Monitor' is out, with a special focus on the impacts of climate change.
  • The Micronesia Challenge is a conservation initiative of five Micronesian countries. It has been awarded a Pacific Oceanscape Leadership award in recognition of its innovative and influential approach.
  • Ben Bohane highlights some key messages arising from a recent workshop that examined regional security issues.
  • Sean Dorney is leaving the ABC after 40 years of reporting on and from the Pacific. In 2012 he was awarded the inaugural Media Award from the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) in recognition of his work. This is the speech he gave on receiving that award:


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

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

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


Having read the initial round of contributions to this debate, I must say I'm not a believer in the idea that sea-based nuclear weapons are destabilising. In large part, that's because I'm finding it difficult to construct a scenario in which a senior defence adviser ever uses the sentence, 'Mr President, we have to attack now, they have sea-based nuclear weapons.' True, the future is an unwritten page so it's impossible to say with certainty that such a sentence will never be uttered. But on any rational calculation of probabilities, I know which way I would bet.

Does that mean we can look with equanimity at the forthcoming deployment of nuclear weapons at sea by Asian nuclear powers? Well, not entirely. It's true that some force structures are more destabilising than others. In particular, deployment of vulnerable high-value targets doesn't contribute to good crisis stability. So if Asian powers were to deploy large warhead numbers in vulnerable, noisy SSBNs, they'd have to anticipate losing at least some of those boats early in a conflict. Still, even vulnerable SSBNs might have value if deployed in protected bastions, behind layered defensive screens, exploiting known seabed topographies, confusing the targeteer with diversionary noisemakers, and keeping the warhead loadings low per boat. Quiet SSBNs would have value without that supporting architecture.

Deployment of nuclear weapons at sea doesn't guarantee invulnerability. But the development should typically be seen as positive in relation to Asia's current monopedal force structures. No Asian power has a strong 'air-breathing' strategic leg. They're mainly just land-based forces. Having a sea-based leg is something of a safeguard against technological surprise.

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

Finally, I'd make one simple observation: if Asia's nuclear-armed countries want to build and deploy sea-based nuclear weapons, who's going to stop them? Nations typically have the right to get their own defence procurement decisions wrong. And in this case it's far from evident that decisions to deploy nuclear weapons at sea would be wrong.

Photo by Wikipedia.


Clive Palmer says the Chinese government shoots its own people. If he's talking about Xinjiang, he's right. 

Last month saw the deadliest violence in years in the autonomous region, which has a sizeable Uyghur Muslim population. A knife attack in Yarkand on July 28 saw 100 deaths, including a whopping '59 terrorists' shot by security forces. A separate incident near Hotan on August 1 involved 30,000 locals teaming up with security forces to trap and kill nine terrorists, according to state media. 

There are reasons to be suspicious of official accounts, but there's no denying the security situation in Xinjiang has deteriorated. On Sunday the People's Daily reported drones were to be deployed in the region. 

Some great pieces have been filed from Xinjiang over the past month (here, and here), while Getty photographer Kevin Frayer supplied some stunning photography on a recent Ramadan trip. 

A lot of the reporting has highlighted Beijing's oppressive religious and security policies towards Uyghurs. But these have been in place for years, and Beijing is currently engaged in an unprecedented effort to raise living standards ad generate 'social cohesion' in the region. Xinjiang's hard-line Party boss Wang Lequan was kicked out of his post following mass rioting in July 2009, and his successors in regional policy, Zhang Chunxian and Yu Zhengsheng, initially signaled a softer approach. 

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

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

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

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

Reza Hasmath, a lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Oxford, said socioeconomic disparities and lack of institutional access for Uyghurs were at the heart of discontent. He also saw significance in this year's Xinjiang Central Work Forum: 

The work forum outlined what I think can be construed as a moderate option to deal with the spread of radical Uyghurs: namely, to boost employment and income levels among Uyghurs. The problem at hand, however, is the manner in which the state actually attempts to do this. The work forum proposed increased fiscal transfers. This does not necessarily increase the odds of Uyghurs obtaining high status/high wage jobs. Moreover, the forum's recommendations to increase urbanization and inter-regional migration, while a good step in principle, often means more Han migration into urban Xinjiang rather than ethnic minority migration.

Finally, the last major recommendation (of the work forum) to 'strengthen state education,' while important, can have a moot effect given that Uyghurs have difficulties obtaining good jobs in spite of having high education. In short, a moderate option does exist for the state. The problem is that it is often not executed in a manner that will yield tangible results. 

