The elephant in the conference room

Is that an elephant in the room?

The worst-kept secret at the DMO Defence and Industry conference this week was the government’s active consideration of buying submarines from Japan. Although it was never mentioned in any presentation, Option J, as it has come to be known, was discussed in every corner and corridor of the Adelaide convention centre.

Good policy rarely results from secret deliberations shielded from public scrutiny, so I think it’s time to discuss Option J directly, at a level beyond passing media speculation.

As recently as a month ago, the Abbott–Abe strategic cozying up seemed likely to deliver little more than access to Japanese submarine technologies—in particular, the propulsion system. But today it appears that the government is actually considering having replacements for the Collins built in Japan.

Before going any further, it’s worth noting that would be a move laden with geopolitical consequences. The export of Japanese submarines to Australia would represent a much more rapid normalisation of Japan’s defence posture than anyone has anticipated so far. It would alarm China and heighten Beijing’s fears of containment by the United States and its US allies. Those are serious first-order strategic considerations not to be dismissed lightly or as somehow secondary to the reasons for acquiring submarines in the first place.

But for the moment, at least, I’ll leave it to others to argue the strategic merits and risks of the proposal and focus instead on the question of whether Option J represents a credible path to the cost-effective delivery of submarines to meet Australia’s needs.

It’s commonly believed that Japan builds and operates capable submarines of a displacement commensurate with Australia’s needs. Moreover, they do so through a mature industrial arrangement that exploits dual sourcing to deliver efficient construction and maintenance. So far, so good. The trouble is that, at least in the public domain, we know little about the range, endurance, sensor effectiveness and acoustic properties of the vessels.

Even on the basis of what we do know, if Japan is willing to sell us submarines, we should be looking closely at what they have to offer to see if it meets our needs, or might meet our needs with some modification. For example, we’d almost certainly want to equip the vessels with US weapons and combat systems.

The option of building submarines offshore will alarm Australia’s domestic shipbuilders who have been waiting patiently to play a role in what was long promised to be a domestic program. I’m largely agnostic about building offshore, provided that appropriate steps are taken to ensure the availability of cost-effective and strategically necessary in-country support the fleet will need.

The fear among many people I’ve spoken to, and which I share, is that Option J is being driven at the political level in the absence of the due diligence needed for a multi-billion dollar critical defence acquisition. Japan isn’t the only country that builds submarines. France, Germany and Sweden all have credible products and a declared interest in helping Australia fulfill its submarine needs.

We need something more than a beauty contest—which appears to be all that’s currently planned—that rushes to a decision. With three or four credible contenders we need to see what’s on offer and use competitive mechanisms to secure the best possible deal for the Australia taxpayers.

The bare bones of what we should do is straightforward:

Step One would be to seek formal expressions of interest from prospective suppliers for both in-country and foreign-build boats, based around a clear statement of what Australia wants in terms of platform performance, US-system compatibility and, critically, efficient through-life support in Australia.

Step Two would be to select the two best contenders, or three if absolutely necessary, and conduct funded preliminary design studies. Preliminary design studies would allow decisions to be made on the basis of reasonable estimates of the cost and capability available from the selected firms.

Of course, the conduct of the second stage would be more complex than the simple picture I’ve painted. For example, for domestic construction, the involvement of local firms complicates matters somewhat. But the principle underlying my proposal is simple: in the absence of competitive pressure to contain costs and negotiate affordable through-life support we’ll find ourselves at the mercy of the supplier for the next thirty years.

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Justin Elson.

Cyber wrap

Iron Dome battery in Ashkelon

With this week marking 100 years since the start of World War I, the Australian Army’s release of its Future Land Warfare 2014 report (PDF) is a timely consideration of what war means in the 21st century and where we might see it develop. Cyber issues feature heavily, from developing Army’s cyber capabilities, to leveraging omnipresent communications technologies, and appreciating the interconnectedness of the cyber commons with those of sea, land, air, space and electromagnetic spectrum. The report foresees a future where social media, like Facebook and Twitter, will be ‘widespread and accessible to both friend and foe, potentially allowing any individual to influence political outcomes, transform perceptions of events, and create positive or negative responses’.

Still with Army, this quarter’s Australian Army Journal carries an article by Captain Nathan Mark in which he makes the case for cyber forensic investigative capabilities to support indigenous forces. The full piece is available here (PDF).

Futurist cyber considerations were also on the table at the Aspen Security Forum held last week. In a session on ‘The Future of Warfare’, panellists spoke on a range of topics including disruptive technologies, big data, quantum computing and cyber espionage. Dawn Meyerriecks, Deputy Director of Science and Technology at the Central Intelligence Agency (and formerly of AOL), spoke on the ubiquity of cyber, noting that the continuing fusion of the physical and virtual worlds is the central consideration going forward. Meyerriecks also spoke on the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT), where refrigerators and smart LED lights are being hijacked to nefarious ends like distributed denial of service (DDoS) and spam attacks. Check out the full session here.

Stepping back from the future cyber environment to today’s realities, let’s look at the cyber-side of current global instability.

In Iraq, Islamic State is reportedly backing up its sectarian insurgency operations with boots-on-the-ground in cyberspace, employing hackers to gather intelligence with malware distributed through social media, compromised attachments and browser vulnerabilities. With programs such as Njrat, hackers can target Iraqi networks and computers to steal files and monitor local environments by controlling in-built video cameras and microphones. Social media has been a significant part of the IS’ strategy, with the group maintaining a prolific Twitter presence to shape and promote its message. IS even has its own Android app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which provides users with access to news and allows the jihadist group to tweet on the user’s behalf—effectively deploying each user profile as a digital megaphone for IS activities. For more, check out this piece in The Atlantic last month.

On Gaza, the Chair of the US House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, has this week voiced concerns that cyberspace might be the next front in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. While declining to identify the players by name, Rogers said that an ‘unseen war’ was being waged by nation states in the region, which had the potential to escalate tensions and undermine stability. This follow-up piece from CBS points the finger squarely at Iran. Non-state actors have also been active in the conflict, with #OpSaveGaza being waged by Anonymous and #OpIsraeliRetaliate brought forward by hactivist group the Israeli Elite Force.

