The Bainimarama Government has mounted a strong challenge to the Australian-backed Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) by launching its own rival organisation. The Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) has now held two successful summits that have garnered significant international attention. While it certainly doesn't have the resources of the PIF, the PIDF looks set to stay, and significantly blunts the impact of Fiji's ongoing suspension from the PIF.
This strengthened web of bilateral and multilateral relations has given the Bainimarama Government the maneuvering room it needs to take a confident stance against its Australian critics. When Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Suva last February to start on the road towards normalising the relationship, Fijian sources confidently proclaimed that this was Australia's last chance to remain relevant.
At the start of this week it was reported that the Abbott Government was considering a military role for Australia in any US-led campaign against ISIS. I wrote that if the Government does intend to send Australian forces to help, it needs to first address two big points:
1. A comprehensive statement describing the US strategy for countering ISIS, and Australia's role in it: In this regard, the PM's recent statement that 'There would have to be a clear and achievable overall purpose, a clear and proportionate role for us, a careful assessment of the risks and an overall humanitarian purpose' was reassuring.
But it already looks as if the Americans are defining 'humanitarian purpose' broadly, and if it stretches still further until it becomes indistinguishable from a mission to defeat ISIS (or ISIL), we need to know exactly how this is going to be accomplished. As Brian Fishmanjust wrote on War on the Rocks, 'No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.'
I happen to think a mission like that would be disastrous for the US, and that Australia should dissuade America from carrying it out rather than offering to take part in it. But if the Abbott Government disagrees, it ought to at least do Australians the courtesy of spelling out exactly what the parameters of the mission are and how the goals will be achieved.
2. An assessment of the threat: Attorney-General George Brandis now tells us that the threat of extremists coming back from the Middle East is the 'greatest national security threat that Australia has faced in many years...The escalating terrorist situation in Iraq and Syria poses an increasing threat, unlike any other that this country has experienced, to the security of Australians both at home and overseas.'
That's some strong language, but it sits oddly against the assessments provided to the Government by Australia's intelligence agencies
And while we're on the subject of air campaigns in the Middle East, here's Rodger Shanahan on air power coming to the fore in multiple Middle East crises:
As a former Army officer, my service bias has always made me a believer that only events on the ground matter. The air force is a great enabler but rarely the decisive factor. But my experience of the Middle East has also taught me the value that many governments place in air power.
In the Gulf in particular, technically advanced aircraft symbolise modernity and make up for the limited manpower available to staff their militaries. And it is a service that can be both a path to, or symbol of, political authority. Both Syria's Hafiz al Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were air force pilots (and later commanders), while King Abdullah of Jordan (like his late father King Hussein) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are both qualified military pilots.
But as the region reels from multiple security crises, it is interesting to note the degree to which air power is being used by regional forces for a multiplicity of purposes. A student of air power would do well to focus closely on the Middle East at the moment for the rich field of research it is proving to be.
Tim Mayfield highlighted a recent Newspoll showing that a majority of Australians support aspects of the Government's proposed anti-terror legislation:
It is significant because, when it comes to matters of national security, public opinion really does matter. While on other issues it may be within a government's remit to move ahead of prevailing attitudes, when it comes to our collective safety there should be no such latitude.
This is because measures that are enacted with the aim of preserving the safety of citizens will inevitably impact on our liberty. And though the most basic function of any government is to protect its citizens, history is littered with examples of governments that have used this justification to concentrate their own power and quell opposition.
Our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability continues. This week we had contributions from Thomas Mahnken, Andrew Winner Stephen Fruehling. Thomas Mahnken is a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning:
Beijing is undertaking a large-scale modernisation of its military, including its nuclear force. According to Department of Defense and press sources, China is fielding the mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile and is developing the mobile DF-41 with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles. According to press reports, China has also conducted at least two tests of the WU-14 hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. China also fields theatre nuclear strike systems such as the DF-21. And China has invested considerable resources in developing and deploying the Jin-class SSBN and JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (pictured).
China's nuclear modernisation is aimed at giving the Chinese leadership a secure second-strike capability. As Tom Christensen has argued, that is in turn likely to embolden China (if it has not already done so) to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. The deployment of SSBNs is clearly part of that but is far less consequential than other Chinese developments.
