As tensions over China's fortification of islands in the South China Sea continue, the last couple weeks saw several conferences held on the issue. This week, Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Bonnie Glaser attended The Aspen Security Forum and wrote on what possible military uses the PLA might intend for the islands:

If a military conflict were to break out, the land features as well as the ships and aircraft operating from them would be vulnerable to attack, but in peacetime and in a crisis, they will provide China with the capability to hold US forces at risk at a farther distance than it can at present. This could have implications for a US effort to come to Taiwan's defence. A US carrier battle group sailing from the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean that was coming to Taiwan's aid would have to pass through the South China Sea. In addition, in wartime, the need to attack these sites and the aircraft and ships deploying from them would divert US assets from performing other missions. 

The debate over our latest Lowy Institute Paper, Condemned to Crisis?, continued this week. Before I post the best of the reviews, I believe this section of author Ken Ward's response should be aired first:

At the outset, however, I feel obliged to point out that there is an all-important question mark in the title. I will probably go on defending the survival of this brave question mark for a long time to come. It has already been exposed to relentless attack. Its defiant presence is meant to signal that I do not believe the relationship with Indonesia is doomed to crisis. 'Crisis-prone' refers to the past, not necessarily the future.

What I believe rather, is that we should expect difficulties and clashes of national interest to arise from time to time between Australia and Indonesia for various reasons, and I am urging Australian political leaders to adopt more temperate language in public to help prevent such bilateral differences from deteriorating or escalating into crises.

Jakarta Post journalist Endy Bayuni made the argument that Indonesians are not as 'culturally sensitive' as Australians think:

Need more evidence that Indonesians are not that culturally sensitive? Indonesia has never bothered even to try to reciprocate Australia's repeated statements that it is the most important foreign relationship, something that in Eastern culture would be considered as downright rude. Remember the 1970s' notorious French song Je T'aime Moi Non Plus, where the woman in the duet passionately says she loves the man, but he remains indifferent and is only interested in a more casual affair? That's how awkward some Indonesians feel each time we hear Australian leaders utter their foreign policy mantra.

Reviewing Ward's work, Stephen Grenville reminded us there have been times when Indonesia and Australia have been at odds, but the relationship recovered:

The supposed wise heads in Canberra tell us that these little tiffs in the relationship are normal and quickly forgotten. This is wrong. The relationship is like a marriage, with accumulated never-forgotten slights. We did better in the past, retaining working diplomatic relationships during Konfrontasi while simultaneously fighting Indonesia in Borneo. This diplomatic dexterity made it possible to quickly build close relations after 1966. We need to try harder, and the starting point is to recognise that this is worth doing.

Andrew Parker from PwC was more optimistic:

But if we want to be more than just bystanders we will have to seriously rethink our engagement model. Indonesians do not get up in the morning and look south for guidance. They look north, as we do. China, Japan, Korea, the US and Europeans are well ahead of us.

We can choose to continue down a path punctuated by the recurring crises that Ken so compellingly argues are inevitable. The alternative is to double-down on our investment. This will require courage and a healthy measure of leadership if we are to reset the relationship for the next 25 years. We can and must do better – we simply can't afford not to.

But we need more investment in education and knowledge, both in Australia and Indonesia, says Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

We don't need a nation of Indonesia specialists just to improve relations with our neighbour. But we do need to support a basic level of knowledge about Indonesia that will help rid us of the stereotypes and prejudices that colour discourse about the country among our public, media and politicians. It's astonishing that Ward should even have to advise Australia's political leaders to avoid using language that 'Indonesians may construe as seeking to reimpose "coolie" status on them', and to 'talk about them in public in a more appropriate manner'.

Moving on from Indonesia, Matthew Dal Santo pointed to the intriguing idea of a 'United States of Europe':

For Berlin, then, the ideal form of European political and fiscal union would offer indirect, but reliable, control over the fiscal policies of other Eurozone members to ensure their 'competitiveness' and the euro's long-term stability, but the retention of national control over those issues that underpin Germany's position as Europe's paramount power. 

Malcolm Cook had a short post on the state of Japan's 'defence normalisation':

However, Japan is still far from a normal external security actor and alarmist talk of Japanese remilitarisation tells you more about the ideological predispositions of the accuser than of present reality. Yet, it's clear that Japan is again becoming a more proactive and independent security actor in East Asia in both words and action. It is also increasingly focused on the threat from China and is finding growing support from regional countries with similar concerns.

