Tensions in the South China Sea have risen steadily this week. First with Washington's public relations offensive using a P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft and CNN, then with the revelations here in Australia that China may be moving weapons onto the artificial islands it occupies. Expect more to come out of the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue this weekend in Singapore. Here's Euan Graham on China's more assertive stance on the issue:

China doesn't yet have the capability to perform aerial intercepts over the Spratlys, much less to enforce a South China Sea-wide ADIZ. Yet if Beijing continues to build up its military facilities in the Spratlys, including possibly with one or more operational airstrips by 2016, the inevitable consequence will be the spread of Sino-US military competition across the South China Sea at large. US Navy ships are already regularly shadowed there by PLA Navy counterparts.

Why President Obama may be losing interest in the Middle East, from Rodger Shanahan:

In dealing with the Middle East, few if any modern US presidents have been able to find a balance between upholding US ideals and meeting America's practical foreign policy goals. Obama has been dealt a poor hand in the Middle East but has tried harder than most to narrow the gap between ideals and practicalities. He is trying to introduce the concept of government legitimacy as a greater determinant in US relations with regional governments.

He also believes that US military interventions treat symptoms rather than causes, and that they have given Middle Eastern states absolutely zero incentive to reform the political and social malaise that has given rise to the insurgencies the region faces.

If B-1 bombers did start to rotate out of Australia, what would that signal for the alliance? Iain Henry:

In the future, if B-1 bombers are stationed in Australia, and if they conduct freedom of navigation exercises over the South China Sea, then this will occur only because Australia has concurred in US forces using Australian bases for that purpose. It could be said, just as accurately, that the operation occurred only because Australia chose to not veto it.

In such circumstances, it will be harder to say that the alliance is 'not directed at any one country'.  Because US forces could only operate from Australian soil with our concurrence, we would essentially be enabling the operation. Our alliance is not 'directed against China', as some have claimed, but if such an operation were to occur it would definitely be directed against Chinese activities. Would the finer points of this distinction matter to the leadership in Beijing? 

David Brewster responded to an op-ed in The Age from Hugh White on India's future strategic role in relation to China:

For its part, Beijing has long been dismissive of India's national power and strategic aspirations. But one thing that really makes Chinese analysts sit up and take notice – and indeed makes them quite incensed – is the possibility of a military partnership between India and the US. Delhi is very much aware of this, and it is why India is doing what it can to leverage its relationship with the US to the absolute hilt. President Obama's presence on the podium at India's Republic Day parade last January was indeed a postcard addressed to Beijing. The US relationship bolsters India's credibility in Beijing, or at the very least significantly complicates China's dealings with India and its neighbours in South Asia. Who exactly is the stooge here?

What is the importance of Palmyra for ISIS? Lauren Williams:

But Palmyra,  the site of the country's most treasured antiquities, also holds a sinister and important place in the county's national identity, as the site of the notorious Tadmur Prison. Thousands who were locked up in the early uprising against Bashar Assad's rule are known to have languished there for years without trial. Palmyra, therefore, has become an important symbol of the opposition movement. ISIS seized the prison on Thursday and while there is still no word on the fate of the inmates, freeing them could serve as valuable propaganda for the group.

Aaron Connelly wrote on the proposed plan to strip the citizenship of dual-nationality Australians participating in terrorism overseas:

In elevating citizenship in the national conversation about radicalisation, in depriving dual nationals of rights to due process which other Australians still receive, and in launching a national conversation that seems more likely to alienate than embrace, the Government is making the possibility of 'dual authenticity' less likely. 

A three-way competition between the US, Russia and the EU is heating up, says Matthew Dal Santo:

Today, NATO and EU membership seems to have encouraged a classic case of freeloading — and a bolder foreign policy than the country's own defences would warrant. 'On Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan membership (of NATO), we must not accept a veto right by Russia', declared one official. 'If we have on our borders a country with different values, different conduct, we are all the losers.'

Robert Kelly wrote on a recent women's peace march across the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula:

This raises yet another credibility issue for the marchers, with their pointed focus on the role of women. The most damning criticism I have read of the march came from Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition: 'If they truly cared, they would cross the China-North Korea border instead, which is actually more dangerous now than the DMZ' (in reference to the trafficking issue).

This march will do little to alter the geopolitics of the peninsula, which has been locked in for decades. But high-powered feminist attention could have done a lot to press China for better treatment of North Korea female escapees. A missed opportunity...

President Abe just concluded PALM7 with Pacific Island leaders, and Jenny Hayward-Jones and Philippa Brant wrote on the outcomes from the meeting:

The fact that Japan hasn't dramatically increased aid to the region in the face of increased attention from China suggests Japan is not seeking to engage in explicit chequebook diplomacy with China in the Pacific Islands. Instead, Japan is trying to position itself as the partner of choice on issues of key concern to Pacific Islanders grappling with the effects of climate change and natural disasters. Importantly, Japan is focusing on issues which matter to the region and where Japanese assistance can make the most difference.

Stephen Grenville argued that the debate over inequality is repeating itself, 40 years on:

Others have been more pointed – and more political – in their criticism of how the rich got to be at the top of the pile. The free-market, regulation-reducing, tax-lowering policies begun in the Thatcher/Reagan period have boosted inequality more than growth. The economic elite have turned rent-seeking into an art form, exploiting the many distortions and monopolies in the economy. They have buttressed their favoured position by manipulating the political process. Their share of national income reflects their power rather than their productivity.

Is there a brewing 'diaspora war' between China and the US? Julian Snelder:

China's concern for its diaspora is understandable, but the more Beijing trumpets its involvement in overseas 'bamboo networks', the more nervous other countries will become about 'fifth columns.' Almost half a million Chinese go abroad for study annually, and the conveyor belt of knowledge moves steadily in China's net direction (which may explain Shen's sangfroid and America's 'anxiety'). Cross-border scientific collaboration is a good thing collectively but John Mearsheimer (among others) has long foreseen the day when Washington sees a need to restrict Chinese nationals from studying and working in sensitive strategic fields.

A side-effect of the Southeast Asian refugee crisis might be the inflaming of sectarian tensions, argues Elliot Brennan:

There is increasing concern that the recent treatment of the Rohingya will bolster narratives for radicalisation in the region. There is no evidence of links between Rohingya and jihadi groups, but jihadists near and far have condemned the plight of the Rohingya. Al-Shabab, in a rare statement this week, blamed the 'savage Buddhists' for the Rohingya's plight. Al Qaeda last year announced it would extend its operations into Myanmar for similar reasons. A statement from ISIS – which would have the most pull in the region – is also likely, possibly in the next edition of its recruitment magazine, Dabiq (which has long courted Southeast Asians). Needless to say, much of this work has already been done on Twitter and Facebook. 

Evan Laksmana laid out a vision for a more strategic Australian-Indonesian bilateral relationship:

On Jakarta's side, an equal strategic partnership means Indonesia needs to start picking up the tab in terms of investing in its own governance institutions – from corruption to education. As long as Jakarta relies heavily on foreign aid, a strategic partnership with Australia will never be equal. Some in Jakarta are realising this imperative. After all, as Hugh White noted almost a decade ago, no one, especially Indonesians, likes to need help, and gratitude is usually tempered by the unease at being placed in the position of supplicant. This is perhaps why Jakarta'sreaction to the cut in Australia's aid budget to Indonesia was so subdued. 

Finally, Daniel Pinkston wrote on the internal political dynamics on the Korean Peninsula and the recent execution of General Hyon Yong-ch'ol:

South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Fleet.