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’.

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.

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.

China and Japan: strengthening peace in the Pacific

Japanese version of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, 17 April 1895.

The recent dialogue between Hugh White and Peter Jennings on The Strategist makes us all ask where we stand on the Sino-Japanese relationship. Statements by President Obama emphasise that the United States takes its security partnership with Japan seriously, while Prime Minister Abbott was reassuring towards Prime Minister Abe during the latter’s recent visit to Australia. In many ways, those statements are wise and reflect the gravity with which both the United States and Australia view their treaty obligations.

There is, however, another side to this question—what do the Chinese think about the issue and are we handling them in the best possible way? Before we make up our minds simply to defend the status quo in the western Pacific right down to the last detail, it might be prudent to examine the diplomatic basis on which security rests. We know about the US–Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security concluded in 1960, and we certainly know about ANZUS, concluded in 1951. But we may be less familiar with the principal agreement between Japan and China in the western Pacific: the Treaty of Shimonoseki (Japanese version pictured), concluded in 1895 and still partly in effect. 1895 was a good time for Japan to insist on a treaty that expanded the area under its control, and a poor time for the Chinese to negotiate on behalf their interests.

The principal European imperial powers had been giving China a hard time through the 19th century. The British Opium War against China looks absurd today, with the British sending in the Royal Navy to blast the Chinese defences because the Qing Emperor refused to allow the commercial entry of opium from the East India Company in the 1840s. There were several other conflicts in which a weak China gave way to the formidable military power of foreign states, resulting in a series of agreements (at least 22 of them) termed by the Chinese the ‘Unequal Treaties’. The most consequential of those conflicts was the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, which, after a Japanese victory, was concluded by the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

That treaty gave Japan Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands and possibly the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, although the treaty isnt explicit on this point. The Japanese believe the islands are included while the Chinese do not. The Japanese lost Taiwan to China after World War II, and the United States administered the Ryukyus and the Senkaku/Diaoyu group from 1945 until 1972, when Japanese sovereignty was restored. Since then the Chinese have pressed their claim, based on their view of history, to have the Senkaku/Diaoyu group returned to them.

The Japanese response has been to stand firm, and to strengthen the national claim by buying three of the five major islands of the group from a private Japanese owner. There has been no indication of Japanese readiness to step back on this issue and discuss the return of those islands to the Chinese. Indeed, all the indications have been in favour of a willingness to go to war to defend the Japanese claim. That response flies in the face of growing Chinese military strength, and Chinese public opinion which, in the 21th century, remains highly critical of Japan.

The issue of the balance of military strength is particularly disturbing, partly because of the increase in the range, sophistication and destructiveness of Chinese weaponry, and partly because of the proximity of the islands to the Chinese mainland. At 330 km from the Chinese coast, and 170 km from Taiwan, they, and the seas around them, can easily be subjected to intense attack by Chinese forces based on the mainland.

That in itself isn’t a reason for giving them to China, but when set into the wider contexts of economic relations, strategic geography and historical experience, one has to wonder whether the islands are worth running the risk of a war over, to Japan, the United States and possibly other allies of the US such as Australia. The question is all the more salient when one considers the fact that the islands are uninhabited. The seas around them may, or may not, be covering hydrocarbon deposits, but at present they are of economic significance only for fishing.

Before both sides in the dispute get into such a level of confrontation that a war seems thinkable, would it not be better for them to step back, relax a little, and think more positively about how they might resolve this dispute peacefully? Given China’s memory of the ‘Unequal Treaties’ of the 19th and 20th centuries, might it not be time to revise what was done in a markedly different context in 1895? And might it not be better for Japan’s allies to have a little less to say about willingness to support it without their having a decisive voice in heading off a possible crisis?

Robert O’Neill was the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre from (1971–82), director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (1982–87), and Chairman of the IISS (1996–2001). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A ‘Jokowin’ is a win for Australia


It’s official, Joko Widodo has been elected Indonesia’s new president. Last night, hours after Prabowo’s dramatic announcement that he was quitting the election, Indonesia’s General Election Commission (KPU) declared Jokowi and his running mate Jusuf Kalla (together known as Jokowi-JK) the winners with 53.15% of the votes. And that’s a good thing for Australia.

For one, Jokowi’s looking to strengthen Indonesia’s state capacities as well as its economy. If you look at the ‘Vision Mission’ statement (PDF) of Jokowi-JK (summary in English here), many of its policies relate to improving governance and law enforcement, reducing inequality, boosting the economy via productivity and competitiveness, and raising the quality of life. It’s early days and Jokowi remains inexperienced at the national level, yet the combination of his positive track record coupled with his commitment to transparency and efficiency give cause for modest optimism. And here’s why: a strong and stable Indonesia is an Indonesia that can do more in international affairs.