James Leibold, a Xinjiang expert at Latrobe University currently based in Beijing, says the Government is increasing its micro-management of locals' lives: 

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Party-state has doubled down on Xinjiang, increasing its penetration into nearly every aspect of Xinjiang society: quadrupling the regional public security budget since 2009; sending thousands of high-level cadres down to live alongside local villagers and community members in small groups; re-doubling efforts to urbanise and industrialise southern Xinjiang; and regulating the daily activities of Xinjiang's Uyghur minorities from the length of their facial hair to what sort of religious activities are 'legal.'

As Li Xiaoxia, deputy director of the Xinjiang Social Science Academy recently wrote, and I quote loosely here: "As the scope of religious extremism expands, the government's management of religious affairs must be further strengthened, become more detailed and penetrate into more areas of Muslim social life, so that it touches on every aspect of daily life, such as clothing, food, housing, marriage and deaths."

Finally, Michael Clarke, a research fellow at Griffith Asia Institute, discussed the issue of radicalisation: 

Most of the violence until recently has been the result of the state's heavy-handed approach to Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. However, the violence that we have seen in the past six to 12 months, I think, suggests that there is evidence of some level of radicalisation. The March attack in Kunming, the bombings in Urumqi in April and May, and the latest incident in Yarkand point to a certain level of premeditation and planning that we have generally not seen before. 

Chinese claims that groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Party are to blame for these events are difficult to verify. Overall I think that the strategy or tactics of the more recent attacks in Xinjiang point at least to some Uyghurs looking to the example of regional (ie. Central and South Asian) and global Islamist groups for inspiration. In this context, though, I would argue that state policy has played a facilitating role. Through its systematic repression of Uyghur dissent — including of modern and secular Uyghurs — it seems inevitable that elements within the Uyghur population will turn to violence.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS?David Gray.


The need for a new Defence White Paper is fast diminishing. The Government has been busy making big decisions that will shape Defence and the ADF force structure for decades to come. 

The latest budget papers set out the steps by which the 2% of GDP funding target will be met. The Air Force's future force structure has been finalised with decisions on buying lots of Joint Strike Fighters and some P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft and Global Hawk surveillance drones (and perhaps more C-17 cargo planes and KC-30 aerial tankers). The Navy's future fleet seems set with new tankers, new patrol boats, an aviation support ship, a $78 million study that effectively locks in a particular eight-ship future frigate solution and the slipping of the Collins submarine replacement. Meanwhile, Army's flagship project, Land400 (Land Combat Vehicle System), is well advanced with tenders expect to be released before year's end. 

With little left to discuss about budgets and force structure, the Defence White Paper process now seems to be moving towards becoming efficiency-focused. The two main areas of interest in this are a long-term set-in-concrete shipbuilding plan and a First Principles Review into how to expedite acquisition and sustainment decisions. The new emphasis on these two important but narrow issues reveals the shift underway from a true Defence White Paper to what is steadily becoming a Defence Efficiency Review.

So a new Defence White Paper now seems redundant, except as a compiled listing of recent announcements. But the missing element in all this is strategy. A word search for 'strategy' in the public consultation Defence Issues Paper finds the word only four times in the 65-page document.

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

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

A new Defence White Paper may still be useful if it sets out a defence strategy, but if not, it is arguably becoming unnecessary. Without strategy, the new Defence White Paper might be better and more accurately reconceived as a Defence Efficiency Review.

Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.


The view from Hong Kong

Another month, another huge political street protest in Hong Kong. Last Sunday the territory's residents marched again, this time against the planned but so far unscheduled Occupy Central sit-in. Just as July's pro-democracy marchers comprised a broad cross-section of Hong Kong society, so did the counter-demonstration this weekend. The coalition against Occupy Central included members of the business community worried about commercial upheaval (which, presumably, is the whole point of Occupy Central), establishment moderates opposed to civil disobedience, and pro-Beijing patriot groups.

The events have been peaceful, reflecting the restraint of both Hong Kong's citizens and its police force. Yet there is an edgy aspect to this back-and-forth mass mobilisation which is worryingly reminiscent of Thailand.