On Israel still, it was reported this week that hackers linked to the Unit 61398 of the China’s People’s Liberation Army had, between 2011 and 2012, exfiltrated data on the ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system from three Israeli defence contractors. It’s been claimed that the PLA unit—exposed by Mandiant for hacking against the US last year—was also able to take data related to other projects on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), ballistic rockets, and the Arrow III missile interceptor. Head on over to Krebs on Security for a detailed take on the data raid.

Finally, our friends at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) have written on the MH17 tragedy in Ukraine to highlight the challenges posed by proliferation of high-tech weaponry and the disintegration of traditional state-centric hierarchies. On cyber, the authors point to malicious non-state cyber capabilities, the problems of attribution, and the balancing act of pursing policies that achieve certain goals while not upsetting broader stability—the US cyber-espionage indictment against five PLA members versus positive great-power relations being a case in point.

David Lang is an intern in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Israel Defense Forces.

China’s choices in a more contested Asia

A more contested Asia: many pieces to the puzzle

Hugh White and others are right to worry about a drift toward antagonism among Asia’s great powers. China’s recent assertiveness in local maritime disputes should moreover disabuse anyone of the comforting conceit that China will forever meekly accept the meagre consolation of being an also-ran great power.

But China’s options for challenging the East Asian regional order are in fact profoundly constrained. In debating Canberra’s ‘China choice’, we must keep in mind the reality of China’s own limited room for meaningful choice in a more contested Asia.

China cannot and will not directly challenge America for regional hegemony in the foreseeable future. That’s partly because of the great economic gains China continues to derive from American incumbency. But it’s also because today’s East Asian order is underpinned by a broad-based constituency for American engagement, among American treaty allies, but also increasingly among potent non-traditional security partners, such as Vietnam.

More fundamentally, as Evelyn Goh has masterfully demonstrated, today’s order isn’t merely ‘made in America’, but bears the imprint of multiple authors, including smaller and middle powers anxious to enmesh both the United States and China in a region-wide multilateral security architecture. Talk-shops like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) are of course limited in their capacity to socialise and pacify great powers. But the proliferation of those architectures nevertheless reflects the real depth of regional resolve to uphold the status quo.

Even though China may chafe at American primacy, then, it cannot directly challenge that primacy without also challenging the densely institutionalised and increasingly poly-centric regional order American primacy supports. For that reason, a direct full-spectrum Chinese challenge to the existing order is likely to remain a non-starter.

If China can’t directly overthrow the existing order, an alternative might be to hollow it out and eventually revise it from within, precisely by embracing Rod Lyon’s call for a ‘responsible’ Beijing, more willing to shoulder its share of great-power obligations. In the security realm, a greater Chinese commitment to Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations could potentially prove a plausible mechanism of regional reassurance. Economically, meanwhile, the BRICS’ establishment last week of a New Development Bank (to be headquartered in Shanghai) may be read as a leading-edge indicator of China’s new willingness to outbid the United States in the provision of collective goods, at a global as well as a regional level.

Hypothetically, that ‘responsible’ path to revisionism could challenge the existing order incrementally, by providing an alternative source of collective international goods not tied to American hegemony. For the moment, though, this strategy also remains practically beyond China’s reach. Beijing’s late and lacklustre response to Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 dramatised a deficit of political will and logistical capabilities which together constrain a more systematic Chinese embrace of HADR as a lever of regional ‘soft power.’ Similarly, China’s own internal development needs limit its capacity to displace the United States and its OECD allies as a development financier and source of foreign direct investment, much less as a provider of an alternative global reserve currency.

A more ‘responsible’ China—more willing to shoulder the burdens of managing Asia’s and the world’s increasingly complex governance challenges—would be welcome. But shouldering such responsibilities will not thereby equip China with a Trojan Horse capable of effectively undermining either American hegemony or the East Asian regional order from within.

Bill Tow’s intervention reminds us that China—traditionally a continental power—is now eagerly embracing a ‘go-west’ strategy of integrating Eurasian ‘spokes’ into a China-centred ‘hub’ via growing investments in pipelines and transportation infrastructure. In contrast to the Cold War, China neighbours a now-diminished but still vehemently anti-Western Russia, which is increasingly dependent on China as a market for its energy exports. Similarly, China counts as its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) partners a penumbra of energy-rich rentier-state autocracies, which are far less likely to resist Chinese leadership aspirations than China’s feisty East and Southeast Asian neighbours. That raises a third possibility: if China can neither smash the existing order in East Asia nor subvert it from within, might it eventually be able to secede from it?

The idea of an autocratic China—engorged with Central Asian resources and paramount over continental eastern Eurasia—revives a Mackinderian spectre that has haunted Western strategists for over a century. Fortunately, this option of a Chinese ‘re-balance’ to Eurasia and away from littoral East Asia also lacks credibility. Inevitably, as China continues to grow, it’ll assert more influence over its resource-rich Eurasian hinterland. But even as China’s ‘go-west’ strategy matures, its manufacturing sector—the key to China’s continuing rise—will remain hard-wired into regional production networks centred on littoral East Asia. Likewise, the countries to China’s West are unable to provide ready substitutes for either the Japanese capital goods, or the massive American consumer market, on which China’s manufacturing success still depends.

We are undoubtedly entering a more contested era in Asia, and must accordingly be wary of blithe assurances that we can effortlessly extrapolate from Asia’s peaceful recent past to anticipate its future. And a more multipolar Asia will undoubtedly pose real challenges for Australia, which since European settlement has almost only ever known an international order sponsored by its Anglo-American kin. But acknowledging those challenges should not blind us to the reality of China’s limited bandwidth of choice in the current regional order, which remains easy to join, but infinitely harder to smash, subvert or secede from.

Andrew Phillips is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow and senior lecturer in International Relations and Strategy in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Image courtesy of Flickr user Cindee Snider.