Team Jokowi has already indicated that it intends to pursue greater middle-power diplomacy as well as expand engagement among Indo-Pacific partners, especially ASEAN. A strong and confident Indonesia can continue to act both as the de facto head of the Southeast Asian grouping as well as a mediator role amongst the region’s more powerful actors. If you take, for instance, Jokowi’s commitment to protecting Indonesian migrant workers abroad, he’ll need good working relations with Malaysia, a country with which Indonesia also has its diplomatic ups and downs yet hosts a significant number of Indonesian maids. Read more

Jokowi intends to boost Indonesia’s maritime interests as well and says he will increase the military budget to 1.5% of GDP within five years. Given the volume of trade passing through archipelagic waters, Australia’s economic interests are also served by a stronger Indonesian naval presence. I would note, as my colleague Ben Schreer argues, Indonesia’s military modernisation is by no means going to be easy to achieve.

Jokowi also has a pragmatic and level-headed approach in negotiating which will be desirable during diplomatic shocks such as Snowden revelations. He sees a lack of trust in bilateral relations, but he’s keen to build better government, business and community ties with Australia. A more capricious figure, egged on by domestic outrage and nationalistic fervour, may have compounded the challenges in a diplomatic relationship already marked by highs and lows.

All of that bodes well for Australia’s relations with Indonesia and its interests in the region. In particular, we would do well to see Jokowi as a problem-solving president. That means there’s an opportunity to think about what we want to do together in the medium to longer-term, given Jokowi’s five-year (possibly, decade-long) tenure. For one, that would add more ballast to our relationship, insulating it somewhat from diplomatic shocks. Also, Australia-Indonesia cooperation could form the axis around which more regional involvement on key defence and security issues could rotate.

These are only preliminary thoughts for now as there are a number of ‘unknown unknowns’ along the way. Of course, Australia can help this process along by showing a willingness to be transparent and communicative on some of the pricklier issues. It’s a long road ahead that starts with Jokowi’s inauguration in October, but for now, Australia, along with Indonesia, can celebrate.

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

Cyber wrap

Typewriters instead of computers?

The European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) had a big win last week, assisting French and Romanian authorities to take down a large international online crime syndicate. It took over 450 police officers and 117 search warrants to apprehend the 65 individuals involved in the racket across the two countries. The group, who had amassed at least two million Euros, targeted computers across Europe involved with international money transfers. They utilised Remote Access Tools and key loggers to infiltrate target computers and then concealed the stolen cash in hidden back accounts and property investments. The EC3 played a crucial role in the sting, helping to coordinate simultaneous raids across the two countries, preventing the hackers from tipping off their international colleagues.

The head of the inquiry into NSA spying activities in Germany, Patrick Sensburg, has a novel solution to blocking the prying eyes of foreign intelligence agencies: typewriters. With tension still running high after last year’s revelations of NSA spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, it seemed as though Sensburg was employing a tactic straight from the Russian FSO playbook when he spoke about replacing computers with typewriters and ‘not electric models’ on German television. When pushed on the issue by the host, he insisted this was ‘no joke’. Read more

Also not laughing are Vietnamese internet users, whose internet speeds have slowed significantly last week following damage to one of the country’s main fibre-optic submarine cables. The Asia-America Gateway (AAG) cable that carries internet traffic undersea to Vietnam from Hong Kong and the US was severed in relatively shallow water 18km off the coast of Vung Tau, slashing speeds by up to 40%. In what will be a frustrating wait, the company has yet to announce a timeline for when the cable will be fixed.

There has been no comment from the Vietnamese government as to the reasons for the breakage, but the country has been plagued by similar incidents almost on a yearly basis. Salvagers have in the past pulled up millions of dollars’ worth of cable from the sea floor often in pursuit of old copper telephone cables left over after the Vietnam War, but have occasionally removed the comparatively worthless fibre cables. The government has stepped up patrols and surveillance of the cables recently to prevent that very issue, so it will be interesting to watch reports into the reasons behind the breakage unfold.

You can find the damaged cable on Built Visible’s excellent new map that charts the construction of the undersea web of submarine cables from the early days of telephone copper to the high speed fibre that drives the internet of today.

Our friends over at the Centre for New American Security (CNAS) have published a new paper by former Secretary of the Navy and Obama advisor Richard Danzig titled Surviving on a Diet of Poisoned Fruit: Reducing the National Security Risks of America’s Cyber Dependencies. The paper ‘offers key insights about how to improve US national security policymaking to address cyber insecurity’. Danzig assesses the current lay of the land, identifying existing IT security weaknesses and makes nine recommendations for both the US government and wider audiences as to how to begin to tackle those issues.

