Thursday 21 Nov 2019 | 12:30 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The International Security Program looks at strategic dynamics and security risks globally, with an emphasis on Australia's region of Indo-Pacific Asia. Its research spans strategic competition and the risks of conflict in Asia, security implications of the rise of China and India, maritime security, nuclear arms control, Australian defence policy and the changing character of conflict. The Program draws on a network of experts in Australia, Asia and globally, and is supported by diverse funding sources including grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It convenes international policy dialogues such as the 2017 Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders International Security Forum and has a record of producing leading-edge, influential reports.

Latest publications

Quick comment: US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel David Skalicky on F-22 operations in northern Australia

Late last year, PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris revealed in his lecture to the Lowy Institute that the US planned to operate F-22 Raptors out of Australia in 2017.

This afternoon the Lowy Institute's International Security Program Director Euan Graham spoke with David Skalicky, a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force who is currently operating the F-22 out of RAAF Base Tindal, about the experience of piloting the aircraft in Australia, the difference between it and other platforms Skalicky has operated, and the Australian exchange pilot currently flying in Skalicky's squadron.

A question for alliance critics: What's your alternative?

This is an edited version of remarks delivered at the National Press Club in Canberra on 21 February, 2017, in a panel discussion with Sir Angus Houston. The full text can be found here, and a video of the event here.

It is easy to be troubled by Donald Trump and the unpredictability of his Presidency. Many of us are. Those who recognise the enduring importance of the alliance to Australia have some challenging tasks ahead. 

One is to explain and advocate the alliance regardless of President Trump, and to remind at every turn that the alliance is more robust and lasting than any one administration. Another task, of course, is to look dispassionately at the facts, and to ensure that this state of affairs remains true. A third task is to steer Australia’s policy settings in a way that helps us weather the turbulence of this era. Thus: more resilience, more self-reliance, a deepening and diversification of our security relations, building a strategic web with Japan, India and others to bind and complement US allies. And a fourth mission is to do what we can to shape the choices of the US, and of others, to defend regional stability.

There is a story to be told better at home. Government and business need to directly explain and champion the importance to Australia of our comprehensive ties to the US, including in priority domains like cyber security, as well as in investment and defence.

Certainly there is a need for better public awareness about the alliance, especially in a post-truth era, where the new trend is towards mass misinformation by those opposed to liberal democracy and a rules-based order. We saw Russia’s interference in America last year. We underestimate how vulnerable a country such as Australia could be to sustained, well-resourced propaganda and misinformation aimed at undermining our security and the alliance.

So our politicians, policymakers and opinion leaders need to do more to tell the public precisely why and how the US-backed alliance system is in our interests. This will require engaging directly with the arguments of those who criticise the alliance and who understandably worry about Trump.

The challenge ahead is how to preserve and protect the alliance through a difficult phase. It may well be a different world, and a different America, that emerges from these years. But the alliance will still have an enormous amount to offer Australia. And we have to face the reality that for the foreseeable future, we do not have other options.

Our interests are extensive and our capabilities cannot protect them all. Australia provides security for a continent and its offshore territories. We are the security provider of last resort for much of the South Pacific, including Papua New Guinea. We have zones of maritime responsibility across much of the Indian and Southern Oceans. We are responsible for 43% of Antarctica. We rely acutely on lifelines of trade, investment, information and people across the Indo-Pacific. We rely on a rules-based order in which the rights of small and medium powers are respected.

The fact that our interests outweigh our capabilities places a premium on partnerships. And to attract and consolidate links with partners, including the US alliance, Australia needs credibility. That means it needs its own core strength, its own capabilities, its own strategic weight. We need the capacity to do things for our own security, and to demonstrate this.

That’s why it makes sense for Australia to be able to contribute to regional and global coalitions for common security interests, whether it is the fight against ISIS or shared humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Governments are good at telling the public how strong and effective our national security is, how much our defence force is capable of doing. But there is much our defence force cannot do alone. And even with the ambitious but generally realistic plans under the Defence White Paper, limits will remain. A degree of military self-reliance in combat is not the same as being able to operate entirely without our US ally, which will continue to provide much of the technology, interoperability, intelligence and targeting a self-reliant combat force will need. And it will be many years before our new regionally superior submarine fleet is operational. 