International relations as art, not science

Art, not science

The good news is that Australia is doing just fine in shaping its relations with both China and the United States. The bad news is that things could still go wrong for Australia at any time, notwithstanding how skilled it might be in orchestrating its ties between Beijing and Washington.

There’s never any guarantee that the ‘right road’ to regional stability or economic growth will be free of unexpected traps and complications. As Hedley Bull once observed, conducting international relations remains an art, not a science. The best Australia can do is to apply the most reasonable policy assessments it can. Those involve assessing what we have learned from history and then applying diplomacy as judiciously as possible without excessive fear of risk.

In that context, fundamental aspects of Australia’s relations with China, the United States and other regional security actors can be assessed without excessive drama. Read more

First, while China is no fan of the US bilateral alliance system, there’s currently little prospect that it’ll attempt to coerce Australia into relinquishing its alliance ties with the US. Past Chinese efforts to soften ANZUS have backfired and China also learns from history. China’s preoccupation with strengthening its economy and maintaining domestic stability remains paramount and that trumps ongoing rhetoric by China’s leaders and its media about US regional alliances.

Second, a country like Australia has limited influence relative to Asia’s great powers and therefore generates little strategic concern among China’s policymakers. It remains a valued supplier of commodities that underpin China’s industrial output and economic growth. Rather than forcing Canberra into an unpalatable policy choice, it’s better—from China’s vantage point—to engage symbolically with the US and Australia in joint military exercises and to acknowledge with gratitude Australia’s good international citizenship in taking the lead on the search for a missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft with many Chinese passengers.

Third, however, for historical and geopolitical reasons, China is genuinely alarmed about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ongoing quest to transform his country into a ‘more normal power’ and to amend Japan’s peace constitution. As this process unfolds, China will watch closely how other regional actors such as Australia directly or indirectly collaborate with Japanese security objectives.

Fourth, structural changes are occurring that require China, along with its regional neighbours, Australia and the US to work collectively to modify regional security dilemmas and to forge a regional order that will guarantee stability to the greatest extent possible. Australia and Japan are both maritime trading states keen to ensure that tranquillity and trade are preserved in Southeast Asia. They, along with most member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have a common interest in arresting or neutralising what they view as Chinese ‘salami-slicing’ tactics in seizing gradual control of the East and South China Seas by asserting extensive territorial and maritime claims in those waters and building up its naval power to enforce them. China must find better ways than it has to date for reconciling what it views as rectifying legitimate historical grievances and securing its territorial rights in those waters with the need to avoid intensifying regional security dilemmas through a series of uncompromising nationalistic postures.

Another emerging dimension of geopolitics is complicating regional order-building. Washington, Tokyo and Canberra are only now becoming more aware of what some analysts have characterised as China’s ‘go-west’ policy. Beijing is endeavouring to transform inland Eurasia into the new economic hub of Asian development and geopolitics. It is investing heavily in pipelines and transport infrastructures that connect Central, Southwest and Southeast Asia to form a new Eurasian network in which a Chinese ‘hub’ draws in raw materials and energy resources and exports manufactured goods to sub-regional ‘spokes’. Given Japan is marginal and Australia largely inconsequential in China’s Eurasia strategy, it seems unlikely that the Chinese will waste the energy and resources needed to separate Australia from its American benefactor.

A fundamental challenge confronting Australian policymakers, therefore, is to identify and implement policies that may enable the traditional American hub-and-spokes network to co-exist alongside—and even complement—China’s Eurasian strategy. Moreover, the US must assign increased emphasis to the diplomatic aspects of its Asian pivot strategy relative to its military dimensions. And it must convince Japan that a moderate and incremental path to normalisation is essential—not least to reassure China that the US still has the will and the capacity to influence Japanese governments to embrace policy moderation.

As a respected middle power in the region interested in avoiding having to make choices between China’s version of regional geopolitics and that projected by the US alliance system, Australia’s best policy course is to support those initiatives emanating from both sides that promote regional compromise, reasonable conciliation and long-term confidence-building.

William Tow is a professor in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user epsos.

Engaging North Korea, on both high road and low road

A new dawn for North Korea?

Australia has a simple policy on North Korea: say ‘tsk-tsk’ to its ongoing nuclear and missile programs and lightly criticise Kim Jong-un’s leadership. Our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said as much last month. For a country whose stability directly impacts South Korea, China, Japan and the US—which represent our top four trading partners and include our biggest strategic ally and two closest partners in Asia—Australia’s ‘tick a box and move on’ approach to North Korea misses a major opportunity to influence change in one of the world’s most threatening and oppressive regimes.

Sure, Australia has other pressing concerns. Minister Bishop is busy responding to the MH17 tragedy in Ukraine, including coordinating the AFP force necessary to assist in the important duty of recovering the bodies. Prior to the MH17 disaster, on 30 June Minister Bishop highlighted two other main concerns: territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas; and social unrest resulting from wealth inequality in new middle-income countries. She’s also been busy establishing new relationships with countries in Southeast Asia. So, Australia’s got a lot on its plate. Moreover, Australia may be less interested in revising its policy on North Korea because Pyongyang doesn’t look poised to revise its policy on the world: its belligerence—and nuclear and missile development—continues. Perhaps Australia has become resigned to the position that there’s nothing it can do dramatically to alter the trajectory of the North’s WMD programs or its human-rights abuses, so why waste our diplomatic capital and energy? Read more

While it’s true Australia holds weaker cards than the key players, Canberra shouldn’t have an all-or-nothing approach. It could take advantage of important social trends underway in North Korea and simultaneously seize the opportunity to influence the next generation of North Koreans. Let me tell you what I mean.

Technological advances are allowing greater amounts of information to seep into North Korea. DVDs and USBs carrying Western programs and information are being traded along the China–North Korea border as well as smuggled into the North by NGOs. We know from the accounts of North Korean defectors that Western programs are undermining the regime’s propaganda and opening the eyes of the public to their wealth inequalities. One defector said that South Korean DVDs were very effective at changing North Koreans’ minds. He said: ‘They portray a South Korean middle-class existence so luxurious compared to their own, and a society so much wealthier and more advanced. North Koreans see the lives of their South Korean and Chinese neighbours and they compare it to their own existence’. North Koreans are also learning about their wealth inequalities through trade networks that connect them with some of the 20,000-odd North Koreans who have resettled in the South.