How has university education affected the views of China's foreign policymakers? Merriden Varall:

CCP dominance, and the strength of these particular worldviews, go hand in hand. Cultural explanations for beliefs and behaviour should not be removed from their political context, but need to be understood as constructed, created and utilised by those in power – this is true around the world, and certainly in China. While the Chinese population is overall growing wealthier, travelling more, being educated overseas and generally more exposed to the world, we must not assume this will bring a change in ideas and worldviews.

Shashank Joshi on the death of Mullah Omar and the burgeoning Afghan peace talks:

Even if those in favour of talks can ride out the consequences of this news and sustain the dialogue with Kabul, they could see increasing dissent, and even defection, from their commanders in the field. ISIS has increasingly sought tochallenge the Taliban's authority in the south and east, hoping to co-opt disgruntled Taliban commanders. ISIS's presence remains limited, and its Afghan leader was killed in a drone strike earlier this month. ISIS faces a radically different sectarian and political environment to that in Syria or Iraq, and has made few inroads so far. But the group would exploit any chaos in the Taliban ranks.

Tensions are growing between Vietnam and Cambodia over their disputed land border, says Elliot Brennan:

ASEAN, the UN and other governments should support and indeed insist on the speedy resolution of the border dispute. While it could be settled in the Hague, much like the 2013 settlement of the Preah Vihear case, this would be a lengthy process which would ignite more nationalism. And Hun Sen is all too aware that the longer the process drags on, the more it plays into the hands of the opposition ahead of promised elections in 2018. For its part, Hanoi would be happier with the current Hun Sen Government than an unknown and seemingly anti-Vietnamese one in Phnom Penh,  though it would no doubt prefer a government less influenced by Beijing.

 A two-part series from J Michael Cole on Taiwan's upcoming presidential election and the prospects for the DPP and KMT:

Tsai's China policy therefore looks rather similar to that of the KMT's Ma, who throughout his presidency made the 'status quo' a principal pillar of his own China policy. Tsai and Ma nevertheless differ in one key aspect, and that is the controversial '1992 consensus,' of which its 'one China' clause is unacceptable to her DPP constituents. Still, Tsai has promised the continuation of constructive relations with China – in other words, she is giving precedence to substance over technicalities such as the 'platform' on which cross-strait dialogue will occur.

Despite the criticism heard in the more conservative wing of her party, who accused her of engineering the 'KMT-ization' of the DPP, Tsai is currently at the apex of her power, with opinion polls showing a comfortable lead against the KMT candidate or any combination of opponents. 

In part 2, Cole looked at what Beijing might do in the event of either a KMT reelection or the victory of the DPP:

One way in which Beijing could react is to 'punish' the Taiwanese for making the 'wrong' choice in the polls by choosing Tsai over the more pro-China KMT candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu.  Such a policy could include an economic embargo of Taiwan or more coercive measures. One strategy could be for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT to do everything in their power to discredit the DPP administration. This could help aid a return for the KMT in the 2018 municipal elections and the 2020 presidential elections. However, such efforts would be mitigated if the DPP also wins a majority of seats in parliament (the legislative elections are being held concurrently on January 16).

Turkey changed its policy on Syria this week, bombing both ISIS and Kurdish forces in northern Syria in an effort to create 'safe zones'. Rodger Shanahan on what 'safe zones' actually entail and their potential policy complications:

The 'naturally occurring' safe zones may allow some Syrian refugees to return to Syria, but how would these people survive? What humanitarian assistance would be provided to them and by whom? Who would provide the governance and security functions within these zones? What would be the Syrian Government's approach to them and what would the international community do if the Assad regime sought to reassert its authority over the parts of Syrian territory cleared of ISIS? Nature and politics abhor vacuums, and once safe zone(s) are created, there will always be someone who seeks to take advantage of them. The UN certainly has some concerns about the prospect of a safe zone, particularly given the lack of detail released to date.

Finally, a response from Robert Kelly to his ongoing debate with Van Jackson of Georgetown University on South Korea's grand strategy:

The problem of course is that this is just not sustainable. North Korea is not going away, and no amount of ‘global Korean’ activity can change that, as we will all be reminded next time North Korea does something outrageous, like pick a fight in the Yellow Sea or send a drone over Seoul. North Korea has not lashed out in awhile, but with the Winter Olympics coming to South Korea in 2018 and their spiraling nuclear program, it's not hard to imagine friction. Indeed it would be unusual if the North were to not misbehave.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Navy Page.