Maybe Government and Opposition have to be somewhat bolder in explaining to the Australian people just what would be the limits of Australia’s security without the US. It is easy and, for some, politically tempting to say we need to begin thinking about Australian security without America. But this appraisal needs to be honest. It needs to include suggestions of what a viable national security strategy (defence, diplomacy, intelligence and social resilience) would look like without the US.

Unfortunately, much of the commentary we hear is light on such practicalities. The onus needs to be on the critics of the alliance to offer realistic alternatives. Likewise, friends of the alliance need to set out a realistic plan for helping Australia and the alliance adjust to the difficult times ahead.

Will the Western Pacific’s long peace endure?

The security picture in the Western Pacific is marked by maritime boundary disputes, nationalist enmities and rapidly modernising militaries. Against that backdrop, the prolonged absence of war between states poses an analytical conundrum. How has the region stayed so peaceful for so long?

Fortunately, peace has held among the major powers across this pivotal region for over a generation, enabling economic development on a scale that is the envy of the rest of the world. Yet if peace breaks down, it would dwarf the conflagrations of the Middle East.

Consider that Japan’s post-war military has not fired a shot in anger throughout its existence. Not once. China has not battled another state head-on since the border conflict with Vietnam in the late 1970s, and a more limited clash in the South China Sea in 1988. On the Korean Peninsula, the armistice in place since 1953 has episodically come under violent strain. But it has never broken. Southeast Asia has a number of long-running internal conflicts, and cross-border and boundary disputes which occasionally flash hot. But the last major state-on-state armed conflict ended in the 1980s with Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia.

Some scholars, notably Muthiah Alagappa, argue that Asia’s declining incidence of inter-state conflict is structural in nature, as post-colonial states have stabilised politically and developed economically. A reinforcing argument asserts that the high cost of war (potentially nuclear war between the US and China) has made force obsolete for resolving disputes, especially given the region’s high level of economic inter-dependence.

The counter-argument, put by Hugh White among others, is that the region’s US-centric security order faces an unprecedented revisionist challenge from a great power, China, intent on acquiring capabilities to match this ambition, at least regionally. The cheek-by-jowl presence of the US, China and other heavily armed military powers in Northeast Asia means conflict there could escalate into general war even if the spark is local and accidental, especially since effective crisis-management machinery is not in place.

Peace is of course a good thing, yet the fact that the Western Pacific has been free of war between states in recent times potentially adds a ratcheting dynamic to the risk of armed conflict, since the use of military force, once initiated, will command a heightened ‘demonstration premium’ among the major powers, particularly those whose armed forces lack any recent meaningful combat experience. This is particularly acute for China and North Korea. Defeat is not a good look for any nation. But in non-democratic societies in particular,  escalating to a successful outcome may be a rational temptation for commanders if the alternative spells personal as well as political oblivion.

Another point that does not receive the attention it deserves is that the US, despite being the region’s acknowledged guarantor of security, has not engaged in a single combat operation throughout the 100 million square miles of the Pacific Command since May 1975. Not once. Contrast this with the fact that America’s two bloodiest post-1945 conflicts were both fought on China’s periphery, in Korea and Vietnam.

What explains this disjuncture in America’s regional record?

Is it simply that Western Pacific states learned to shun military force as an instrument of external policy, as potential spoilers of the regional 'rules-based order' were held in check by America’s forward deployed capabilities, its network of alliances and security partners? In Southeast Asia, it has been argued that the normative security paradigm has shifted permanently, relegating armed conflict among ASEAN’s members to minor cross-border scrapes of the Thailand-Cambodia variety, or non-lethal maritime jousting. It is difficult to fathom circumstances under which Indonesia would again choose to confront its neighbours militarily, even if Jakarta experiences reversals in economic growth and democratic governance.

Or has the US itself been deterred? Turning to Northeast Asia, a close examination of the US record on North Korea suggests that Washington’s long abstinence from the use of military force in the Western Pacific reflects a more complicated reality than just successful US deterrence and regional economic development. As far back as the late 1960s, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, holding its crew hostage for a year. The following year Pyongyang shot down an unarmed US surveillance aircraft. These and subsequent incidents caused multiple military fatalities. Yet the US did not retaliate. In 2010, North Korea attacked Washington’s South Korean ally twice, causing military and civilian casualties for South Korea. Not only did the US not respond militarily, it pressured Seoul, which was on the receiving end of North Korean provocations, not to retaliate.