I disfavour the Occupy Central movement because I believe, as my previous posts make clear, a reasonable nomination and voting process for the position of Hong Kong's Chief Executive is probably the preferred option for the 'silent majority' of Hongkongers. To expect more ignores the reality of the city's constrained political identity. Occupy Central's campaign to threaten deliberate disruption is unduly provocative and self-harming; Sunday's march can be interpreted as a backlash by pragmatists who rationally fear the wrath of both Beijing and financial markets. 

There are, however, some really worrying aspects about what happened on Sunday.

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For a start, nobody can agree on the number of participants. This might seem unimportant, but it reflects a lack of objectivity, and perhaps of trust, in society. Invariably when a rally occurs, there are wildly differing claims from each side about how much support they have. But even purportedly neutral institutions like the police and University of Hong Kong's respected public opinion program differ. Sure enough, we're 'tangled up in the numbers game' again. 

There are strong suspicions of 'rent-a-mob', voiced here, here and here. Mainland tourists were reportedly directed to the event with PRC flags. Chinese state-owned companies ordered local employees to attend. Well organised friendship groups kitted out in smart uniforms helped out with meals and maybe cash. Their placards brandished slogans like 'stability' and 'harmony', terms often used by China's authorities. 

The covert marshaling of Beijing-friendly crowds outside China is something foreigners witnessed before the 2008 Olympics. As Andrew Browne  notes in his essay this week, the Overseas Affairs Office organising them 'puts established overseas Chinese communities at risk by raising the issue of their national loyalties.' But Hong Kong is within China itself and the Liaison Office has unlimited resources at its disposal here. Its website openly features pictures of 'harmony' protesters and 'anti-suffrage' messages. In the crowd-on-crowd game, Beijing will prevail. The state itself, if necessary, could numerically overwhelm its own citizens for 'popularity.'

Indeed, that is the most troubling prospect. For years Hong Kong's government was goaded by liberal civil movements, but 'since at least 2012, pro-government groups, such as Voice of Loving Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power, have increasingly relied on disruptive protests of their own to neutralise the opposition', as the Oxford sociologist Larry Au writes. Whereas a powerless opposition resorts 'by necessity' to silly stunts, the Government's aim is to wear them down. In Hong Kong's twisted political pathology, people now protest against protest. Those who support a restricted nomination committee rather than free suffrage are, consciously or not, choosing against choice. At its nihilistic extreme, they will be voting against voting. 

Even a pro-business conservative like myself can recognise the danger of voluntarily self-restricting political choice. The next thing to go will be the independent media, then the rule of law, and then after that Hong Kong will empty. Meanwhile the street parades go on. As Au puts it, 'unfortunately, countering one protest with another only goes so far. The forces of necessity and fatigue will only perpetuate — if not worsen — the current state of affairs. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to rework the political structures that spawned this insanity.'

Photo by Flickr user pasuay @ incendo.


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.

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.


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

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

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

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

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



One of the policy solutions being considered by the Australian Government to deal with the expected problem of returning Australian jihadists is to preclude their return to Australia, or expel them, by revoking their Australian citizenship.

recently released report from the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) recommends that the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection be given the power to revoke citizenship on national security grounds.

This is not a new idea. Some years ago there were calls to revoke the Australian citizenship of suspected World War II war criminals in the hope that this would get them out of the country. We 'knew' they were guilty but couldn't actually prove it through a criminal justice process, so it was argued that an administrative decision under the Australian Citizenship Act would function as a work-around. The idea was never adopted, for good reason: there was no guarantee that anyone who lost their Australian citizenship in that way would actually be allowed to return to another country.

It is not clear what the expected outcome would be of the 'citizenship solution'. Revoking the Australian citizenship of someone engaged in jihadist activity would deny further access to Australia but would not stop the person from engaging in political violence elsewhere. Only prosecution, conviction and incarceration, whether overseas or in Australia, would achieve that.

Citizenship solutions are always harder in practice than they look.

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The INSLM report suggests that Australia should respect its obligations under the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and that revocation of citizenship should only occur in relation to jihadists who are dual nationals. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the report to tell us whether in fact there is any reason to believe that the suspected jihadists (about which Australia is rightly concerned) actually have a second citizenship, and therefore whether anyone's Australian citizenship could in reality be revoked while adhering to the UN Convention. 