Although the North has attempted to crack down on the trade, the trickle of information is impossible to stop as military elites provide part of the market. With foreign influences and information flowing into the country, the prospects for popular discontent and dwindling support for the regime increase. That’s a view held by a number of North Korean experts, including Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University. In 2009, Professor Lankov argued (paywalled) that ‘an information campaign would beat the regime’. Given international sanctions have been ineffective to date and the fact that the third Kim looks unlikely to implement domestic reforms, Professor Lankov’s assessment may provide a path forward—albeit not a rapid one.

Up until the beginning of this year, the US supported the NGOs that send information into North Korea through the National Endowment for Democracy. The US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy has since offered grants to groups to promote ‘access to information into, out of, and within North Korea’. To bolster those efforts, Australia should consider funding similar grants to support the civil-society groups that send DVDs, USBs, transistor radios, and leaflets with information into the North. Of course, prior to making its decision Australia should consult with the South Korean government and with NGOs based in the South. It’s important to consider how supporting NGOs engaged in those activities will impact our relations with Seoul as well as the accuracy of the information the groups intend to smuggle into the North.

Australia should also forego its non-engagement policy and engage the North. Engagement isn’t intended to reward North Korea’s bad behaviour but rather to expose North Koreans to the outside world. Australia could start by accepting Pyongyang’s request to reopen a North Korean Embassy in Canberra. Although it is likely only elites will staff the embassy, it will allow them to experience life in a democratic, free-market society and they will return to the North and share their experiences with friends and family.

Further, Australia should ease visa restrictions and again support student exchanges. Up until 2006, ANU hosted North Korean economics students. But since 2006, sanctions preventing North Koreans from obtaining visas have made similar programs impossible. Educational exchange can allow Australia to influence a new generation of North Koreans and expose them at a young age to an open, liberal society.

The argument for Australia to engage North Korea was made here and here in 2011, here in 2013, and most recently here in February 2014. In addition, the growing body of evidence, including defector testimony, that information from the outside world is undermining the regime’s grip on power gives Australia the option to increase the flow and speed up the process or stand by idly and draw it out. Our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should decide if it wants to continue its current position on the North or expedite the flow of information into the country and shorten the lifespan of a regime determined to develop nuclear weapons and oppress its people.

Hayley Channer is an analyst at ASPI. She presented these views at a recent Kokoda Foundation event, Kokoda NextImage courtesy of Flickr user (stephan).

Australia and the regional terrorist threat

Bali Bombing Memorial, Kuta

Much has been written of late about the potential for Australian citizens to go to the Middle East and take up arms with one militant group or another. Recent commentary about an Is­lamic State fighter, who appears to be the sec­ond Aus­tralian to carry out a sui­cide bomb­ing in a Shia-dom­i­nated dis­trict near the cen­tre of Bagh­dad, is chilling. Instead of delivering long-desired enlightenment to the region, the Arab Spring has in part unleashed forces that contribute to the current spiral of violence and instability—with effects felt as far afield as the Asia-Pacific.

We need to respond—in a measured way—to the actions of Australian citizens who no longer feel they owe their first duty to Australia and its people. But, equally, we must guard against exaggerating and sensationalising this issue for three important reasons: first because the threat is in reality quite small; second because we don’t want to draw even more (usually) young hot heads to the cause; and finally, because we have relatively strong institutional structures to address the threat. Read more

It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of Australian immigrants of Middle-Eastern descent took a big risk to start anew in this country. They did so out of love, mostly because of the stability, moderation and the future it offered their children. As such, far from being radicalised, incendiary or reactionary, my wide circle of Middle Eastern friends (and I believe the vast majority of the Middle Eastern population in Australia) are a largely content, law-abiding, aspirational and contributing element of multicultural Australia. Far from constituting a threat they have embraced and now largely embody our national values. So, by all means, let’s address the unwelcome actions of a relatively small group of rogue radicals, but their wider communities mustn’t be tarnished in the process.

But that’s not the end of the matter, for there’s a real and much more significant threat which must inevitably be confronted. This one’s more nuanced, and equally more likely to fly under the radar, until it strikes quickly and dangerously. Its low profile is achieved, in part, because we are inclined to focus excessively on the relatively few ‘home grown’ would-be fighters just described.

This much greater threat is the risk posed by Southeast Asian fighters who go to Syria, and then return to regional transnational organisations like Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Given the relative weakness of institutional structures in some regional nations, the freedom of action that those committed and upskilled fighters enjoy is reason for great concern. In Australia’s case, that’s because of the enormous number of Australians and other Westerners who transit and/or holiday in our region each year.

So far, informed estimates suggest that there are approximately 50 Indonesian fighters in Syria. Almost certainly, that figure is conservative and growing—perhaps fast. Professional recruitment videos that call on Indonesia’s Muslim youth to answer the siren song of transnationalism are likely to stimulate further interest within disaffected communities in Indonesia and elsewhere in our region.

The key point is that the threat of regional separatists is an inter-regional dilemma, with known terrorists finding motivation, inspiration and training in the Middle East before returning to apply their skills at home. Such individuals can lie dormant within their home countries, but still possess the heightened potential and confidence to strike at soft civilian targets, including Western visitors and tourists. That’s a regional problem, requiring a regional solution for resolution, or, more realistically, practical long-term containment.

Australia has been fortunate to date, in being able to confront and successfully check would-be terrorist combatants on far distant foreign soil—and to do so with relatively few casualties. Regrettably, neither a distant battlefield, nor a low casualty toll, may always be possible in what we must remember is the Longest War—the all-too-conveniently-forgotten Global War on Terror. Because of its inchoate nature, it may seem at times to have simply gone away. But, that’s far from the truth. The problem is that in the foreseeable future it may again be waiting for us closer to home—in our own back yard as was the case in Bali—and re-emerge in a more dangerous and determined form.