And finally for those keeping score, the latest completion date for the new ASIO building has been pushed back to September this year. The building, which is also set to house the new Australian Cyber Security Centre, will take around another year to be fully fitted out and occupied by ASIO and ACSC staff, probably pushing the true lift-off date into 2016. Building delays continue to hamper the site, with some suggesting that this latest September handover date is by no means a done deal.

Jessica Woodall is an analyst in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Adam Mayer.

MH17 and the limits of Russian power

Private Meeting with Vladimir Putin

Following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in March this year, there was plenty of talk about ‘the Bear’s return’ to great power status. Triumphant Russian politicians and media commentators crowed about their country’s return to glory. Internationally, the theme of Russia’s resurgence at the expense of the rules-based, Western order was also common, fuelled by what many regarded as a weak Western response.

But the tragic fate of flight MH17 is only the latest indication of the severe limitations on Russia’s power. In reality, Russia’s return to Cold War-era politics reflects the behaviour of a declining power. Indeed, it’s increasingly obvious that Russia’s short-term gains through its bellicose action in the Ukraine are negated by both immediate and long-term costs.

Domestically, Russia is beset by enormous demographic and economic problems. High-levels of corruption, lack of reform and an overreliance on gas and oil exports have stymied economic growth. In fact, despite having been denounced as too soft, the US’ and Europe’s limited sanctions already have had a serious negative impact on the Russian economy. In the wake of the MH17 disaster, major European powers, including Germany and France, are likely to consider even stronger sanctions. Consequently, as Lawrence Freedman has concluded, ‘Russia’s claims to be a great power are increasingly geo-political rather than geo-economic’. Read more

But Russia’s geopolitical project doesn’t look especially promising either. While nice to have, nuclear weapons and a permanent seat at the UN Security Council aren’t sufficient to circumvent Moscow’s growing international isolation. Moreover, Putin’s dream of restoring the Russian empire, including through an expansionist foreign policy doctrine, is likely to go nowhere.

Consider this: to the west, Russia faces a NATO of now 28 members, including many former Warsaw Pact countries. If anything, the annexation of the Crimea has provided new impetus for the alliance to update its force structure, mobilisation scheme and doctrine for operations on its eastern flank. Watch NATO’s upcoming Wales Summit for more to come. The EU also signed an association agreement with the Ukraine (as well as Georgia and Moldova), something it had been reluctant to do so prior to the crisis.

To the east, Russia faces a rising China. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Moscow is well aware about the limitations of its ‘strategic partnership’ with Beijing, a partnership increasingly plagued by power disparities in China’s favour. For example, the inability to secure its long land border with China is a serious headache for Russia’s defence planners. Finally, Russia’s southern flank is highly volatile and there’s still uncertainty about the future cohesion of the Russian Federation.

That’s hardly a winning geopolitical design. And, as the shooting-down of MH17 shows, Putin’s proxy war in the Ukraine is becoming more and more a strategic liability. Pressure is growing on him to cooperate in the investigation and to end Russia’s destabilising behaviour in Ukraine.

From an Australian perspective, it’s thus important to recognise that Russia is dealing from a position of relative weakness, not strength. That provides diplomatic opportunities. Russia has already supported this week’s UN Security Council Resolution calling for a ‘full, thorough and independent international investigation’ and bringing those responsible to justice. Behind closed doors, Australia and the international community should also use the momentum to pressure Putin to do his share to bring about a lasting cease-fire in Ukraine as a basis for political negotiations.

But it’s equally important to remember key principles of crisis management: keep communication channels open and refrain from making unacceptable demands. In this context, banning Putin from attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane wouldn’t send the right signal after Moscow’s supporting the UN Security Council Resolution. Further, demands of a return of the Crimea to the Ukraine are unrealistic—no Russian president would survive such a move domestically. Instead, a key objective should be about negotiating special status for those provinces currently under control by the separatists whilst ending Russia’s objections to Ukraine moving closer to the West. It’s unclear whether Russia is prepared to go down that road but such an outcome could mean real progress for the geopolitical mess that is Ukraine today.

Moreover, as the dynamics in the Ukraine crisis could increase the leverage of the West, calls for immediate, even more serious sanctions should be resisted unless the Russian government fails to follow through on its pledge to punish those accountable or if Moscow continues to destabilise Ukraine. While some defence-industrial steps make sense (for example, France would be well-advised to cancel the sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships), further economic sanctions could lead only to a weaker Russia acting even more erratically. The isolation and humiliation of wounded powers has never been a good strategy in international relations. And whether we like it or not, we still have to find ways to work productively with Russia. It may not soon be the great power it was in the Cold War, but it will still be able to cause serious problems in its near abroad and elsewhere.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum.