Successive US administrations have continuously engaged in coercive signaling, through military exercises and reactive deployments directed usually at North Korea and China. Washington’s alliances with South Korea and Japan have not only endured, they have strengthened and deepened. Yet the historical record demonstrates that the US has been deterred from using force. Moreover, US strategic forbearance in the face of North Korean aggression even held during the post-Cold War era, the supposed zenith of US hegemony in Asia. Pyongyang’s ability to hold Seoul hostage because of its proximity to the DMZ is one well-known constraining factor on US military options on the Peninsula. Pyongyang’s breakneck nuclear and long-range missile development now threatens to unleash a more direct and fundamental deterrent.

But although these explanations of North Korea’s deterrent capabilities are valid, they miss the wider strategic point that Pyongyang has escaped US retaliation and pre-emption because it enjoys protection from China. Beijing is not always happy about this, since its recalcitrant ally has mastered how to exploit living in China’s strategic shadow even at the expense of Beijing’s security interests (eg. by developing missile capabilities that have encouraged Japan and a reluctant South Korea to join the US-led missile defence network). Without China next door, North Korea simply could not have evaded US military punishment as perfectly as it has. It is a feat unmatched among state adversaries of the US, all the more glaring when North Korea is uniformly regarded as America’s number-one enemy, according to a recent public opinion poll reported by the New York Times.

Proximity to China alone is no guarantee of inviolability. The fact that Afghanistan shares a land border with China was no bar to US-led intervention in 2001. But those were exceptional circumstances that did not challenge Beijing’s core strategic interests. By contrast, China intervened directly in the Korean War and opened critical supply lines with Communist forces during the Vietnam War. Washington’s rapprochement with China was the necessary geopolitical precondition for the US military withdrawal from Indochina. It is surely significant that the US has not used force in Northeast or Southeast Asia since; nor in the sea or airspace surrounding China, including the South and East China seas.

*

At a time when the prospect of US military adventurism in the South China Sea and other regional flashpoints is enjoying so much attention, it is important to consider the peculiar dynamics that account for the prolonged if somewhat edgy peace in the Western Pacific, in particular the very high bar on the use of armed force between states in place since the end of the Vietnam War.

The constraints that have deterred the application of US military force in the Western Pacific for over four decades will continue to apply in the face of China’s across-the-board military modernisation and ongoing improvements to North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities.

But it is already clear that the Trump administration aims to inject deliberate uncertainty about US strategic intentions in Asia, and towards China especially. Also, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in his most recent remarks on the South China Sea, there is now a greater willingness on the part of the US to 'accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them in upholding international rules and norms.' Such willingness is likely to be one of the major contrasts with the Obama Administration’s risk-averse approach, in which conflict avoidance appeared to be the overriding priority. This sometimes came at the expense of US credibility, as at Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Moreover, the deliberate unpredictability of the Trump Administration about US intentions injects an insidious risk into regional security. Combined with the genuinely unpredictable temperament of the new commander-in-chief, such uncertainty could destabilise the region as allies and adversaries struggle to adjust. The trigger for conflict is more likely to come from an over-confident Beijing or Pyongyang that misreads Trump’s isolationist instincts for a latter-day US paper tiger intent on abandoning its traditional alliances.

The potential for such misperception is one major reason why I’m not confident that inter-state armed conflict has been banished from the region, and why I won't be surprised if the region’s long peace is shattered in the coming decade.  

Photo: PublicDomainPictures/18043

Australia and South Korea: Time to expand co-operation

This week the Lowy Institute's International Security Program, supported by the Korea Foundation, is hosting the Australia-Republic of Korea (ROK) Emerging Leaders International Security Forum in Sydney and Canberra, bringing together scholars and future policymakers focused on the bilateral security relationship. This is the first in a series of posts from Forum participants. 