Then there is the question of how a decision to take away citizenship would be made. Existing Australian citizenship policy and law set a high bar for revocation. Before it can even be considered, the person must have been convicted of a serious offence (primarily, fraudulent acquisition of citizenship) committed before becoming a citizen. Offences committed after becoming a citizen are a matter for the criminal law and are not a basis for revocation of citizenship.There is no provision for loss of citizenship of an Australian-born citizen, except where the person is a dual citizen who serves in the armed forces of a country at war with Australia. For jihadists, would a conviction for some offence be required, or just suspicion? If suspicion is sufficient to take away a person's citizenship, the status of Australian citizenship would be seriously weakened.

The report moves on from the question of jihadists to make a broader condemnation of dual citizenship. INSLM 'does not see why, as a matter of public policy, an Australian citizen should also be able to be a citizen of another country' and 'by its nature, dual citizenship is deeply problematic'. It goes on to say that the granting of dual citizenship in Australia since 2002 'does not render it anything like traditional' and recommends that 'the 2002 legislated policy in favour of dual citizenship should be reconsidered'.

This analysis would probably come as a surprise to the estimated 4 million Australian citizens who enjoy dual citizenship.

Most Australian dual nationals are people who migrated to Australia and then acquired citizenship. Retention of their first citizenship is, in practice, a matter between them and their country of birth. There is not a lot the Australian Government can do about this, and it has not attempted to do anything since the establishment of Australian citizenship in 1949. The sensible policy priority, as in other migrant-receiving countries such as the US and Canada, has been to integrate migrants through encouraging the taking up of Australian citizenship, rather than to sever past linkages.

The anomaly in Australian citizenship law was that, until April 2002, an adult Australian citizen who was Australian-born lost his or her Australian citizenship if they took out the citizenship of another country. This created the ridiculous situation that an Australian-born person was in a much less favourable position than a migrant Australian citizen. 

Implementation of this restrictive policy was in practice arbitrary, as the Australian Government had no way of knowing which Australians had taken out citizenship in another country. The only people that were recorded as losing their Australian citizenship were those who were unlucky enough to reveal their acquisition of foreign citizenship, perhaps while in contact with an Australian mission abroad. For example, an Australian woman seeking to register a child born overseas as an Australian citizen might find that, not only was the child not a citizen, but that her own Australian passport had to be confiscated on the grounds that she had not been an Australian citizen for years, by virtue of acquisition of another citizenship.

This restrictive approach became completely untenable when Australian-born citizens began to live and work abroad in much larger numbers. Many Australians living overseas found that for practical reasons they needed to take out foreign citizenship, but wanted to keep their personal and family links with Australia to allow frequent travel between countries and possible return. The Australian approach to dual citizenship was also increasingly out of step with the US, Canada and the UK, which permitted their nationals to take out another citizenship without loss of their original citizenship.

The Coalition government secured the passage of legislation in 2002 to stop Australians losing their citizenship through acquisition of another. This was on the advice of a report of the Australian Citizenship Council chaired by former Governor General and Justice of the High Court Ninian Stephen. A key justification was that Australia would benefit economically and socially by retaining linkages with its expanding diaspora, even if some of them also became citizens of other countries.

That argument remains valid.

Dual citizenship is not without its problems, including in the consular realm, but the current policy settings remain in the national interest and should be left alone. Tinkering with them is unlikely to have any impact at all on the Australian jihadist problem.

 Photo by Flickr user mechanical turk.


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

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

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

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

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


Over at War on the Rocks, Christopher Lee (a former officer in the US Forces Korea [USFK]) and Tom Nichols (of the US Naval War College) have gotten into a useful debate on whether US forces should remain in Korea. This issue is not widely discussed, which is surprising given the end of the Cold War and the huge margin of advantage in South Korea's favour.

Although I have taught international relations in South Korea for six years, this idea is almost never mooted in academia or the media here, so I applaud War on the Rocks for broaching it. But I think Lee and Tom (full disclosure: Tom Nichols is a friend) have missed the strongest arguments for a pull-out. Specifically, I think Lee understates his case for withdrawal and Tom will have to work harder to justify his arguments for the US staying. Today, I want to lay out a more robust case for departure. In Part 2 I will outline the counter-argument. In brief, I think that the case for staying just barely clears the bar and that the tide is running against it.

Why could/should the US leave South Korea?

1. South Korea is free riding. It only 'needs' the US because it is doing less than it would otherwise

Free riding is controversial issue, one that has bedeviled all US alliances for decades. An entire literature within international relations is built around the curious dynamics, such as 'buck-passing' or 'reckless driving,' that characterise allies' efforts to shift burdens to other allies, or tie others unwittingly to their own national preferences.