Nor is it likely that the superb and recently well-proven counter-terror and combat capabilities of Australia’s special forces will get much of a rest in the foreseeable to middle terms.

But, one thing is certain. Now that the important Indonesian national election is done, it’ll be in the interests of both our nations to work to understand and cooperate more closely and consistently, toward the goal of a safe and stable region. To that end, our respective national self-interests—at times mismatched, misunderstood and even mismanaged—have never before been more closely aligned.

Andrew Nikolic is the Federal Member for Bass and a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. He is a former senior Australian Army officer and First Assistant Secretary in the Defence Department. Image courtesy of Flickr user Roger Price.

On the merits of avoiding stark choices

On the merits of avoiding stark choices

Strategic analysts have a poor record of anticipating the future shape of international relations. Most famously, apart from a few obscure French historians, no-one seriously foreshadowed the demise of the Soviet Union and subsequent end of the Cold War. Distressingly for those of us who get paid to explain what’s likely to happen in international relations in the future, there’s no shortage of other examples.

At the outset of the 1990s, the overwhelming consensus was that North Korea would collapse by the end of that decade. In the year 2014, the DPRK is nuclear-armed, there are glimmers that its ramshackle economy may be turning around, and the authority of the regime under a thirty-something four-star general appears stronger than ever.

Few envisaged the most significant geopolitical shift of the past three decades: the rise of China to great power status. Indeed, when the small but committed staff at Australia’s freshly-minted Beijing embassy in the 1970s sent cables to Canberra predicting that China would rival Japan as the region’s major power by 2000, they were laughed out of town by senior policymakers. Read more

Why should we be any more confident that our capacity for prediction today is better than it was in years gone by? That’s no mere academic question. It has major implications for how we allocate the shrinking defence dollar and how we deploy our small but effective diplomatic presence globally. The counter-claim from some that ‘we don’t have a crystal ball so we can’t predict anything’ is disingenuous. Ultimately, strategic analysts purport to predict future trends and shifts on the basis of key global drivers, with a few intervening variables thrown in for good measure. It’s how the credibility of our craft is judged.

The subject of prediction has direct relevance to the lively discussion between Hugh White and Peter Jennings over whether Australia has to make a choice between China and the US. Both perspectives are, in essence, based on pretty confident predictions about the future trajectory of Sino-American relations and how our region will evolve in the next 20–30 years. Rod Lyon has captured nicely the key assumptions underlying each view, and while I’m probably slightly more sympathetic to Peter’s angle, I have some concerns about the deeper foundations on which both arguments are based.

First, both assume that current trends will continue; in Hugh’s case that US–China rivalry will sharpen over time, and in Peter’s case that economic interdependence and middle power autonomy will remain as independent variables that drive strategic choices in Asia. But there’s no guarantee that either trend will persist. To be sure, China–Japan economic relations are important, but there are palpable signs Beijing and Tokyo are pulling policy levers to dilute mutual interdependence, particularly in the area of foreign direct investment. Rivalry between Washington and Beijing may well become more acute going forward, but then again, it might not. Structural realists predict that war is inevitable between rising and declining great powers because the latter will seek to hold on to accumulated power through whatever means, including armed force. But as we have witnessed throughout even recent history, nothing is preordained in international relations and, given the paucity of accurate forecasting, we should be inherently sceptical about claims to the contrary.

Second, Peter and Hugh make distinctively different assumptions about the degree of agency Australia enjoys in international relations. Hugh is a thoughtful realist—as distinct from the uber-realist types often found in government—but he’s still a realist and therefore inclined to see non-great powers as secondary actors with little real autonomy. Peter’s view echoes liberal optimism about the power of interdependence, but also acknowledges that small and middle powers have agency that can overcome structural constraints in the international system. That perspective rejects the standard realist view that small and middle powers don’t matter.

Yet there’s a pretty good chance both perspectives will be borne out as we move forward in the 21st century. One of the really striking macro-trends in international relations since 1945 is that realist and liberal theories have both been validated at different times in different circumstances. It’s not as if we should be making a stark choice between them as a guide to the future. Put simply, in relation to the US–China relationship, Australia will feel more constrained in some cases and more autonomous in others. That will depend on a range of contingent factors, including the views of elites at any given time, the precise issue(s) at stake, and whether Australia is able to act in concert with other middle powers as a diplomatic force-multiplier. The one theme uniting those contingent factors is that, by definition, they will be hard to predict.

Andrew O’Neil is professor and head of the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. With Bruce Gilley, he is the editor of Middle Powers and the Rise of China to be published by Georgetown University Press in September. Image courtesy of Flickr user nahemoth.

The Great Asia Bargain fades and falls away

Richard Nixon meets with Mao Zedong in Beijing, February 21, 1972.

In 1972, Nixon and Mao met in Beijing to begin the Great Asia Bargain. Nixon called it the week that changed the world. The Republican and the Revolutionary ushered in a glorious period.

Almost as an aside—a prelude to the geopolitical plotting—they launched an economic engagement that turned China into the phenomenon of the modern age. As the man who took the US dollar off the gold standard, Nixon started a process that will see the yuan become a global currency to equal the greenback. Talk about unintended consequences. And that was just an aside.

Look back at what Mao and Nixon wrought because of what Shinzo Abe’s is now doing. Making Japan a security power—even claiming Japan’s right to be a ‘super power’—marks the demise of an important residual element of the Bargain. Read more

Of course, much else disappeared long ago. The central driver of the Bargain was the primary threat from the Soviet Union. For both leaders, Russia was the number one danger. Kissinger judged that following military clashes along the Soviet–China border, Beijing moved beyond ideology to deal with the US: ‘Their peril had established the absolute primacy of geopolitics. They were in effect freeing one front by a tacit nonaggression treaty with us.’ With that tacit treaty, China was aiming to use ‘one set of barbarians to balance another.’

Today China and the US see each other as their greatest threat, the binary reality rendering the Bargain an artifact of history. Even so, as with the economic deal, security elements of the Bargain have continuing effects, often of major importance. Losing those lingering security deals after four decades tells us how much uncertainty now envelops Asia.