Australia’s term on the UN Security Council: an intensive final quarter

United Nations Security Council

Less than a week ago, Australia spearheaded efforts for the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian humanitarian crisis. This week Australian diplomats in New York, boosted by the high-profile engagement of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, have worked deftly to navigate their way around Russian opposition to reach agreement on resolution 2166 which calls for an independent and impartial investigation into the ‘downing‘ of flight MH17.

As a non-permanent Council member with a genuine strategic interest in the events unfolding in the Ukraine over the last few months, but little leverage to shape outcomes there, Australia’s engagement on the situation during 19 Council meetings since February had effectively been limited to that of a diligent and constructive board member.

But that changed when 37 Australian citizens and residents—the most of any Council member—lost their lives on MH17. Citizens from several countries, including the Netherlands, Malaysia and the UK, were among the 298 passengers and crew killed last week. Given the impact of the events on Australia’s interests, it was natural for Australia to take a leadership role in pursuing a resolution for an independent and impartial investigation. But, without the support of other Council members, we would have had more difficulty doing so in such a short period of time—something which reflects the level of respect that Australia has garnered during its current term on the Council.

The Council agreed unanimously last week to resolution 2165 (PDF) on humanitarian access in Syria. This came after months of behind-the-scenes work by Australia, along with Luxembourg and Jordan, to finalise a text that would be acceptable to all Council members (including Russia and China, which have vetoed four previous resolutions on Syria). The resolution authorises the delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN system to the civilian population, without the requirement of consent from the Syrian government. After more than three years of civil war, it’s a small but significant step forward, which is expected to enable assistance to as many as 2 million civilians on the ground.

Australia will rotate off the Council in less than six months. Recent events suggest the final quarter will be intense. Nonetheless, the last few months also present an opportunity to be the most effective: we’ve now mastered the complex intricacies of Council procedures, established working relationships in New York, and built a stock of political capital with other members.

In the remaining months, it’ll be important that Australia continues its substantive engagement in areas where it has built a reputation as an effective Council player. Most immediately, this will involve holding the Council’s attention on the investigation into the events surrounding MH17 and ensuring that those responsible are held to account. Ongoing engagement with the UN will also be required on humanitarian access in Syria to ensure resolution 2165 is being implemented effectively. Supporting timely public briefings to the Council will maintain pressure on Russia in both those contexts.

We’ll need similar efforts in areas where Australia holds clear Council responsibilities. As the ‘pen-holder’ (coordinator in the Council) on Afghanistan, it’s expected that will include a Council product prior to the end of 2014 on the post-ISAF presence in Afghanistan. As chair of three UN sanctions committees, Australia has also invested time in shaping UN efforts on a more comprehensive approach to sanctions. While that work could continue once Australia leaves the Council, there’s more political capital available to influence those efforts in the next few months.

Australia’s also in the unique and enviable position of holding a second Presidency of the Council in November, presenting another opportunity to pursue an outcome on a thematic issue. It’s expected that Australia will seek to focus on the role of policing in peacekeeping. Given the growing need for qualified and skilled police peacekeepers, it’s an issue that would benefit from further international engagement.

In addition to high profile activities, one of the most durable legacies that Australia can leave in the remaining few months will be incrementally shaping Council mandates, particularly on peacekeeping missions. While mandates are reviewed regularly, they essentially build on the language already agreed. Ensuring resolutions include language on Australian priorities—such as protection of civilians and preventing the illicit flow of small arms and light weapons—will help sustain our influence beyond our Council term.

While the Council’s agenda might not always directly affect Australia, it does affect our interests—and those of our partners and allies. As the government starts to contemplate the priorities and legacy from our current term on the Council, it should also be thinking about the lessons we’ve learned—and when Australia might step up to serve again.

 Lisa Sharland is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Arthur Lee.

Pacific maritime security—from quad to hexagon

Solomon Islands Police Vessel Lata departs from Honiara as part of Operation Kuru Kuru, a regional maritime surveillance operation in September 2008, as part of the Pacific Patrol Boat Program.

In the joint statement following Prime Minister Abbott and Prime Minister Abe’s meeting, titled Special Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century’, one of the action items listed was tasking officials to develop a ‘coordinated strategy to strengthen cooperation in the Pacific region, commencing with consultations to identify priorities’. The two leaders stated that the strategy would ‘support economic prosperity, peace and stability in the Pacific region’.

To get the ball rolling, both countries should now be talking about cooperation on maritime security in the South Pacific. The timing couldn’t be better. It’d not only build on the goodwill from the Abe visit but also on changes to Japan’s aid policy that could strengthen defence and security cooperation.

Late last month, recommendations for changes to Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) policy were sent to the Minister for Foreign Affairs by an expert committee. The committee suggested relaxing the ODA ban on military-related projects, arguing that, as military capacity can assist in non-military areas, such as disaster relief, Japan shouldn’t exclude all military activities from its ODA.