The most acute free-riding problem in the US alliance structure is in Europe. NATO informally benchmarks 2% of GDP as a minimum for members' defence spending. Yet only four NATO states break that marker. This has systematically crippled NATO, forcing the US to take the lead on what ought to be European contingencies such as the Balkans wars, Libya, and the Ukraine. Japan is even worse, spending less than 1% of GDP on defence.

By contrast, South Korea spends 2.6% of GDP on defence. This sounds better, but unfortunately is far from enough given the massive garrison state of North Korea sitting right on top of it. There is no formal spending target (USFK places no such demand on Seoul) but the number I hear widely thrown around is that without the US, South Korea would need to spend two or three times as much as it does on defence now.

Every foreign security analyst I know in Korea thinks the ROK needs to spend a great deal more; South Korea has significantly under-invested in C4ISR, missile defence, and counter-insurgency tactics. It is woefully under-prepared to occupy North Korea. It does not draft women, despite a declining birthrate that is leading to a major shrinkage in the ground force. With a GDP 25 to 30 times that of North Korea and a population more than twice as large, South Korea has the room to make a far greater effort. Where Lee and Nichols spar over the small amount of money the US contributes to Southern defense, the real issue is getting South Korea to take its own defence far more seriously.

2. The US presence in Korea (and Japan) discourages Japan-South Korea rapprochement

I have written about this issue several times. In brief, the US alliance almost certainly inhibits much needed cooperation between Japan and Korea on regional issues, most obviously China and North Korea. Specifically, the US alliance permits 'moral hazard' in both: neither Tokyo nor Seoul suffer any consequences for ridiculous criticisms of the other because the US insures them both against the consequences. Hence Japan and particularly Korea focus far too much attention on each other, and not nearly enough on the real regional threats.

There is a great deal of agonising in the US over how to get these two allies to bury the hatchet and start working together, but no one wants to admit the obvious solution — a genuine threat of abandonment. Hawks will disagree, and there are indeed downsides to abandonment, but let's stop pretending that US regional alliances don't have costs such as this.

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3. USFK's presence ideologically props up North Korea

One point that neither Lee or Nichols brought up is the obvious propaganda boon to North Korea of the US peninsular presence. This is not an uncommon omission. Most researchers on the North tend to assume that its ideology is a lot of empty talk, a smokescreen over a degenerate gangster-ocracy whose real 'ideology' is living the high life and hanging onto power by any means necessary.

While the elite's emptiness and cynicism is certainly clear, I think this is too easy. My own sense (perhaps from having visited North Korea and being bombarded relentlessly there with propaganda there) is that ideology is important. North Koreans are expected to attend ideology training 'classes' at least once a week (more often for officials and higher-ups). The official Korean Central News Agency and the three newspapers of Pyongyang exert tremendous 'intellectual' effort on ideological reinforcement. The focus of that ideology, particularly since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, is anti-colonial nationalism, in which the US has taken the place of the Japanese invader and South Korea is the bastardised, globalised 'Yankee Colony.'

An imminent American invasion is the primary explanation the regime offers to its people for their privation and the permanent national security emergency. Take that justification away, and North Korea loses its raison d'etre. If South Korea is no longer 'occupied,' then why does North Korea need to exist at all?

4. USFK's persistence keeps China from cutting North Korea loose, which would accelerate Pyongyang's collapse

In the same way that USFK perversely acts as an ideological crutch for Pyongyang, so does it act as a reason for Beijing to endlessly prevaricate on North Korean bad behaviour and Korean unification. China is formally committed to Korean unification, but in practice this is a lie. Instead, the Chinese openly refer to North Korea as a 'buffer' between them and the robust democracies of South Korea, Japan, and the US.

I detest this logic. It suggests a breath-taking cynicism about the catastrophic human rights condition of North Korea. That China would callously instrumentalise a state that the UN recently likened to Nazi Germany is just appalling (and goes a long way to explaining why so few in Asia trust China). But that is the situation. However, were the US to retrench from South Korea, the Chinese fear of USFK on its doorstep would be alleviated. Indeed, South Korea could swap a USFK exit plus a promise of post-unification neutrality for a Chinese cut-off of aid to North Korea and pressure for unification.

Hawks in the US and South Korea might not like that, but alleviating the extraordinary suffering of the North Koreans should be the primary goal. If a USFK departure, tied to a major Chinese policy shift, could bring that about, it should be considered.

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

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

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

Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB.