Beyond China–US national self-interest, the Bargain rested on understandings about US interests in Taiwan and Japan and South Korea. The explicit understanding on South Korea also carried implications for what China would do to restrain North Korea—another area where the Bargain failed long ago.

Mao assured Nixon that Taiwan was not an important issue and China could show patience about its return to the motherland. Kissinger quoted Mao: ‘We can do without them [Taiwan] for the time being, and let it come after 100 years.’ For all the push and shove since, that promise holds.

That long view on Taiwan was linked to acceptance of the US alliance with Japan and a particular understanding of how the alliance should work. Kissinger quoted this from Mao: ‘Japan must not feel neglected by the US; Japan was inherently insecure and sensitive. He would see to it that China did not force Tokyo to choose between the US and China. That might polarize; it would surely enhance Japanese insecurity and might give rise to traditional nationalism.’

Kissinger wrote that China came to accept America’s argument that the US alliance with Japan should be viewed ‘as a guarantee of America’s continued interest in the Western Pacific and a rein on Japanese unilateralism.’

The military balance in the Bargain was elegant. The US would keep its troops in Japan to maintain a firm foot on Japan’s neck. China’s former occupier was not to return to any form of assertive nationalism, much less military power.

If Washington was to maintain boundaries on Japan, then Beijing should do the same to North Korea. Allowing North Korea to go nuclear rates as a major breach of Mao’s undertaking not to disturb Japan or South Korea.

All this is context for Japan’s Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera, arguing Japan is more than just back. Japan, he says, is ‘drastically moving its security policy forward’ because of ‘severe challenges’ to Asia’s security order. Expanding defence cooperation with the US, Australia and Southeast Asia is normal: ‘It is natural for a great power like Japan to play a responsible role for the region based on the significance of the area and the increasingly acute regional security environment.’

That ‘great power’ line led the Wall Street Journal to ponder Japan’s identity confusion and whether it is, indeed, a great power. The fascination in the piece was the link to Amy King’s analysis of Chinese writings, showing that Beijing certainly does not view Japan as a great power; that Great Bargain effect persists in Beijing, even if the US and Japan have ditched it.

Asia has long outgrown the Bargain bequeathed by Mao and Nixon; I was going to say blessed rather than bequeathed, but that confers too much grace on a hard-eyed geopolitical compact. If the Republican and the Revolutionary—a pro and a tyrant—could do the deal, their successors should be as competent and as ambitious in seeking a new power-sharing order in Asia or a new responsibility-sharing order.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

ASPI suggests

Are killer humanoid robots around the corner?Headlining today’s wrap-up is a new International Crisis Group report on evolving tensions between China and Japan. The report looks at mutual perceptions and canvasses opportunities for building better ties. No surprise, its first recommendation to both China and Japan is to refrain from escalatory actions near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which includes giving clear instructions to their respective coast guards to avoid collisions and conflict.

Sticking with China and Japan, Evelyn Goh weighs into the China Choice debate, arguing that the Abbott government has swung to the extreme in its embrace of Japan. In her view, ‘There is a world of difference between being forthright with China and creating the basis for a counter-veiling [sic] coalition with Japan to contain China.’ Keep reading here.

Indonesia has elected the ‘everyday man’, Joko Widodo, to be its next president. But opponent Prabowo Subianto is ready to launch a Constitutional Court challenge, demanding a revote in areas where massive fraud is alleged to have happened. New Mandala’s Liam Gammon has a useful rundown of why this is happening and how this might unfold for the retired military general. Read more

If you’re interested in how Myanmar’s reforms are panning out, read this NBR commentary on the country’s economic integration. Koji Kubo outlines some of how Myanmar’s formal and informal economy works and how external players like the US can facilitate further reforms in order to stimulate both military and non-military businesses.

The Islamic State continues to be a violent force in the Middle East. To understand more about its leadership, read this David Ignatius profile on Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, whom, Ignatius suggests may be more violent than his mentors, Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq: ‘The ISIS leader, in sum, is a clever, disciplined, violent and charismatic man—with an eye for manipulating Muslim public opinion.’

In House of Cards Season Two, the US-China relationship is woven through the storyline via a number of diplomatic and commercial threads. But what does this tell us about the way America sees China? Discussing the hit political drama, Ben Coulson observes: ‘The show presents a nuanced (even if in hyperbolized terms) understanding of China and circulates growing American concerns with China through a financialized orientalism.’

Brain scans could help prevent insider attacks, according to applied neuroscience company, Veritas Scientific. The Virginia-based outfit have a new truth-detection system called HandShake which monitors changes in the brain. Developed by a US Army counterintelligence agent, the system, relies on the presumption of a connection between the brain and criminality but is still years away from application to complex environments like Afghanistan and Iraq, reports Defense One. Read more about it how it works here.

DARPA’s humanoid robot plan is going too well, apparently. According to Roll Call, teams who are designing robots for disaster missions as part of the Robotic Challenge are exceeding expectations. DARPA has extended the deadline and raised the requirements to get the most out of the brain pool. Read the developments here. (Meanwhile, Robert Farley and Charli Carpenter talk killer robots over at here.)


Does credibility in international politics matter? Robert Farley and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross grapple with the broader question of reputation before turning to Obama’s infamous ‘red line’ remarks and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Check out the discussion on growing tensions between China and North Korea with Yong Kwon and Steven Denney.


Canberra: Lieutenant General David Morrison AO, Chief of Army, Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer, Director of Studies at the ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, and Ms Veronica Fynn, a PhD scholar at the ANU College of Law, will discuss the protection of women in conflict on Thursday 31 July at 5.30pm, registration and details here.

Are we sleepwalking into a catastrophe? Prof Joan Beaumont, Dr John Moses and Prof Hugh White will discuss whether, in light of escalating strategic rivalry in the Asia Pacific, there are parallels between 1914 and today. Hosted by the AIIA ACT, the event is on Wednesday, 6 August at 6pm, registration and details here.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Alex Eyl.

ANZAC divergence—where to from here?