Australia should now be working with Japan on the Australian Pacific Patrol Boat replacement program. It’s now, and will remain in the future, the central component of our defence cooperation program in the Pacific islands region. Twenty-two boats have been given to 12 island countries. But the fleet is now approaching its end of service.

The Australian government has recently decided to continue the Pacific Patrol Boat program within a different framework and has just approved almost $600 million in purchase costs and $1.38 billion in sustainment and personnel costs over the next thirty years. Timor-Leste is to be added to the new program, with Defence being lead agency on the project.

The Pacific patrol boats are the only real capability that can protect the EEZs of the island countries. Even under the previous Japanese ODA policy, Japan could have cooperated with the ADF in respect of the patrol boats (although the sponsorship of the project by Australia’s Defence department might have been a complication.)

As I’ve argued before (with Sam Bateman), the Pacific Patrol Boat project isn’t really about supporting warfighting missions: its aim is to provide capabilities for good order at sea in the region.

But if the recommended changes to Japan’s ODA policy flow through, that would mean the JMSDF might be able to cooperate with the three countries that run their Pacific patrol boats as part of a military force (Fiji, Tonga and PNG). In all those countries (and the other island countries where the boats are under police control), they’re focused on fisheries surveillance, disaster relief and search and rescue.

Japan is already working on maritime capacity-building in Micronesia, with the initiative of two NGOs, the Nippon Foundation and Sasakawa Peace Foundation. They’ve provided small boats to several Micronesian islands, with Japan’s Coast Guard also assisting in capacity building. And Japan has been willing to cooperate there with RAN maritime advisers in Micronesia.

Apart from the Micronesian project, Japan has also been supplying patrol boats to both the Philippines and Vietnam. It was even instrumental in getting the Vietnamese to separate their Coast Guard from the military to facilitate that assistance.

There are opportunities to work closely on Pacific maritime security not only with MSDF, but also with Japan’s Coast Guard and its Fisheries Agency. Indeed, we could encourage Japan to become part of Quad arrangements, where we coordinate surveillance patrols and flights in the Pacific with New Zealand, France and the US.

Following Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Australia, China didn’t criticise the intensification of Australia’s defence ties with Japan. China’s foreign affairs ministry said only that ‘we hope that cooperation among relevant countries can contribute positively to regional peace and stability, instead of the opposite, let alone harming the third country.’

There’s no reason why we couldn’t consider inviting China into cooperative Pacific maritime security arrangements as well as Japan. Protecting the marine living resources of the region and strong Pacific oceans governance should be a common goal of all the major players of the region. Let’s talk to our quad partners about rebadging the arrangement as a hexagon, engaging both Japan and China.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Muting Australia’s regional voice

Ariane Dawson of Sydney listening to one of the ABC's radio programmes.

Gutting Radio Australia and killing the international TV service is bad, sad and mad.

Bad: Lopping 60% from the ABC’s international service is lousy for the national interest. A strategic asset in Asia and the South Pacific is being muted with little consideration of the regional implications.

Sad: The sadness is for wonderful journalists and broadcasters being fired; at the infanticide of a TV service that had shown achievements to match its potential; and at the savage cuts to Radio Australia, a 75-year-old institution that still serves as the daily newspaper for the South Pacific.

Mad: The madness is the lack of any reason or logic in this tragedy for Australian regional interests. The government visits vengeance on the ABC, acting on the words of John Howard’s consigliere, Graham Morris: ‘The ABC is our enemy talking to our friends.’ The ideological warriors fail to understand that Morris was also paying a backhanded compliment to the ABC’s unique role in the Australian debate and landscape, with Aunty’s deep roots in rural, regional, urban and city lives.

Seeking to restrict the ABC’s domestic influence, the Abbott government has instead harmed Australia’s influence beyond our shores. This first-term Coalition government is repeating the mistake of its predecessor. The first-term Howard government’s effort to ‘get’ the ABC caused the halving of Radio Australia; domestic politics plays out as poor international strategy.

As the 80 journalists and broadcast staff prepare for employment execution, they can take gallows comfort that they were not the intended ABC target, just victims of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

The dramatic illustration of the Howard-era mistake was that as Radio Australia turned off its powerful Darwin transmitters, Suharto fell. Suddenly Oz was desperate for ways to talk to the new Indonesia. Building on that irony, much later in the life of the Howard government, Alexander Downer pushed for, and funded, the TV service now being crushed. Downer used to joke that he deserved a statue in the ABC’s Southbank HQ; my return jest was that the statue was commissioned but we couldn’t decide the plinth height.

To underline how the Liberals are trashing their own creations, note the 1939 broadcast on Radio Australia’s foundation by Prime Minister Robert Menzies: ‘The time has come to speak for ourselves.’ As a statement of Australia’s regional interests, it remains as true today as it was then.