  • As tensions with Russia continue to rise, the US Marine Corp is once again stockpiling heavy armour in climate-controlled Norwegian caves.
  • Bill Sweetman argues that things are looking up for the Royal Navy, with new assets and technologies coming on line. But concerns loom regarding the implications of Scotland's independence referendum.
  • Meanwhile, RUSI has a new paper on contingency options for Britain's nuclear capability should Scotland choose independence.
  • How can the US respond to the rapid erosion of its military technology edge? Ben Fitzgerald focuses on turning dual-use technologies and globalisation to America's advantage.
  • Information Dissemination has a fascinating discussion of the evolving understanding of warship survivability over time, and its contemporary ramifications.
  • Over at Small Wars Journal, Gary Anderson attempts to sketch out ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's approach to warfare.
  • Arms Control Wonk has posted a podcast covering anti-satellite weapons, their proliferation, and China's recent hit-to-kill test.
  • Finally, here's evidence of the the progress being made on integrating piloted and unpiloted systems. In this video, the US Navy's X-47B testbed engages in carrier landing and recovery operations while 'sharing the pattern' with an F/A-18: 


I argued back in April that China's 'synthetic natural gas' (syngas or SNG, which is gas made from coal) is 'bad economics, bad science and an environmental catastrophe'. I also said that 'what is striking is the ambition of Chinese plans versus the widespread scepticism of SNG worldwide and inside China itself.' Apparently, some of this scepticism is now being heard.

Datang, a syngas pioneer, has exited the business, selling its operational Keshiketeng project. The company admitted that its entire syngas business proposition was failing technically and financially; relieved investors sent Datang's stock up 23% on the day of the announcement. Meanwhile, Greenpeace published an alarming report claiming that the 50 planned Chinese syngas projects would emit 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, almost triple America's entire stated CO2 reduction target by 2020. The National Energy Administration (NEA) in Beijing has now announced certain limits on syngas projects, reportedly worried about 'an investment spree regardless of environmental and economic realities.'

But if China does dial back its syngas ambitions, will it be due to financial considerations (as in Datang's case) or because of CO2 emissions (the concerns of Greenpeace)? Syngas is such a monster that the easy answer is 'both' (and in fact a third problem, water, weighs heavily against the technology too). But the fundamental question remains: just how serious is China about climate change, and is it prepared to sacrifice growth to limit its emissions?

The Lowy Institute's Rio Tinto Fellow, Lisa Williams, has highlighted that Beijing has other priorities (diversifying its energy base, leading new technologies, reducing pollution in its cities) which happily align with climate-change objectives. This explains the paradox of a nation admired for its renewable energy commitment while its citizens live in appalling smog.

Karolina Wysoczanska at Nottingham is sceptical: China indeed sees diplomatic and commercial opportunity in the global climate change carnival, but don't it to expect it commit to any hard targets.

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

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

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

It would therefore take a wrenching change in China's economy to suddenly alter its trajectory of rapidly growing coal use. Goldman Sachs estimates that, in addition to the 3.8 billion tonnes mined this year, another 1 billion tonnes of new mine capacity is already under construction. Coal has become so abundant in China that prices are the lowest in six years. UBS sees almost 50GW (to put in context, a really big power station is 1GW) of coal-fired power capacity added each year for the foreseeable future: 'the reality is that no other technology — wind, solar, gas, hydro and nuclear — represent a viable alternative.' 

China is struggling to find conventional oil and gas deposits offshore and in shale gas. Renewable energy is attractive from a pollution-control perspective but needs expensive thermal power backup. As syngas illustrates, China will be tempted to use its super-cheap coal to substitute other energy sources where it can.

Most fundamentally, it is unlikely Beijing will act more cooperatively in the diplomatic sphere. China is sincere in perceiving itself as a developing country with a short industrial history. Collective action to protect the global commons is devilishly difficult. The Kyoto Protocol had little impact. Australia repealed a carbon tax as a business burden. The former Soviet Union is emitting well below its 1990 reference level but this is merely because its economy collapsed. America's shale gas revolution occurred not out of environmental concern but because it was profitable.

The Chinese syngas projects have almost certainly been slowed due to unsound economics, not because of concern over CO2. Notably, Beijing's NEA has banned only small 'sub-scale' syngas projects, not large ones. Maybe this is still good news, but it is premature to celebrate a shift in Chinese climate policy.

Photo by Flickr user World Bank Photo Collection.