Secretary and Chief Executive of the Ministry of Defence of New Zealand, Helene Quilter, and Lieutenant General Tim Keating Chief of Defence Force New Zealand Visit to ADF Headquarters Canberra 23 July 2014.

Although it’s peculiar that we find strategic differences between Canberra and Wellington peculiar, disagreements may become starker and more costly as hard power reemerges as a driving force in international affairs. What more, then, might Australia and New Zealand do to promote strategic convergence where we can and to avoid harming each other’s interests when we can’t?

It shouldn’t surprise when two countries draw dissimilar policy conclusions from an essentially shared reading of global trends. Nations quite reasonably adopt divergent solutions to problems they’ve broadly convergent views about. Our circumstances provide different options and constraints to a ‘near neighbor’ 2,000 km away with a population five times smaller, an economy 10 times smaller, and a strategic culture that sometimes seems more Nordic than part of the Anglosphere. The way Washington has, ‘in pivot mode’, welcomed Wellington partly back into the military fold without requiring it to ‘repent’ its nuclear-free policy blinds us to the Cold War-era ANZUS row. References to ‘family’ and ‘the spirit of Gallipoli’ reflect genuine closeness but can let relationship managers ‘wallow in their comfort zones’ rather than innovate. Read more

Andrew Davies and Robert Ayson detect divergence on the capability and political fronts. As Australia lifts its defence spending and invests in stealth fighters, large submarines and systems able to operate towards the top end of modern combat, interoperability may become more challenging even in regional stabilisation operations and other lower-end missions where we’ll need to work together. And differing policy approaches to handling China’s rise were highlighted by Prime Minister Abe’s recent visits to Australia and NZ, with their emphasis on security matters in one country and trade and totemic issues (such as whaling) in the other.

Such divergence seems set to grow. That’s partly due to the apparent retirement of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ axiom. Beijing is ‘nibbling’ to exercise control over islands and seas to which it claims historic title—using various forms of pressure below the threshold of applying direct military force to accumulate gains and undermine US assurance. But NZ doesn’t want to publicly rebuke such calibrated coercion. Of course, China’s fuelling NZ’s dairy and forestry boom. Still, our exports are more concentrated there than NZ’s (and while soft commodities are more exposed to a swift Chinese-burn than steel or coal, demand should remain robust as consumer bases in emerging economies grow).

An exchange of posts on what each partner wants from the relationship updates the old ‘Aussies are from Mars, Kiwis are from Venus’ trope: Rob Ayson hopes for someone who ‘won’t get too carried away’ in the Indo-Pacific while Peter Jennings imagines racier trilateral cooperation as alliance partners rather than ‘close friends’. Peter warns the ANZAC alliance will continue to shrink if we don’t each get more out of it—including in our neighbourhood. But even there, the regional stabilisation missions fostering habits of operational cooperation have ended.

Both governments should use some of the resources freed by the end of such operations to broaden and better coordinate our efforts to promote stability and growth in nearby countries. That would include aligning and, where possible integrating, our Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) with NZ’s tiny Military Assistance Program (MAP). But it should extend well beyond that. NZ led us in reintegrating its development specialists and diplomats in pursuit of its national interest. It also has an interest in conflict prevention (and achieved the peacemaking breakthrough we couldn’t in Bougainville 17 years ago). Although helping to shape a peaceful and prosperous immediate strategic environment isn’t acting as anyone’s ‘deputy-sheriff’—we do so for our own reasons—our roles as regional security managers appear increasingly important to Washington.

Australia’s commitment last month to renew and modernise the Pacific Patrol Boat (PPB) Program provides a specific area for greater cooperation. NZ already supports one of the 22 PPBs, due to its defence responsibilities for the Cook Islands, but might also assist the other three Polynesian PPB users it has close ties with. An evolved maritime security program also requires more aerial surveillance. Although humanitarian in scope, the program provides a low-key enduring strategic presence across our shared maritime approaches and eases the patrol burden on our navies.

Other opportunities include aligning our exercise programs even more closely; making scarce capabilities available to each other (Wellington’s already generous with its sealift ship, HMNZS Canterbury, and B757 long-range VIP/transport aircraft); cooperating on capability sustainment and upgrades where possible; sharing the burden of Antarctic logistics; and nurturing closer intelligence exchange. The ADF and NZDF must remain interoperable for credible regional operations as our LHDs near service. And after a decade of reform in both countries, we probably have lessons to share.

None of those ventures would ensure strategic convergence. But we could do more to manage differences and avoid the sort of mutual damage we inflicted on each other in the mid 80s. We must resist undercutting each other when we hold strong contrary views (say if Wellington was determined to impose sanctions on a state we felt should be inside the tent). And we must provide space for dialogue to narrow such gaps. A framework for our militaries to consult more closely has worked since 2011. But since key issues of strategic divergence sit above even senior officers’ and officials’ pay-grade, clever ‘summitry’ remains crucial. (One idea at the recent 1.5 track dialogue in Wellington was for Canberra to periodically invite NZ leaders to attend joint NSC sittings.)

White Paper preparations in each country will provide the means, motive, and opportunity to sharpen the focus of future ANZAC cooperation. We can’t afford to waste them.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Analysing the China choice

Choices ...

The recent posts by Peter Jennings and Hugh White outline an interesting set of thoughts about Australia’s strategic policy options in a transformational Asia.

If I can summarise the argument bluntly, Peter says we don’t need to choose between the US and China, nor even between Japan and China—explicitly making the case that ‘countries in the Asia Pacific stickily persist in cooperating with each other’, and implicitly making the argument that zero-sum strategic competitions come along a lot less frequently than many people suppose. Just as well too, says Peter, since the choice Hugh outlines is one between ‘subordination or incineration’. Read more

Hugh agrees that the objective of Australian policy should be to avoid having to choose between the US and China. But being able to do that, he says, turns critically upon how well the US and China get on with each other: ‘the worse they get on, the starker the choice we’ll face between them’. Since Hugh is a self-confessed pessimist, he doesn’t expect the two great powers to get along well. So he does think we face a looming—stark—choice between great powers. Hugh’s answer is greater accommodation of China: ‘the more firmly we resist any accommodation of China’s ambitions, the faster strategic rivalry will escalate’.