Andrew Winner is Chair of the Strategic Research Department and a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island:
Both India and Pakistan are at the initial stages of deploying nuclear weapons on submarines. Being new to a deployed technology and operational technique does not mean the two governments and their militaries will not be careful or capable. Both states are likely to be highly cautious and professional in their deployment of these capabilities. However, there is always a learning curve with new capabilities and therefore always chances for misperception, miscalculation, and the threat of escalation.
And Stephen Fruehling is Senior Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, and a member of the external expert panel on the 2015 Defence White Paper:
The development of an SSBN force indicates that China is not fully confident in the survivability of its land-based nuclear forces, and is at least hedging its bets. This is not fully unjustified, as land-based missiles still have to operate in prepared deployment areas that are vulnerable to the large-scale nuclear suppression campaign, of which the US is still capable. US attempts to build a survivable launcher for its own land-mobile Midgetman missiles during the Cold War are a salutary reminder of the inherent fragility of mobile ICBMs to nuclear blast pressure. Adding SSBNs to the mix would certainly complicate US planning for the unlikely event that it should ever consider a disarming strike on China, but it does not change the basic source of China's vulnerability, which lies in the numerical imbalance of the nuclear forces of both countries.
Investment in SSBNs thus indicates that China remains uncomfortable with the limits imposed by its small nuclear arsenal. But the scale of China's investment doesn't really address the issue. SSBNs put a lot of eggs into one basket and are no panacea for the problem of survivability, especially given China's geographic disadvantage. As such, their appearance in the region is a useful reminder that the broader factors underpinning strategic stability in the region — US military capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal, and the alliances they support in the Asian littoral — have a lot going for them still.
Is Hilary Clinton a foreign policy hawk? James Bowden:
One factor that seems to answer the first question in the affirmative is the sizeable distance she and her camp have recently sought to put between her positions and those of President Barack Obama. In a much-publicised interview with The Atlantic, Clinton called out Obama's failure to offer support to rebels fighting Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria as being culpable in the rise of the Islamic State, an organisation most recently in the news for the horrific beheading of US journalist James Foley.
'The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,' she said, adding that great nations needed better organising principles than Obama's favoured 'don't do stupid stuff.'
So far, so hawkish.
To finish off with a bit of economics, Stephen Grenville wrote on the continuing tragedy of European unemployment:
What is to be done? Draghi's answer is 'a bit of everything'. He'll keep monetary policy loose (and presumably do 'whatever it takes' if the euro comes under threat). But he is looking for help from fiscal policy and structural reform. A call for structural reform (ie. productivity improvement) is a standard element of just about any macro-economic prescription, but it carries more weight and urgency given the duration and depth of the European recession.
Draghi quotes figures showing that European structural unemployment (the part that can't be fixed just by getting economic activity back to full capacity) as having risen from 8.8% in 2008 to 10.3% in 2013 as a result of the crisis and the lacklustre recovery. This would imply that the usual instruments of counter-cyclical macro-policy can't take the unemployment rate down very far.
He reports that Ireland has done better than Spain in terms of wage flexibility, but Ireland's main method of getting its unemployment rate down has been emigration, not only of disenchanted Irish youth but also the migrants from other parts of Europe who had flocked to Ireland when it was the Celtic Dragon, before the crisis.
And Daniel Woker asked if France is now the 'sick man of Europe':
While the lack of economic reform remains a major drag on the country and on its role in Europe, the opposite is true with regard to two other major elements of potential progress towards the 'great European promise', as symbolised by the EU.
Firstly, Europe will have to develop the means to guarantee order in its 'near abroad' (Mediterranean, Africa) and to take a bigger part of responsibility for a functioning global order. As we all know, the US is unwilling and unable to continue to shoulder the burden on its own. It is fair and necessary that Europe should help, and here France has been a leader, especially with regard to Africa.
The second area where France counts among the leading countries in Europe concerns assimilation of immigrants, especially those with non-European roots. The ugly historical chapters of racism in its colonies and of rampant antisemitism notwithstanding, 'la nation fondatrice des droits de l'homme' nevertheless has a pretty good record over the last 50 years of integrating the huge influx of immigrants from former colonies. The remaining challenge from mainly Muslim 'banlieus' (suburbs) and the present political onslaught from the xenophobic far-right have economic rather than social roots. They can be solved when the aforementioned economic reforms are tackled in earnest.
Photo by Flickr user MyTudut.