I must confess I am an old Radio Australia lag. After five years with a fine newspaper, I joined RA in 1975 and had a marvellous time as a correspondent, in Canberra and overseas, until I retired from RA in 2008. Leaving, I was deeply touched to be given an emeritus title as RA’s associate editor for the Asia Pacific. To my shame, I have done little emeritusing, but it ranks among the great honours of this hack’s adventure.

The way debate runs these days, this history means I can be labelled the most biased of witnesses. Thus, in praising the journalism of the ABC’s international service, I offer my credentials as a graduate of the first, great Murdoch newspaper. I got much of what I know about journalism at the same place as Rupert Murdoch—The Herald, Flinders Street, Melbourne.

My days as a copy boy and later reporter began under the steady gaze of the bust of Sir Keith Murdoch in the foyer. His spirit walked the floors and deeply influenced the understanding of what a great newspaper should be.

Sir Keith’s politics and editorials were always conservative—outside Parliament, he was a key player pushing for Menzies to become PM the first time—but he produced newspapers for the broadest church of Oz. He demanded straight, accurate journalism that could be read and trusted by anyone from socialite to socialist. My understanding of that tradition informs my view of the ABC as a fine and strong expression of Australian journalism.

Look at what Australia will lose by reducing Radio Australia to bare bones. The starvation of the language services hurts our ability to talk to the region in the local voice. The Tok Pisin service to Papua New Guinea will be cut to three people. Three! And this is PNG where radio still matters.

Likewise, the Bahasa Indonesia service for Indonesia is falling to just three people (during the Suharto era it was more than 20). Shortwave doesn’t matter in Indonesia now but the exploding social media space is fertile ground for a brand like Radio Australia. A foreign service offering strong, accurate journalism still has a chance in an Indonesian media scene where, as Ross Tapsell writes, ‘the owners of the largest outlets have direct affiliations with political parties and have themselves been presidential candidates’.

In the South Pacific, RA is going to continue producing the equivalent of the region’s morning paper with its Pacific Beat program. A pesky truth of media, however, is that doing journalism requires journalists. Much of what RA will now offer the South Pacific will be sourced from the domestic ABC. All those wonderful FM transmitters Australia has built in the Island capitals will be beaming out stuff about Oz. We’ll be talking to the region, but not with the region.

Given the cash lavished on expanding China’s CCTV as an international service, this is an excellent opening for a rich new player. Consider that as an example of poor strategic thinking: Australia joins New Zealand in gutting its Pacific service and in marches China.

That’s more than bad, sad and mad—it’s plain dumb.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Civilian aviation remains a target

New surface-to-air missile 9M317 of 9K317 Buk-M2E at 2007 MAKS Airshow

The downing of MH17 is another reminder of the vulnerability of civilian aircraft to military weapons. When fired upon by a sophisticated missile system, airliners don’t stand much chance. Weather and collision-avoidance radars won’t give much, if any, warning of an incoming missile (and aren’t designed to) and there aren’t any onboard systems that would allow the aircraft to respond in any case. If the aircraft is in the missile’s engagement envelope—the ‘box’ of airspace the missile’s fuel and manoeuvrability allows it to reach—the outcome isn’t likely to be a happy one.

In short, the only way to keep airliners safe from missiles is to keep them away. For larger surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) of the type likely to have been involved in the recent atrocity, that means keeping a wide berth. A Russian SA-11 (likely last week’s culprit) can reach almost 46,000 ft, which is well above the cruising height of airliners around 30,000 ft. Read more

As the week’s events demonstrated, airliners and tense environments populated by military systems aren’t a good mix. During Cold War tensions, the Soviet air force shot down a Korean airliner in 1983 (and damaged another in 1978) and in 1988 a United States Navy warship shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus on a routine flightpath following a skirmish between surface vessels. If nothing else, the MH17 event might lead to a tightening of the protocols for civilian air traffic over conflict zones—though working against that will be the economics of fuel consumption and ticket prices.

Keeping the aircraft away from the threat by avoiding war zones (or even military exercise areas) is one thing, but a look through the list of historical airliner shoot-down events reveals there’s a risk that the threat comes to the aircraft instead. A number of civilian aircraft have been shot down, and others damaged, by man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) fired near airfields by irregular groups of militants. Those shoulder-launched missile systems are designed for battlefield use against helicopters and low-flying aircraft and are smaller and more easily concealed than the large SAM systems involved in the incidents described above.

Because their size limits their range and altitude to about 5 km and 10,000 ft respectively, MANPADS don’t pose a threat to commercial aircraft at their cruising altitude. But they represent a real threat to aircraft operating at lower levels, especially at take-off or landing and, in principle, pretty much any airport in the world is vulnerable to attack from these systems. The footprint from which one can be fired against an airliner operating into or out of an airport covers about 800 square kilometers—an impossibly large area to secure. While civilian aircraft have survived hits from MANPADS (such as in this near disaster (video)), a hit on vital systems close to the ground gives the crew little time to respond.