The world as we know it is experiencing fundamental change. This is particularly true in the Indo-Pacific region, where two variables are providing a significant challenge to the familiar security-economic operating system that defines the parameters of our known world – the rise of China and strategic uncertainty about the course of US foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

In the security domain, China continues to assert its strategic and military presence, especially in the South China Sea. The Philippines' legal victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration last July has failed to deter China’s activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to build up its artificial facilities and to display, through military exercises, its existing and new capabilities such as the Liaoning aircraft carrier. Simultaneously, China is providing significant economic assistance to particular Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Malaysia, while attempting to mend its relationship with Vietnam through high level exchanges. But China’s economic assistance to Southeast Asia is just one part of its One Belt One Road vision, which goes beyond economic statecraft to provide a geopolitical, or geo-economic alternative, to existing regional and global governance.

China has every right to secure its strategic and economic interests. But the intent underlying its initiatives – to promote a Chinese alternative to the US-led international order – raises big questions for many of its neighbours. What is the Chinese alternative to the existing regional operating system (ROS) that has been the basis of the region’s peace and prosperity since the Second World War? Do we have faith and confidence in Beijing’s motives? Can China assure other regional countries that a Chinese alternative would safeguard their interests?

At the other end of the spectrum is the US. As Kurt Campbell argues in The Pivot, the US not only built the existing international order and regional operating system but has operated as its lynchpin since its inception. Of course, Washington did not build and operate this system purely out of altruistic intent. The system has served US interests as well. The US has provided security assurances to the region, championed free trade and open markets and buttressed several economies in the region, especially during the Cold War. Peace, democracy, free trade, and open economies have provided the fundamental base for the existing ROS underpinned by the US. Regional countries have largely benefitted from the system, although to varying degrees.

Now there are growing doubts about the role of the US as a defender of the system, especially since the election of Donald Trump. Will Trump’s America remain the defender of the existing order? More to the point, can he abandon those election promises which contradict the existing order and system? Will the long-touted declinist argument finally come to fruition? Perhaps, if not a complete decline, could it be part of a long-term downward trend for the US? Neither the US nor China have clear answers to these questions. Meanwhile, the competition between the two powers is increasing strategic tension, uncertainty, and dilemmas in the region.

At this juncture, we have to ask ourselves: can we afford to simply say things are going to be alright? Can we risk the deterioration or collapse of the ROS? Can we place our interests in the hands of others? The regional system we have today has brought peace, security, and economic prosperity to many regional countries. Without it, this peace and prosperity will come under threat.

Because of Sino-US power rivalry, regional countries have been in a strategic dilemma for the past ten years. Now they have to decide who can best serve their security and economic interests. There are three possible scenarios for a power rivalry: a dispute that turns the region into a battlefield; continuing tension that will subject regional countries to enduring strategic uncertainty; or a compromise that results in two spheres of influence. None of these scenarios are acceptable for regional countries.

Australia and South Korea must come together to safeguard the existing ROS and the interests of small and medium regional powers. Why is an Australia-South Korea partnership important? As likeminded 'constructive' middle powers, both have a similar strategic outlook. Both are committed to a rule based international and regional order, open economy with free trade, and universal values such as democracy and human rights. Australia and South Korea are partners in regional multilateral institutions including the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Moreover, Australia is one of only two countries with which South Korea has a 2+2 partnership. Finally, both Australia and South Korea are capable of economically, militarily, and politically contributing to the whole region and are willing to do so.

What do Australia and South Korea have to do to reduce strategic uncertainty and maintain the existing ROS? First, the 2+2 should be further expanded, as a vital platform for furthering Australia-South Korea cooperation across a broad policy spectrum (peacekeeping, defence exercise, education and training, defence science, non-proliferation, cyber security, police cooperation, border protection, maritime security and safety). Currently, the 2+2 focuses mainly on promoting functional cooperation, although the 'public goods' of cooperation are shared regionally. What is missing is a strategic discussion, consultation, and consensus on the landscape of the region; the central themes of which are the maintenance of the security and the economic futures through the ROS, as well as the impact of US-China relations.

Second, the two countries have to seriously foster strategic networks among regional small and medium powers. It is time for small and medium powers to go beyond either the existing US-led hub and spoke system or the Chinese alternative system whether it is OBOR or something else. While maintaining the existing relations with the US and China, small and medium regional powers have to form a denser, more interconnected, network of strategic cooperation. Australia’s National Security College recently published a report, calling for a resilient web of allies and partners in the region. I agree that we have to build an effective consultation and cooperation network among spoke countries in the region, but one which includes consideration of China. This is an advanced hedging strategy for small and medium regional powers that will not only secure and strengthen their interests, but also promote regional multilateralism.

