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

The two biggest international policy events we covered this week were the announcement of interim nuclear agreement between the West and Iran, and China's declaration of an 'Air Defence Identification Zone' (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. Below is a recap of the some of the analysis posted on The Interpreter.

First up, the ADIZ. The Lowy Institute's Rory Medcalf laid out the 'wrongs' in China's position:

  • It is a unilateral step, announced suddenly and apparently without consultation with two countries whose civilian and military aircraft will be most affected, the US and Japan.

  • It includes a contested maritime area, notably the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and thus can be seen as a deliberate effort to change the status quo, even a provocation.

  • Its ‘rules’ demanding that aircraft identify themselves and obey Chinese direction on flight paths seem to apply to all aircraft in the zone and not only aircraft en route to China. This conflicts with the basic early warning and air-traffic control purposes of an ADIZ, and with longstanding Pentagon regulations advising US military aircraft to comply with a foreign ADIZ only when they flying on a course into that country’s airspace, not when they are simply in transit or on patrol.

  • It looks like a pretext for one of two undesirable security outcomes. If foreign aircraft now regularly obey the new Chinese rules, we will see precedents set for the unilateral expansion of Chinese authority over contested maritime territory. Alternately, if foreign aircraft contest or ignore the Chinese zone and a dangerous or deadly incident occurs (such as a collision or a forceful encounter), then China will have prepared the way to absolve itself of legal or moral blame, making it easier to use the incident as a justification to escalate the crisis if China so chooses.

Victoria University of Wellington's Robert Ayson criticised the Australia's response to the ADIZ announcement, arguing that 'the Abbott Government is buying in even further into the rising prospects of an armed conflict between China and Japan':

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's overly zealous press release dug that hole even deeper. 'Australia', her statement reads, 'has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea'. As I mentioned in a previous post, that seemingly innocuous set of words is the precise formula Japan uses to pin all the blame for the East China Sea problems on China. It was language Bishop endorsed for the first time at this year's Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with Japan and the US. As Hugh White has noted in a suitably concerned column, this formula was repeated at the recent AUSMIN alliance meeting in Washington.

They were also the same words US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel then used to criticise China's establishment of the zone in an unequivocal statement which confirmed that Article 5 of the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkakus. In other words, should Japan's armed forces be attacked by China in these disputed territories, the US would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes. Sound familiar? It should do. It's very similar to the security commitment in the ANZUS Treaty.

 La Trobe University's Nick Bisley disagreed, saying that the Australian Government's statement was a 'deliberate effort to make clear where Australia stands in relation to the basic structures of Asia’s regional order':

Under the ALP government there was a tendency to try to have one’s strategic cake and eat it. Officials would troop to Beijing and tell the Chinese what we seemed to think they wanted to hear. They would do the same thing in Washington and in between repeat the tired cliché that Australia does not have to choose between Beijing and Washington. The positive spin on this was that Australia was hedging its bets. The reality was that it was making Australia’s strategic position unclear, to say the least.

In the language used in the AUSMIN communique, the very public and deliberate signaling about Japan, and in the response to China’s latest effort to shift the status quo, Australia is injecting some much needed clarity about its strategic priorities. Australia strongly believes that American primacy in Asia is vital both to its own interests and to the regional order more generally, and that any effort by China to change that setting will be destabilising.

While communicating that message will cause some ruffling of feathers with China in the short term, plain speaking about what Australia stands for and what it values is of high value in a time of strategic change.

 On the 'first step' nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, the Lowy Institute's Anthony Bubalo argued that the deal might be harder to derail than people think:

Despite the caution with which this deal should be viewed, it might be harder to derail than people think.

The agreement seems to reflect deeper and broader understandings between the two sides than are suggested by the text itself. It also suggests that the two sides know the general direction they are heading in with respect to a more comprehensive agreement. Moreover, having raised expectations of significant sanctions relief among Iranians, there will be some pressure on Tehran to deliver.

In the US, it is already clear that President Obama will invest a lot of effort to sell the deal to the American public over the heads of any Congressional opposition; he will probably find a receptive audience weary of America’s wars in the Middle East. This might mitigate to some degree efforts by Israel or Saudi Arabia to use friends in Congress to block the deal.

Of course, Israel could always decide to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But if that option was attractive or viable, Israel would have taken it already.

Rodger Shanahan, commented on Saudi Arabia's 'horrible year' in foreign policy, outlining Riyadh's opposition to the a deal on Iran's nuclear program:

Riyadh also urged caution about rushing into an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, only to learn that the US had been in secret talks with Tehran for a year. Its reaction to the agreement was both muted and delayed, indicating its frustration with being out-manoeuvred by its Gulf rival yet again. Riyadh's centralised and opaque decision-making processes are often slow, and internal policy contestation is absent.

Riyadh has always been happy with an Iran that sits outside the international community and is contained. The prospect for US-Iranian detente, no matter how limited, is not something Saudi Arabia can easily accept.

Finally, ANU's Professor Bob Bowker sketched out the broader reasons how the US and Iran have found the political space to come to an (albeit temporary) agreement:

US priorities are being reshaped by domestic economic and social pressures that foster popular aversion to engagement in intractable regional conflicts. There is growing acceptance of the limits to the possible in foreign policy, not least because of the profound resistance of Middle Eastern friends and foes alike to US advice, let alone tutelage, even where US interests are directly engaged.

Strategic horizons are also changing. US energy security concerns are abating, Israel is far more secure than any of its neighbours, and with shifting US political demographics and recognition that US interests in the Indo-Pacific in coming decades will have greater importance than its interests in the Middle East, the case for renewed US military intervention in the region is unlikely to outweigh the arguments for scaling back US foreign policy ambition in the Gulf.

On the Iranian side, the regime has every reason for increased confidence so far as its strategic outlook is concerned.

It gambled, and won, when it decided to consolidate the Assad regime's hold on power in Syria. It has witnessed in Syria the West's unwillingness to countenance military conflict in support of imprecise and unrealistic political objectives. The US-Russia deal on Syrian chemical weapons did not disadvantage Iranian interests, nor has its influence in Iraq and Lebanon diminished.

At the domestic political level, President Rouhani has played his cards well. The intellectual acumen and experience of those responsible for arguing the case for engagement is impressive. The interim deal has been presented as an affirmation of Iran's sovereign right to enrich uranium. Rohani continues to have the backing of Supreme Leader Khamenei. And arriving at a deal which could be criticised at home for its limited rewards for compliance and for its overall intrusiveness is less problematic than failing to address the popular support for change (evidenced by his election victory) and an easing of the burden of sanctions.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.