For a terrorist group, those weapons represent an opportunity to prosecute an attack against one of their most preferred targets. The list of attacks shows that they have been used most often by insurgent groups in the Middle East and Africa, and on at least one occasion as part of a coordinated terrorist attack against Israeli civilians in Africa.

The threat to civil aviation from those systems has long been recognised. International efforts to limit their proliferation gained momentum last decade, with the development of the Wassenaar Arrangement for export controls on MANPADS in 2003 and increased regulation and reporting of MANPADS deals. These controls have helped restrict the spread of these weapons, though not before some found their way into the hands of groups such as al-Qaeda (PDF). (It’s not clear that the weapons in the hands of such groups are functional). The Wassenaar Arrangement was designed to keep the weapons safely in state inventories.

But, as Peter Jennings points out, we’re entering a period of history where some states are breaking down and groups of non-state actors such as militant Islamists in Syria and Iraq are perilously close to getting their hands onto the military and industrial inventories of nation states. With MANPADS being in the armouries of over 100 countries around the world, including many of the shakier ones (such as Libya), the possibility of them getting into the hands of extremist groups suddenly looks much more likely.

It’s entirely understandable that Western countries don’t want to get involved in the recent events in places like Syria and Iraq after the experiences of the past decade. But that mightn’t be the right call—the combination of returning fighters and looser control of weapons technologies with the potential to cause significant harm to Western interests and populations requires much greater vigilance. As far as MANPADS go, Australia has the advantage of having no land borders, which takes away the easiest way of smuggling such weapons, but it’s no time for complacency.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Reader response: Wrong turn on the White road

A choice?

Peter’s sprightly post leaves no room for doubt: he doesn’t buy the argument that he thinks I’m making about how we should respond to China’s rise. I’m glad to hear that because I don’t buy the argument he thinks I’m making either. Like him, I don’t believe that Australia must make a choice between America and China—or at least not the kind of once-and-for-all, all-or-nothing choice he has in mind. On the contrary, like Peter, I think the key aim of Australian policy should be to avoid having to make that kind of choice.

Where we differ, I think, is over what we should do to avoid being forced to make that ‘big choice’ between America and China. Peter would, I expect, agree that whether we can avoid making the big choice depends mainly on the trajectory of the US–China relationship. If they get on okay with one another, we can get on okay with both of them. But the worse they get on, the starker the choice we’ll face between them. And in the event of a conflict we would face a big choice indeed. Read more

But Peter and I seem to differ on how seriously we need to take this risk of escalating strategic rivalry. Like many people, Peter seems broadly optimistic about the trend of US–China relations and I think that’s because he assumes that China’s challenge to US leadership in Asia isn’t something we need to take very seriously.

He has great faith in US strength and resolve and believes that China won’t be foolish enough to challenge it. All America has to do is stand firm, and all America’s friends and allies have to do is to stand firm beside it, and Beijing will back down. America would then remain the uncontested leading power in Asia indefinitely and Australia would face no pressure to make unwelcome choices.

I am rather less optimistic. I think the risk of escalating strategic rivalry between the US and China is high because China’s resolve is stronger that Peter believes it to be, and because China’s estimate of US resolve is lower than Peter believes it to be. China will therefore respond to US push back by pushing back harder itself. I think the events of the past few years support my gloomier assessment.

This is why Peter and I take different views of how best to minimise the chances that we’ll be forced to make a big choice. Peter thinks that the more firmly we all stand up to China’s challenge to the status quo, the sooner the Chinese will back off and things will go back to the way we want them to be. I think the more firmly we resist any accommodation of China’s ambitions, the faster strategic rivalry will escalate and the closer we will come to having to make the choice we all want to avoid.

Peter would respond, I expect, that any accommodation of Chinese ambitions would anyway be tantamount to making the big choice to side with China and dump America. But we differ over that, too. Peter’s view presupposes that there are only two possible futures for Asia: either maintaining US primacy or succumbing to Chinese hegemony. I think there are more options than that.

It’s perfectly possible that Asia could be stable and harmonious and that Australia could avoid any big ugly choices, under a new regional order in which neither America nor China exercises sole leadership. We could accommodate China to some extent without giving way on everything. Building and sustaining that kind of order would be difficult, of course. But it is worth trying, when the only alternatives are hoping that China backs down, or accepting escalating strategic rivalry. Hope isn’t a policy, and escalating rivalry is what we want to avoid.

That’s why I think we in Australia should do all we can to promote a new power-sharing order in Asia and avoid actions that make that order harder to achieve. So if we want to avoid being forced into a big choice between America and China, we must pay careful attention to some smaller but still important choices that confront us today.