Trump's CIA speech reveals a challenge to America's 'deep state'

Yesterday, in his first official engagement as President, Donald Trump visited CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia where he gave a 15-minute televised speech in front of the Agency’s memorial wall to around 400 employees. The decision to visit the CIA, and to speak publicly, as virtually his first presidential act, is surely significant. To what end?

According to the Republican chair of the House committee on intelligence, Devin Nunes, the visit was scheduled in anticipation that Trump’s pick for CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, would have been sworn in. Pompeo’s appointment has yet to be confirmed, triggering a predictable swipe at Democrats from Trump. The President was no doubt also briefed during his visit to Langley. The fact that his speech still went ahead suggests he had more than Pompeo and ceremony in mind.

On the surface, Trump’s gushing support for the CIA ('I love you. I respect you') comes across as an attempt to bury the hatchet, following the public rancour between the president-elect and US intelligence community over Russian interference in the presidential election. On Twitter, Trump attributed media leaks to the intelligence community, making an inflammatory comparison to Nazi Germany. Trump also singled out the outgoing CIA Director, John Brennan, for criticism.

Trump’s speech, in contrast to the inauguration address, marked a return to the raw, unfiltered extemporising of the election campaign. In addition to praising himself, Trump lionised Pompeo and included raucous shout-outs to National Security Advisor John Michael Flynn, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, both present. Trump spent much of his remaining time riding a familiar hobby horse, attacking the 'dishonest media' for its coverage of the inauguration ceremony – a theme later to dominate Sean Spicer’s extraordinary, intemperate outburst in the first White House press briefing of the Trump presidency.

Despite abundant contrary evidence on his own Twitter account, Trump accused the media of misrepresenting his relationship with the intelligence community as a feud: 'I just want to let you know, the reason you’re the number 1 stop is exactly the opposite'.

Trump declared he would give the CIA his full backing for a campaign to 'eradicate' IS 'off the face of the Earth', intimating that operational restraints on the Agency’s 'real abilities' will be relaxed. Beyond the threat of 'radical Islamic terrorism', Trump did not elaborate on other threats facing the US. The only reference to another state, was a typically Trumpian aside on Iraq ('So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe we’ll have another chance.').

While the audience of CIA employees was out of camera shot, for security reasons, clapping and cheering, presumably from a portion of the Agency’s rank and file, was clearly audible - although an indeterminate number of Trump’s own staff were also present. In a characteristic effort to claim the crowd's allegiance, Trump went as far as to claim that 'probably almost everybody in this room voted for me'. His assertion that 'we’re all on the same wavelength' was greeted by applause.

Trump’s egotistical stream-of-consciousness mode of delivery makes his unscripted speeches easy to dismiss, as ill-considered or buffoonish.

Outgoing Director John Brennan was said by a spokesman to be 'deeply saddened and angered' at Trump’s 'despicable display of self-aggrandisement'. At first sight, Trump’s attention to media coverage of his inauguration ceremony appears waywardly off-target for an address to the US Government’s premier intelligence body.

The written transcript allows for an alternative interpretation. Consider, in particular, Trump’s closing comments:

So I only like to say that because I love honesty. I like honest reporting. I will tell you the final time: although I will say it, when you let in your thousands of other people that had been trying to come in, because I am coming back.

We may have to get you a larger room. [laughter, applause] We may have to get you a larger room.

And maybe - maybe - it’ll be built by somebody that knows how to build and we won’t have columns [laughter] You understand that? We’d get rid of the columns.

I just wanted to really say that I love you. I respect you. There’s nobody that I respect more. You’re going to do a fantastic job. And we’re going to start winning again. And you’re going to be leading the charge.

So thank you all very much. Thank you, beautiful. Thank you all very much.

Have a good day.

I’ll be back. I’ll be back. Thank you.

Without being overly conspiratorially minded, it is possible to see within this a distinct double message. On one hand, Trump is expressing his support for the CIA rank and file, cracking jokes and venting off-topic frustrations with the media.