The argument between Peter and Hugh is rather more subtle than it appears at first glance, but I think it turns upon one important difference: Hugh wants Australia ‘to promote a new power-sharing order in Asia’, where I get the sense that Peter would like Australia to promote a new responsibility-sharing order in Asia. Between the two competing principles, I’m attracted to the notion of responsibility-sharing. If China’s ambitions don’t include a role as something like a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the regional order (yes, I know Robert Zoellick’s term is unfashionable these days, but it captures the right metric), why should we accommodate it?

Power is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in international relations—it’s what it’s used for that matters. In that sense, power’s like war and intelligence operations—you judge it by its political objectives rather than standing in slack-jawed admiration of power in its own right. That’s the way we’ve always judged other powers: it explains why we think now that concluding ‘peace in our time’ with Hitler was wrong, and also why we thought the Soviet Union had to be contained, even if it couldn’t easily be fought in a nuclear age.

So, the real determinant of whether we have to make a choice between the US and China isn’t how well they get on with each other. It’s ‘what does China see as its role in the world?’ The problem is that question doesn’t get a single answer, even in Beijing. Chinese grand strategy is a mish-mash of: its earlier expectations of what it meant to be a great power; a sense of entitlement now China has escaped the century of humiliations; a great sense of economic interconnectedness to the outside world; and a history of fractious relations with its neighbours.

That means Beijing likes some parts of the current regional order but dislikes others. It likes maritime security and safe sealanes so it can trade. It likes regional stability so it can concentrate on development. It accepts that US alliances help ‘tether’ Washington’s regional allies, though it’s becoming a bit more hesitant about that one. It dislikes foreign barbarians encroaching on Chinese civilisation. It resents that it’s a great power with unsettled territorial claims. It dislikes an Asian security order organised in Washington.

Hugh says that accommodation doesn’t mean giving Beijing everything it wants. That’s true. But what do we do when push comes to shove on something it wants but we don’t want? At some point, even in Hugh’s universe, the rubric of ‘choice’ cuts both ways. And choosing to resist China in a regional order we’ve designed to accommodate it might involve a set of strategic risks that we’d be unwilling to run on the day: by necessity, there’d be a set of salami-slice calculations in which the running of great risks for small gains could always be reasoned away.

Let’s go back to the nub of the problem: what does Australia want in Asia? I think the answer is relatively simple: it wants a stable, liberal, prosperous regional order. We can accommodate a China that wants that too. But power-sharing for its own sake doesn’t strike me as a recipe for strategic happiness. And arguing in Washington for a course that dilutes US influence in order to fashion a workable G2 with China means arguing for a smaller role for the one great power that’s actually built a stable, liberal, prosperous order in Asia. I’m not in favour of our doing that.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Lee.

Wanted: a defence/industry decision framework

Recent decisions by the Department of Defence have highlighted weaknesses and inconsistencies in the decision-making associated with defence procurements. The decision to go to restricted tender for the RAN’s two auxiliary ships to replace Success and Sirius is the subject of a Senate Inquiry, and the Rossi Boots decision has attracted considerable criticism in both parliament and the media.

Defence industry has, quite rightly, been a major consideration on this site in the recent past. John Harvey has postulated on ‘A simple Defence Acquisition/Industry Policy framework’, Mark Thomson has discussed ‘Defence projects, jobs and economic growth’ and I have advanced a conceptual framework for a sensible defence industry policy.

Those posts, and others, have one overriding thing in common: they all want to see the best national outcome for the money that the Government devotes to defence. Read more

The difficulty lies in the discrepancy between what’s commonly promoted by those outside Defence, and what’s decided by those inside Defence. That discrepancy represents a failure of government (indeed, governments of all persuasions—not just the current one) to articulate an overarching decision framework to guide procurement. Projects decisions are made solely on a case-by-case basis, seemingly with no consideration of the impact on industry, and reflect what Chris Jenkins at Thales has described as a ‘series of random outcomes’.

The development and implementation of a transparent framework within which procurement decisions are made would seem to be warranted; and would provide logic and robustness for the application of tailored programs aimed at defence industry. Treating Industry as a capability as I have previously advanced seems to be (at least part of) the solution.

Defence acquisition decisions typically promote the outcomes as representing best value for money, and in accordance with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPRs). That’s all well and good, but the CPRs are not restrictive, and do allow for factors other than the cheapest price to be considered. Those factors should include (1) the mitigation of strategic risk through the development of an industrial base that we need to have, (2) the associated development of skills and expertise for the sustainment of that industrial base, and (3) the economic benefits of doing the work in-country through increased employment, return to the Government through taxation, increased innovation and generation of intellectual property, and potential export.

It would appear that those making the decisions are not inclined, or not able, to consider the wider implications of their decisions. Treating industry as a fundamental input to capability would force those broader considerations.

Analysis of DMO contracts (from Austender) placed between July 2007 and June 2014 shows that since the placement of the Air Warfare Destroyer contracts in 2007/08 the value of acquisition contracts awarded locally has plummeted, and now more acquisition is contracted from outside Australia than within it. The graph below (click to enlarge) depicts only acquisition contracts (and not sustainment or other contracts). It shows that in the four financial years from 2009/10 to 2012/13 only 10% of DMO contracts were placed with companies operating within Australia for the acquisition of capability. The figure for Australian-owned companies is significantly (woefully) lower—and remember you can’t have cash flow if you don’t have a contract.

graph dunk

The development of the 2015 Defence White Paper and the Defence Industry Policy Statement represent an opportunity to start to get the industry bit of defence in order. A similar opportunity will not come again for a few years. It’s imperative that those documents describe a framework that will guide the development of the industrial base that we need to have—to minimise strategic risk, to maintain and develop critical skills, and to provide national economic benefits—and not merely continue the current approach of ‘any road is good enough’.

Graeme Dunk is manager of Australian Business Defence Industry, a national defence industry association.