Which brings us to Japan and last week’s visit. Among the smaller choices we face today is how to cooperate with Japan on strategic issues in Asia. I argue that we shouldn’t sign up to Japanese policies which escalate strategic rivalry but we should support those which help build a stable new order.

For reasons explained elsewhere, I think it’d be easier to negotiate an accommodation with China and create a stable new order in Asia if Japan becomes less strategically dependent on America. So I agree Japan needs to overhaul its strategic posture.

But it will be harder to negotiate an accommodation with China if Japan’s new strategic posture involves building a coalition of allies designed specifically to resist any such accommodation, which is what I think Mr Abe is trying to do. If Abe’s new line does not convince China to back down, and I don’t believe it will, then it is sure to contribute to escalating rivalry.

That’s why I think Mr Abbott was unwise to support Mr Abe’s policy as he did last week. Our support for Abe escalates regional rivalry and pushes us closer to the big choice which we all agree Australia must avoid.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and author of The China Choice. Image courtesy of Flickr user digitalnc.

ASPI suggests

We’re kicking off a bleak news day with some new reports, interesting reads, and videos from the defence and security world.

Who’s your greatest ally/threat? While you’d expect most respondents in Asian states to say the US is an ally and China is a threat, those in Indonesia said the US was both! Check out the newly-released results of a Pew Research Center poll on global public opinion on the US, China and the international balance of power. Unsurprisingly, territorial disputes with China were also high on the agenda, with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan overwhelmingly concerned that disputes could lead to military conflict. For those stats and more, keep reading here.

A new report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict looks at Timor-Leste after Xanana Gusmão, a dominant figure in post-independence political life. With a highly personalised system of governance, the report notes it’ll be harder for the country’s weak institutions to develop, and the professionalisation of the security forces remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, Gusmão’s departure should expand opportunities for other members of the political elite and reduce political issues rooted in past feuds and rivalries. And that’s potentially good news for Australia’s neighbourhood. Read the full report here. Read more

Sticking with our north, Indonesia’s election is still without an official winner, though the good money’s still on Jokowi. If you’re unsure what the fuss about Prabowo is, watch this uncomfortable 10-minute BBC interview in which he repeats without flinching that he’s won. Props to BBC’s Babita Sharma for keeping her cool during his dummy spit on polls and dismissal of Jokowi’s clean and humble image as ‘just an act’.

So, why are some Indonesians voting for Prabowo? Some say they want a ‘strongman’, but writing on New Mandala, Roanne Van Voorst adds that, in other cases, it’s vote-buying but, particularly for poor Jakartans, a fear of losing their ‘Mr Fix-it’ governor, Jokowi.

What is ‘performance terrorism’? In The New Yorker this week, Jon Lee Anderson contemplates how the ubiquity of social media has allowed terrorists like IS to flaunt violence like executions and decapitations. Anderson says this kind of performance has led to the news becoming ‘a bulletin of cruelties too awful to contemplate’ and risks egging on copycat groups. Read his argument in full here.

In national security news, Rebecca Ananian-Welsh argues that reforms introduced into Australia’s Senate this week would grant ASIO enhanced powers to access data. She points out that the adjusted definition of ‘computer’ now means ‘all computers on a system or network’. She writes:

Warrants are the primary safeguard by which ASIO’s considerable and invasive powers are kept in check. The expansion of single-computer warrants to computer-network warrants arguably avoids this check in an important way.

For more on those reforms and their implications, keep reading here.

Forget guided missiles, DARPA’s Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordance (EXACTO) program has now developed a .50 caliber bullet that can change direction mid-flight. The bullet finds its target by riding a laser beam aimed by the sniper team at the target and manoeuvers using vanes and an onboard optical receiver. Watch the video here.

For this week’s podcast, listen to terrorism researcher J.M. Berger on the newly-declared Islamic State. He explains what a caliphate is, the significance of timing of the IS announcement, the growing cult of personality around Al-Baghdadi, and ‘jihadi catnip’ (duration 53mins).

On a lighter note, despite an awesome debut, the CIA has been copping flak recently for trying to be funny on Twitter:

The iconic African American rapper, Tupac Shakur died in 1996 after he was shot in Las Vegas, although conspiracy theories that he’s alive and well continue to thrive. On the CIA’s attempted humour, Business Insider’s Armin Rosen writes this highlights a broader problem:

And that’s exactly the kind of tone-deafness and deficient messaging — and the same cavalier attitude towards the American public it’s charged with protecting — that have hamstrung the U.S. intelligence community in the decade after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and especially after the Snowden leaks.

Meanwhile, HBO Connect’s Last Week Tonight decided to give the intelligence agency a hand with some suggestions, including:

And the Twitterverse weighed in with #betterCIAtweets:

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