For the senior CIA leadership present, however, I believe Trump’s comments took on a painful 'dog whistle' pitch. They are likely to connect Trump’s media complaints and call for 'honest reporting' with the intelligence community’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. Indeed, shortly after Trump’s CIA visit, Devin Nunes announced to CNN that alleged leaks to the media are going to be investigated by Congress.

Trump’s line 'I will tell you the final time' could be read as an ultimatum. When he jokes about letting in 'thousands' of other CIA employees for his next visit, that sounds rather like an effort to play the Agency’s base off against its leadership. When Trump promises to 'get rid of the columns' and build the CIA 'a larger room' is he flippantly playing the property mogul, or is he putting the guardians of America’s most vaunted 'deep state' institution on notice that he can pull their temple down, unless they play ball?

Perhaps I am committing the analysts' sin of over-interpreting Mr Trump’s 'off-the-wall' comments. My hunch is I’m right in thinking that in Trump’s mind the media and the intelligence community are intimately connected, as arbiters of 'ground truth' to be tamed and controlled, in a world where truth is fungible, and where the wars that count most are wars of information.

If the CIA is to maintain its central role and independence under President Trump’s administration, deep thinking is required before he returns with the bulldozers.

Missed opportunities at the Australia-Japan summit

Although it took place at Kirribilli House, just around the corner from where I live, I can unfortunately claim no inside information on last weekend’s Sydney summit between Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Shinzo Abe. From this nosy neighbour’s reading though, the outcomes on defence and security cooperation fell substantially short of the relationship’s potential.

The main defence 'deliverable' announced was an upgrade to the existing Japan-Australia acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA). In addition, both sides pledged to deepen training and joint operations through a 'reciprocal access agreement' between Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), to be concluded later this year.

Although Abe and Turnbull met at the ASEAN summit in Vientiane last September, this was the Japanese Prime Minister’s first visit to Australia since 2014, and the first summit between the two leaders since the Turnbull Cabinet’s decision to award Australia’s future submarine contract to France. In that context, it is surprising there was not more ambition to deepening bilateral defence cooperation.

Defence professionals would understand that an upgraded ACSA constitutes a low bar for cooperation between the two US allies with probably the greatest potential for strategic partnership in the Western Pacific. The main augmentation to the 2013 ACSA will allow the SDF to supply ammunition to ADF where they operate alongside in UN peacekeeping operations and joint exercises. While welcome, this looks like a largely symbolic commitment, although the two militaries do operate similar (though not identical) weapons systems.

It is well known that Abe felt the disappointment of the submarine decision personally. In the awkward aftermath, Japanese defence officials uncharacteristically let it be known that they felt misled by the Australian Government. While it is also the case that some defence officials and industrialists in Japan were privately relieved that the Japanese bid fell through, many still expected at least a face-saving commitment by Australia to collaborate with Japan’s defence industry at some level. Mitsubishi, after all, opened a new representative office in Australia partly in anticipation of winning defence business not only relating to submarines.

Shared concern about China’s creeping takeover of the South China Sea, or the risk that the incoming Trump administration might dilute US defence treaty commitments ought, logically, to be spurring Canberra and Tokyo into greater activity. Yet beyond the above agreements and passing reference to North Korea and the South China Sea, there wasn’t much concrete evidence to support this from Saturday’s press conference. A joint statement reportedly goes somewhat further, expressing ‘serious concern’ about the South China Sea.

It is of course possible that areas of defence cooperation deemed too sensitive for public release were discussed between Mr Abe and Mr Turnbull. However, I suspect that the weekend summit failed to deliver any significant advance in defence and security cooperation for the more basic reason that Australia and Japan are currently more united in mutual caution than shared strategic ambition for the bilateral defence relationship. What might account for this?

On Japan’s side, since Tokyo’s acute threat perceptions towards China have hardly moderated, Abe could have elected to moderate his ambitions for a strategic partnership with Australia, judging the Turnbull administration either too fickle or risk-averse on China to justify investment of more political capital beyond 'natural' incrementalism in defence ties, as represented by the upgraded ACSA. In the run-up to Sydney, Abe’s visits to the Philippines (including a tour of President Duterte’s bedroom) and Indonesia were arguably more ambitious.

On the Australian side, the onus being on Turnbull as Abe’s host to take the lead on new policy initiatives, it arguably speaks to a prevailing caution on Canberra’s part to maintain some strategic distance from Japan, for fear of entrapment in Tokyo’s troubled relationship with Beijing, or upsetting the economic apple-cart of trade and investment from China. If Canberra is primarily worried about an apparent US tilt towards a more confrontational approach towards China under Trump, then alliance considerations could, in fact, act as a brake on bilateral defence cooperation with Japan. A more assertive Washington can be expected to press its security treaty partners in Asia to adopt new roles and missions potentially beyond their comfort levels, seeking opportunities to ‘trilateralise’ inter-alliance cooperation. The Trump factor may have reinforced Turnbull’s natural caution about being ensnared in the Thucydides trap.

I may be wrong. But if I’m right, and last weekend’s summit constitutes something of a plateau in Australia and Japan’s strategic cooperation, this does not bode well as a signal for the wider region. As this recent article by the Thai scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak persuasively argues, there are sound strategic reasons for Southeast Asia to pursue defence cooperation with both Japan and Australia. If Japan and Australia are either unwilling or unable to get their bilateral defence act together beyond a cosmetic ACSA upgrade and reciprocal access agreement, then more equivocal players in the region are unlikely to set their own bar much higher.

'Tis the season to be wary

The advent season has brought with it a renewed focus on the globalised nature of terrorism. This week’s grim tally of atrocities includes the assassination of the Russian ambassador at an art gallery in Ankara by a Turkish policeman, the death of 12 people at a Berlin Christmas market at the hands of an as yet-unknown terrorist in an attack claimed by Islamic State, and a shooting at a mosque in Zurich by a Swiss-Ghanaian, the motive of which police are still trying to determine. These come hard on the heels of the Coptic cathedral bombing that killed 25 in Cairo last week, and the shootout in Karak in Jordan that killed 10 people but may have forestalled a better-planned and executed plan, judging by explosives discovered. 

While each is shocking enough, the proximity of these attacks to each other has exaggerated their individual impacts and even strangely obscured the reality that the terrorism issue shows no signs of abating. Consider a snapshot of terrorist-related activity in Europe discovered this last month. The 12-year-old Iraqi-German boy who planted two nail bombs in Germany a few weeks ago, allegedly based on instructions gleaned from Islamic State via a messenger app.  A month ago, French police arrested five people planning an imminent attack in Paris after receiving instructions from Islamic State via an encrypted device. Last week six arrested in the UK and detained for questioning on suspicion of terrorism offences. Two weeks ago, one arrested by the Dutch police.

The forensic (and particularly the electronic) analysis of each of these will tell us much about the degree to which they are part of a coherent European network. They could be part of the broader, remotely-controlled or inspired pattern of Islamic State terrorist acts, or the timing may have been coincidental. The Ankara assassination is the most shocking but also perhaps the least concerning in a perverse sort of way. A lone gunman who saw the recapture of Aleppo as an assault on fellow Muslims and decides to kill a representative of the Russian government whom he holds accountable. The assassination had a surreal, studio-quality feel to it which made it all the more disturbing; a stark white background, an assassin dressed like he was on the set of Reservoir Dogs, and a professional photographer on hand to record the event.  Despite the shocking scene, and without the joint Russian-Turkish investigation having started let alone finished, it is very possible that this was an isolated, single-issue terrorist act. Regardless, it disrupted nothing. The foreign and defence ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia continued their planned meeting on Syria held in Moscow and even issued a joint declaration on Syria only hours after the Ankara assassination.

It is the plethora of the other, more anonymous foiled plots that remain more disturbing. Nationals of a country seeking to kill their countrymen and women, non-citizens ostensibly seeking protection but willing to kill members of the very societies they claim they wish to join.  A 12-year-old boy finding some kind of warped religious fulfilment in making IEDs rather than playing as boys should. The sheer persistence of the threat, regardless of how much actual damage that it causes, defies easy analysis or solution.  As does the path to Islamic extremism.  In this information-saturated world, where 'fake news' has become a widely accepted term, reality, truth and analysis are taking a back seat to emotive, manipulative assertions. And when the radicalisation process relies on the ability to appeal to an emotional identity rather than rational discourse, we should expect this persistent threat to remain long after the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are resolved.

Merry Christmas.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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